An unusually lucid discussion of public accommodation of religion is made by Micahel Ignatieff, in Making Room for God, an article in The New York Review of Books (June 28, 2018). Ignatieff is actually reviewing three books together, in his article, but in the course of doing so he provides a smart way of thinking about the tension between secular society and religion. First let’s look at some concepts and definitions, and then turn to Ignatieff’s observations.
Word Definitions Matter
“Secularism” is sometimes used to describe an attitude of indifference or hostility to religion, but it is more accurately used in connection with political structures, rather than personal beliefs. So throughout Ignatieff’s article, and in the title of one of the books he reviewed (Andrew Copson’s Secularism: Politics, Religion, and Freedom), secularism refers to the idea of government that is not tied to a particular religious faith, whether it is hostile to religion in general or is generally accommodating. Secularism is thus the political notion that government should be non-sectarian.
“Liberalism” also requires some definition, because of the way Ignatieff uses the word. In Illiberalism, I referred to a “classical liberal” as one who embraces individualism in general, and specifically in the sense of one’s self-sovereignty and autonomy vis-à-vis the government. In fact, I wrote that one who is a classical liberal would be called a political conservative, in the United States today. It is someone who regards personal liberty as something to be protected from encroachments by the coercive collective, the government.
Ignatieff does not make this distinction, and it’s one point of criticism I would make to his otherwise fine article. For Ignatieff, there is an unbroken line from the classical liberalism of John Locke and the founding fathers of the United States, to one who is a political “liberal” today, as he is. He overlooks the individual/state tension, and uses the word to refer exclusively to individual/church tension since the Enlightenment.
This usage of “liberalism” is a bit distracting, but so long as one understands the definition Ignatieff is using, his article is helpful. He addresses the frustration of “liberals” over the slow progress of the Enlightenment project: gradual eradication of the superstitions of religious belief.
“Since the Enlightenment, liberalism has believed in its inevitable victory over faith – that secular arguments, since they are based on science, evidence, and facts, are bound to prevail over religious claims, which, over time, will be confined to an ever-smaller private sphere. This story of secularization may be one of the most enduring and influential of all our historical narratives, but it is less and less convincing. Liberal societies themselves have retreated from grand self-justifying narratives claiming that history, in Benedetto Croce’s words, is the story of liberty, or, in Voltaire’s words, the story of the slow defeat of superstition. These stories don’t line up with reality anymore.”
Failure of Enlightenment Project
Religion refuses to die because people look for meaning and believe it to be sourced outside of physical things and their mechanical movement within the cosmos. Moreover, when societies do swing hard to secularism, then, pace Max Weber, they can become as irrational as religion-based societies were thought to be, proving to be “just as plagued by myths, fake news, enthusiasm, and the madness of crowds as more religious and supposedly more credulous regimes of the past.” As long as secularist liberals cling to the notion that history is an inexorable freeing of people from religious superstition, they “risk being perpetually surprised and disillusioned by the times they live in.”
Why? Ignatieff writes:
“[A] cardinal fact about liberal society is that it disappoints. It offers no radiant tomorrows, no redemption, no salvation. The most that the social democratic variants of liberalism have promised is a welfare state that seeks the slow reduction of unmerited suffering, the gradual diminution of injustice, and the increase of prosperity and individual flourishing. These public goals are what Western liberalism at its best has had to offer since Franklin Roosevelt, but they leave many people yearning for deeper collective belonging and stronger ties to tradition and community. This dissatisfaction leaves a void, which is constantly being filled by nonliberal doctrines.”
By “nonliberal doctrines,” he means primarily religion. This perspective is reliably a modern political liberal’s, but one who recognizes that the stubborn persistence of religion is a product of profound human need, and not merely of human weakness or ignorance. It’s a small step from acknowledging that need, to acknowledging it exists because of our separation from a God who is there.