The Crisis of Modern Secularism

Modern Secularism is in crisis. There is a common view that traditional religions are in their own crisis, which is largely true, there is a certain amount of ignorance of how our ideas of secular society are being completely changed, if not supplanted. While this is not a strictly new phenomena in secularism’s history, it is certainly a development that seems to be largely overlooked in the western world. Why would I make such a claim? What is changing? What is the future of secularism? I intend to discuss these things here.

Secularism is trying to make a political and social order separate from religion. Where power, culture, economy, and decisions in general can be organized and understood as separate from an explicit priesthood or religious order. A Google dictionary definition can be “the principle of separation of the state from religious institutions”. This seems like a pretty straightforward concept to work with and understand for this discussion. I would also add that secular institutions can be understood as organizations that are not explicitly religious in nature.

A Brief History of Secularism

Secularism as an idea is not a new one. I will try to describe this without being too polemic about it. The explicit idea of a political and social order separate from religion can be seen in Christian canon as far back as St. Augustine’s City of God in the 5th Century. It can be found in Jewish tradition, in I Samuel, when the Israelites demanded the theocrat, the Judge Samuel, to give up his direct power and establish a king. In both instances, Augustine and Samuel conclude that mankind’s rebellious nature against God is an inevitable feature of the world and a secular ruler is required. But also in both instances, the role of the secular ruler is to be approved by the religious institutions of the day. For the purposes of this, I will regard this kind of secularism as “Classical Secularism”; where there are ruling institutions apart from the religious ones, but they require approval of the religious institutions for their mandate and legitimacy.

Classical Secularism commonly can be blurry in our modern framework, but it is not without merit to point out how it has not been so consistent in history. In the Pagan Roman world, for instance, Augustus and later emperors held the title of Pontifex Maximus, the high priest of the Roman priesthood. Combining the idea into a god-king ruling over the Roman Empire. This is distinct from Rome’s republican legacy that held the title separately from its secular rulers. While in the medieval period, the Catholic Church had held rulership over swaths of land as theocratic micro-states, including the Pope’s own rulership over Rome until the 19th century. While Protestant churches, such as in 16th century Zurich or 17th century New England, managed to create their own theocratic states dissolving this kind of Classical Secularism in their own context.

This Classical Secularism would be challenged with the introduction of a new view on secular society. This can be most clearly seen in the English-speaking world between the 17th century intellectuals Thomas Hobbes and John Locke as the ideological progenitors of it. Locke’s view on secularism to make religion a more private affair in his A Letter Concerning Toleration. With Hobbes writing about the functions of the state needing to be solely material in nature in his book Leviathan. These works can be considered the foundations of our modern view on secular society. To put it succinctly and for use in the rest of this article, “Modern Secularism” is the political and social idea to limit religious institutions in society to those institutions themselves; ensuring religion has as limited influence, if any, in public institutions such as the state, education, or media.

Modern Secularism has, with all ideas, moved at a much slower speed than history. Monarchs still ruled with the mandate of their religious institutions. Even in the founding of the Secular Liberal Republic of United States. You have America’s founding fathers such as Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence citing divine providence for human rights and the legitimacy of self-government. Or John Adams writing to the Massachusetts Militia in 1798 ensured that the government could not survive without the people guided by “Morality and Religion” (Locke had a similar outlook despite his views on bringing it out of public policy). Many modern universities began with explicitly religious functions and even a good deal of public education in the 19th century had religious purposes for their funding and establishment. Popular media in America such as cinema was scrutinized and regulated by the very religiously inspired Hays Code in the mid 20th century. That said, religious institutions may have still been present during Hobbes, but nation-states and secular institutions at large have gradually cut their ties of legitimacy, authority, and guidance from religious ones. Whereby the end of the 20th century, it could be accurately stated that religious society is effectively separate from secular society.

The Leviathan (1651) by Thomas Hobbes

Secularism in the Modern World

Here we are, in a world where religion is divorced from secular institutions as a distinct category. Some communities manage to integrate it more, but they are honestly exceptions rather than the rule. Certainly not the reigning ideological standard behind western countries.

Western governments are not ruled by priests, nor are they reliant on a religious institution’s approval. Education has become a secular affair after enough legal battles and legislation sans explicitly religious private schools and universities. Popular media certainly has no ties to religion with what limited outlets that are religious are maintained and consumed explicitly by a niche religious community. We can see it in healthcare, as religious hospitals or healthcare workers are increasingly scrutinized and even penalized for maintaining religious guidelines to their practice of care as opposed to secular guidelines. While religious business owners are in a precarious place to consider how much are their religious views are permitted for their decisions and publications.

Modern Secularism reigns over our thoughts about how society should be run as we have decidedly told religions to stay in their lane and out of public life.

The Crisis of Modern Secularism

Now that Modern Secularism has triumphed. What is the big problem? The answer is that the concept was incapable of being realized from the start. For Modern Secularism kicked religion out of public life, and just replaced it with Modern Secular religions. Nietzsche was probably right at this point.

This really boils down into the first analysis by Hobbes, who found that the functions of states should focus on material ends and means as opposed to religious ones. This makes sense at face value, especially with our own modern secular upbringing, but digging any deeper reveals how non-sensical this proposition really is. It is not as if the governments, educators, media organizations, healthcare institutions, or business class are somehow ultra-materialist automatons, despite our disparaging remarks about these people. They have ideas, views, values, goals, and principles that guide their decision-making. Where we have these Modern Secularist religions that propagate them and come into conflict with one another over which one is true or correct.

It can be most easily seen from a political angle – the origins of Modern Secularism to begin with. Communism, socialism, liberalism, fascism, libertarianism, these are all secular religions for the purposes of Modern Secularism. They identify important goals for nations, peoples, classes, individuals, and leaders. They have their own analysis of how to view and understand the world. They have views on how people should participate in public life, and they have strong positions on people that do not follow their own orthodoxy. They have priests and rites, whether we recognize them as such or not. Modern Secularist thought has no way to actually tackle these Modern Religions. Modern Secularism just says “make sure there is no Christianity or Islam in that mix of ideological warfare”. Which really begs the question for why are we even bothering with the ideological project of Modern Secularism?

Institutions that are not overtly political still have their own ethics and ideas of how they should be run. Universities idealize open inquiry and debate while Hollywood may be looking for diversity and inclusiveness. But these are side effects of being from a Western Liberal society, not a Modern Secular one. As can be seen in Modern Secular countries that aren’t Western or Liberal such as China. Someone could challenge that statement to suggest that China has replaced their religion with the State and Dengist-Maoist ideology, but what does that say about western ones that are just reliant on our own Liberal ideological and political ancestors for intellectual and institutional guidance?

Now it should not be taken as “everything is equal and the same” or “both sides” kind of nonsense. What should be taken here is that Modern Secularism has really failed to deliver the goods. We just made secular gods and religions to worship and put our faith into. It should be documented at this rate, with the number of people calling some ideological opponent “religious” or “cultish” for believing in communism or libertarianism, as if it is a slur or something. Suggesting that should be as enlightening as suggesting the sky is blue. People are scratching their heads at how different political changes have this bizarre religiosity behind the proponents should take a step back and realize that they very likely hold their own ideals with religiosity as well.

We find that these institutions don’t really reflect the ideal Modern Secularist type of ideal. Institutions aren’t really shaped by some sort of materialist rationality guiding our decision-making processes. They too are set up in their own religious forms, just taking shape that can cloak the religiosity to look like some sort of rational materialism. In the west, we have Liberal institutions that propagate, inform, and sometimes dictate public life and matters of State (to help readers, I mean this in the ideology of Liberalism, not the American political vernacular that refers explicitly to mainstream Left politics in America). It is not like the largest and most powerful institutions in America are somehow in a constant state of flux between these secular religions; Liberalism rules and everyone else is fringe as far as power is concerned. Anyone that shows up that could possibly threaten this religion is surely to find themselves outcasts and will run into the steepest challenges to enact any change in how those institutions or government operate.

We don’t even have to say this is a bad thing at face value. That means, after all, the country and its institutions are in harmony and will work effectively to accomplish the goals of that secular religion. Now if you don’t like that religion, then you are fresh out of luck, but that is the way of power and the world. Frankly, it is honestly the reality that Classical Secularism was true all along.

All that said, this is a “Crisis” after all. Where the crisis really is rooted in the fact that the very foundation of Modern Secularism seems to be built on sand. Modern Secularism, along with many other modern projects that I may talk about in future publications, is going to be subject to a post-modernity. A political upheaval that will be filled with people that no longer believe in the principles of modernity. People won’t care that they are dealing with zealots, for they are zealots as well for their own causes. People will be more conscious of this as more and more of these kinds of modern fabrications fall apart.

The Future of Secularism

So where will this take us? People certainly cannot “go back” to some sort of explicit mode of Classical Secularism like the relationship of the Catholic Church and European Monarchs in the 13th century. Nor can we really keep up with this farce that we have with Modern Secularism. The answer is that we will likely just be more honestly accepting the ideas of Classical Secularism without the lies of Modern Secularism.

With Secular Religions Continue? Absolutely. But will they be identified as the enlightened modern ways that made this materialist post-religion world? Probably not. We will become post-moderns that will get over these modern fabrications and build a future that is more conscious of how power and religion operates. Maybe I am casting a calamity such as the collapse of modernity in too positive of a light though. It is very likely this will take generations and will very likely have hardships.

But as Samuel said to Saul, the first secular king of Israel “Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has also rejected you from being king”. Where if Modern Secularism is a rejection of truth and reality, it will be toppled like all things in rebellion against truth.