Skip to content

The place of religion in democratic secular countries

There is a religion which oppresses women, which is enthusiastically adopted by marginalised groups, which hates democracy and which has declared the modern world to be a heresy they call “Americanism”. This religion, which is run entirely by men, demands of its adherents loyalty to a small group of clerics overseas, in a pseudostate set up by extremists. Its doctrine, to be sure, is hardly consistently adopted by many of its followers who have adapted to democratic civil society, but taken at face value that doctrine requires a theocracy imposed upon all who live under its rule. It has underlain many wars and atrocities, and collaborates with dictatorial states so long as they support its interests, although it has been known to turn on them too, when the chance arises.

Adherents of this religion are often accused of being terrorists and disloyal to their home nation. They are said to follow a legal system that they put above the laws of the land, and to undertake religious wars in the name of justice. Secularists have often attacked this religion in the name of modern society, and egalitarianism, which this religion opposes. It has generally rejected attempts at cross religious dialogue or tolerance for nonbelievers. It opposes secular education, and has set up schools run by clerics and religious authorities to ensure that its next generation is unaware of alternative views. It has media figures that attack everything they hate and wish to impose their views upon those who are not part of its society.

Clerics in this religion attack socially progressive viewpoints and proponents as going against the will of God, and insist that the only way to live is theirs, and so they justify horrible atrocities like killing Jews, stealing children, and prohibiting medical treatment of various kinds because it offends them as a way to “make the world just”.

What is this religion? It is Catholicism.

Any student of recent history (for a historian, the last 200 years are recent) knows these things about Catholicism. As recently as my childhood (granted, that is a long time ago in dog years) people were declaiming that the Catholics would outbreed us all (us being Protestants, and in my suburb, Anglicans and Presbyterians) and throwing stones at their children.

Ask yourself, gentle reader: do you fear the coming Catholic takeover of your democratic society? Sure, the various popes and archbishops (and one cardinal in particular) say fundamentally indecent things about how the rights and welfare of women and children are to be subordinated to the interests and dogmas of the Church, and if they had half a chance they’d block abortion even in life or death situations for mothers, but secular societies have forced the rank and file to accept that they are not in charge, and that they must live by the laws and mores of a modern society. Most Catholics in western societies even think contraception is acceptable, and more than half agree divorce and abortion are okay as well.

So why don’t we scream in the streets that Catholics are a threat to our values, way of life, and safety? Because they have changed how they live, and in the process, changed their religion as well. In the short space of a century (and believe me, in the lifetime of a religion, that is very short indeed) we have gone from the Catholic Church arrogating to itself the role of theocratic arbiter of what is right in every country to it being one among a plurality of religions, viewpoints and ways of life. More remains to be done, but it happens.

The same thing will happen with Islam. Indeed, Muslims have been enthusiastic adopters of secularism in many countries (pre-revolution Iran, pre-Erdogan Turkey, Indonesia) already. Most of the extremists are from the countryside, and rural peasants always are more conservative than urbanites, no matter what the nation, ethnicity or religion. But there’s another concern here: the sacrificial lamb, to use a religious metaphor.

Jews know this. They were used to justify every grab for power and money from Richard II to Hitler, and to denigrate every nation from Spain to America. They were a nice distraction from the real issues facing a political elite. Problems with the economy? The Jews. Problems with employment? The Jews. Terrorist acts by (in recent years) Muslims? The Jews set it up.

Muslims have a large number of extremists, to be sure, among their ranks. I suspect, however, this has more to do with dislocation, dispossession and marginalisation than it does with the admittedly awful doctrines of Islam, just as it did with Catholics before them. Dislocate, dispossess and marginalise any group at all, and they will become extremists. Workers in Europe before the Third Reich were the same (and unions were a convenient whipping boy for the Nazis also, as they are in rapaciously capitalist America). Kick a group long enough and it will try to kick back.

I have personally known many urbane, sophisticated, secular and science-based Muslims, working at a medical research institute for a decade. They came from the Arabian peninsula, from Pakistan, Turkey and other nations. All that mattered for them to be medical researchers was that they adopted the science. Likewise, all that matters for a Muslim to be a good citizen of a secular democratic nation is that they adopt our laws, civic values and practices. And they are. But marginalise them, exclude them from public discourse, and take away their citizenship, and you get what you should expect.


  1. larry larry

    Good rede.

  2. Aaron Clausen Aaron Clausen

    While I’m sure you are right that Islam will ultimately be secularized, I’m not sure you can create a 1:1 mapping between the decline of Catholicism’s temporal influence and the eventual secularization of Muslims. Islam is a much more diffuse religion; even within sects there is no notion of a central religious authority as such.

    In other words, the Catholic church, due to its fundamentally bereaucratic nature, was a much easier target.

    It also took a rather long time; from the earliest critics like Wycliffe and Huss, through the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and Catholicism only really losing its strong hold on Catholic states like Italy, Spain and Ireland in the 20th century. In other words, it took something like seven centuries for Rome’s political influence to marginalised, and one might argue that in parts of Latin America, even now, Rome can still wield significant influence.

    So I have a feeling that more conservative forms of Islam, while ultimately doomed to a similar fate as Catholicism, have a lot of life left in them. And, of course, there are no lack of governments in Muslim states quite happy to invoke all sorts of anti-Western, anti-Jewish, anti-anything really, as a means of keeping the anger of ill-served populations pointed away from their own corruption and inadequacies. It doesn’t help that the West frequently has very close ties with these regimes.

    • Believing that hierarchical religion is easier to deal with than decentralised religion is contrary to experience. The decentralised religion of Islam in the west almost universally rejects ISIS and Al Qaeda, while the Catholic Church is riven by divisions on social policy, politics and engagement with governments, not to mention that some think child abuse is less bad than giving the Catholic Church a bad name, and others have amore enlightened view.

      That said, I take your point: this will take time. My guess is it kicks in with third generation immigrants (of any kind), but takes a further two generations to become the default. We saw this with Irish and Italian migrants to Australia, and we are seeing it now with later waves. As I said, “soon” to a historian means something rather different, but social changes take a long time.

  3. Paolo Kreppri Paolo Kreppri

    On the contrary, I’m not sure that that Islam will ultimately be secularized. This seems to me an overoptimistic statement without any empirical support. Turkish people was not enthusiastic at all of being secularised. They were forced to be by a military regime. As soon as they could they went back to their traditional Islamic roots.
    I don’t agree with your analogy with Catholicism either. I don’t know which kind of Catholics you know, but I’m Italian and even living in the Pope’s country I have never experienced the kind of bigotry and backwardness so common today in the Islamic countries. I’m not denying that history of catholic church is (also, not only) made of dogmatism, fanaticism and attempts of imposing the Right view to others., but there are some fundamental differences between Catholicism and Islam that cannot be underestimated.
    1) Islam is a religion of Law, while Catholicism is a religion of faith. If you want to be saved in Islam you have to abide the Law; if you want to be saved in Catholicism you have to have faith in Jesus. That makes a huge difference;
    2) The Law for Islamics is the Sharia. Sharia is, by definition, incompatible with democracy for in democracy we use to discuss laws in the parliament. Sharia is The Law, coming directly from God and cannot be discussed;
    3) In Christianity nobody is entitled to punish someone (“who is without sin cast the first stone”); God will judge us all. In Islam, there punishment to be given, here and now;
    4) Christianity (and Catholicism also, of course) brought to the world a revolutionary concept that is the base of the western Democracy. “Give to God what belongs to God, give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar” said Jesus. This is the concept of separation between religion and state. This is the very base of secularism. This is what allowed the creation of democracy and the development of a scientific revolution. It happened first on the non-catholic part of Christendom, but the seed of such a revolution were there, also in the Catholic tradition. There nothing like this in the Islamic tradition;
    5) In the Gospels there is not a single line in which Jesus tell to kill someone. In the Coran there many.
    Moreover, I live in an Arabic country and I know nice people, but I always feel their level of education is low compared with Western countries. They are not used to discuss and to have critical mind. It is very difficult to discuss about sensitive issues. Book shops are very rare and full of English books for expat. You can count Arabic books with the fingers of your hands.
    For those reasons, I’m not as optimistic as you are.

    • I have encountered that kind of narrow minded bigotry, in a western country, in my lifetime. I think of western versions of Islam as being like Catholicism was fifty years ago. Read some history of Catholicism in the west in the past century to get a feel for it. Start with the stealing of baptised Jewish babies.

      As to killing and judging, what scriptures say to religious believers and what they do as an actual real world religion are entirely distinct. That comment needs no further response. And Christianity as a sociological phenomenon has been long opposed to democracy. Apart from the Anglican and Presbyterian churches, few religious have defended, and many have attacked, the idea of democracy, let alone secular freedom and education.

      Not only is Sharia incompatible with democratic law, so is Catholic canon law, Jewish courts, and a slew of other religious based legal systems. To single out Islam is to commit special pleading.

      Finally, your first claim is ludicrous. Read up on canon law sometime, or just read Pascal’s Provincial Letters to see how false that is. Then read the Canons of the Church of England. Indeed every religion is a religion of law. Faither obtains in the belief that one’s own church has the right laws.

  4. I think our esteemed host has confused two quite distinct animal roles in ancient Hebrew mythology: the sacrificial lamb has much less to do with the situations described than does the good ol’ fashioned scapegoat.

  5. Dave Dell Dave Dell

    Sadly, we’re screwed by the effects of climate change/overpopulation long before secular marginalization of all religions. My grand-daughters children are going to inhabit one shit-storm of a world.

  6. jimhexis jimhexis

    It’s commonly pointed out that the various Fundamentalisms in the contemporary world are not simply reassertions of immemorial tradition but new cultural formations. I think that’s true, but the mainstream versions of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism have also undergone major revisions (relatively) recently. For example, the Catholicism you denounce does indeed have a musty odor of decrepitude about it, but I think what the reactionary official church harks back to is not so much medieval faith or even Counter-reformation Catholicism but the 19th Century of the Syllabus of Errors and the dogma of infallibility. That’s obsolete enough, after all. For better (and often for worse) earlier versions of Catholicism were far less defensive and far more dynamic and, in any case, far different than the religion defined by the current hierarchy. Was Catholicism always anti-democratic? What could that have meant before there were democracies? The papacy certainly wasn’t fond of the Dutch Republic, of course; but that wasn’t because it was a republic.

    I guess I’m a splitter rather than a lumper. For example, I think it’s misleading to call the Western European Christianity of the years before Luther Roman Catholic. At the very least, I’d hold out for making one giant distinction. Like all other human institution, religions necessarily became something drastically different after the demographic and economic transformation of the last several centuries. Doctrines and symbols and rituals may abide, but what used to be a form of life has now become a hobby for a large portion of mankind. The traditional Catholics and the new jihadis are protesting against that. I’m less sanguine than you about the futility of this protest, though if they are really going to prevail against modernity itself they are going to have to do a great deal of destroying and what they’ll wind up with won’t me very much like the old time religion. Unfortunately, it might be something new and worse.

  7. Brian E Brian E

    A good read. I tend to agree. I think that your thesis that if you marginalize and beat up folks, they’ll kick back is about right. Our great leader is presently doing that to local muslims, who’ll kick back, which will justify more draconian laws, which will cause more blow-back, which will justify more laws, and so on. See, the system works!

  8. jeb jeb

    ” What could that have meant before there were democracies?”

    Ken Dark had an interesting thesis for 5th century Britain, he viewed Christianity as the catalyst for a popular uprising against the established order.

    Further north what the monastic system offered for the aristocracy was the resolution of an old biological issue. The church could hold land that did not subdivide when families reproduced. It established laws, which covered the lay population of monasteries and appears to have limited violence and lead to pockets of cultural continuity for sections of the community facing cultural extinction. In Scotland while the British kingdoms were eradicated early, you still get pockets of communities speaking archaic Welsh up to the 12th century.

    Its not democratic but offers a biological resolution, that’s helpful to ruling elites leads to stability and continuity for wider populations who can maintain free status and are not reduced to slavery (slavery and reduced economic status the catalyst for linguistic and cultural extinction in this period).

    Highly successful and dynamic institution that is addressing very real issues for the Aristocracy. Further down the food chain you may not be in a democracy but it it offers the possibility of not being a slave, if you can find a place in the lay community of a monastery and benefit from the legal protection membership brings.

  9. At this time, The Univeral House of Justice in Haifa, Israel, the center of the Bahá’í Faith, is the only globally democratically elected body on the planet.

  10. There is a religion which oppresses women and run entirely by men- I agree to this point.

  11. gcallah gcallah

    It’s good to see ugly anti-Catholicism still alive and kicking, at least!

Comments are closed.