In the wake of Pope Benedict’s warning about atheism while visiting the UK, a debate has broken out about secularism. Journalist Jerome di Costanzo interviews the arabist and
medievalist, Rémi Brague, who sheds much light on the question.
1) Secularists tend to deny the mediaeval origin of the notion of
secularity. From your point of view is it possible to ignore it?
a quick glance at the reasons that lead those people to dodge or
camouflage this medieval origin could be apposite. Generally speaking,
there has been since the Renaissance, the Reformation and the
Enlightenment a widespread negative prejudice against whatever is or is
supposed to be, medieval. The received wisdom tells us: Good things
arose in Modern Times, full stop. The Middle Ages were a period of
darkness, fuller stop.
As for the case of secularity, its
advocates specifically want, or pretend to, ignore that it appeared in
the Middle Ages, a period that was emphatically not secularist. The
dividing line drawn between the Church and the State is a Christian
invention that began among the Church Fathers, as a reaction against
Constantine’s claim to control the Church and further culminated in
medieval times. Moreover, this line was drawn by the Church, not by the
State. The Holy See’s constant policy from the Investiture Controversy
in the late 11th century consisted in sending the State (i.e. the
Emperor or the Kings) back to its own merely this worldly—“secular” if
you want—task: enforcing peace, justice, good social order. The State,
on the other hand, was not merely “secular”, but claimed its share in
sacrality. Just think of the adjective: “Holy Roman Empire”. Secularity
was a conquest of the Church.
recent papal visit in Britain has re-awakened the debate about
secularity in our society. What exactly is your definition of
“Secularity” may have many meanings, but it
designates in any case a fact, not an ideology or a program of action,
unlike “secularism”, which I will deal with presently.
qualifies a certain realm of things on which unaided human reason can,
in principle at least, reach an agreement that enables cooperation
towards the common good. Religion can leave alone scientific, technical,
political matters, etc. because it could not be of any specific help.
Scientists, technicians, politicians, or, for that matter, anglers,
plumbers or jellied-eels sellers can become saints if they do their job
properly. But Christianity won’t give them many hints on how to ply
their trade in their technicalities.
Let me sketch a general
rule: for a Christian, subsidiarity as a principle brooks no exception
and obtains in the relationship between God and His creatures, too—or
even in the first place. The Creator gives each and every creature the
means that it needs for it to get its own good by its own exertions. For
instance, God does not have to tell men what they should do. Since they
were endowed with reason, they possess, at least in principle, the
necessary tools for them to choose what is right and avoid what is not.
God does not have to tell men what they should eat, how they should
dress, where they should spend their holidays, etc. According to
Aquinas, the Ten Commandments are nothing more than a reminder of what
we should be able to know by ourselves. By this token, “secularity” is a
good thing, and it is correct to avoid any interference of “religion”
where it is not necessary. On the other hand, it is foolish not to
accept its aid where we enter a realm in which religion alone is
competent, for instance giving us the power of forgiving, assuaging our
fear of death, leading us towards salvation.
As for secularism
as an ideology, I have two definitions. One attaches to the way in which
people who define themselves as “secular” look at themselves. The word,
together with “agnosticism”, “humanism”, etc., was coined in the
Victorian era, when declaring oneself an “atheist” was hardly the thing.
Secularism has over the latter word the advantage of a positive ring,
whereas a-theism expresses a mere negation: not believing in God.
Secularism, then, consists in limiting one’s ken to this-worldly
matters, to what the Bible calls ha-‘olam haz-zeh.
But I have
another definition up my sleeve. It is at the same time etymological and
ironical. “Secular” comes from saeculum, the Latin for “century”, which
originally meant the longest duration of human life. Secularity is the
attitude of people who think that human hopes can’t exceed one century
and therefore—perhaps unwittingly and unwillingly—act so that mankind
will last exactly as long… Secularists are unable to explain why it is
good that there should be human beings on earth. Since they contend
that human life is the product of chance, they can’t tell us why it
should be good for us, who can decide consciously to carry on with the
experience, to do so.
XVI said during his visit: “As we reflect on the sobering lessons of
atheist extremism of the 20th century, let us never forget how the
exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately
to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus a reductive vision
of a person and his destiny.” If so, are atheists potentially
Thank goodness, what is potential does not always
become actuality. And all atheists are not prone to totalitarianism.
Many even loathed it, nay fought against it. Think of people like George
Yet, the assumption gains in plausibility when we shift
from individuals to the collective level. A massive fact bears witness
to that, namely the massacres of the 20th century. They simply dwarf
whatever havoc religion may have wrought in the past. The worst
bloodsheds of the last century, and probably of history at large, were
not caused by religious faith, on the contrary. Even the so-called “wars
of religion” in the 16th century can be chalked up for a large part to
the rise of the Modern State under its earliest historical form, i.e.
the absolute monarchy. The killing fields of World War I were due to
nationalism, to self-idolatry of the national and/or imperial states.
World War II was a consequence of nazi ideology, that was, to quote
Hitler, “a sober theory of reality grounded on the sharpest scientific
knowledge and its expression in thought” (eine kühle Wirklichkeitslehre
schärfster wissenschaftlicher Erkenntnisse und ihrer gedanklichen
Ausprägung) (Talk in Nuremberg on the Day of the NS-Party, June, 9th
1938). Lenin and his followers understood their version of marxism as
“scientific” in nature.
4) In Westminster Hall
the Holy Father talked about the necessity to respect the “right of
believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the
legitimate role of religion in the public square”. This comes after the
closure of a Catholic adoption agency following Labour’s Sexual
Orientation Regulations and is a very practical illustration of the
practice of secularity. How should the moral or ethical teaching of the
Churches function in the political debate?
I don’t know the details of this story, so that I would rather not comment upon it.
me content myself with a general observation: Catholics do not defend
something like “Catholic morality”. By the way, I am reluctant to call
morality by any adjective whatsoever: Christian, Buddhist, progressive,
even secular, etc. Moral rules have obtained since the outset; they vary
very little. There are, on the other hand, Christian, Buddhist, etc.
interpretations of moral life.
We should endeavour to get a
clearer picture of the reasons why Christians—and not only the Pope,
even if his voice, for obvious reasons, is more widely heard—have to
speak up from time to time. They don’t preach up their own stuff, pro
domo. They warn of dangers that menace mankind at large, and they have
to do so when they think that some behaviour, be it individual or
collective, is lethal for mankind. The supreme rule in those matters is
some sort of a duty to rescue.
5) On the other
hand, the government has refused to ban the Burqa in the name of this
freedom. What do you think about this apparent difference of treatment?
the name of the individual freedom of women, French government came to
the opposite conclusion. Let me emphasize only one point: our idea of
what a religion is, hence, of what freedom in religious matters should
be, arose many centuries ago, and it was tailored to a definite
religion, i.e. Christianity. Our governments have the know-how as far as
dealing with Christians is concerned, even when they act against
Christians… On the other hand, they are at a loss in front of a
religion like Islam that does not clearly distinguish between the public
and the private. Hence, they understand wearing the Burqa or, for that
matter, any kind of obedience to she Sharia, as a private decision.
for the precise question, Christianity is the first religion that did
not bring new or special commands but contented itself with common,
“pagan”, run-of-the-mill morality. The so-called “Christian morals” is
none other than the Ten Commandments that are already in the Old
Testament (Exodus, 20), and in other cultures. Little wonder, since they
are the basic survival kit of mankind. The Burqa is a definite
interpretation of Islamic Law, grounded on two verses of the Qur’an
asking women to be veiled (XXIV, 31; XXXIII, 59). The problem is that a
pious Muslim believes his Holy Book to have been dictated word for word
by an omniscient God, who outsoars time and space. If this is the case,
you have to obey without further ado. The only loophole left for
interpretation will be the precise meaning of the words: how long must
be the veil, how opaque, etc.?
6) In the
conclusion of your book Eccentric Culture you preached in favour of a
new “Romanity”, which you define as a strict separation between the
spiritual and the politic and the need for roots from “Natural Law”,
could you tell us more? Does Nature remind us of the reasonable way?
hope I did not preach. I simply pointed out some elements that might
help us recover what I called “Romanity”, a stance that might be the key
to Europe’s success story. I was given the opportunity to delve more
extensively on those legal and political topics in my “The Law of God”
(2005). There, I argued that the real question is less the separation
between the spiritual and the politic than the one between the spiritual
and the whole realm of human action: not only politics, but individual
morality, ethics, together with what ancient philosophers called
“economy”: relations between husband and wife, parents and children,
leaders and subordinates.
The trouble, when we mention “nature” in
phrases like “natural law”, is that we more often than not mistake two
concepts for one another. For us, “nature” means first what natural
sciences like astronomy, physics or biology tell us about what there is.
Now, mentioning “natural law” certainly does not mean that we should
behave in the same way as natural beings do, still less that we should
not try and modify natural processes to our advantage—what technology
does every day. The concept of nature that underlies the idea of
“natural law” is worlds apart from the first. It is rooted in ancient,
particularly Stoic philosophy, so that it has become hardly
understandable for our contemporaries, unless they have undergone a
philosophical training. Perhaps we should speak in its stead of
“rational law”, i.e. a law that can be discovered by human reason. Since
reason defines man’s nature, we would save a great deal of the idea by
means of a less misleading phrase.
There is at least a way in
which nature “reminds us of the reasonable way”, to quote your very apt
formula. Natural beings have their own laws—the word being taken here as
designating a law of nature. This means that you can’t do anything with
them if you want to keep them living. You have to sort of “respect”
them, although this word is used here only as a metaphor, or as a
prefiguration of what will deserve the name of “respect” between men as
free and rational beings.
7) In the same book
you want to rediscover the “kindness of the body”– la bonté du corps in
French – what do you mean exactly by this kindness?
bonté means in common parlance something like “kindness”, “generosity”,
etc. I took it as an awkward equivalent of “goodness”, the quality of
what is good, an idea for which the French has no proper substantive.
for the body, we live in a paradoxical situation: At first blush, we
are enamoured of it. Just think of what we spend on cosmetics, fitness,
now the so-called “wellness”, not to mention plastic surgery, etc. In
fact, we select an extremely narrow aspect of the body: it must be
young, healthy, attractive and, when it is female, for Pete’s sake not
pregnant! Now, Christianity contends that the body is called to an
unheard-of destiny, since it is due to experience a resurrection. The
body in its whole, our history from A to Z, is reclaimed by God.
Interestingly, Pagans like Celsus in the 2nd century or Porphyry in the
3rd criticized Christians by poking fun at their exaggerated “passion
for the body”. They conceived of salvation in a Platonic key-tone: it
consisted in being salvaged from the body, not saved with it. I must
smile when I read Nietzsche’s attack on the Christians as “despising the
8) Jacques Maritain thought that
“integral humanism’, un-rooted from the natural law, is “anti-human” and
a denial of the person. Does this analysis fit with our situation
If I were to look for a far-reaching and convincing
critique of atheistic humanism, I would not name Maritain. You alluded
to the title of a book that he published in 1937. I read it last year
and I found it rather disappointing. Father Henri de Lubac did a much better
job in his The drama of atheistic humanism, written during the war and
published in 1944. He does not try to refute what he calls “exclusive
humanism” from the outside. Instead, he shows that its inner logic
renders it self-defeating.
Today, what is wrong with exclusive
humanism is not only that it can’t do justice to the person. Things have
grown far worse: What is menaced is not the status of man as a personal
being; it is the very existence of mankind.
In conclusion 2 questions:
The National Secular Society says that “supernaturalism is based upon
ignorance” and assails it as the historic enemy of progress. For you, is
this “historically” true?
Such statements are hopelessly
muddled. At the bottom of all that, you find Auguste Comte’s idea that
religion can’t explain the world as well as science does. This is very
true. But who ever said that explaining the world is what religion is
about? The fact that we know more and more things about nature does not
prove that there is nothing else than nature.
The use of the word
“progress” betrays a naive faith that no believer would share, an
identification of what is new with what is good. Atomic weapons, global
warming, AIDS are new phenomena. They are not exactly good things.
common ploy of secular journalists, since the Enlightenment, has
consisted of ascribing to themselves the betterment of human condition,
thereby neglecting the long-term part played by Christianity in
de-legitimizing slave-trade, slavery in general or torture. Think of the
Pope’s ban on trial by ordeal in 1215, or of the jesuit von Spee
putting a stop on the witch trials.
10) I know you are a friend of Roger Scruton. In your search for the solution for our Society, does Beauty matter?
me a “friend” of Roger Scruton is an honour that I hardly deserve: If
my memory serves me right, I met him only twice, once in Warsaw, and
once in Rome. “Admirer” would capture the situation more adequately.
Furthermore, I’m afraid I haven’t yet watched the TV program that you
are alluding to. Be that as it may, Scruton is probably right in
pointing out the importance of Beauty.
Let me shed some light on
the historical background. A massive fact is that beauty is not the
central concept in our relationship with art any longer. It was replaced
by other concepts, for instance “interesting”, “moving”, “exciting”,
etc. This is a very long process whose inception can be situated in
early German romanticism, in the last years of the 18th century, say,
with the young Friedrich Schlegel. Contemporary works of art are seldom
beautiful, not because artists are incompetent, but because they don’t
want to produce beautiful things. The mere fact that one is talking of
beauty nowadays has a reactionary ring about it that renders it
To be sure, we won’t heal the wounds of our societies by
building bigger museums or that sort of thing. The deeper issue is the
relationship between Beauty, Truth and Being, which verges on
metaphysics. Technically speaking, the question is whether
“transcendental” properties of things, like the three that I have just
mentioned, are convertible into each other. In other words: is Beauty
the expression of the deepest nature of what is? Or is it only, on the
one hand, a trick, a colourful mask that conceals a cruel Truth—say,
struggle for life, will to power, etc — or, on the other hand, something
than can give us pleasure by tickling our sentiments?
The point is
whether we are still able to recover a sense of the beauty of the world,
and that this beauty is not cheating, that it points to an intrinsic
goodness of Being. Unless we can do that, we will be at a loss how to
answer the question: why should there be anything and not nothing? In the
teeth of all appearance, this is not an Academic issue. In the long run,
we need a positive answer if the human adventure is to go on.
Rémi Brague is professor of Arabic and Religious philosophy at the Sorbonne. He is the author of The Law of God: The Philosophical History of an Idea. Jerome di Costanzo is a French writer, analyst and journalist now living
in Yorkshire. He specialises in politics, religion and philosophy.
This interview has been reproduced from openDemocracy.net under a Creative Commons licence.