When I was a kid, about thirty five or forty years ago, I remember that the political talk of my parents and their friends had a very Enlightenment flavor. Religious conservatism was reactionary, something that was a nuisance but would be swept away with progress. When they ran into, for example, a woman in full hijab (a less common sight in 1970s Istanbul than it is today), secularists would make a face and remark on how people “in this day and age” still behaved according to medieval religious norms.

Well, in my lifetime since, it has become obvious that not only was religious conservatism not a fading atavism, but an increasingly confident feature of public life. The 1970s medieval relic was actually the wave of the future.

I left Turkey more than twenty years ago, but its story has included the painfully slow collapse of a sclerotic secularism that enjoyed very little in the way of a popular base. Most people outside of a small urban elite were not convinced that they should understand their lives in a political framework determined by the European Enlightenment. A revived, retooled, technological, modern Islam and Islamism resonated much better.

Well, I came to the US in the 1980s, in a time when the Religious Right was relatively new, still flexing its muscles. And in my time here, it has been reasonably successful in promoting its political culture, even though the death of the Christian Right is a regular pronouncement in commentaries on the news. And I have to say that the Religious Right has been the only serious populist, democratic, grassroots movement I have experienced in the United States.

The state of abortion rights is a good illustration. It’s scary how much abortion has become delegitimized in politics and in popular culture alike. Due to almost exclusively conservative religous-based opposition, abortion almost exists in the shadows, as something that might just be barely legal but carries a heavy burden of moral opprobrium. Access to abortion has seriously deteriorated across the country. And you can completely forget about abortion as a component of healthcare that might be supported by public funds. At best what secular defenders of abortion can hope for is preserving an anemic “choice,” so that not all communities have to abide by a religiously-motivated regime of reproductive politics.

And similarly with politics in general. Our political choices are between an openly theoconservative Republican party, and a Democratic party that works very hard to present itself as religion-friendly. Democratic administrations hold the Religious Right at bay but also legitimate more religiosity in politics, more public money funneled through religious channels.

Here too, there is an air of defeat about secular politics. We are, it seems, in a post-secular age. Public life is not as drenched in religiosity as in a Muslim country. But advancing a more secular agenda does not seem a realistic possibility. Perhaps the best we can do is to defend some enclaves—scientific institutions, perhaps—isolating them from the most heavy-handed religious influences.

Even Europe is not doing so well. In the past few decades, the Christian populations of Europe have, if anything, become even less religious. But having the bulk of the immigrant Muslim population assimilate to this secular environment now appears to be a naive hope. Large numbers, perhaps the majority, of European Muslims are not persuaded that Enlightenment-based institutions improve upon what is provided by divine law. Modern economies and urban environments have changed immigrant Muslim religiosity and beliefs in important ways, but they remain exceptions to the European Christian story of secularization.

So in Europe, the best that can be expected is perhaps to have separate communities, with a degree of pluralism in legal systems, and a public sphere where sensitivity to devout constituencies trumps considerations such as freedom of speech. In specifically secular environments—but not the public sphere open to all comers—secular Europeans might still enjoy their way of life. But the universal aspirations of secular Enlightenment politics have, perhaps, been defeated.

It’s important to note that whether in Turkey, the US, or Europe, the Enlightenment perspective has failed to convince large populations. Lots of people just do not want to live that way. When Enlightenment regimes have been imposed through direct coercion, such as in Turkey, the devout have resisted, often successfully. When secular politics arose through indirect coercion—economic modernization, urban conditions, state control of education, etc.—secularism was still not entirely successful, such as with immigrant populations who depended on religious solidarity. Democracy, in the sense of respecting popular choice and participation, has often produced right-wing, religiously colored populism.

And historical experience has left Enlightenment secularism frayed along its intellectual edges as well. We can no longer rely on a narrative of progress and universality. These narratives are too closely allied to the utopian, quasi-religious aspects of the European Enlightenment. And disassociating the Enlightenment from utopian follies such as communism or neoliberalism is not an easy task. A full-throated defense of Enlightenment secularism is more difficult these days; it gets lost in nuances and qualifications and ends up as politically impotent.

So maybe the thing to do is to accept defeat for now, and hope a better day will come. Reduce the ambitions of secularism: scale it down from a political regime that applies to everyone. Instead, perhaps we can instead defend secularity as an option, as the internal culture of particular groups and particular institutions.

In all likelihood, this too is unworkable. It cuts too much against the grain of the Enlightenment tradition. Trying to defend institutions such as science by trying to be unthreatening toward religious interests may just get us muzzled while rewarding religiously motivated interference.

But what else is there to do? Redouble our efforts to impose a more secular order? Does that really have prospects for success? If, as is quite possible, secularism cannot be sustained in present circumstances without a significant degree of coercion, are we sure we want it in the first place?

Apologetics Infographic #1: Atheism and Nothingness
G&T Rebuttal, Part 5: Chapter 6
What if you Saw a Miracle?
G&T Rebuttal, Part 6: Chapter 7
About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • Philip

    I think a key sentence in this interesting article is that the narratives of progress and universality “are too closely allied to the utopian, quasi-religious aspects of the European Enlightenment.” If the thesis is that Enlightenment secularism has been defeated as a social-political movement, we have to know what exactly has been defeated. The secular is whatever pertains to the natural, mundane world as opposed to anything religious, spiritual, or sacred. But the Enlightenment’s utopian rationalism and positivism were pseudo-religious movements. So their defeat indicates only that people prefer genuine religion to a watered-down, new-comer version of a religion, just as many prefer the Republicans to the Republican-Lite Democrats (who don’t have the courage or the interest to be progressive).

    The question is whether the genuine alterative to religion has been defeated as a form of social organization. Religion is a way of organizing society to focus people’s minds on transcendent spiritual and moral issues. Whether it’s a cult or the Catholic Church, the religious officials are empowered to pontificate, appealing to people’s faith, given the transcendent nature of their subject matter. The alternative is just the individualistic, semi-capitalistic, semi-democratic society, powered by institutional science. In this sort of society, the individual’s earthly freedom is deemed more important than subservience to some otherworldly ideology.

    So is secularism, in the form of this liberal (individualistic) society, in decline? Or is this sort of society a sham? Adam Curtis’s documentary, The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom, speaks to this question. I think we’ll know that the true alternative to religion and spirituality has been defeated, when people no longer want their individual liberties, when they no longer trust themselves to be able to run their lives, or when they no longer believe they had much in the way of personal liberty in the first place.

    Take, for example, the progressives’ disillusionment with Obama. They voted to have an alternative to Bush-style pseudo-conservatism, but they got more of the same. Democracy is supposed to empower the majority, but no matter how Americans vote, their political system empowers the so-called special interests, the vocal minorities, and in particular the very wealthy. The wealthy are the freest of individuals, since they are the most independent, and it’s primarily in their interest to protect secularism in the form of a society that safeguards the freedoms of the individual, at all costs.

  • CyberKitten

    Oh, I hardly think that the Enlightenment Project has failed or even stalled. True it hasn't worked as advertised but it's *far* from dead.

    I really don't think that you should give up so easily….

    Oh, and as someone who is from Europe I *really* don't see the same Continent as you are apparently seeing…… From over here it's America that has failed the Enlightenment and is in danger of capitulation to theocracy where Europe soldiers on……

    Maybe we just need another round of religious wars to clear the air a bit.

  • Dan

    Fascinating article. Thank you.

    Is secularism worth defending? Yes. Is its demise inevitable? No.
    Is it in for some tough times ahead? Yes

    The application of some coercion is completely justified (for starters start lobbying to get faith-based schooling out of the public education system). The European experience suggests Enlightenment values are widespread and correlate positively with education levels. Secularism has only really come under attack in a meaningful way in the US in the last 20 years.

    So prepare for a fight. Lobby, agitate and irritate! :) Giving up on progressive principles so readily is doing those who fought for them previously a disservice as well as those that follow us.

  • D

    I'm surprised you fail to reference the destruction of Left populism (partially sponsered by the US State) as a reason for the rise of religious populism. That holds the key in explaining the current predicament and the possibility for future hop.e