8/4/2018—In one way or another, four countries may be said to represent the failure of the secular democracy project: Turkey, India, Israel and the United States. The story of each failure is different, but there is a pattern. In each, a left-leaning secular elite, generally hostile to religion, tries to create a State without religion in the public square. Some form of separation of church and state. In each, over time, a pretty religious voter majority rebels and brings to power a religious, nationalist government. In each, democratic forms are kept, more or less, but minority rights are definitely threatened.
Of course, each county is also quite different. Recep Erdogan in Turkey is pretty religious and the struggle is pretty directly religion versus secularism. Narendra Modi is pretty religious, but the struggle is also highly nationalistic with Hindus versus Muslims and others. Benjamin Netanyahu does not appear to be religious at all and the struggle is definitely nationalistic, although joined by religious fervor, as in India. In the US, President Trump is as secular as can be, personally, but is highly identified with religious believers. The struggle, though, has no religious content per se, except in allowing a very small number of religious people to practice controversial forms of discrimination.
What can we learn from the failure of the secular democratic project in these four countries? Michael Ingatieff, the President of Central European University, has suggested that liberal society will always disappoint. His article appeared in the New York Review of Books in June 2018. I wrote a letter to the editor that was not published, which I reproduce below. I should add that Ignatieff is so gracious that he wrote a short response to me, which I will not reproduce here only because he did not suggest it was for public consumption. Basically he suggested that my mistake is in the use of the word “shared.” In liberal society, people cannot share fundamental commitments of meaning. That is the point of liberal society.
I should also add that I have always been skeptical and hostile to the secular democratic project. I wrote American Religious Democracy as a rejoinder back in 2007. I believe democracy will only succeed in building societies of freedom and flourishing human life when the secular/religious split is overcome and religion is acknowledged as the positive and necessary force that it is. Not everyone is going to be religious, but everyone is going to be human, which entails some kind of depth experience.
To the Editor:
Michael Ignatieff’s dispiriting review of three books about the relationship between liberal, secular society and religion was unduly pessimistic because Ignatieff’s conception of secular society is truncated and static. On the one hand, there is religion—a rich, but ultimately irrational, communal search for meaning, belonging and the purpose of human life. On the other, there is secular society—an arid collectivity that tries, increasingly unsuccessfully, to deliver a welfare state, equality and individualism.
Ignatieff then concludes that religion will not disappear and that liberal society will inevitably disappoint. Really? With a stacked deck like that, of course liberal society will disappoint. But, then, so will religion, which, according to Ignatieff cannot deliver knowledge about the nature of reality.
Maybe the accommodation of religion and secularism has to be deeper than Ignatieff’s example of whether a Sikh has to wear a helmet when riding a motorcycle. Maybe the accommodation should be a shared search for meaning among religious and nonreligious persons of good faith.
Secularism rejects supernatural accounts of reality and holds that scientific laws are invariant. But almost all modern religions accept scientific accounts of the world and do not routinely invoke miracle to explain natural phenomena. There is much more common ground here than secularists are willing to admit.
The important issue between secularism and religion is the status of what Tim Crane calls, in one of the books Ignatieff reviewed, the religious impulse—the human hunger for something transcending the world of ordinary experience.
Secular society will continue to disappoint until it comes to terms with this impulse and its meaning.
Crane, himself an atheist, does not believe that there is any transcendent reality. But, how can anyone listen to Mozart’s music or look at the night sky and deny transcendent reality? For that matter, how can anyone listen to the words of Martin Luther King Jr., and deny transcendent reality? The arc of the moral universe bending toward justice is definitely something transcending the world of ordinary experience.
In their unthinking zeal to defeat religion, secularists have surrendered everything that gives human life purpose and meaning. But that surrender is not required by denial of the supernatural. Liberal, secular society does not have to be arid. It can be as rich with meaning as any formal religious community. And when secularism realizes that, its opposition to religion will be seen as unnecessary and will recede. On that day, all of us, religious and nonreligious, will just be spiritual seekers again. On that day, it will be possible for politics to be again a shared public search for the deepest truths of human experience.