Part 3 of a short series of posts on the meaning of the secular. Let me know what you think in the comments. Thank you.
“Get the Church out of education”
Following the publication of the documents commonly known as the Murphy and Ryan Reports, the above exhortation was frequently heard and read. There are many things to be said about such an opinion. Firstly, it implies that we understand what the Church is: it is a unified mental construct which is personified by the priest standing at the top of the classroom testing children on the penny catechism. Secondly, it implies that an organisation founded on principles other than some instrumentally oriented purpose to education has no right to be involved in the education of children and younger adults. Thirdly, it implies an audience that will hear such an appeal and understand its passion and meaning. Fourthly, and most crucially it makes that appeal to an authority. That authority is the state itself. William Connolly, the US theologian, charts the rise of the idolatrous nature of the nation state and contends that this state becomes an object of devotion in itself. It becomes the source and not just the object of public devotion. One of the significant outcomes of this form of idol worship is the tendency to construe the values of the state as being the values of all those within its territory. To paraphrase MacIntyre, to become modern subjects we must cast off the archaic notion that we might be asked to kill in the name of God and yet we’re quite happy to do so to defend an oil company.
The secular modern subject must be seen to leave aside the things of the past: a belief in something higher than himself, the notion that we are connected by the divine, that there is a soul that lives on after our corporeal death. These are the things that distinguish the modern person from those of more primitive civilisations. Not only must the modern subject leave these behind, but one should declare it so, preferably in public. In Ireland today, there is a form of secularism which characterises the religious as vestigial: something that we should have left behind in the 1980s. This is primarily based on an understanding of the present moment as separate from this past, with a buffer of the liberating and materially enriching Celtic Tiger between the two. I don’t want to mischaracterise this form of secularism because its most significant outcome is the definition of the boundaries of a new public of We All. In Warner’s terms, this is a logic that actively and politically minoritises faith so that it may be safely contained within the confines of the ‘religious’. In effect, this form of secularism brackets the faithful as backward until such time as We All changed into the modern subjects that are known (and loved, voraciously) today. This is a simplification of more complex cultural forms but the point remains valid. To be a modern subject means casting aside all those things that prevent us from moving forward; religious faith is one of these.
The minoritising logic of state adherence valorises an uncontestable freedom. Such a freedom exists in an ideal state but many things stand in the way of our attainment of it. The vision of freedom is one where ‘our’ collective vision is unencumbered by things that ‘keep us’ in the past: religious faith being the primary object. Those that deny ‘us’ that freedom include people who insist on drawing forth their religious authority, an authority that ‘we’ thought had been successfully contained by becoming modern. It is not that religious faith and a spiritual understanding of life is not valid (although that too is present) it just needs to know its place in the public sphere and in society. Religion needs to be minoritized so that ‘we’ can see what true freedom means, unencumbered by myths of arks, floods and pillars of salt. In short, religion needs to know its place, and then assume that place.
But this is a set of understandings not based on the neutrality of freedom at all. Secularisation is an active political process, frequently misunderstood as linear and static. The construction of what is the secular constantly shifts but in our present moment is adhered to a powerful sense of what the state needs to do to actively minoritise specific beliefs in order to valorise others. More dangerously still, if we are to believe some current political movements, the state itself is in thrall to productive forces that see only profit as the motor of human endeavour and not the divine, the graceful, the authentic. In mass media terms, and in the public sphere more broadly, faith is something that ‘the church’ does. It can do that on its own time, goes the narrative, in its own place. If the proper sphere of the Church is the building known as the church and this is breached, there are specific ways in which that can be traced. The authority of faith and the religious has been rigorously codified within the terms of state’s legal juridical frameworks. I contend in this analysis that the Church in Ireland has been secularised. In Ireland, this is made manifest through public deliberations on graveyard regulation, primary school curricula, the meaning of a child’s education, access to marriage rights, child protection, nursing home care, heritage maintenance. The framework tightly regulates the authority of the Catholic Church in Ireland and other religious institutions. Appeals to such a framework are made every week and are the content of politics on both sides of the border in Ireland. I argue here that the state is currently the main authorising agent for such appeals.