Arguments for the anti-democratic potential of secularism: José Casanova, world-renowned scholar in the sociology of religion
Proving this thesis is rather superfluous, one might say. No one would seriously dispute the fact that the churches in Europe have had a dwindling political and social influence over the past few decades. This development has a long and complex background, which José Casanova cleverly details in a brief sardonic summary.
“Once upon a time in medieval Europe, there was a fusion of religion and politics, as is typical of pre-modern societies. However, under the new conditions of religious diversity, extremist sectarianism and a conflict prompted by the Protestant Reformation, this fusion led to the most terrible, brutal and long-lasting religious wars of the early modern age, reducing European societies to rubble. The secularisation of the state was the successful answer to this catastrophic experience, which has apparently left a lasting impression on the collective memory of European societies.”
Europe’s godlessness and totalitarianism
The ironic tone reveals the author’s disapproval of this interpretation of history. In fact, Casanova’s aim is to disprove this very paradigm, according to which secularisation is a prerequisite for open and tolerant societies and automatically leads to democracy.
To quote one example, Casanova issues the exhortation that Europe’s godlessness eventually led to totalitarianism and reached its pinnacle in the brutal twentieth-century wars of destruction. “All these terrible conflicts,” writes Casanova, “were […] the product of modern secular ideologies.”
Another of Casanova’s arguments for the anti-democratic potential of secularism is the Soviet Union’s anti-religious policies. As indisputable and correct as this may be, his mingling of disparate concepts under the mantel of science is verging on the obscene.
There is no arguing with the fact that the twentieth century was plunged into the most devastating wars of destruction in human history by ‘godless ideologies’. Yet putting these crimes against humanity down to the principle of division of religion and politics is nothing more than a primitive deduction process, a more serious mistake than any academic carelessness. Hitler and Stalin have hardly gone down in history as champions of secularism.
Religious parties and European democratisation
“Very often, it was in fact religious groups and religious policy that – sometimes in a paradox manner and unintentionally – contributed to democratisation and secularisation of politics in many European states. […] Even those political parties that originally developed as anti-liberal and at least in the ideological sense as anti-democratic […] ultimately played a very important role for the democratisation of their societies.”
Casanova’s clumsy and contradictory formulations reduce his own argumentation to absurdity.
The achievements of ideological neutrality
It would be easy enough to disprove Casanova’s thesis that religion and politics should not be separated. There are countless countries where the role of religion in politics has proved an explosive mix: Pakistan, Iran, Nigeria, Malaysia, Palestine, to name but a few.
And even in the USA, a country that Casanova cites as a positive counter-example to the European model, the influence of faith over politics is of rather doubtful merit. One need only think of the Bush administration’s partly Christian-motivated justification for the Iraq War.
Judging by the way José Casanova presents the role of faiths in world history, the only answer is: God protect us from the return of religions!
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire
José Casanova: Europas Angst vor der Religion. German translation by Rolf Schieder. Berlin University Press, Berlin, 133 pages, 19.90 euro. The text is not yet published in the original English version.