The widespread belief that religion is plainly bad for democracy is misleading, or so the following dialogue on religion tries to illustrate, with reasons and examples. Conducted in Melbourne by the distinguished young Indian anthropologist Irfan Ahmad, the conversation covers a wide range of issues to do with democracy and religion. Published in three parts, it sheds light on the fascinating relationship between democracy and the deities since the age of the ancient Greek democracies. It reveals that democracies have rarely been irreligious. The conversation dwells on such matters as the invention of the word religion, power and courage and the ethics of pluralism. Other themes include Christianity and representative democracy, the French Revolution, Indian secularism, the unfinished revolutions in the Arab world and (yes) dogs and democracy.
In this second part, the conversation turns to the ways in which democracy reshapes and tempers religious fervour, and to the origins and limits of the European doctrine of secularism. We begin by moving from Jacques Maritain’s classic Christianity and Democracy (1943) to examine past and present examples of how struggles for democratic equality have had the effect of humbling religious arrogance.
Irfan Ahmad: Maritain’s point about religion bridling power is important. How about the other side of the story: the (re)shaping of religion by democracy?
John Keane: I’m well aware that in the heartlands of the West many people suppose that religion is ‘naturally’ the accomplice of anti-democratic violent power. Yet Karen Armstrong and other scholars have shown that there was nothing inevitable or quintessentially ‘religious’ about the monstrous violence of the First Crusade and the Spanish Inquisition, just as there is nothing ‘natural’ or inherently ‘religious’ about the violent power manoeuvres of twenty-first century jihadists, ultra-Orthodox Jews and fundamentalist Christians. The way rulers harness religious narratives to keep themselves in power is similarly a contingent process. Climbing Jacob’s Ladder, as happens in Saudi Arabia and Iran, is a tried and tested method of outflanking opponents and legitimating rule over people.
Yet ruling through divination is tricky business. There have been many moments in the history of democracy when religious arrogance has been subject to democratisation: struggles in the name of the people for the humbling of the powerful, for the equalisation of power, have brought power-hungry religioners down to earth. Martin Luther and the printing press stand as early modern symbols of the fact that the democratic spirit of questioning arbitrary power can humble the religious and their religious will to power. The same dynamic is evident in the late eighteenth century democratic revolutions, which made it easier for the poor and the powerless to attribute their wretched condition to the greed of fellow men, rather than to explain their destiny with reference to God. The invention during this period of poverty as a political category and the egalitarian vision of humans eliminating poverty on Earth turned poverty into an earthly problem. Thanks to the spread of the democratic sense that power relations are contingent, it was no longer seen in divine terms, as retribution for sinfulness, for instance. The point can be generalized: democracy brings to religious experience a measure of worldliness.
IA: Do you mean that democracy in practice can temper religious fervour?
JK: Yes, and here I find myself attracted to the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo’s argument that thanks to democracy the relationship between the believer and God becomes in principle a gentler relationship. The imaginary power relationship between believers and God is subject to a process of Verwindung, a term that Vattimo traces to Nietzsche. Vattimo wants to say that democracy doesn’t necessarily lead to or imply the dialectical leaving behind (Überwindung) and destruction of religiosity. It rather transforms the quality of the relationship between believers and God. It’s as if God hands power to people who in turn build institutions that put the brakes on both concentrated power and feverish belief in God. Democracy helps to “soften” the relationship between flesh and blood people and the belief in a beyond. Vattimo, who is both a devout gay Catholic and a frequent critic of the Church, urges that the rejection of metaphysical truth does not necessitate the death of religiosity. Instead it opens new ways of imagining what it is to be religious, ways that emphasize charity, solidarity, democratic equality and irony. Vattimo shows that hermeneutic interpretation is central to Christianity, which has had the long-term effect of spreading the worldly principle of interiority, which in turn dissolves the experience of objective reality into ‘listening to and interpreting messages’.
IA: Doesn’t this raise the whole issue of the meaning of what has come to be termed ‘secular’?
JK: Thought of as a whole way of life, democracy indeed stirs up a sense of the saeculam, awareness of the present moment, the contingency of worldly things. The lived experience of democracy also heightens our awareness of the often overlooked fact that the trouble-making category of ‘religion’ and its opposite – the secular – are modern European inventions.
IA: Can you explain this?
JK: What we call the sacred and the profane were typically mixed together in all recorded political orders of the past. Religious worldliness, let’s call it, was the norm until the early seventeenth century when in Europe deep tensions between the ecclesiastical and civil powers spawned the distinction between the religious and the secular. That distinction was certainly familiar within the world of mediaeval Christianity but it only referred, say, to differences of types of property ownership and priestly roles within the Church. With texts such as John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) the old Roman term religio, which had referred only to a given set of binding obligations, took on a new meaning. The word religion was redefined. It hereon meant a well-defined cluster of sacred beliefs whose other-worldliness makes them potentially dogmatic, divisive and irrational.
The doctrine of secularism was the nineteenth-century offspring of this way of thinking. It was a dogma that proved to be self-confirming. Its anti-clericalism ensured its hostility to religious believers, whose resistance, sometimes using strong words and even violence, ‘proved’ religion is organised bigotry. Secularism confirmed what the American scholar William Cavanaugh has called the ‘myth of religious violence’. In this respect, when it functions well, democracy can help take the sting out of this conflict. It can stimulate awareness that ‘religion’ is a contestable category. It enables citizens to see that the world is marked by the factual plurality of religious faiths and, in order to avoid bigotry and bloody uncivil war, democracy highlights the need for publicly negotiated peace deals among modes of religious belief that may and often are utterly incommensurable.
IA: Could you give an example of what you have in mind?
JK: During his 2013 visit to Sydney, which I helped to organise, amidst considerable public controversy, the Dalai Lama praised the principles of the Indian model of secularism. He pointed out that whereas for individuals the truth of a religion is often a given, an unquestioned and unquestionable Truth, the notion of several religions is highly relevant for whole political communities. He urged his listeners to speak not of religion, but of religions; and he went on to discuss India’s democratic experiment with secularism, a word which it took from the West in order fundamentally to transform its meaning. Beside its home-grown religions, he said, all the world’s main religions are deeply rooted in India. India’s constitution is based on the democratic principle of multiple religions. It maintains that a multi-religious nation must accept all religions equally. Secularism means respect for all religions, and for non-believers as well.
IA: Well, that appears more like parroting an official platitude. In late 2014, votaries of Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, organised coercive programs for the conversion of Muslims to Hinduism. Called ghar vāpsī, back home, for them it is not conversion because Muslims were earlier Hindus. Hence they want Muslims, also Christians, to go back to their ‘original’ home, Hinduism. How do you explain the persistence, indeed rise, of religious bigotry, of a majoritarian type in democracies, including in India?
JK: The whole notion of Hinduism is an invention forged during the British occupation of India. The insistence that India is ‘essentially’ a Hindu nation, and that Hinduism is its official faith, is among the specialities of the BJP and its leading voice, Narendra Modi. It’s not the position of the Dalai Lama, who during his Sydney visit went on to discuss the problem of animosity wrapped in religion, the so-called clash of civilisations. He emphasised, for instance, that Islam is a religion of compassion for all God’s creatures. He noted that there are mischievous Muslims, those who plant bombs or pick up Kalashnikovs, just as there are mischievous Hindus, Christians and Jews. There are mischievous Buddhists, like the monk named Wirathu, who is trying to whip up violence against the Rohingya minority of mostly Bengali-origin Muslims in north-western Burma. The Dalai Lama lampooned their bigoted views as ‘unrealistic’. What he meant by that is that believers in other-worldly principles should be mindful of worldly concerns, worldly dynamics. The Buddha, he said, was ‘realistic’. He never spoke in terms of only one religion and therefore urged his followers, monks and scholars, not to accept his teachings out of faith, or devotion, but rather out of earthly investigation and experiment. The same principle should apply to all religious people, said the Dalai Lama. ‘They need to be realistic. Even God should be realistic’, he said. It was a clever point infused with democratic sentiments.
IA: Is the Dalai Lama here saying, as most liberals do, that democracy brings choice to issues of faith?
JK: Yes, but the point was made by others long ago. For instance, a key theme of the Edinburgh lectures of William James is that religion ultimately is a matter of individual choice. His emphasis on the individual is questionable (what about group experiences, for instance?), but James wisely grasped the way democracy enables competition among faiths and beliefs, and provides room as well for those who do not believe, so prompting whole societies to sense the need for believers and non-believers to live together peacefully, without baiting and slandering and murdering one another. In this sense, under democratic conditions the religious experience becomes a matter of choice for individuals, households and whole communities. What should not be underestimated in the history of democracy and its relationship with religiosity is the way the openness, pluralism and sense of contingency that democracy unleashes through such mechanisms as press freedom, elections and freedom of association also clears spaces for the experience of freedom of religion. As James put it, democracy enables the thrill of being gripped by something that is analogous to entering a forest at twilight, or finding oneself breathless deep down in a spectacular mountain gorge.
IA: Well, you synoptically pointed out different dimensions of the interrelationship between religion and democracy. Yet, in popular perception as well as in many mainstream academic writings, this perception of democracy being irreligious or something as necessarily oppositional to religion persists. Why does that perception continue?
JK: I’ve mentioned before that the secularist understanding of democracy appears at a particular historical moment in European history. The French Revolution is the first organised political attempt, in the name of liberty, equality and fraternity, to destroy religiosity, to decapitate priests, lower the tops of churches so that they do not tower over secular buildings. Churches were stripped of tablecloths and pewter candlesticks, which were made into citizens’ military uniforms and bullets. The organised militant political attacks on the Church and ‘superstition’ were part of a great upheaval that brought Terror, as it did later in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Partly for these historical reasons, and even though organised suspicion of religiosity remains a strong impulse throughout Europe, and elsewhere, secularism sensu stricto was an exceptional episode in the history of modern representative democracies, almost all of which make room for faith and belief mixed with disbelief and unbelief. You could say the originally French project of exterminating religion has failed. The attempt to purge religiosity from the world, to render it mere private experience or to eliminate it from the public realm, as the Attaturk regime tried unsuccessfully to do in Turkey, has had the unintended effect of reminding us that the history of democracy is bound up with the history of divination.
IA: So, it is a retrospective move. That religion and democracy are and have been utterly separate emerges retrospectively in the late eighteenth century and subsequently. I want to pick up that idea in relation to the growth of social sciences and secularisation. The French sociologist August Comte believed that sociology would serve as ‘the Queen of the sciences’. The interesting thing is that he wanted to create a secular church with himself as the Pope sitting in Paris or somewhere. So it is a secular move. He opposed religion and church. In its place, he sought to create a secular form of hierarchy.
JK: The genealogy of the modern social sciences is heavily bound up with the political project of secularism. Think of Destutt de Tracy’s efforts to build a science of ‘ideology’, or Feuerbach’s and Marx’s theory of religion as a this-worldly projection of an unhappy and unfree world, or Max Weber’s reinterpretation of modernity as driven by several forms of bureaucratic rationality that result in the ‘disenchantment of the world’. The social science presumption that religion will wither away, that gods and goddesses and God are dying, or already dead, is still widespread. Richard Rorty’s early description of religion as a conversation stopper remains a tenet of faith among many social scientists, including those who study democracy. From the point of view of the genealogy of democracy, their conviction is deeply misleading. I’ve always thought that those who dismiss religion as thoughtless copulation with the clouds of Unreason are equally subject to the charge that they themselves copulate with the clouds of Fact, Reason, Rationality and Reality. For philosophical and political reasons, I’m unpersuaded by both, and so you can see in matters of religiosity I’m a sceptical ecumenicist and agnostic, and a radical pluralist. Based on both the historical records and personal experience, it’s why French-style secularism (laïcisme) is for me a form of democratic pomposity.
IA: I like the term “democratic pomposity”. Quite evocative!
JK: The conviction that democracy has reason and the Sovereign people principle on its side and, hence, necessitates secularisation is an early nineteenth century invention. Whatever its liberating effects, it has often heaped tragedies on people. Secularists conveniently forget the predation – bossing, bullying, humiliation, violence – that from the beginning attended enforced secularisation. Think of Tocqueville’s recommendation that since the Muslim peoples of Algeria were incapable of democracy they should be controlled by a form of top-down rule based on ‘limited violence’. Then recall later French experiments with the mission civilisatrice, for instance the atrocities committed in multi-faith Vietnam during the years 1930–1933, following the Yen Bay mutiny. Or think of American military efforts to bring secular democracy to Iraq with B-52 bombers and drones.
IA: You wrote an essay the title of which had a question mark: ‘Secularism?’. In that essay, I was struck by your following observation: ‘the principle of secularism … represents a realisation of crucial motifs of Christianity itself’. In other words, secularism is founded upon a ‘sublimated version of the Christian belief that Christianity is “the religion of religions” (Schleiermacher) and that Christianity is entitled to decide for non-Christian others what they can think or say – or even whether they are capable of thinking and saying anything at all’. In some ways, this resonates with the argument of Gil Anidjar’s Blood: A Critique of Christianity. Can you reflect further on the point?
JK: This strange alliance between Christianity and self-confident and dogmatic secularism is evident in the dynamics unleashed in France by the Charlie Hebdo massacre. The loud public insistence that ‘freedom of expression’ is an indivisible principle, backed by police raids and troops on the streets, has made many thinking European Muslims nervous. For good reason they regard the doctrine of secularism, with its roots in the French Revolution, as an ideology of bigoted state power, just as it was throughout the period of European colonialism.
French secularists insist they are the friends of democracy. But for many Muslims, the secularist insistence that ‘reasonable’ men and women must leave God not for other gods, but for no god, is a species of bigotry. It is a power move, an excuse to round on people of faith who refuse to let religiosity wither or be pushed away, into the obscurity of private life. The Muslim rejection of secularism explains why French school officials who refuse to provide dinner alternatives to pork meat for Muslim pupils, or ‘kebabphobes’ who insist that ‘foreign’ grilled fast food is replacing the baguette, are perceived by many Muslims as bigots: as hypocrites who pride themselves on ‘choice’ but dish out insult. Muslims in France and elsewhere in Europe similarly feel insulted by the whipped-up controversies centred on the burqa, niqab, hijab and other forms of female veiling. They are dishonoured when people (who usually don’t know the difference among them) say these garments are incompatible with the modern way of life because they oppress women, whose weakness (oddly) makes them potentially dangerous accomplices of ‘terrorism’. For most Muslims in Europe, such secularist talk is more than absurd, or weirdly contradictory. To them it smacks of political prejudice, which itself is the carrier of discourtesy, denigration and a sense of felt humiliation. For them, ‘democratic secularism’ is a form of hypocrisy.
IA: I spent some time living in Göttingen, Germany. Residents and citizens in Germany have to get registered to a municipality. In the registration form one can choose to be an atheist or non-religious. But if one chooses to be a Catholic, then one pays some sort of tax, which is collected by the government. So despite the polemical insistence on the separation between government and religion, even today in practice this religious tax is collected by the government.
JK: Yes, it’s confirmation that thoroughly secular democracies in which religion is separated from government and law, and where religion is privatised and has disappeared, are utterly exceptional. And if you actually look at the fate of representative democracy in modern times, you’ll see it is bound up with several and different competing models of how to handle religion. The Jeffersonian compromise in America is one in which there is an institutional separation of politics and religion. But the melding of the two domains is very striking in the history of American democracy, as you can hear in the references to God in every presidential address. The British model makes room for an established church and a monarch restrained by parliamentary democracy. Then there’s the German Kirchensteuer model. It mixes constitutional parliamentary democracy with the teaching of religious faith in schools and a church tax that requires taxpayers, whether Roman Catholic, Protestant or members of other religious communities, to pay through the state up to 9% of their income tax to the church, or to another community to which they belong.
The point is that the French model of laïcité isn’t a given universal norm. It’s worth emphasising as well that the champions of secularism conveniently overlook the many ways in which the spirit and substance of religion morphed into democratic forms. For instance, although most people today are unaware of this, such mechanisms as liberty of the press, limited duration office holding by representatives, parliaments and constitutional conventions all have their roots in the world of medieval Christianity. My favourite example is the secret ballot. Often known as the Australian ballot, it was born of Christian inspiration. European Protestants – some of whom emigrated and colonised parts of Australia – were appalled by the godlessness, drunken bribery and corruption associated with elections. They insisted that the vote should resemble the act of standing before God with one’s conscience, in a private space, unmediated by a priest or Church, clear-headedly choosing a representative. This conviction required such practical things as printed ballot papers, polling officers and the construction of private booths in polling stations located at a specified minimum distance from the intoxicating effects of taverns.
The example of the secret ballot and its other-worldly inspirations might sound amusing, or perhaps quaintly old-fashioned, but in fact it stands as a symbol of a much bigger point, to do with the need to come to terms with the sacred-profane hybridity within the theory and practice of democracy. I am trying to say that in matters of democracy it’s a category mistake to treat religion and secular politics as binary opposites. Fuzziness is the norm, and many tricky ethical and strategic questions consequently follow. For instance, how can believers and non-believers best live together as free equals on our planet? Through which institutional spaces and democratic practices can Buddhist believers in the wholeness of the world earn the respect and rub along with Pentecostalist Christians and salafi Muslims? What are their respective entitlements, which compromises must they make, and how do they resolve their boundary disputes without sacrificing their mutual dignity? And given that religious enthusiasm often succours bullying and revenge against others, how can the weak be protected against the strong, without resorting to force of arms? These are among the great twenty-first-century politico-religious questions facing all democrats and actually existing democracies.
The text of this interview is reproduced with the kind permission of the Journal of Religious and Political Practice, volume 1, number 1 (2015), pp. 73–91.