The three types of secularism

The three types of secularism October 27, 2015

I stumbled upon this article from seven years ago–another one by the great sociologist of religion Peter Berger.  He distinguishes between three kinds of secularism:  one that separates church and state but is not anti-religous; one that has an animus against public religion but is fine with privatized faith; and one that actively tries to suppress all religion.

From Peter Berger,  Secularization Falsified| Articles | First Things, February 2008:

Secularism thus finds itself in a global context of dynamic religiosity, which means that it faces some serious challenges. We might distinguish three versions of secularism.

First, the term may refer to accepting the consequences for religion of the institutional differentiation that is a crucial feature of modernity. Social activities that were undertaken in premodern societies within a unified institutional context are now dispersed among several institutions.

The education of children, for example, used to occur within the family or tribe, but it is now handled by specialized institutions. Educational personnel, who used to be family members with no special training, must now be specially trained to undertake their task in teacher-training institutions, which in turn spout further institutions, such as state certification agencies and teachers’ unions.

Religion has gone through a comparable process of differentiation”what used to be an activity of the entire community is now organized in specialized institutions. The Christian Church, long before the advent of modernity, provided a prototype of religious specialization”the realm of Caesar separated from that of God. What modernity does is to make the differentiation much more ample and ­diffused.

One path for this development is the denominational system typical of American religion, with a plurality of separate religious institutions available on a free market. The American case makes clear that secularism, as an ideology that accepts the institutional specialization of religion, need not imply an antireligious animus. This moderate attitude toward religion is then expressed in a moderate understanding of the separation of church and state. The state is not hostile to ­religion but draws back from direct involvement in religious matters and recognizes the autonomy of ­religious institutions.

The second type of secularism, however, is characterized precisely by antireligious animus, at least as far as the public role of religion is concerned. The French understanding of the state originated in the anti-Christian animus of the continental Enlightenment and was politically established by the French Revolution.

This second type of secularism, with religion considered a strictly private matter, can be relatively benign, as it is in contemporary France. Religious symbols or actions are rigorously barred from political life, but privatized religion is protected by law.

The third type of secularism is anything but benign, as in the practice of the Soviet Union and other communist regimes. But what characterizes both the benign and the malevolent versions of laïcité is that religion is evicted from public life and confined to private space. There have been tendencies in America toward a French version of secularism, located in such groups as the American Civil Liberties Union or Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. What may be called the ACLU viewpoint is pithily captured in an old Jewish joke: A man tries to enter a synagogue during the High Holidays. The usher stops the man and says that only people with reserved seats may enter. “But it is a matter of life and death,” says the man. “I must speak to Mr. Shapiro”his wife has been taken to the hospital.” “All right,” says the usher, “you can go in. But don’t let me catch you praying .” The punch line accurately describes the ACLU’s position on any provision of public services (from school buses to medical facilities) to faith-based institutions.

All typologies oversimplify social reality, but it is useful to think here of a spectrum of secularisms: There is the moderate version, typified by the traditional American view of church-state separation. Then there is the more radical version, typified by French laïcité and more recently by the ACLU, in which religion is both confined to the private sphere and protected by legally enforced freedom of religion. And then there is, as in the Soviet case, a secularism that privatizes religion and seeks to repress it. Its adherents can be as fanatical as any religious fundamentalists.

All these types of secularism are being vigorously challenged. Even the moderate version of secularism, as institutionalized in an American-style separation of church and state, is being challenged by the contemporary religious movements that reject the differentiation between religious institutions and the rest of society. Their alternative is the dominance of religion over every sphere of human life.

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