Spirit levels

Is this a godless age? No, say 'post-secularist' academics, who argue that the world outside the liberal West is 'furiously religious'. But such scholars overstate the number of believers, contends Alastair Bonnett, and ignore support for secularism worldwide

July 28, 2011

Some words seem to be made for each other: "strawberries" and "cream"; "spending" and "cuts". Should we add "secular" and "elite" to the list? A new wave of academic critics is working hard to shackle them together.

The Indian social scientist Ashis Nandy was one of the first. In "An anti-secularist manifesto", published in 1985, he accused secularism of being "ethnocidal", "authoritarian" and "middle class". Nandy's argument is that secularism is the creature of an uprooted elite who have abandoned the instinctively religious cultural world of the masses. It is a provocative distinction. After all, secularism is usually defined as the idea that governance should be separate from religion. It is a divorce that is commonly understood to create the conditions for religious plurality and tolerance.

Yet anti-secularism is gaining traction. Indeed, Zaheer Baber, professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, suggests that it is "fast emerging as the new opium of some intellectuals". At the heart of this growth lies an empirical assumption: that most people are religious and that secularism reflects the anti-religious bias of an arrogant minority. Thus anti-secularism is given the inexorable weight of the majority world. And not being religious is made to seem like something irredeemably Western and middle class. Indeed, Francis Campbell, the former British Ambassador to the Holy See, claims that secularism is "Eurocentric". The big question, Campbell suggests, is "why is Europe exceptional?" when "the greater part of the world, both developed and developing, is as furiously religious as ever".

But this agenda goes well beyond pondering papal ambassadors or, indeed, fuming fundamentalist Protestants (such as the Evangelical Alliance, which has denounced the BBC as run by a "metropolitan liberal and secular elite").

Klaus Eder, professor of sociology at the Institute of Social Sciences, Humboldt University of Berlin, is one of a growing number of social scientists who cast secularists as an unrepresentative clique who have marginalised the religious views of the majority. He argues that "secularization is nothing more than a phenomenon that has hushed up religion". His depiction aligns secularism with the "seizure of land" and "censorship in schools".

In his 2007 book Secularism or Democracy?, Veit Bader takes a comparable view. For Bader, professor emeritus of sociology and of social and political philosophy at the University of Amsterdam, secularism is no longer sustainable in a multicultural Europe. It cannot accommodate difference, hence it is undemocratic. Like other critics, Bader thinks the "monolithic" secular state should be replaced, or supplemented, by a plurality of faith-based institutions.

If these perspectives appear to have a slightly softer edge than Nandy's accusatory interventions, it is largely because they adopt the language not of anti-secularism but rather the more cuddly post-secularism. This presents secularism as something that has been absorbed and moved on from. The general stance of post-secularism is not confrontation but historical condescension. The casual assertion that we have entered a "post-secular age" is typical. It is a phrase widely sprinkled across a range of recent conferences and books: in The American University in a Postsecular Age (2008), for example, Douglas Jacobsen and Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen announce that higher education may once have been "a secular enterprise, but that approach no longer suffices. The culture has shifted."

This might sound uncontroversial. But post-secularism hints at more than mere cultural transformation. It suggests that institutional and legal structures that were once based on rational and common principles should be replaced by a mosaic of religious practices and jurisdictions.

Indeed, post-secularism implies the privatisation of power on a massive scale, allowing voluntary groups that are able to convince others that they represent a religious viewpoint to claim control of any of, if not all, the services that were once regarded as being within the state's purview.

The academic debate on post-secularism is replete with references to diversity, difference and choice. But it draws its inspiration from the more prosaic argument that God has the numbers - and that secularists do not. Whether it is Dinesh D'Souza proclaiming "the global triumph of Christianity" or John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge announcing that God Is Back (2009), there is no shortage of authors eager to tell us that the masses are very religious and getting more so.

But in fact, survey evidence suggests that a majority of people, whether religious or not, are pro-secular. The World Values Survey has shown clearly that, even in most of the most religious countries of Asia and Africa, a significant majority of people agree with the statement that "Religious leaders should not influence politics". Secularism has vast popular support, not just in "secular Europe" but across the world, from China to India and across Africa and the Americas. If you don't fancy the idea of the legal, education or political system being divvied up among clerics, you are not alone.

So it seems that although a majority of the world's population categorise themselves by one faith or another, most people support secularism. But we can go further. For the contention that, beyond the blinkered world of middle-class white liberals, most folks are "furiously religious" just isn't true.

What is the least religious ethnic group in Britain? Census evidence shows that it isn't "whites" but the Chinese. And that is going some, because Britain is a very non-religious place. Only 10 per cent of people, according to Christian charity Tearfund's poll from 2007, turn out every Sunday to go to church. Even the much-bandied figure that 70 per cent of Britons believe in God turns out to be questionable. According to a Eurobarometer survey from 2005, the percentage of people in the UK who "believe in a god" is 38 per cent.

The least religious people in the world are the Swedish (where 85 per cent are unbelievers or agnostics). However, the second least religious country in the world is Vietnam. China comes close behind. Religiosity is relatively rare in many East Asian cultures. A century ago, the deeply conservative Chinese philosopher Gu Hongming was moved to compare his own nation's rationalism with the West's credulous superstitions.

"When the modern West once gets itself free from Mediaevalism," he argued, "it will have the same civilisation as China, a civilisation of rationalism and science."

It is not secularism that is Eurocentric but rather the idea that rationalism is uniquely Western. Communicating ordinary Chinese people's lack of faith to Americans who, by comparison, are steeped in religion, is a real challenge.

Trying to explain the tradition of returning home at Chinese New Year, the journalist Zhang Xi feels that she has to translate it into "our terms": "The Chinese are tied together with family affection rather than any specific religions or ideology. Our civilization is based on family affection, so that we think of the Spring Festival homecoming as a kind of ritual. Home is our Holy Land."

Zhang knows that the West is still feeling its way towards the kind of non-religious common culture that many Chinese have taken for granted for centuries. Through her work on an English-language website, she hopes to help us along.

When we tot it all up, taking in the non-believers and agnostics in Europe (including Russia) and East Asia, and assuming that everyone else in the world is religious, we arrive at a figure of about 20 per cent of the world's population being non-religious. But this is likely to be a considerable underestimate. The World Values Survey has shown that, even in many Muslim countries, the percentage of people who do not consider themselves religious is often significant. Today the Arab Spring has confounded many of the basic assumptions of post-secularism.

Even in the world's most religious nations, secularism is a mass phenomenon. Many millions of ordinary people want to close the book on sectarianism (or should we call it post-secularism?) and look forward to a fairer future. They have learned from bitter experience that modernity without secularism is a recipe for repression and conflict.

Nandy's "Anti-secularist manifesto" is today being echoed in myriad little manifestos that try to frame secularism as a middle-class European hang-up and religiosity as the default condition of authentic humanity. But the idea that we can cleave the world between the secular West and the religious rest just doesn't wash. Secularism is relied upon - or fondly hoped for - across the world to deliver pluralism, equality and tolerance. Its critics have yet to grasp its diversity, its popularity or its necessity. Thankfully, we have not quite entered "the post-secular age".

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