Secularism is Dying

Recently, Free Inquiry magazine had a very interesting “symposium in print” on the question, Secularism — Will it Survive? The affirmative answers seemed more like pious hopes to me, I have to say. And the thought I have given the question since has led me in an increasingly negative direction. I think secularism is moribund. Politically, it has been losing too many battles. Intellectually, it has become harder to defend without sounding like someone reciting outdated platitudes.

I am most familiar with Turkey (and by extension, the Islamic world), the United States, and to a lesser degree, Europe. I don’t see secularism faring well in any of these places, either in the sense of a social fact on the ground or as a political position.

In Turkey, the military secularism that has constrained national politics for many decades is dying a long, slow death. Interestingly, the more Turkey democratizes –in the sense of allowing ordinary people a voice and a say in how the government is run — the more public life takes on a Islamic cultural coloration. Government and the legal system will be more and more drawn toward recognizing this political reality.

In the United States, we have a culturally Christian nation. Though we went through a few decades where Christianity looked to be displaced from its informally established position, things seem to be returning to normal after conservative Catholics and Protestants figured out they could work together after all. We are unlikely to get a theocracy, but the anomalously strict separation of church and state we have enjoyed will very likely continue to be relaxed. Again, democratic populism means a very religiously-colored politics.

Europe might seem the global exception, along with possibly Japan. Socially and culturally it seems to have genuinely become secularized, among ordinary people as well as among elites. But there, the complicating factor is the large and growing Muslim presence. Europeans simply have to adapt, and I see no realistic option but Europeans acknowledging, for example, that free expression concerning Islamically sensitive matters is the equivalent of crying fire in a crowded theater. Europe will probably return to religion, not just through its Muslim minorities, but also because many Europeans will react to Islam by reaffirming a more Christian identity.

I don’t see secularism as having much of a capacity for defending itself. It is a position that is attractive to elites rather than ordinary people, and in a postmodern consumer environment, cultural populism is the order of the day. “Freedom of speech” starts to sound hollow when huge numbers of people are deeply offended — harmed, one can say — by impious speech. More importantly, it becomes hard to defend politically. No freedom is without limits. “Separation of church and state” becomes an empty slogan when strict separation begins to be seen as an illegitimate restriction on religious communities joining in a democratic political process.

So secularism is dying, I think. It is dying because for most humans, going without socially significant supernatural beliefs is as about as easy as celibacy. And it is dying because we live in postmodern times, where for all the gross inequalities of wealth and power created by our economic life, democracy is alive and well in the realm of cultural populism and identity politics.