sacred & secular

Terry Eagleton, reviewing "The Joy of Secularism", George Levine (ed.):

Societies become truly secular not when they dispense with religion but when they are no longer greatly agitated by it. It is when religious faith ceases to be a vital part of the public sphere, not just when church attendance drops or Roman Catholics mysteriously become childless, that secularisation proper sets in. Like art and sexuality, religion is taken out of public ownership and gradually privatised. It dwindles to a kind of personal pastime, like breeding gerbils or collecting porcelain. As the cynic remarked, it is when religion starts to interfere with your everyday life that it is time to give it up. In this respect, it has a curious affinity with alcohol: it, too, can drive you mad.

Most recent defences of secularism, not least those produced by "Ditchkins" (Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens), have been irate, polemical affairs, powered by a crude species of off-the-peg, reach-me-down Enlightenment. It is scarcely a caricature of Dawkins's work to suggest we are all getting nicer and nicer and that if it wasn't for religious illusion, we would collectively outdo Kenneth Clark in sheer civility. (I refer to the deceased patrician art critic, not the living, beer-bellied politician.) One might call it the view from north Oxford.

This present collection of essays, by contrast, is a much less fiercely contentious affair. Here, there is no callow and triumphalist rationalism, which in any case is simply the flip side of evangelical fervour. Indeed, the blandness of some of the book's contributions could benefit from a judicious dose of Hitchens-like was­pishness. In customary American style, the editor, George Levine, couches his acknowledgements in a language soggy with superlatives and sentimental clichés. One can already hear the sound of the Hitch sharpening his darkly satirical daggers.

Not many of the contributors seem aware of the copious body of literature about secularisation, which ponders, among other things, the question of whether it actually happened.

After all, eroding the distinction between sacred and secular can be traced back to the Christian gospel. Salvation is a matter of feeding the hungry and caring for the sick, not in the first place a question of cult and ritual. There will be no temple in the New Jerusalem, we are told, as all that religious paraphernalia is finally washed up and superannuated.

via New Statesman.

Secularisation is a lot harder than people tend to imagine. The history of modernity is, among other things, the history of substitutes for God. Art, culture, nation, Geist, humanity, society: all these, along with a clutch of other hopeful aspirants, have been tried from time to time. The most successful candidate currently on offer is sport, which, short of providing funeral rites for its spectators, fulfils almost every religious function in the book.


No sooner had the postmodernists and end-of-history merchants concluded that faith was as antiquated as the typewriter than it broke out in blind fury where it had been least expected - in the wrathful, humiliated world of radical Islam. The globe was now divided down the middle between those who believed too much and those who believed too little, as dark-skinned fundamentalists confronted lightly tanned CEOs. And if that were not irony enough, the fact is that these two camps are not simply antagonists. They are also sides of the same coin.

Brilliant. Lucid & clear-headed stuff.