The Religious and the Secular in the Modern World

02/08/2012 11:32 am ET | Updated Apr 09, 2012

The modern world, in its self-awareness, is the product of the disengagement of the secular from the religious, which makes the discussion of this issue particularly fraught. The religious overshadowed the secular at one point in the history of the Western world. The secular realm then emerged from under the shadow of the religious, by liberating the political, the legal, and the educational dimensions of public life from religious dominance. We have now reached a point, when the secular overshadows the religious to such an extent, that it is the secular constitutions which guarantee religious freedom. In the heyday of secularism, right after the Second World War, the progressive secularization of the rest of the world, along the lines it had occurred in the West, especially Europe, was considered axiomatic. This belief was shared by the otherwise rival economic systems of capitalism and communism, and also by the rival political systems of liberal democracy and totalitarianism. Liberal democracy saw religion as ultimately turning into a purely private affair, like one's appreciation of art and music; Marxism foresaw not merely its retreat from public life but from life itself. Thus the general intellectual climate, in the middle of the last century, saw religion as on its way out of the public square, if not out of life altogether.

The Iranian Revolution of 1979, however, upset this eschatological apple cart, and, since then, the role of religion in public life the world over has been gaining in salience. Thus the question of the relationship of the religious and the secular, once taken as settled, is back on the table, with a new sense of relevance, in our modern world.

We might begin by looking at some lessons provided by history on the nature of their relationship, in order to assess their relationship in the modern world. And as soon as we cast such a didactic glance at history, it becomes apparent that we have enough historical evidence to indicate what happens when either of the two elements in the dyad gain virtual ascendancy over the other. The medieval times bear witness to what happens when religion comes to prevail over the secular, and the modern times, until very recently, bear witness to what happens when the secular comes to prevail over the religious.

The antithetical variation in the equation may contain many lessons, depending on the lens used to view them. Let us choose to look at them through the lens of human rights, as embodying the human aspiration for political and religious freedom.

A survey of the history of the Western world yields a curious coincidence of opposites, when viewed through this lens. In the medieval period, the religious supervened over the secular, so that the rights, even of kings in the political realm, were abridged, to say nothing of the common person. One might expect this to be the case but another consequence was unexpected -- that the religious freedom of the faithful was also abridged. Orthodoxy reigned supreme during this period and heresy-hunting remained the flavour of the times. In other words, the collapse of the two realms ironically resulted in the diminution of both political and religious freedoms. Modern times saw a role-reversal in this respect and the secular came to supervene over to the religious. The extreme example of this is provided by the communist countries. The collapse of the two realms in these countries, which came about with the dominance of the secular over the religious, also ironically resulted in the curtailment of both religious and political freedom in these countries. One would have expected the curtailment of religious freedom in a situation in which the secular realm supervened over the religious, but what ensued in the communist countries was the loss not only of religious but also political freedoms. It is important to recognize this point (namely, that in the event of one of the two realms -- the religious and the secular -- being overwhelmed by the other, a contraction of freedom in both the realms follows), as it is counter-intuitive. The parts of the world where such a development did not occur were those characterized by liberal democracies, which clearly provided for religious freedom as part of the secular dispensation. They were able to preserve both their political and religious freedoms.

The lesson from history then is clear. When the relationship between the religious and the secular is such as involves the complete dominance of one over the other, then it results in the curtailment of both religious and political freedoms. As noted earlier, this conclusion contains an element of expectation-dissonance, as one would expect religious freedom to flourish in the case of the dominance of the religious over the secular, and expect political freedom to flourish in the case of the dominance of the secular over the religious.

Any vision of utopia then must recognize that it will not be achieved by one of the two obliterating, or dominating over, the other. Attractive as such options might appear in the thoroughness of the erasure of the other, the obliteration or domination of one by the other is a recipe for dystopia. The sobering lesson which one derives from a study of history in respect to the relationship between the two is that both the realms must enjoy relative freedom; that if one of the two dyads prevails over the other, both lose their freedoms.

But how does this lesson apply to our times?

We need to revert now to the belief in the inevitability of the long-term secularization of the globe, to which such eminent thinkers as Peter Berger once subscribed along with many others. We must now recognize that this belief -- that the secular realm was destined to overwhelm the religious -- was entertained by both capitalist and communist countries, although encountered in its more virulent form in the communist countries. In other words, the state of affairs, which the communist countries were seeking to bring about by the use of drastic measures, was expected to come about on its own, through the operation of impersonal and also invisible forces, in the liberal capitalist democracies. The liberal capitalist democracies did not have to take recourse to such measures adopted by communist countries, as the churches would close down on their own, when people stopped attending them, as religion became a purely personal matter and retreated into the private square.

The events of the past few decades in the modern world have demonstrated that this covert triumphalism of the secular world view is as dangerous as the overt triumphalism of secular totalitarianism. And further, that each of the two realms -- the secular and the religious -- should recognize the inevitable presence of the other as an empirical fact, and the further recognize the historical fact that the complete dominance of one realm by the other ends up in the diminution of freedoms in both.