Is ‘secularism’ just another ‘religion’?

Has the dichotomy of ‘secular and ‘religious’ that is so much part of public debate in Ireland, and of so much acrimony on the Internet, been effectively destroyed by the secularist argument that religion is the main source of violence?
This is just one of the questions raised by theologian William T. Cavanaugh in a currently controversial book and associated Internet lectures and interviews.
The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict:  William T Cavanaugh. OUP (USA)
A major plank of Cavanaugh’s case is that polemical secularists such as Christopher Hitchins have so radically extended the boundaries of what constitutes ‘religion’ (by including, for example, Stalinism and Maoism in that category) that they have made it unreasonable to exclude any other powerful political ‘ism’.    If communism is to be called a religion because it bound its followers together in a violent cause, why should, for example, political nationalism or free-market capitalism be excluded from that category – since they too can be connected historically with the same phenomenon?
The inability of academia to agree a precise definition of what constitutes ‘religion’ is, according to Cavanaugh, another enabling factor to a ‘thought experiment’ exploring the real possibility that ‘religion’ and ‘secularism’ cannot any longer be persuasively considered dichotomous categories.
For the Romans, Cavanaugh argues, the verb ‘religare’ (from which the word ‘religion’ derives) meant simply ‘to bind’ – and something as ordinary as the binding obligation of strong friendship was understood to constitute a ‘religio’.  The use of the word ‘religion’ to denote something separate from practical, ‘secular’, life was unknown to all of history until the modern period – and entered the lexicon with that meaning about four centuries ago, to privilege an emerging educated non-clerical elite aiming at reducing the role of clergies in the public sphere.
Interestingly, George Holyoake (1817-1906), the very first person to use the word ‘secularism’, defined that term as meaning all of those activities aimed at the betterment of ‘this life’.  This implied, quite arbitarily, that religion can have no ‘this life’ purpose or reformative capability.  That polemical tendency to dismiss traditional Christianity as merely other-worldly and irrational has persisted ever since in secularist propaganda.
The above YouTube pieces have convinced me that Cavanaugh could be on to something – especially because for years now I have been asking myself why something as ‘religious’ as the Sermon on the Mount should be considered irrelevant to a whole range of secular concerns, and why the historical human person Jesus of Nazareth cannot be a model for a wise ‘secularism’.  I have therefore ordered Cavanaugh’s book as well, despite the cost.
In Ireland a militant secularism is obviously bent on ‘binding’ together all those alienated from the remnants of the ‘Catholic state’ into a significant political constituency.  It argues that it can derive a civic morality from empirical science alone, so it is claiming a moralistic purpose also.  Finally it is also offering Ireland exactly what  all religion offers:  salvation – in this case from the ‘superstitions’ of the past that are held to have caused so many evils, including sectarian violence.
How exactly can something so obviously evangelical, pacifically inclined, moralistic, charismatic, ‘binding’ – and salvational – not qualify as a ‘religion’?  Because secularists don’t believe in a God or Gods?  Well, argues Cavanaugh, nor do Confucianism, Daoism and some strands of Buddhism – and they are usually categorised academically as religions!
(There’s surely room for Bill Shankly in this argument too, somewhere!)
A final thought:  since evangelical secularism wants to exclude what it calls ‘religion’ from the ‘public square’, is it bidding for what used to be called ‘religious establishment’ also – the exclusive right of its own ‘secularist faithful’ to determine public discourse and policy?
Sean O’Conaill, 27th Jan., 2016

Similar Posts


  1. Joe O'Leary says:

    Cavanaugh had a piece in a volume promoting Radical Orthdoxy which seemed to me to be a regressive pseudo-Augustinian radicalism that undercut the foundations of democracy.

  2. Joe O'Leary says:

    Cavanaugh seems to be a fanatic who wants to renegotiate the entire culture of modern democracy and take us back to medieval theocracy.

  3. #1, #2
    Cavanaugh in those YouTube pieces argues for a ‘level playing field’ – which I understand to mean no single-faith state ‘establishment’ of any kind, and therefore no ‘theocracy’ either.
    The notion that only ‘secularism’ can protect us from theocracy is contradicted, surely, by the living example of North Korea.
    Can Joe cite anything specific to support his ‘take’ on Cavanaugh’s ‘medieval theocratic’ intent?

  4. Perhaps the word “religion” itself is not synonymous with “spiritual”. Some Christians dislike the word “religious”, seeing it as meaning the mechanical, doctrinaire following of a routine (without any real spiritual depth) under compulsion. The Roman word “religio” may have had connotations of superstition. In classical times many Romans may have obeyed a religio without really believing in the Gods. They certainly were willing to make space for and adopt new gods. In modern times, the following of the letter of canon law may be a kind of religio, and take precedence over spiritual values. The challenge for churches is to extract what is spiritual from the gospel. What is doctrinaire can be a source of trouble.

  5. Con Devree says:

    This article is very timely.
    Religions are not necessarily belief systems. Pagan Roman religion was in practice mainly the observance of certain religious forms and customs, not necessarily acts of faith in the supernatural. But modern secularism is based on beliefs and in that sense can be viewed as a religion.
    But claiming to be a religion should cause it problems. It would become one in a plurality of religions. Some previous forms of liberalism advocated freedom from religion. Since these forms of liberalism have now morphed into secularism the freedom from religion tag would have to be abandoned.
    More significantly, secularism as a form of liberalism and of religion is driven by two apparently contradictory impulses/beliefs – virtually unrestricted personal liberty, and at the same time its requirement (in its case revolutionary) for an immensely powerful centralized government.
    In pursuit of personal liberty secularism has gradually undermined one “enemy of freedom” after another – the married two-parent family, most forms of Christianity, traditional sexual morality, patriotism, belief in a God who commands and judges, taboos against abortion, suicide, and euthanasia, and laterally the laws of nature as they pertain to gender.
    Conversely, Super Big Government has become necessary as an enforcer of modern liberalism’s/secularism’s moral compass; as repairer of the social damage resulting from its libertarian processes; as the only force that can conceivably bring about its nature-neutral utopias; in short as its operational Supreme Being, who in effect uses democracy to grant it a desired totalitarian supremacy over all other religions, in consequence, ironically, leaving them exercised as to how to escape free from it.

  6. #5 – I don’t follow much of that stuff, Joe – but my alarm buttons too are soundly pressed by talk of a ‘full-fledged merger of Anglican, Byzantine, and Roman Catholic polities for a Christian socialist recovery of global Christendom’.
    But does it follow that a deconstruction of the dichotomy of ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ must tend towards a reconstruction of a medieval Christendom?
    For me Cavanaugh’s work (so far as I have read) tends to buttress instead my own conviction that ‘the kingdom of God’ was betrayed and obfuscated by the Constantinian ‘deal’ and the medieval state. For me the greatest achievement of Christendom was to prove to Montesquieu that freedom depends upon a separation of state powers, and to prove to all Christians (of any wit) that Augustine was entirely wrong to suppose that God could ever want the state to ‘compel’ anyone into religious conformity.
    So when I read Cavanaugh’s attack upon the nation state as the major force behind the dichotomy of ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ I see the medieval state as the mother of that modern nation state. It too subordinated the ‘kingdom’ of God’ to the necessary violence of the state – the business of imposing a social order favourable to the self-regard of a military elite. To do so it turned the Father of Jesus, whom we should see as the father of the prodigal son, into a medieval monarch as obsessed with his own ‘honour’ as William the Conqueror.
    I would also see a healthy scepticism of ‘religion’ (i.e. clergies) as a necessary support of the invaluable principle of the separation of state powers – but feel sure that ‘radical orthodoxy’ will do nothing to undermine that scepticism. For me, the esoteric language of that site is far more likely to prove to the average visitor that all theology is an elaborate confidence trick, as Richard Dawkins insists.
    For me also ‘the kingdom of God’ depends upon a maintenance of a true separation of state powers, and this in turn demands that no single theology or ideology should have a monopoly. But that surely implies also that no ideology or theology should have to power to confine any other to the ‘private sphere’. If Cavanaugh is heading in the direction of doing that to ‘secularism’, and of promoting some kind of Christian theocracy, I won’t be following him. The entire life of Jesus is a protest against the violence and presumption of concentrated power. He suffered crucifixion to prove that God refuses to ‘compel’.

  7. Joe O'Leary says:

    “secularism as a form of liberalism and of religion is driven by two apparently contradictory impulses/beliefs – virtually unrestricted personal liberty, and at the same time its requirement (in its case revolutionary) for an immensely powerful centralized government.
    “In pursuit of personal liberty secularism has gradually undermined one “enemy of freedom” after another – the married two-parent family, most forms of Christianity, traditional sexual morality, patriotism, belief in a God who commands and judges, taboos against abortion, suicide, and euthanasia, and laterally the laws of nature as they pertain to gender.”
    A well-functioning modern democracy instills in its citizens (as the Roman Republic did in its prime) a devotion of the Common Good. Far from undermining Christianity this is helped by the Church’s social teaching (going back to Acts 2-4). But the Church encourages this devotion to the common good as an end in itself, not something to be conducted under her tutelage. Our marriage referendum last May was not just in defence of personal liberty; it was also done for the common good. All the other topics listed are topics of open discussion and scientific consultation in a modern democracy. “Patriotism” is a virtue best cultivated in connection with a loyalty to a concrete community, and such a community will inspire patriotism the more it lives up to democratic ideals (in that sense the patriotism of Pres. Obama is of purer alloy that that of the Trumps and Cruzes).

  8. #6, #8 The nation state has tended to identify ‘patriotism’ as loyalty to itself. See, for example the still-continuing debate over the pledge of allegiance to the flag in the US, with the US supreme court ruling (first) in 1940 that not even an appeal to the first amendment guarantee of religious freedom could dispense any child from taking the pledge, and (second) in 1943 that a child could indeed opt out on first amendment grounds.
    In 1954 the words ‘under God’ were added to the pledge – but as late as 2014 the Massachusetts supreme court ruled that this was a ‘patriotic’ rather than a ‘religious’ statement. ‘Go figure’ as Americans would say: here too the dichotomy of secular and religious simply breaks down.
    This confusion is part of Cavanaugh’s case for arguing that the ideology of the nation state can’t reasonably be excluded any longer from the meaning of the word ‘religion’ – since there is simply no academic consensus on what IS ‘religion’ and what IS NOT.

  9. Con Devree says:

    Despite the ambiguities in # 8, does it not bear out the content in # 6 – secularism as a state-backed and state-funded belief system/religion? That is not to deny secularism’s positive elements.
    A related point. Those engaged in dialogue with the secularist project are confronted with the incapability of both liberal and left wing secularism to embrace the notion of pluralism. Their concept of a “well-functioning democracy” greatly circumscribes the scope for pluralism in the public square. Insofar as democracy teaches anything, its differing concepts teach conflicting content.
    In a previous contribution elsewhere on this website it was stated that “Christ founded and enabled His Church to preach to all nations. Consequently, the church … has the duty … to criticise what is contrary to the unsurpassable Word that God awarded to the world for its salvation.”
    In practice secularism does not value such input. One ongoing outcome is an ever decreasing involvement of the Church as an intermediary between individual and the state in the public square. So? The church might bear in mind St Bernadette’s calm reply to the authorities in Lourdes: “I am responsible for telling you what I have seen, not for making you believe in it.”
    Thus the primary concern of the church, as always, has to be the decay within, part of which is the recurrent overlap between our weaknesses in catholic practice and secularism. Karl Rahner once posited the image of a contest between the good and bad angels over our beds as we sleep. Would he speculate similarly in the context of the inevitable post-election endeavours of the state (Ireland) to further propel the project of secularism, particularly in the cases of school curriculum and abortion? Stimulating times ahead (post-election!!!).

  10. Joe O'Leary says:

    The US “Civil Religion” is quite democratic, and refers to the deity in the most indeterminate terms. I think the French revolutionists did so as well. The Protestant hijacking of the US revolution (with consequent marginalization of one of its inspirers, Tom Paine) continues in efforts to rewrite US history to make the Founding Fathers Christian theorcrats. Cavanaugh seems to want something stronger than Civil Religion, but in the long run such a push may bring civil religion into disrepute and lead to a more radical secularism in the ceremonial of state institutions. I was going to give France as an instance of such radical secularism until I remembered that the French President is an honorary canon of the Lateran Basilica with the right to ride his horse into the basilica.
    It would be interesting to see which countries reference God in their national anthems. It’s the first word of the British anthem.

  11. #11 “Cavanaugh seems to want something stronger than Civil Religion …”
    Citation needed here again, Joe. I still don’t know whether you are simply attributing a position to Cavanaugh on the basis of a suspicion, or writing from knowledge of what he has actually written or said.
    As I wrote in #3, my understanding of Cavanaugh’s position is that he is questioning the secular/religious dichotomy, not proposing a new Christian state establishment. You will surely agree that the first position is perfectly compatible with a situation in which there is no establishment whatsoever – a genuine pluralism. If you have clear evidence that this is not Cavanaugh’s position, let’s have it please.
    It’s not good enough to direct us to a site that refers to a new Christendom, as the esoteric language of that site makes it impossible to understand exactly what those folk have in mind. As Jesus made no reference whatsoever to the role of the state in the realisation of the kingdom of God, a ‘new Christendom’ might not refer to a new church-state theocracy either.
    As I wrote in #3, Cavanaugh’s declared preference in his YouTube pieces is for a level playing field. To establish that this is not what he wants you need to cite something he himself has said to the contrary.

  12. #10 “Those engaged in dialogue with the secularist project are confronted with the incapability of both liberal and left wing secularism to embrace the notion of pluralism.”
    As I don’t know this to be a fact, Con, I’m wondering what extensive experiences of dialogue with secularism have led you to it. Have you read, for example, self-declared atheist Joe Humphrey’s recent article “Why atheists still need the Catholic Church?”

  13. Joe O'Leary says:

    Actually it is very hard to say exactly what Cavanaugh wants. He is an anarchist in his attitude to the modern state, which he identifies with its crimes, such as torture. What is to replace it? Here is an interesting review of one of his books:
    Money quote:
    “Both Cavanaugh and Milbank absolutize Christian tradition to such an extent that it makes rational evaluation and adjudication of the claims of one’s own tradition and rival claims between traditions impossible, and it tends to minimize the need for a provisionally “tradition-neutral” (insofar as that is possible) public space for such adjudication to take place and eventually issue in real political instantiations of Christian truth and practice. If a morally grounded political order in a tradition-pluralistic society were at all possible, perhaps only as the first step toward a genuinely Christian politics where the church would not be relegated to the status of a merely natural and human community, the theological antiliberalism of Cavanaugh could not articulate its blueprint, as it would presuppose the capacity of intertraditional rationality.
    “I have not the space here to consider all the problems of those aspects of Cavanaugh’s constructive project that seem, prima facie, anarchist; but suffice it to say, if it is anarchist, it contradicts the political philosophy and theology first articulated authoritatively in explicit terms by Leo XIII and continued by all subsequent popes. Benedict XVI has in no way advocated a secular, state-centered liberal democracy as the perennial political ideal for Christians, but he certainly has not condemned nation-state politics tout court—on the contrary, in Caritas in Veritate the pope advocates the creation of a state institution to help govern not only the nation but the global community.
    “Certainly, Christians must reject the neutered, privatized, individualized, and disembodied church the myth-intoxicated and ever-expanding, anti-Christian secular state demands. But even if we do not all agree that the modern state is the Antichrist, I think we can see that what is needed in our time to combat successfully dehumanizing and violent myths and institutions of any sort is a politically influential, robustly corporeal, and truly mystical—because not ­mythical—body of Christ, with the authority and power to tame and tutor today’s mythical regimes under the easy yoke of Christ.”
    For another Catholic critique of Cavanaugh see:

  14. Joe O'Leary says:

    A quote from Mary Doak’s article:
    “Nevertheless, Cavanaugh and Bell’s unrelenting opposition to any form of authoritative centralized government is cause for concern, especially as this repudiation of the state is neither peripheral to their positions nor inconsequential for Christian praxis. Much more than proffering a mere critique of some current functions or dangerous tendencies of the state, Cavanaugh and Bell explicitly reject any form of government that involves a central governing authority with final coercive power over a territory. Even Hannah Arendt’s radically participatory ideal of a conciliar system of government would be opposed as inherently oppressive and evil, according to the logic of Cavanaugh and Bell’s critique, insofar as Arendt envisions a council of councils with final territorial authority.55 My intention here is not to deny that Cavanaugh and Bell develop theological insights (espe- cially on the Eucharist and on transforming our desire) with a validity independent of their claim that all states are to be opposed as an unnec- essary and irreformable evil; nor do their criticisms of the state lack merit. Yet I cannot dismiss as mere rhetorical flourish their insistence that Chris- tians must oppose any sovereign territorial authority, however structured, since this rejection of the state is central to their efforts to position their political ecclesiology as a distinct and consistent alternative to the ap- proaches of liberation theology and of Catholic social teaching. Especially given that the suspicion of a central government evident in the arguments of Cavanaugh and Bell is deeply rooted in U.S. culture and history, we cannot responsibly prescind from considering the likely consequences, should these arguments be well received in the United States. Political agitation for freedom from governmental protection of minority rights and from laws regulating gun ownership is not uncommon in this country and would find considerable support in these Radical Orthodoxy arguments that the state is problematic precisely because it is a central governing authority that protects the rights of individuals and holds a monopoly on the authoritative use of violence.”

  15. #14, #15 Thanks for finding these, Joe. They are fascinating.
    So, while the high Christian academy has difficulty agreeing over ‘the state’, the latter gets made by people who use far simpler language. At their worst those people appeal to those base emotions (e.g. fear, selfishness) that will continue to make the state far more violent and unjust than it needs to be.
    For me, Jesus didn’t get into that kind of elevated discussion, because he realised that in the final analysis it is the individual’s conscience that will decide even the nature of the state. So it is pointless to discuss whether or not he was an anarchist. His example of the humblest service is a model for all.
    So, I am entirely satisfied he wasn’t an authoritarian or tyrant either – and that the medieval ‘theocratic’ state fell so far short of the kingdom of God as to make any attempt to recreate it absurd. We Christians need to favour instead a polity that does not corrupt our own church system by making it too powerful – and to prefer even a minority’s lack of power to that. (As do many Chinese Christians.)
    Just now we Catholics need to agree that our present church system is often as unjust as the state, and needs to take subsidiarity seriously in its own structure. It will never reach those many in Ireland and the developed world generally who are now totally alienated from its ‘beanie club’ culture until it has fully grasped the still-continuing liability of concentrated administrative power.
    Do you know, Joe, if Cavanaugh has ever turned his gaze to ecclesiology, and to the fact that church structure has too often simply mirrored that of the state?

  16. Con Devree says:

    “Why atheists still need the Catholic Church?”
    Thanks Sean. Your comment enables an important distinction between atheists and secularists. As with all matters social, discrete distinctions do not always occur.
    Joe Humphries distinguishes between both. I think he regards secularists as those atheists who “long for the disappearance of religion and spirituality from the public domain.”
    Jurgen Habermas, (atheist) in his dialogue with Cardinal Ratzinger, two “intellectual-antipodes”, in January 2004 justifies this distinction.
    Habermas states: “… in the public political arena, naturalistic world views which owe their genesis to a speculative assimilation of scientific information and are relevant to the ethical self-understanding of the citizens, do not in the least enjoy a PRIMA FACIE (italics in the original) advantage over competing world views or religious understandings.
    The neutrality of the state authority on questions of world views guaranties the same ethical freedom for every citizen. THIS IS INCOMPATIBLE WITH THE POLITICAL UNIVERSALIZATION OF A SECULARIST WORLD VIEW (my emphasis). When secularized citizens act in their role as citizens of the state, they must not deny in principle that religious images of the world have the potential to express truth. Nor must they refuse their believing fellow citizens the right to make contributions in a religious language to public debates. Indeed, a liberal political culture can expect that the secularized citizens play their part in the endeavours to translate relevant contributions from the religious language into a language that is accessible to the public as a whole.” (Habermas, J & Ratzinger, J (2006) Dialectics of Secularization – On Reason and Religion (translated by Brian McNeil) Ignatius, San Francisco).
    As regards my own experience, a prominent national daily periodically used to print 50% of letters I submitted. I find it interesting that anytime I referred to the natural pluralisms that newly exist in recent years in many “western countries”, and argued the implications of this for public financing of Catholic schools in Ireland, the letters concerned were not printed.
    Interaction with TDs regarding recent social legislation issues afford the same experience.
    In terms of vicarious experience, the evidence is too profuse to classify, particularly that emanating from cursory attention to “light listening” media broadcasts. Elsewhere, in terms of religious freedom, perhaps one outstanding exhibit is the assault of the President Obama presidency on the Little Sisters of the Poor in the United States.

Join the Discussion

Keep the following in mind when writing a comment

  • Your comment must include your full name, and email. (email will not be published). You may be contacted by email, and it is possible you might be requested to supply your postal address to verify your identity.
  • Be respectful. Do not attack the writer. Take on the idea, not the messenger. Comments containing vulgarities, personalised insults, slanders or accusations shall be deleted.
  • Keep to the point. Deliberate digressions don't aid the discussion.
  • Including multiple links or coding in your comment will increase the chances of it being automati cally marked as spam.
  • Posts that are merely links to other sites or lengthy quotes may not be published.
  • Brevity. Like homilies keep you comments as short as possible; continued repetitions of a point over various threads will not be published.
  • The decision to publish or not publish a comment is made by the site editor. It will not be possible to reply individually to those whose comments are not published.