Faith, religion and the secular 1

This is the first of three posts drawn from unpublished text that I prepared during the summer of 2012. It was intended as a primer for an audience that would have some knowledge of what constitutes the secular. Let me know what you think of it.


The most recent European Social Survey data to hand points to a continuation of the decline in regular Mass attendance amongst Catholics in Ireland. Just under half of the island’s Catholics attend Mass on a regular basis. Mass attendance, as a signal of Catholic faith, is related positively to years spent in education, your age and where in Ireland you live. At the same time, about 9 in 10 people in the Republic identify themselves as Roman Catholic. The most recent Census saw a slight drop in this latter figure. Over the last number of years, explanations have been offered as to why this cultural Catholicism remains: a la carte Catholics, social Catholics etc. None of these explanations take into account a number of vital cultural trends however and so remain descriptive, not explanatory. Understanding the causes of these data’s divergences is important to identifying the position of faith in Irish culture today. Beyond this divergence however, are some important cultural formations which can shed light on an analysis of the place of religious belief in general, and the position of the Catholic faith in particular, in present day Ireland.

This short essay brings some of these cultural formations together. It is based on an understanding of knowledge as something that is produced and reproduced through human actions. The essay is an attempt to foreground some of the more significant reasons for understandings of faith today. It draws more from cultural geography and sociology than it does theology. In this sense, knowledge of God or of the nature and constitution of Church is not dealt with. What is dealt with here is the coming together of ways of thinking about subjectivity, the triumph of state politics and the notion of ‘society’.

The problem with secularisation
A great deal has been written and spoken about secularisation as a process, particularly in Ireland in recent years. Newspaper columnists, keen to keep their finger on a pulse, advocate a return to certain values or implore us to ‘move on’ from religion. More thoughtful articles talk about the separation of church and state as if there was a clear programme for that to be achieved. Sociologists and others have put forward the notion that secularisation as a process is mainly constituted by the waning influence of religion on people in a society. Religion ceases to the sacred canopy (after Berger) under which people live their lives and is instead placed among all other institutions (after Weber) such as government, education and scientific endeavour. At the same time, fewer people are shown to be adherents to seemingly orthodox arrangements characterised broadly as institutional religions. Most if not all of these analyses are informed by a principle of Whose Realm, His Religion, arising from political dispensations within the Holy Roman Empire in the middle of the 16th century. Broadly speaking, the religion of the local monarch became the religion of the state and all its inhabitants. Those inhabitants who could not conform to the monarch’s religion were allowed to leave that territory. Rather than seeing this as the historic settlement between temporal and spiritual ways of looking at the world, as it so often is, the principle arising from the settlement ought to be seen as the continuation of processes of state formation across Europe following the breakup of the Roman Empire almost 1000 years before.

The state formation processes that arose within the European political space at this time are also notable for the establishment of legal jurisdiction. This is the basis upon which a monopoly of the use of legitimate violence within a particular territory can be established and maintained. The establishment of legal courts, juridical systems and the nominal independence of juries and judges took place within these processes. Religious conformity could thus be ensured within a legally supported state structure. As I will show later, this has profound implications for the legalisation of religious behaviours in our present political context. Secularisation theories tend to over emphasise the natural basis upon which a state, and its enacted laws, are founded. The theories naturalise complex formations such as freedom, tolerance, justice at the expense of the contingent. Principles of religious tolerance and an accommodation toward religious minorities extended to Christians in the European political space in the 16th and 17th centuries. Significantly they did not extend to Muslims and Jews. Their extra-European ‘otherness’ was one result of an internalisation of religion on a national basis, bounded by state territory, defined by the ruler. It is at this time that we see an emergence of national churches, accommodated toward particular legal systems, e.g. Spanish Catholics, German Protestants. This is, loosely defined, the state establishment of a church (notably in a non-conformist understanding of that word).

Secularisation in this sense is largely conceived of as a loss to the regent of his temporal power. The integrity of the ruler’s sovereignty is compromised by a loss of adherents to that nation’s religion. The close identification of particular nations with particular forms of Christian belief is largely defined by the end of the religious wars, affecting Ireland as late as 1690. The further consolidation of regal power through land aggregation at home and colonies abroad served to confirm the nation as specifically religious. Ireland, in effect, became Catholic in the 1700s, much of this produced through a colonial political relationship with Britain. In this way, mainstream sociological understandings of secularisation draw upon the appropriation of a largely 19th century understanding of a nation being ‘full of’ particular adherents to either Catholicism or Protestantism.

This sense of secularisation processes occurring within bounded nation states is enhanced by the post-Revolutionary French political dispensation. The problematisation of religion as a source of conflict was foremost in the minds of those leading the mass (constituted popularly for the first time around this time) of people to the Bastille. Here was a chance to rid France of one of the things that created so much division historically: refocusing political energy toward a state that required the allegiance of a massed public to succeed. This was a desire for disestablishment that found stronger echoes and in more formal terms in the nascent United States. For the state to survive, it needs to be shorn of its religious division. The state, as the container of the allegiance of a mass of people, is pre-eminent and its survival is dependent upon strong laws. In these circumstances the privatisation of belief makes more sense: because it does not matter to a defined state territory and its laws if transubstantiation occurs or not. In this way, what counts as ‘religious beliefs’ are more easily determined. If all are equal before the law (a primary grammar of state devotion), the person’s humanity as opposed to their spirituality becomes the subject of law. This is a refocusing toward the human body and in particular the disciplining of errant bodies. Political science takes its lead from the natural sciences where the seeing, feeling and sensing body takes precedence over the spiritual.

Secularisation processes are taking place where politico-juridical systems slowly replace the symbolic and actual power formerly associated with an arbitrary regent. Within this understanding of the hegemony of state legal systems, ‘the religious’ becomes what sociologists would call an institution. Such institutions, law itself, educational provision, government, commerce etc. are analysed as discrete political entities in society. I am not deploying a mainstream secularisation argument in this essay because it reduces the complexity of cultural and social human forms across and between places in this very process of institutionalisation. The mainstream accounts seek to represent this complexity as reducible to discrete actions within a philosophical justification that separates mind from body and politics from religion. Some others argue that the creation of a discrete category of knowledge known as ‘religion’ arose from such a tradition. In short, this latter argument seeks to provide a basis for a linguistic category of ‘belief’ as only being applied to belief in a transcendent being or force. Religious belief can thus be bracketed and, I would argue, politically marginalised. I outline a re-placing of religion in the reorganisation of power structures in contemporary states. Society has not been secularised in a way that it then ‘declines’ so much as religion has been marginalised to occupy particular places and not others. This also means that certain religious beliefs are tolerated while others are discarded and marginalised as magical, superstition and delusional.

Part 2: Religion and the public sphere


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