Are We Really Losing Our Religion?

Are We Really Losing Our Religion?


I try, I really try, to avoid talk about politics at mealtimes, because more often than not, in my patch of the world, talk of politics at mealtimes mutates into talk about religion at mealtimes, and in the current climate in Catholic land, talk of religion at mealtimes morphs into talk about sex at mealtimes. Tempers flare, atmospheres intensify and saliva sprays onto my meal. Therefore, to minimise my exposure to all three, I just chew.

In the times when talks on politics mutate into talks on religion, one thing flies over my plate more often than saliva. That is the oft-bandied phrase “the separation of Church and State”.

This separation is often seen as something natural, ordained by God to prevent the sad history of bloodshed brought about by bringing politics under religious influence. The twentieth century Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain praised the emergence of a clean secular sphere free from religion’s influence as part of the unfolding of divine providence. He may not have intended to say this, but religion is thus seen as a destructive force when intermingled with the secular. The late Christopher Hitchens went further, arguing that secularism is harmful only because it had been pursued like a religion.

Leaning into this argument, my former boss William Cavanaugh published a book entitled The Myth of Religious Violence. The book asked one small but important question: do we use the word “religion” as if it meant the same thing in the classical, medieval and the present period? In other words, has the definition of religion been treated as a term that ignores history, culture and geography?

The question is important because the argument that religion has been consistently a destructive political force can only work if the answer to the last question is “yes”.

To this, Cavanaugh presented a thought experiement: what would happen if the answer was “no”?

In his The Archeology of Knowledge, Michel Foucault argued that ideas do not simply come as givens, but have layers of differing meanings underneath them. For Foucault, concepts have different meanings as times and material conditions around them change. Ideas, like people, have genealogies.

In a similar vein, Cavanaugh put forward a compelling genealogy of the word “religion”. In doing so, he shows that, rather than being a independent of culture and history, the concept of “religion” is actually historically and culturally contingent. More specfically, it is unavoidably bound up in shifts in the configurations of power. Cavanaugh argued that the word “religion” is so bound up with power that to say you have an understanding of “religion” that is free of power, argues Cavanaugh, is itself the product of a submission to a hierarchy of power.

As a side note, Cavanaugh is not the only person to investigate the genealogy of the understandings of religion. The City University of New York’s Talal Asad has written on a similar topic in his Genealogies of Religion.

Cavanaugh goes on to argue that religion currently conceived has been stripped of a very important component, the ability to manifest itsefl in space and time as an embodied society. There seems now to be a conception of society that is in its natural state free from any religion. Society is seen as naturally secular.

Like Asad, Cavanaugh suggests that this notion of “religion” and “society” is actually a product peculiar to the West, tied to the rise of the modern nation state. The state, argues Cavanaugh, defines what counts as “religion”, because it wants to maximise control over “society”. Thus, one is able to speak of pilgrimages to war memorials, idols of pop culture (I once saw an ad for a sporting channel that bragged that it had more gods that most faiths). Yet these are not seen as “religious” in the same way that going to church or reading a bible in a public space is.

What has happened is that “religion” has over the centuries become stripped of any social manifestations by the state, manifestations that Asad calls a “program of disciplinary practices” enacted in real space and time. Instead, “religion” has in our current day become associated with internal belief.

What this means is that religion has not been lost. Someone else packed its bags and moved it to the attic of the private sphere. This privatisation of religion as belief then has three implications:

  1. Privatising religion opens the field for something else to step in to take up the space evacuated by religion, taking on its vocabulary, outward signs and institutional shape without calling itself as such, or without being recognised as such. I can hear about people making a “pilgrimage” to a war memorial, and demanding that similar homage be paid, and yet it will not be called “religious”. An advertisement for a sports channel can market itself as a religion with many gods, and it may demand your loyalty via your subscription. Even then it would still not be considered “religious” by polite society.

  2. In debates over the separation of church and state, especially in arguments trying to protect “religious freedom” defined as freedom of internal belief, it could mean that Christians could be playing by the rules set by the nation state. To call for such freedom may actually amount to willingly stepping into the cage set by state leaders. “Religion” defined as mere belief cut off from society is an emaciated witness to Jesus Christ, and a proper defense of religion must involve a proper appreciation of its spatial implications.

  3. We need to reject the idea that there is a naturally secular, “ideology free” zone. As I once argued in an article on the Heythrop Journal , with every step we take are always being recruited into some form of loyalty and belonging. We are always being called to bind and bind ourselves again to some community. This binding and rebinding is in latin called a re-ligare…a religion.

As in the movies involving people packed into attics and thought long disappeared, we can still hear the religious scratching the walls of the bourgeois house of polite society. Rejecting this notion of the ideology free zone is not necessarily a return to chauvinism, as the screeching banshees of the secular commentarati would have it. What it means is a proper recognition of the embodied nature of the Body of Christ, which is broken in real space and time for the life of the world.

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