Secularism: What Is It Good For?

Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV doing penance to reverse his excommunication by Pope Gregory VII

There is a rare consensus among Western intellectuals that the best form of governance under all circumstances requires that the State be secular. Yet it is somewhat less clear what the word ‘secular’ concretely means in this context. The bumper sticker summary proclaims “separation of Church and State” but the actual content of what is often proposed goes radically beyond that deceptively simple slogan.

The notion of secularism which first developed in medieval Europe was that the Temporal and the Spiritual powers had distinctly different realms within which they could exercise ultimate authority free from the controlling interference of the other power. The realms overlapped so this naturally led to jurisdictional battles and, moreover, each attempted to influence the other within its own proper sphere. But influence, of course, is different in degree from control.

The Enlightenment, following the shock of the ‘Reformation’, changed the terms of the debate. Monarchs, ably backed by enlightened intellectuals like Voltaire, favoured an Absolutism whereby all power, spiritual and temporal, was held by the national State. This gave Princes the authority to appoint Bishops and to determine dogma. An approach which national churches were powerless to resist but which Rome and her daughters throughout the world unhesitatingly defied. Contrary then to what is popularly supposed the Divine Right of Kings was a doctrine inimical to Catholicism when it became associated with Enlightenment liberalism.

At the beginning of the 21st century the liberal position remains absolutist. That is, behind the demand for separation of Church and State is an understanding that the Spiritual power is subservient to the Temporal at all times and in all things. So, to liberalism secularism now means driving religion out of the public square and into private circles, like that of stamp collectors or homing pigeon racers.

To the modern mind the questions may be ‘why not?’ ‘the laws should be the same for everyone why should religion get an exemption?’ Leaving to one side the possibility that absolute power may have an absolutely corrupting effect there is another argument to deploy. All human societies are divided between those whose dominant interest is in this visible material world and those who focus on the invisible spiritual world which they are convinced exists. The first group are invariably more numerous yet historically have recognised the need, in the interest of a healthy society, for the second group to exist and to act freely.

To put it another way, the Temporal and Spiritual realms were acknowledged to exist as more than organisational structures within the world. They were powerful abstract realities which were determinants of human action. All human life proceeds from Mind and some minds are governed by Temporal and some by Spiritual concerns (many, of course, are influenced by both at different times.) That being so they each required formally constituted organs through which to function in the world and translate their impulses into concrete actions and forms. Secularism then emerged as a de facto recognition of the necessity of these powers to co-inhabit the same space, to function alongside each other, to influence each other but ultimately to be sovereign within its own proper domain.

Contemporary intellectual opinion in the West, however, fails to see the need for such a modus vivendi. For them spiritual belief is simply an opinion about an unprovable assertion. The emphasis is upon the demonstrability of the belief itself. However what is most important from a societal point of view is the power with which the belief is held not how true it might or might not be. Those with a spiritual faith live and move and have their being in and through that faith in a way which those who adhere to opinions about, say, politics or sport or music do not. You do not have to accept or even respect their particular faith but good sense requires you to see its power.

In pluralist societies a separation of Church and State makes some sense but the subordination of all Spiritual power to the dominion of an Absolute Temporal power does not. The realm exists, it is inhabited, those within it govern their lives according to the spiritual dictates which form their consciences.  Acting as if it did not exist or as if its inhabitants are only at odds with the wider world through perversity is an approach which can only lead to persecution and repression or at least exclusion.

What is required is a delineation which clearly sets the limits of both powers. For the most part the laws of the land relate to purely temporal, material matters and all citizens must obey them. Yet it is reasonable to realise that given the existence and effects of spiritual faith on the minds of a minority the qualitative power of that belief must be acknowledged and a space created where the absolutism of the State is limited by the needs of many of the State’s citizens. Good governance is not about creating smooth streamlined ideal systems it is about finding ways to accommodate the diversity of the human condition a diversity which expresses itself in ways much more complex than the race, sex, sexuality and culture currently allowed for.


thoughtfully detached has a Facebook page.

My *other* blog is Catholic Scot

The picture is The Emperor Henry IV doing penance before Pope Gregory VII at Canossa by Tancredi Scarpelli


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