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The Modern Invention of Religion
Today, we assume that "religion" and "politics" are separate categories. This wasn't always the case.
The idea that democracy is undermined by excessive religion and religiosity is one that we tend to take for granted. Religion, after all, is concerned with interior belief, the supernatural, and that which can’t be measured, where democracy is about the ordering of modern politics. It is public, rational, and predictable, where religion— particularly unregulated religion—is associated with passion, obscurantism, fanaticism, and even violence.
As with so many other things, these assumptions are first assumed and then asserted without a second thought. They seem self-evident. In The Myth of Religious Violence, the theologian William Cavanaugh argues that this dualism—the very separation between rational “politics” and irrational “religion”—serves a particular function.
The attempt to create a transhistorical and transcultural concept of religion that is essentially prone to violence is one of the foundational myths of the liberal nation-state.
In the post-9/11 context, enlightenment liberalism found an enemy against which to define itself in Islam, which regrettably hadn’t experienced an enlightenment of its own. Respectable observers often took care to distinguish between Islamism and Islam, but sometimes this became slippery. After all, it wasn’t just Islamists who believed that Islam should play a central role in public life and politics. Across the Middle East, large majorities of Muslims believed this and repeatedly said as much to pollsters. So, if the problem was the kind of religion that didn’t allow itself to cut down to size and “privatized,” then perhaps the problem was Islam itself and not just Islamist manifestations of the faith.
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However much they tried, U.S. policymakers struggled to disentangle Islam and Muslims from Islamism and Islamists, and this had implications for how they viewed prospects for democracy in the Middle East. As I discuss in The Problem of Democracy, if ordinary Muslims were conservative and retrograde on things like gender equality and minority rights, then top-down, authoritarian leaders might be bad in theory, but perhaps, in a world of necessary evils, they could be seen as an instrument of progress.
Which is why Barack Obama, the president who appeared most sympathetic to Islam and Muslims, was known to privately joke, “All I need in the Middle East is a few smart autocrats.” As a former resident of Indonesia, he fretted that a growing number of Indonesian women were donning headscarves. In his interviews with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, Obama put the blame on Muslims for not being sufficiently peaceful; Muslims, he said, need to “undergo a vigorous discussion within their community about how Islam works as part of a peaceful, modern society.” He spoke of a “reformation that would help people adapt their religious doctrines to modernity.” And so on.
Obama, like most highly educated Western intellectuals, saw the world in terms of two discrete categories: “religion” and “politics,” one primarily interior and the other primarily exterior. Of course, this drew from a distinctly Protestant understanding of Christianity that, over time, elevated the individual’s relationship with Christ at the expense of public religiosity and an ordered common good. Not only that, as Cavanaugh forcefully argues, drawing on a wealth of historical detail, “the very separation of religion from politics was an invention of the modern West.”
Regarding violence in antiquity, the scholar of religion Charles Kimball once wondered whether it was Roman politics or Roman religion that was the cause of Roman violence? It was a difficult question to answer, mostly because the two were never separated in the pre-modern era nor evidently was their any compelling reason to separate them, otherwise more people probably would have tried. So Romans themselves, when acting violently, would have never themselves felt that it was religion that was motivating them to act. For us, as moderns, to insist that religion was causing their violence, then, is to superimpose an odd construct onto the past, when such a construct did not actually exist during the period in question.
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Liberal theorists such as John Locke attempted—and largely succeeded in fashioning—a separation. They did so by distinguishing between the “outward force of the magistrate” and the “inward persuasion of religion.” Or, as Locke put it, “All the life and power of true religion consist in the inward and full persuasion of the mind."
By relegating religion to the inward dimensions of human experience, a vacuum opened up in the public and political realm, which would still need to be ordered according some logic. Enter the secular nation-state, another modern invention. It was now the state, driven by a secularizing logic, that would lay claim “to a monopoly on violence, lawmaking, and public allegiance within a given territory.”
We come to know ourselves by knowing what we are not. And so “religion” came to be what it is today as the wanting opposite of a kind of public rationality that claimed to be neutral: without bias and without ideology. If the goal was to separate religion from politics and vice-versa, then they would first need to exist as categories that could be distinguished from one another. To be distinguished, they first had to be defined. And to be defined, they first needed to exist. And so they were created.