On church and state

John Haldane distinguishes between secularism and secularisation.



John Haldane distinguishes between secularism and secularisation.


The whole issue of secularism, I think, needs to be, you know, given some serious thought. First of all, I think I would want to distinguish between secularism and secularisation. So secularisation is the claim that there is a … it’s a sociological thesis, as it were, it is the claim that the trajectory of history is away from religion. And in particular that as societies become more educated and more technologically adapt … adept I should say, so they will abandon religious beliefs.

Now there are plenty of examples that seem to run counter to that. So many people have given up on the secularisation thesis, or heavily qualified it at any rate. But for many who are secularists, the process of secularisation was a comfort. They thought, look, you know, this is just evidence of the un-roundedness of religion, if people become more educated, then they just are going to abandon religion. So the fact that people can be educated and religious is slightly uncomfortable for the secularist. 

But I think it’s worth thinking about secularism itself. What is its meaning, what is its source, what is its origin? And I think if we do look at the history, particularly of Christianity, you will see developing within it a sense of the importance of separating out two kinds of identities. The identity of the Christian as a follower of Christ, however they want to, you know, elaborate on that notion – a disciple if you like – and the individual as a member of a political entity, as a citizen. And it’s, you know, long been seen and often remembered that when church and state, as we might say, or whether … when those two identities start to get confused, that’s bad both for politics and for religion.

And so I think there’s a sense in which the whole idea of separating religion from the political sphere – not completely severing them but getting some distance between them – is actually motivated entirely from within religion itself, because it sees what happens when those are confused. And, you know, there are plenty of historical examples – the religious wars of Europe of the 16th century are an obvious case in point, but the kind of conflicts of the High Middle Ages would be another one, and then more recent times and so on. So I think that it’s prudent, and I think to some extent an explanation of the origin of secularism, that Christians and religious believers themselves want to get some distance between their religious commitments and their participation in political life.