Secularism as a State Religion — by Philip TrowerFebruary 20, 2014
Philip Trower, a veteran English Catholic journalist, is the author of Turmoil andTruth: the Historical Roots of the Modern Crisis in the Catholic Church (Ignatius, 2003). This article first appeared in the March 2004 issue of Catholic World Report.
Western cultures are losing sight of the critical distinction between a non-confessional state and a secularist state.
At last someone has said it. At least as far as I know, it’s the first time it’s been said in a major English newspaper. On September 20 of last year, the Daily Telegraph — England’s largest quality national daily — carried an article about the problems the French government is having with some of its Muslims. “At the start of the school year,” the report ran, “several Muslim girls nationwide were suspended or expelled for arriving at schools with their heads covered.” In most French state schools this is forbidden. The French educational authorities see the wearing of headscarves by Muslim girls in state schools as a statement of religious belief, which — in the words of the relevant government document — would “constitute an act of intimidation, provocation, proselytizing, or propaganda.”
To defuse this potentially explosive situation, the French education ministry has appointed a special official to mediate between the Muslims and the local education authorities. The press have nicknamed this official “Madame Foulard” — Mrs. Headscarf.
Meanwhile in the northeastern industrial city of Lille, a group of parents and businessmen, following the long established practice of French Catholics and Orthodox Jews, confronted with the determinedly secularist nature of French state education, have set up the first Muslim secondary school in France. The students’ parents each pay just under $1,000 a year; the main funding comes from the businessmen. In short, Muslims-like other religious believers in France, where there are no tax rebates for education — will soon be paying twice for their children’s education: paying directly out-of-pocket for the schooling that their children actually receive, and indirectly through taxes for an education they prefer not to have.
However, this tax treatment was not the subject that attracted my attention and set me thinking as I read this report. It was, rather, a remark by the young Muslim administrator of the school, when he was interviewed by the press. “Secularism,” he said, “has become a new religion.” Indeed it has, and in a sense it always was. But why has it taken a young Muslim to notice it? Perhaps because, although now a French citizen, he is still able to look at Western civilization from outside, and therefore see certain things more objectively.
If most Westerners remain blind to what was all but self-evident to this young cultural “outsider,” it is no doubt because they are committed to the idea of the non-confessional state, and fail to see how it differs from a secularist state.
A non-confessional state is one in which no religious belief is given precedence over any other. The government refrains from favoring or imposing one particular world view, and, without being dogmatic about it, tries insofar as is possible to treat different religious communities evenhandedly. This presumably is what the majority of the American founding fathers had in mind.
Whether a non-confessional state can or should treat different codes of behavior impartially is a separate question. You can hardly have a nation or state with a plurality of codes of behavior — not at least about fundamentals and if that is the case, where are the basic precepts of such a national code to come from? This is a problem that the American founding fathers do not seem to have considered. It probably never occurred to them that any considerable body of citizens would one day question the truth of the natural law as formulated in the Ten Commandments.
A secularist state, on the other hand, is one in which religion as such — the notion or even mention of God — is as far as possible excluded from public life, public affairs, and public documents — with the purpose of eventually making godlessness, coupled with a humanistic adulation of man and his achievements, the reigning belief of the majority of citizens.
Such was the aim of anti-clerical French governments from 1870 to 1914. A high proportion of the republican politicians of that era were, in their own peculiar way, as apostolically atheist as Marx and Lenin; their teacher-training colleges were like seminaries, formed for the production of dedicated young apostles of unbelief, and a similar mindset apparently continues to permeate the thinking of an influential part of contemporary French officialdom. Hence the whole fuss about headscarves.
Atheism of this sort, which is a peculiarly modern phenomenon, deserves to be classified as a religion — at least from a governmental and legal perspective because it promotes its own fully formed view of the origin and meaning of life, offers its own form of salvation, and is zealously missionary and illiberal toward other world views or belief systems. In the rapidly approaching secularized European states (or pan-European state, governed from Brussels or elsewhere), atheism of this breed could become as much a state religion as it was in the Soviet Union — even if it is applied with more polish and less brutality.
Returning to the non-confessional state, one might ask: Were the American founding fathers being inconsistent when, in establishing equal treatment (at least in theory) for all religious denominations, they allowed references to God and the natural law in their Declaration of Independence and their Constitution?
I would say No, because belief in a Creator, in the natural law, and in a moral conscience are not matters of faith. They are logical inferences based on the evidence, and as such are acts of reason within all men’s reach. This is at least implicitly recognized in the Vatican II document on religious liberty.
Atheism is, by comparison, an act of unreason. It is much more reasonable to believe that the universe with all its complex structures is the work of a Mighty Intelligence than that it generated itself by accident and sustains itself without cause.
This obviously does not mean that atheists are all unintelligent. There are many reasons why people become atheists. Vatican II gives as one of them the bad example of believers; that is a melancholy truth. However, it no more constitutes an argument against belief than the evidence of bad lawyers is an argument against having laws, or people to administer them. The problem of evil is another major stumbling block. But whatever the grounds for unbelief, it is a matter of self-deception, or else of faith in human thinkers like Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, or Freud.
All this being the case, if devout little secularists and their parents feel intimidated or provoked by references to God and to religion in public places one can see no reason why in a genuinely non confessional (rather than secularist) state, religious believers should not enjoy an equal right to feel intimidated and provoked by God’s exclusion.
The rapid transformation of traditional Anglo-Saxon liberalism and non-confessionalism — with its well-intentioned attempts to be genuinely fair to everyone in religion as in everything else — into dogmatic French-style secularism, bent on establishing godlessness as the dominant and privileged world view, seems to me the most significant development of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. It is not perhaps as noticeable in the United States as in Europe, where there is no strong “Religious Right” to make politicians and seculists cautious about what they say or do. However in Europe we see small and large signs of the accelerating change every week, even every day.
The most notable illustration of this change has been the recently drafted constitution for a federal Europe, drawn up under the chairmanship of former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, which excludes any mention of Christianity as a formative influence on European culture, attributing everything good in that culture to the Greeks and Romans or the 18th century Enlightenment. What we are hearing in this preposterous document, I would say, can legitimately be called secularist fundamentalism, even secularist fanaticism.
That is why I believe one of the greatest services we can do our fellow citizens today is to help them recognize the crucial difference between a non-confessional state and a secularist state — so that the principles of the former can be manipulated as little as possible to advance the cause of the latter.