Last Updated 11 Feb 2020

The Role of Religion In Contemporary Affairs

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Globalization in the 21st century has resulted in greater diversity of peoples and religious pluralism across the globe. Alongside a global resurgence in religion, this trend has engendered new patterns of interaction and shifting perceptions in the modern political and public sphere (Thomas, 2005; Hurd, 2008). This scenario poses a direct challenge to the modern political system internationally as it upholds secular politics as the universal foundation for international relations favoured for the stability and peace it engenders. Concern regarding the potential for social conflict and violence has heightened since the events of September 11, 2001 as well as the present tensions among secularist Western nations and religious states of Turkey and Iran. These challenges give the problem of religious pluralism much of its urgency (Thomas, 2005).
Secularism refers to a movement that seeks for rejection, indifference, or exclusion of religion and religious considerations in contemporary affairs. In political terms it refers to the belief that religion should not play a role in government, education, or other parts of society in the quest towards the separation of and/or reduction of ties between religion and government (often referred to as the church and the state) (Taylor, 2010). This is deemed necessary to enable the protection of the rights of religious minorities among other positions in a pluralist society, and therefore to enhance democracy (Taylor, 2005). Given its success in Western democracies ending the sectarian violence in Europe and enabling the peaceful stable co-existence of various communities in the United States (Hurd, 2008), the concept is however viewed with disdain and suspicion in non-Western states and cultures especially those with predominant Muslim beliefs. This sentiment derives from the system’s assumption of moral high ground leading to its belittling of other cultures and alternative approaches; contempt for religion in public life; and the legitimizing of regressions of negotiations with regard to alternative approaches (Taylor, 1998).

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This paper explores the need to focus on the concept of secularism in order to understand the role of religion in contemporary affairs. The endeavour of this exploration is to find a solution to challenges in the dominance of secularism in the modern public and political sphere which engenders resistance and and portends violent conflict. Secularism’s meanings, history and transformations, its dominant varieties, as well as its strengths and limitations are focused upon in following sections.

History of secularism

Secularism is a political tradition which has continued to evolve over eight centuries sharing important relationships with religious traditions such as Judeo-Christianity with which it sustains complex ties, and Islam, its primary alter-ego with which it maintains a long-standing relationship (Philpott, 2000). The ‘secular’ notion has through time taken on a range of meanings with the earliest reference, saeculum, traced to the 13th century referring to a dualistic opposition within Christianity. Often with negative connotations, this term was used to distinguish ‘worldly’ clergy from those living in seclusion in monasteries (Taylor, 2010).
The term gradually shed off its ‘Godless’ and profane connotation by the 16th century acquiring a new description of a transforming world. To secularize in the latter instance referred to the conversion from religious/priestly to civil possession or use. This process is described by Casanova (1994; 24) as the ‘passage, transfer, or relocation of persons, things, function, meanings, and so forth, from their traditional locations in the religious sphere to secular spheres.’ Onwards from the 19th century, further transformation led secularism to assume its present recognition in current language which describes a movement… ‘expressly intended to provide a certain theory of life and conduct without reference to a deity or a future life’ (Hurd, 2008). Secularists, therefore, refers to those of the belief that the church (the religious) and the worldly are in a continued historical contest, in which the world is gaining an upper hand irreversibly.
Two characteristics of secularism are revealed in its relevance to international relations and the political sphere. Secularization’s earlier reference to the ‘acquisition or possession’ of land (church properties) and people, usually by state actors, entailed massive appropriation and expropriation and often instigated religious wars (Asad, 2003). Despite secularization’s contemporary reference to the separation of the church and the state predominant in Western circles, its meaning and connotation in the above context (now overshadowed), is still retained in many non-Western contexts (Taylor, 1998). For instance, with particular regard to the Middle East, the principle of secularism has served to legitimize the suppression of local practices and political establishments. This has contributed to the hegemonic attempt to transform or to ‘take possession’ of the region in pursuit of contemporary Western ideals (Hurd, 2008).
In the second instance, an important characteristic derived is secularism’s presumption to clearly distinguish between transcendental and temporal matters. In its definition of what is considered ordinary, or mundane, it by default assigns a place for religion with the secular notion only making sense relative to its religious counterpart (Hurd, 2004). As Asad (2003; 192) argues, secularism defines itself as the foundation upon which the ‘religious’ is fashioned; the point at which dialogue on theology is hatched in the discourse of modernity. It thus assumes itself to be above the fray holding alternative approaches particularly those associated with religion in condescension and as threatening. These characteristics present distinct sets of problems: first, is its potential to jeopardize democratic politics given that groups or individuals dissenting to the secular approach are considered threatening to stability and are shut out of public deliberations. Secularists, for example, generally shun non-theistic public philosophies and are notably extremely wary of political Islam (Davie, 2003). This is the reason, for instance, politics of Turkey and Pakistan in support of a civic role for Islam and which involve non-secular and non-Western platforms and partiesare frowned upon and are worrisome to Western secularist ideals. They threaten the boundaries that secularists impose between the sacred and the secular (Banchoff, 2007). Dislike and disapproval consequent to this makes Western powers, regardless of their actual policies, to be perceived as backing the repression of Islamist parties which increases the potential for terrorism (Hurd, 2008; Bruce, 2003).
Contrary to secularism’s self-representation, it has sometimes been associated with the unjust, domineering and violent yet within the movement, there is a predilection to associate religion with these negative traits in the public sphere (Taylor, 1998; Hurd, 2008). Secularism’s automatic linkage with democracy and public order is thus questionable. An indiscriminate secularism in an increasingly interdependent, pluralist and globalized world in which individuals and groups derive morality from different sources is prone to risks. These risks include potential uprisings from adherents and supporters of alternative non-secular/non-Western approaches shut out from negotiations between religion and politics and in pursuit of public order (Banchoff, 2007; Davie, et al, 2003). Given secularism’s dominance in successful Western democracies, there is also a risk of blindness to its limitations.
The following section describes two varieties of secularism and explores their implications for international politics and affairs in the public sphere which have been shown to be significant (Hurd, 2008).

Laicism and international relations

Laicism refers to the belief in the need to exclude religion from the public realm of politics and confining it to a space where it cannot threaten the liberties of “free thinking” citizens and political stability (Taylor, 1998). This belief forms the essence of present-day political thought. Through a complex and contested process, this approach attempts to limit and to regulate ‘religious’ disputes thus provide an authoritative and self-reliant public space (Philpott, 2000). The consequent separation of the church and state was intended to serve as a basis for provide the basis for cohesive politics and efficiency in the face of diversity and religious pluralism.
Laicism relegates religion and associated beliefs to ‘things’ to be studied or an inferior culture conflicting with the ideals of modern living, politics and development (Hurd, 2008). Consequently, secularism has been described by some as having a strain of dogmatism given its propensity to validate a single authoritative basis of public ethics and reason (Taylor, 1998). The policing and constant delineation of this boundary poses challenges especially when society diversifies to contain substantial numbers of adherents of non-Judeo-Christian religions often suspicious of such endeavours (Hurd, 2008; Casanova, 1994). There are therefore calls for a more vibrant pluralist approach in the public sphere.

Judeo-Christian secularism and international relations

Through its acknowledgement of a place for religion in politics, this approach avoids the pitfalls that befall laicism. In its ‘common ground strategy,’ codes of political order and peaceful co-existence are agreed upon by members of a political community based on common doctrines (Taylor, 2010). However, these common set of values has its roots in Christianity which is a significant feature defining Western civilization (Philpott, 2000). It should be noted that many other religions around the world have complicated patterns of church-state relations as Christianity (Hurd, 2004).
The challenge for global relations in this regard, is that secularism, however defined, ends at the boundaries of Western civilization which portends a fault line between the West and non-West ‘common grounds’ (Davie, et al, 2003; Thomas, 2005; Myers and Brodeur, 2006). Such a common ground exclusively dependent upon Western religious traditions is thus ill equipped to meet the demands of contemporary societies in and outside the West. In this regard, the common ground therefore becomes a representation of one among many parties or interests
(Davie, 2003; Davie, et al, 2003; Philpott, 2000). With these limitations of the dual approaches of secularism, it is necessary in the interest of foregoing international relations and contemporary affairs to rethink the secular social reality. There might be need to approach secularism as among possible solutions to modern challenges associated with religion and public order.
The secularization paradigm has served well as a model for the accommodation of religious pluralism and diversity in the public sphere, guiding decision-making in various contexts (Banchoff, 2007; Taylor, 2005). Yet consensus on secular public order is not universally shared and is sometimes viewed unkindly, with contempt, or out rightly rejected by those dominated and/or excluded as “religious”; those who disagree with the transcendental/temporal divide; and those who feel that their politics, culture and territory has been ‘taken over’ or is challenged through secularist justifications. Also included are those who feel closed out of public debate and discourse (Haynes, 1998; Casanova, 1994; Bruce, 2003).
Secularism belittles non-Western alternatives in the negotiation of religion and politics, expressing contempt for religion in public life, particularly with regard to Islam, and legitimizes repression of negotiations of such alternative approaches. Through its insistence of neutrality and identification with rationality, freedom and the democratic, secularism engenders what is described by Honig (Hurd, 2008; Casanova, 1994) as resistances and remainders. The latter constitute those within secularism who seek to upset conventional assumptions about morality, rationality and good. Secularism strives to silence these by shifting them onto the category of the religious in clearly dangerous tendencies with potential to incite violence and counter-reactions (Hurd, 2008).
At present, secularism lays claim to the right to define the role of religion in politics and in so doing closes off important debates regarding possible alternative moral bases and public order. This, in turn, makes secularists to be perceived as seeking to privatize and to define the political domain (Banchoff, 2007; Bruce, 2003). This engenders hostile responses and criticisms against its hegemonic objectives and aspirations from among the excluded with some resorting to extreme tactics to air their grievances (Banchoff, 2007; Haynes, 1998). Such eventualities are not solely attributable to extremist religious belief as commonly perceived (Thomas, 2005), but as shown can be in response to secularism’s fervent attempts towards the universalization of secular modernity through its specific model. In both its varieties, secularism occasionally acts as a belief intolerant of other beliefs, exhibiting a tendency to restrict political space (Taylor, 1998; Myers and Brodeur, 2006).
It is widely agreed that secularism, including its clearly anti-religious variants, needs to be re-evaluated as a model for the organization of public life through the exploration of its implications for contemporary affairs. This is particularly needful with regard to states outside of historical Christendom and settler colonies upon which secularism is foisted upon (Davie, et al, 2003; Thomas, 2005; Hurd, 2008). It seems that secularism operates blindly with regard to its unforeseen implications and the consequences of its tendencies to pursue the universalization of its mores. Its zealous struggle against religious intolerance blinds it to its own inadequacies while it claims moral superiority and displaces violent and antidemocratic tendencies to the domain of ‘religion’ and religious fervour or unrestrained commitment (Taylor, 2005; Hurd, 2004). Though secularism purports to be external in the territorial contest between religion and politics, it is not as its history and nature locates it within the spectrum of theological politics (Philpott, 2000).
Religion is an ingrained marker of collective identity and entails the submersion of ultimate meaning in people’s beliefs and practices, including social and institutional practices (Banchoff, 2007). There are social and political challenges posed by emergent religious pluralism inherent in the interaction among religious groups in society and politics. A clash of religious communities in the political arena may cause core pillars of democracy to falter: minority rights and majority rule (Banchoff, 2007; Bruce, 2003). Religious tensions may undermine effective government by the majority and, as well, dominant traditions may seek to constrain minority groups. However, a multiplicity of faith traditions presents not just challenges for governance and social cohesion but also opportunities for a more vibrant political culture and civil society. For instance, rising faith communities (especially Islam) are engaging democratic processes wherever they reside in the world, and secular majorities and established religious groups are also accommodative (not just resistant) to the new dynamic cultural and political landscape (Haynes, 1998).
In foregoing discourse, this paper does not propose the reversal of secularism or the reinstatement of religion in the public sphere. In its stead, the secular ideas of democratic politics should be broadened to acknowledge positive contributions of other approaches such as the non-secular and the non-Western to pubic life and religion. There must be developed a space for continuous discourse among religious traditions, as well as among the religious and the secular so as to transcend the volatile limitations of the secularist approaches. This would also enable the incorporation of a non-hegemonic place for religion in politics addressing the conflicting legacy of secularization in public sphere in the West and outside it. If this is not addressed, those excluded may eventually haunt and destabilize the same closures that bring about their exclusion.
It is therefore imperative for the international community to consider the support of pluralistic democracy which inevitably might entail support for religious parties rather than propping up secularist political solutions. Minority voices in the new dispensation need to be heard. Remedy through the reconsideration of procedure is deemed insufficient given secularism’s prior assumption of itself as above the fray; marking its domain and associating itself with rational argument, tolerance, justice, common sense, public interest, and public authority (Davie, et al, 2003; Thomas, 2005). It thus derides religion as that which is not. Most secularists refuse to acknowledge the possible functioning of alternative non-secular and yet democratic models of order in the public sphere which could be legitimate rivals to its dominance (Banchoff, 2007; Davie, et al, 2003; Taylor, 2005).


Focus on the concept of secularism affords us the opportunity to observe that the current foundation of international politics is far from being neutral or universal given its religious heritages and character to which it seems oblivious. Secularism’s self-confidence in its objectivity and neutrality which then drives its hegemonic aspirations may therefore be a threat to the preservation of global peace and security. It is thus argued that for value pluralism to hold, relations in contemporary affairs including the international public sphere (international relations) must distance themselves from secularist history and especially its connotations and negative perceptions.
The secular foundation of modernity, particularly secularism’s assumptions concerning the inevitability of secularization, must be reconsidered and better relations among states and religions fostered in order to strengthen political interdependence and international freedom, as well as to forestall conflicts from conflicting values. The majorities must respect religious freedom but must also grapple with varied traditions such as Islam which incorporate different views of social obligation and personal responsibility – some which are at odds with dominant secular views. Therefore, the secular foundation must be exchanged with a post-secular project in which secularism and religion are considered on equal footing.


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