Skepticism: The New Established Religion

Jefferson’s wall of separation has many friends. People who grew up in a nation with a strict separation of church and state are often very proud of that system, which they consider modern, and best-suited for democratic societies today and in the future. This includes both skeptics of all (organized) religions and many religious people who are glad not to be inhibited by state interference in matters of faith. Supporters of any system of religious establishment, on the other hand, today find themselves on the defensive. These defenders are often religious moderates belonging to mainstream religions, and accustomed to societal practices and legal settlements of old.

“Jeffersonians” and defenders of established religions often agree, however, that the state as such needs to be secular and non-denominational (another term for this would be “neutral”—but, as I will try to show, identifying secular and neutral is problematic). Within the broad tradition of more or less laicité, many modern states at present are trying to adapt their legal systems—originally devised for different expressions of Christianity (and Judaism)—so as to make them work for a new religious pluralism that goes far beyond the boundaries of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

This project is running into a few problems, one of a more practical nature is that many “new religions” do not possess criteria of membership, or internal structures of governance that are in any real sense similar to those of the church and the synagogue. Already some states feel the temptation to demand such structures from those religions or to create them. (Classic examples are “Religious Corporations” in Switzerland; an extreme case is the introduction of “Patriotic Associations” for religions in China.)

Underneath this first problem is another, not simply practical, issue: the modern secular states are desirous to establish very similar, if not identical, relations with all religious groups existing on their territory. At first, this appears to be a necessary goal, but upon closer inspection, it is difficult to attain. To use a metaphor: a young man (the secular state) will have a hard time treating everyone within a group of old ladies the same  way if one of these ladies is his mother, or grandmother—and this would be what Christianity is for the nations and societies of the West. No one gets to choose his mother, by the way, or to reinvent her. She is there, and that’s it.

Yet, there is a bigger problem still, and in my view, it is both practical and systematic: the idea of the secular state was devised—and the secular states as they exist now were organized—for societies that consisted almost exclusively of religious people and religious groups (a trace of that can be found in laws imposing strict religious “neutrality,” while banning atheism). In recent decades, however, the religious landscape has changed. In Western nations today, besides traditional and new religions, there exists: a group of people who are skeptical of organized religion, yet still considering themselves spiritual: and a growing number of people who are religiously indifferent: and a group that self-identifies as secular or atheist, consisting of declared followers of reason alone. Many in this last group–and many institutions and corporations along with them–see themselves as representatives of the secular mind of the state, even though its secularity was not originally intended to be the creed of a part of its population.

De facto, we are moving towards establishing a new religion of state, even if that religion sees itself as nonreligious in the classical sense. But on the level of providing a worldview, an understanding of human nature and its place in the universe, and offering moral standards and even public rituals, the secular mindset certainly acts as a religion. And now we have a real problem with Jefferson’s wall—because from this ersatz religion the state is no longer separated.

In the aftermath of Protestant cultural hegemony, the way of dealing with Catholics and Jews was often to treat them, de facto, as one of the Protestant denominations. The general expectation was that, over time, in the modern society, Jews and Catholics would finally be homogenized, and find a home in the spectrum of mainstream denominations. This approach has worked quite well, from a pragmatic point of view. It is, however, very problematic at its core, as it imposes a Protestant, highly individualistic concept of faith and religion upon people who profoundly disagree with it (and this fact remains relevant even if—or when—both sides are unaware of this situation). Publically funded Catholic schools, such as in the UK and major provinces of Canada, are a testament to the fact that some states realized they could not force the Catholic population into a factually Protestant system. Some governments may have chosen this option as a way to appease Catholics. But you can also look at it as a true recognition of corporate religious freedom, for which those governments were even willing to pay.

The situation partially repeats itself today. As exemplified by leading universities in the US and elsewhere, society is moving away from mainstream Protestantism as its leading cultural force, and instead embracing a multicultural, scientific, and secular ethos. Difficult to explain as it may be, this ethos regularly clashes with explicit and organized forms of religion. Attempts to exclude religious voices from public and academic conversations are legion. The fundamental conviction behind such attempts is not so much that religion is evil or irrational (though sometimes it is), but, more often that religion is (and should be restricted to) nothing more than a private practice: the home is its space and the place of worship. Those who disagree must be educated, and if necessary, forced to accept this concept of religion. As a matter of fact, this notion is itself the product of people who either do not know religion from the inside, or reject it, or are conditioned by one possible definition of religion. A truly liberal society, however, cannot accept a concept as normative that is so obviously limited; it will instead not only tolerate but cherish and embrace a true pluralism (of concepts) about what religion is, not only a pluralism of religions within the constraints of a predefined, non-religious or even anti-religious mindset.

If we look at existing religions without a predefined filter, we will quickly discover that conceiving of religion as essentially private and irrational is reductive: traditions, mentalities, buildings, and festivals all around the globe demonstrate the public nature of religion. As Pope Francis recently said: “The orderly development of a pluralist society requires that we do not pretend to confine the authentic spirit of religion only to personal conscience but that its significant role in the construction of society be recognized.” Moreover, it is worth remembering that our reasoning faculties are limited to the realm of the conscious; we are well advised to cultivate our habits of perception, appreciation, judgment, decision making, and acting not only in that rather limited space. Today’s neuroscience and classical views on philosophical and religious formation have something to say about this area.

People disagree about the fundamental question of what religion is, and they do so theoretically and practically, intellectually and emotionally. The solution to this disagreement cannot be to impose one possible view and attitude (namely that religion is an exclusively or primarily private matter) on everyone. Classical Protestantism (and, analogously, Catholicism, where it was the established religion) had to search for the right way of recognizing the rights of other religious groups. The Christian faith, with its sense of historical contingency and particularity, provided some useful guidance to that effect. Nevertheless, the way to where we are today was certainly arduous. How will rationalist secularism come to realize that the solution today cannot be for all people to embrace a typically secular and highly reductive concept or religion? It was always wrong in the past to think all problems would go away if only everyone became a Protestant, or a Catholic—it is even more wrong and unrealistic today to demand that all should view religion as simply a private affair, so we could get along with each other.

The fact that secular ways of thinking are sometimes affected by an exaggerated belief in their own universality, and lack a sense of historical contingency constitutes a real difficulty, but one that can be overcome. If you look at religions as non-universal and particular, it should not be impossible to realize that your own views are similarly conditioned and limited. In the words of Pope Benedict: “Faced with an a-historical form of reason that seeks to establish itself exclusively in terms of a-historical rationality, humanity’s wisdom—the wisdom of the great religious traditions—should be valued as a heritage that cannot be cast with impunity into the dustbin of the history of ideas.”

The time in which, in order to counter religious affirmations, we could make simple reference to “reason” or “fact-based science” is over; both are much less monolithic than often portrayed. For every claim, we have to inquire “which reason” and “which science” we employ for supporting it. Questions like “what is science?” and “what is reason?” and “what is a fact?” cannot themselves be answered by natural science. Instead, they are questions of philosophy, ultimately, questions about what we consider and accept as real and relevant, and are, thus, open to religious forms of reasoning. Not only ancient and medieval controversies, not only dialogues between adherents of different religions, but also conversations between religious and secular thinkers today demonstrate that a meaningful exchange of arguments, and mutual illumination and correction are in fact possible, even between persons originally playing different language games, coming from different starting points, and using different methods. If we confine religion categorically to the realm of the personal, even of the incommunicable, we will end up moving reason into the same position, because we have limited it—I would even say domesticated and emasculated it—the result being that we have no more basis upon which to understand each other and communicate, certainly not with people who are, think, and talk really differently from us. Such a view is not only counterintuitive and illiberal, but also dangerous.

The situation, therefore, in which civic and academic institutions de facto impose an allegedly neutral and scientific secularism is untenable. It creates serious frictions and divisions, it unjustly discriminates against religious people and institutions, and it unfairly favors non-religious ways of thinking and acting, while claiming to act in the name of religious diversity, tolerance or neutrality. Not even adherents of new and minority religions will any longer be convinced that such a position is the only one fair to them.

For the sake of public order and peace, not only (supreme) courts and governments but the whole of society needs to find a way to renew its commitment to religious freedom (both individual and corporate); subsequently, states (and their dependent institutions) will be able to rethink or rediscover the way they should relate to religion(s). For this reason, changes to constitutions and pertinent laws are best made via democratic mechanisms of legislation, not delegated to the judicial branch. Favoring agnostic or atheistic views is unfair and dangerous. Just as the time in which governments sided with one particular expression of Christianity is over, so the period in which they can side with the un-religious has to end before it produces ingrained structures of unjust discrimination. What we need is a system and a society that are fully aware of secularism’s nature as ersatz-religion, and that treat it accordingly. We can call this a “new secularism” or a “new humanism.”

It is simplistic to accept as reasonable and legitimate only positions that conform to a predefined secularism, in particular to a secular view of religion. It remains simplistic even if that secularism is the position held by a majority of academics, or of people in general, and thus has the advantage of societal dominance. If we want to escape, or at least limit, the overwhelming pressure of economic interest and political power, we have to rediscover and cultivate a sensitivity for the truth—on this point thinkers as diverse as J. Rawls, J. Habermas and J. Ratzinger are in agreement. As Pope Benedict, ironically, said in the discourse he had prepared for the University of Rome, but which he could not hold because of protesters threatening his safety, “if our culture seeks only to build itself on the basis of the circle of its own argumentation, on what convinces it at the time, and if—anxious to preserve its secularism—it detaches itself from its life-giving roots, then it will not become more reasonable or purer, but will fall apart and disintegrate.”

In one sense, everyone can contribute to what he describes as the “Pope’s task,” namely as far as breaking out of circular reasoning is concerned. Christians today, in particular, are called “to safeguard sensibility to the truth; to invite reason to set out ever anew in search of what is true and good, in search of God.” Having cultivated this sensibility, they can even dare “to urge reason, in the course of this search, to discern the illuminating lights that have emerged during the history of the Christian faith, and thus to recognize Jesus Christ as the Light that illumines history and helps us find the path towards the future.”

Msgr. Hans Feichtinger


Msgr. Hans Feichtinger is a priest of the Diocese of Passau, Germany. He holds an STD from the Augustinianum in Rome and an MA in Classics from Dalhousie University, and was an official at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 2004-2012. He is now working on a doctorate in philosophy while administering a parish in Ottawa, Canada.