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Fr. 439

November 17, 2013

For every secularist impulse in the modern world, there seems to be an equal and opposite theocratic impulse to match. It is precisely this peculiar relation of which Jeffrey Stout’s “Rorty on Religion and Politics” attempts to make sense.

Stout’s account begins by making note of the seeming failure of secularism and secularist movements to purge the world of religion. If, for a time, this seemed the natural movement of the times, religion has since regained its footing. It has taken on new public forms in places ranging from the African continent to the United States and experienced a resurgence in such formerly secularist societies as  the former Soviet Bloc and China. All of which would suggest that the prototypical secularism of Western Europe is far from being the rule and natural tendency of human society.

Yet the increasing awareness of this trend in social theory remains one that certain disciplines in the humanities, namely, philosophy, have yet to remark. This comes out quite forcefully in political philosophy and theory, where such renowned thinkers as John Rawls and Richard Rorty have argued with considerable success that the public domain is to be free of religion and comprehensive doctrines more generally. Despite having little else in common, these thinkers appear in agreement on the need for a public language, shared by and accessible to all, for the public sphere such that channels of communication between otherwise opposed parties do not break down in the face of religious differences.

Far from being innocuous attempts to move forward with the natural tendencies of society, such secularist positions contribute, for Stout, to the growing influence of more theocratically inclined positions. Stout goes so far as to posit a social-scientific theorem according to which, for each context in which secularism becomes dominant, “there is an opposite and equal theocratic  reactions somewhere else” (“Rorty on Religion and Politics”, p. 7).

This is not, however, a mere matter of correlation. Stout goes further in positing a causal link of direct proportionality between the two movements, for “far from persuading most religious people to confine their religious convictions to the private sphere, secularism gives them reason to conclude that liberal democracies are essentially inhospitable to their concerns” (idem.). Faced with such an argument, it is enough to fall back on one’s observation of the kind of claims being advanced by the more theocratic elements in society. Numerous are the theocratically inclined who, for this reason, would identify secularist tendencies with liberal democracy itself and would thus hold that, to some extent or other, liberal democracy is antagonistic towards religion. Indeed, it is not hard to find those who would go so far as to maintain that this form of government has at its heart the task of undermining and eliminating the ways of life that religion promotes.

From the preceding, Stout concludes that “many of them then either retreat from public life into communities of like-mindedness, or attempt to use the electoral process to advance theocratic ends” (idem.). In both of these processes, it is easy enough to remark the harm that is being done to the stability and living-together that democracy tries to promote. As soon as secularism is wedded to liberal democracy (as well as democracy’s other forms), there emerges on the theocratic worldview a fundamental hostility to liberal democracy, in addition to that towards its natural opponent, secularism. For this reason, the promotion of exclusively secularist means in democracy proves counter-productive and can do little more than block both its own advance and that of the well-being of all in a democratic society.

The causal link posited, Stout calls further attention to the parallels between secularism and theocracy when he notes that:

“Secularism reinforces the idea that modern societies have only two choices: a political order in which everything is ideally to be decided in essentially secular terms and one in which a single religious vision dominates. The choice is between secularism and theocracy.” (idem.)

In virtue of its very structure, secularism leads to the either/or conclusion seen above. If, to this point, Stout has taken care to elaborate this parallel, it has not been without reason, for he intends to delve into the structure of secularism and theocracy. This point is worth lingering on: for Stout, secularism and theocracy are isomorphic and homologous, i.e., they demonstrate the same structure and function. For this reason, it is not enough to say that the two move in time with one another; rather, their strict and thoroughgoing correlation is to be found at a more fundamental level. The thinker provides the first elements of this isomorphism with his introduction of the notion of “discursive purity”. Of the latter, he maintains:

“Theocrats and secularists inspire fear in one another in part because they are trying to establish rules of discursive purity that would take the concerns of the opposite party off the list of things one ought to express. Each side’s proposed purity rules look to the opposite side like tools of domination” (ibid., p. 8).

If the situation is indeed as serious as Stout intends to convey, then it would appear that democratic society is faced with a dilemma beyond which it cannot advance. Yet such is the case only so long as those reflecting on that dilemma consider secularism and theocracy the only options available to that society.

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