Religion and Secularity in Britain today

John Milbank

This article is part of a Public Spirit series on the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life

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The Peculiarity of the Secular

johnmilbankThere is a fundamental mismatch between our inherited liberal perspectives upon ‘religion’ and the novelties of some of its current manifestations. ‘Secularity’ is regarded as the normal, default shared domain for public affairs, and ‘religion’ is regarded as a matter of private belief and practice that is valid so long as it does not impinge upon the life and choices of others. However, the impact of globalisation and the arrival of the adherents of many other faiths in our midst, forces the British dimly to realise the historical particularity of this double perspective.

Christianity in one sense has always been different from ‘other religions’; in another sense it has only become different in the course of modernity. It has always been different because, from the outset, it started to differentiate in a newly drastic way between the sacred and the secular by removing a religious aura from political formations through the invention of a new, post-legal polity, the ecclesia, whose aims of peace and reconciliation were in excess of those of legal and justice-seeking processes. Yet historically Christianity is not so different, because this duality was highly tempered: on the one hand there were courts of canon law; on the other the legitimacy of secular power was ultimately referred to sacred sanction.

“we are deluded if we suppose that ‘secularisation’ is a benign fate awaiting every culture eventually and only held back by lack of progressive development”

Christianity has only become wholly different in its cultural situation from other faiths since the modern invention of ‘the secular’. As Karen Armstrong has ably set out in a  recent piece in The Guardian, ‘The Myth of Religious Violence’, we are deluded if we suppose that ‘secularisation’ is a benign fate awaiting every culture eventually and only held back by lack of progressive development.[1] Instead, the invention of a purely secular and self-referring order was an astonishing and unlikely achievement in contingent circumstances, running counter to the inevitably fundamental character of religion as already described. It was not simply to do with a turning away in horror from religious violence to an already available secular option. Instead, that option had to be invented, and the exigencies behind its invention were in part the seizing of power by nation states against the authority of the sacral emperor as well as sacral Pope.

This project was massively reinforced by an attempt to circumvent intractable religious disagreement within political realms. One says here ‘religious’, but as Karen Armstrong points out, religious disagreements in this era remained ones over polity, social organisation, public ritual and private ethical imperatives. So it was not a matter of turning to shared and sensible secular goals away from irrational and non-debatable religious lunacies. It was rather a matter of despairing (perhaps prematurely) of the possibility of substantive agreement about the common good, and turning instead to novel formalistic proposals (supremely those of Thomas Hobbbes) which aimed to distil a simulacrum of order out of chaos by rendering normative a strictly policed and controlled series of procedures rather than a set of shared beliefs and specific practices.

Yet even so, up till very recently, Western nation states and European civilisation continued to be substantially informed and held together by Christianity. The theoretical, never mind practical acceptance of liberal formalism was only ever piecemeal, even in countries where it had been enshrined by revolution. In this context, it becomes questionable to see the non-officially secularised polity of the United Kingdom as aberrant. Rather its constitutional arrangements (which are by no means after all entirely unique) could be seen as more reflecting substantive modern reality. And this better match has proved and may be still proving a factor of relative social and political stability.

What is more, where Christian influence has perceptibly waned, other and often darker substantive forces have rushed in to fill the void: nationalism, racism and dogmatic materialism.

Clearly one key to our puzzling present is the collapse of these alternatives after 1945 and 1990. This has led to a yet more yawning substantive void, in which one senses that people are becoming passionately intense against our current settlement, with only the dimmest idea of what they are passionately in favour of. Such a situation was vividly witnessed by the recent Scottish referendum campaign where nationalists witnessed much emotion but little coherence or specific teleology. Everywhere it seems we are facing a new, negative mode of nationalism which is newly racist not in terms of real ethnic self-belief, but in terms of blaming the other (Britain, Spain, Europe, the West etc) for problems which are often outside the other’s control and more to do with globalisation as such.

Sometimes, as of course most notably with segments of Islam, this takes the form of a new ideologisation of religious identity. Assessing the novel upsurge in religious feeling and aspiration is highly complex. For on the one hand we have a genuine protest against the modern Western and even the Christian separation of secular and sacred – a protest that deserves respect on many levels (for the coherence of its cultural difference; for its critical admonition towards us) even if it can never earn complete western agreement. But on the other hand we also have a tangible merging of authentic religion with the modern mode of ideology. This generally involves, as with Wahabism and fundamentalist Protestantism, a ready embrace of technologised power, allied to desacralising and idolatrous modes of religiosity, innocent of metaphysics and so tending to reduce the divine to something like a supremely powerful being alongside other beings, rather than as Being itself, whose genuine transcendence is a hyper-immanence, always sacramentally mediated. It is too little observed how it is the more metaphysically sophisticated and aesthetically-atuned modes of religiosity that are now most under threat: Catholicism, Shi’ite Islam, more mystical modes of Sunnism, Oriental Christianity.

Religion, Integralism, Ideology and Social Action

In terms of the current religious situation in the UK, all this works out in three decisive ways, which make themselves most apparent, not at the margins, but at the urban centres and especially in London, which notably (and by a historically bizarre inversion) is becoming the most religious part of the nation, in part because of immigration, but in part also(despite apparent decline in church attendance  etc) because London is the bigger site of civic engagement and this is now more often taking religious forms, for all the reasons already set out.

“the idea of predominant secular power as formally neutral is becoming increasingly unsustainable”

These ways are:

1.the desire of non-western religions and especially Islam to live out their own integral conception of religion as pervading the whole of life.

2. the manifestation of this desire in a debased, ideological form, which again affects mainly minority parts of Islam, though by no means exclusively Muslims only. This manifestation, which, with the emergence of IS in the middle east grows more serious by the day, though it effects only an alienated few, has the direst possible effects. For it lends crucial if illogical credibility to the recidivist politics of UKIP and other forces. Yes, they can readily insinuate, with a nod and a wink and no need to mention Islam, the alien truly is a dangerous threat in our midst. In this manner ideologised religion and neo-ethnocentrism fall into a dangerous negative collusion.

3. The increasing realisation by many Christians, in reaction both to the presence of more integralist religions and to the increasing clash of secular with Christian norms, that they have lost their own integral sense of Christianity as an entire way of life, indeed as a polity in excess of the secular one. This realisation is especially unavoidable because ‘the secular’ has now moved beyond the merely formal, to generate its own ‘quasi-substantiality’ which treats secularity itself as though it were a kind of scientistic religion of evolutionary progress whose high priest has been Richard Dawkins. Thus the idea of predominant secular power as formally neutral is becoming increasingly unsustainable in the face of new understandings of sex, birth, life and death which most serious adherents of the major religions find  incompatible with their own traditions.

Given this threefold situation, the liberal understanding of the religious and the secular, as described at the outset, is proving woefully inadequate.

In relation to the first case we are quickly discovering that tolerance of religion as a merely private matter appears as non-tolerance to religions more centred on collective practice and the infusion with religious norms of a considerable public space. For all the reasons already given, this claim may rest on much stronger critical grounds than the liberal perception. The latter now includes the pathetically erroneous idea that a person’s religion is somehow analogous to the accident of her race, gender or sexuality.

“fears [of Islamist violence] can only be confronted through serious inter-cultural engagement.”

And this delusion proves still more inadequate as a response to the second case — that of religious ideology. Just how can an attempted outlawing of radical criticism of any specific religion (in which terms the law against religious hatred can too readily be interpreted) deal with either religious militants or with people wishing, however mistakenly, to criticise Islam as tending to give rise to such militancy? Anti-Islamic prejudice is real enough, and unwarranted, yet often rooted in substantive if exaggerated fears about not only Islamist violence, but also the serious difference of Muslim priorities and its potential threat to the British version of a European cultural identity. These fears can only be confronted through serious inter-cultural engagement. Nor should the questionable notion that such prejudice is a variant of racism, dubbed ‘Islamophobia’, be allowed to mask the dangerous encouragement of undoubted racism (however provoked by the behaviour of Israel)  in the form of anti-semitism amongst segments of the Islamic community  — racism because here a traditional suspicion of a religion has been given a modern, biologistic, ideological overlay.

it is the Christian legacy that can uniquely hold the balance between the religious and the secular

What would an alternative, non-liberal approach to these three circumstances look like and where could it come from? There can really be only one answer. If the project of merely formal norms for the West is at once impossible and dangerous, then it has to look once more to its Christian legacy. But why not, one might ask, today to a plural religious legacy? To some considerable degree I would wish to endorse also that objective, but the reason for insisting on Christian centrality is, in part and speaking apologetically (in I hope the best sense) just because it is the Christian legacy that can uniquely hold the balance between the religious and the secular. That is because this balance is, from the outset, uniquely part of its own inheritance. We need now in Britain as in the wider west to look again at that inheritance if we wish to refuse both all-encompassing religious integralism that admits no secular space whatsoever, and equally a militant secularism whose fruits, as Karen Armstrong has written, have proved just as violent from the French revolution through to many of the atrocities of the twentieth century as the worst ones of religious militancy.

“formal and informal establishment of the Christian religion in Britain both sustains the secular as merely secular…and holds open a space in which other religions can enjoy a measure of their own licit public space”

In this way the formal and informal establishment of the Christian religion in Britain both sustains the secular as merely secular and not as a dogmatic quasi-religion, and holds open a space in which other religions can enjoy a measure of their own licit public space, besides opportunities to participate, in their own religious idiom in the wider civic arena.

This compromise, which remains specifically Christian, has certain practical implications. In parallel to canon law and perhaps in relation to a reassertion of its remit, we should be open – as Rowan Williams has argued, albeit with occasional excess — to the extension of legal self-government by religious groupings. Such government is more likely to be immediate and interpersonal and so can assist the wider growth of community. However a variation as to fundamental principles of marriage, inheritance, property or commercial law is not to be tolerated, on pain of compromising the coherence of the British polity and at once Christian and elements  post-Christian elements of its legacy. Within commonly accepted principles of course, greater stringency, as with restrictions on usury is to be welcomed; but less stringency, in terms of our own fundamental acquired values, as with less equal rights for women must surely be refused. For part of the balance between the religious and the secular involves also a balance between group and individual rights – even if one can welcome the religious instigation to renew and extend the former, given that we can have precious little creative liberty, even as individuals, entirely on our own.

Liberal formalism has also informed our approach to the threat of religiously motivated terrorism. It has become hypocritically de rigueur to claim that such motivations cannot be authentically religious. Such hypocrisy encourages the governing fiction that, given the supposed disembedded perversity of terroristic motivation, anyone, anywhere is a potential terrorist. This has now got to the point where such potentiality is starting negatively to define our citizenhood. And of course the reason for the hypocrisy and the fiction is that this new definition works hugely to the advantage of the controlling market-state apparatus.

Outside the fiction, we would less oppressively and more effectively admit that currrently it is minority parts of Islam that are the recruiting ground of terrorism. The qualification ‘minority’ here implies that also Islam in general, like the populace at large, needs to come under less suspicion. However, the fact that inevitably Islam as a whole comes currently under more suspicion than other groups can be translated into a positive factor if it encourages Islam to seek for better solutions to its modern presence that will much more discourage the terrorist. Of course it goes without saying that this can only happen if the west also repents of past sins and seeks for more creative solutions to the middle east, which may nonetheless and however strangely involve a more stable, longterm and subtle western involvement in that region.

So as regards incoming religious integralism, it should be positively welcomed up to the point where it does not negate our own inherited integrity which is a Christian-enlightenment hybrid. As regards religious ideology it should be more directly and honestly dealt with, in order not to corrode all our freedoms. Religions need here to be encouraged to look more closely to their own internal leadership programmes. Finally, as regards the Christian rediscovery of its own integral unity and capacity to nurture the space of civil society, this, alongside the valid aspects of other integralisms, should be encouraged by a failing state as a crucial support to its own better aspirations.

Still more crucially, all religious groups should seek to explore their common horizons of metaphysical affirmation and spiritual belief in a noetic realm. Such a quest need not be spurious: the historical interplay and echo between India and Greece is real; still more real is the legacy of Greece and Israel common to the three monotheistic faiths. Shared metaphysical horizons are not liberal and novel, but the very stuff of medieval Latin scholasticism, which was largely triggered by the discovery of Arabic preservations and elaborations of Aristotelian and neoplatonic philosophy. Religious education at every level should take account of these commonalities, besides allowing people of different faiths to explore further their own understandings. Needless to say, this means dumping also the liberal paradigm in the sphere of religious studies.

“Christianity … is uniquely placed to bring secular voices also into the religious conversation concerning a more teleological and substantive pursuit of the human good”

This thick metaphysical background is required in order to help give rise to a genuine and not merely fashionable and so spurious sense of the common good amongst people of different faiths. It may well be that together they can start to resist the norms of secularism turned into a scientistic ideology and renew and rethink more traditional attitudes to birth, life, death, sex, economics, democracy and welfare. But here again it is important that Christianity itself revive and hold the ring: for there are certain attitudes concerning personhood, free association, relationality, creativity, childhood, gender equality and the development of tradition that are at once post-Christian and yet grounded in the Christian legacy itself. It is therefore Christianity that is uniquely placed to bring secular voices also into the religious conversation concerning a more teleological and substantive pursuit of the human good in the future.

About the author

John Milbank is Professor in Religion, Politics and Ethics in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Nottingham: http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/theology/people/john.milbank


[1] Karen Armstrong, ‘The Myth of Religious Violence’, in The Guardian, Thursday, 25th September, 2014.

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