Critical religion and the 'religion-secular' binary

By Timothy Fitzgerald
13 Sep 2011

This is part of a dialogue between two senior religion scholars. The article here refers directly to one by Professor Richard H. Roberts, Is there anything good to be said for ‘religion’?, itself in part a response to an earlier piece.

I am grateful to Professor Richard Roberts for his thoughts on my work. From my point of view, the problem begins with his title, ‘Is there anything good to be said for ‘Religion’?’ This implies that one might find no value in any of that vast range of moral communities and their practices and that are typically classified by Euro-Americans as ‘religious’. This is a basic misunderstanding. My argument is that classifying such communities, and their practices and values, as ‘religious’ has the effect of marginalising them from the mainstream of public debates on justice and the proper ends of the good life. Such classification has the effect of clothing secular reason with the misleading aura of neutral objectivity, as the central, fundamental and inescapable order of things, and disguising the metaphysical commitments and ideological value-judgments which underpin secular institutions.

This part of the argument does not come directly from Marx, because Marx’s vast and complex work contains ambiguities about both ‘religion’ and ‘secular’ science or politics. One aspect of Marx which I reject, but which was emphasised by Lenin in the foundation of the Soviet socialist State, was its phoney scientistic claims to objective knowledge of the laws of history and socialist economic theory. In 1905 Lenin clearly expressed a secular scientific standpoint as the basis of Revolution, and in the process reproduced a similar dichotomy between religion and secularity as that produced earlier in the 19th century by the tradition of liberal economics. A.N.C. Waterman (2008) holds that Richard Whately, in his inaugural lecture of 1831 as Drummond Professor of Economics, was the first to claim that economics is a secular science essentially different from ‘religion’. Waterman’s purpose in his historical argument is to show how the basic presumptions of liberal economic theory derived quite directly from debates in moral theology since the late 17th century. (However, I don’t assume that Waterman would necessarily wish to draw the same conclusions as Robert Nelson in his book Economics as Religion (2001), which also explores such issues).

I suggest that both socialist and liberal capitalist economics have been different stages in, and different forms of, the same processes which transformed the meaning of Religion from Christian truth to one of a large range of dubious practices that should be tolerated but marginalised. In both cases we find the mystification of secular reason and ‘progress’, and the reduction of alternative moral discourses which might challenge both state socialism and liberal (or neo-liberal) capitalism.

This positivistic tradition of interpreting Marx needs to be put next to other possible readings of Marx. One is the critical tradition of Marxism (on which I know that Richard is well-informed) which sees all knowledge as having an ideological component and function in the legitimation of a hegemonic worldview. My contribution to this important insight, pursued by Gramsci and also the Frankfurt school among others, is that the religion-secular binary is a foundational part of the naturalisation of both ‘scientific’ socialism and ‘scientific’ capitalism.

Another, less critical position which I do not share is reflected in the habit of Richard’s mentor Ninian Smart and other writers to describe Marxism as a pseudo-religion or quasi-religion. By arguing that Marxism is a pseudo-religion, the assumption is introduced that it is not a ‘real’ religion. But what is a real religion?

My own argument is that, rather than searching for, or assuming the existence of, real religions as against pseudo-religions, we need to look at how the term religion has been used historically. What I believe to be the case is that, in English language at least (and I doubt if the case is much different in German, Dutch, or French) for several centuries since the Reformation the term ‘religion’ was used typically to refer to Christian truth, mainly Protestant truth, and that this dominant discourse on religion encompassed government and every other institution. In that context, ‘secular’ also had a profoundly different meaning from the one given to it much later by 19th century writers such as Whately (1831) or Charles Holyoake (1851), or, in the early 20th century by Lenin.

In the older paradigm of the meaning of religion as Christian truth, ‘pseudo-religions’ were the equivalent of paganisms, irrational substitutes for real religion (Protestantism). When writers like Samuel Purchas in the early 17th century wrote about the religions of the world, my claim is that this was an ironic or parodic use of the term, even though such parodic observations on the foolish practices of heathens did represent a stage in the later, long-term development of the so-called scientific study of ‘religions’. Thus, while an important scholar like Max Muller was claiming that religions can be studied scientifically, he was simultaneously subscribing to the view that only Protestant Christianity was a fully fledged religion, and that Hindu practices were degenerate and irrational. This deeply ideological use of the term has passed into the foundations of religious studies.

Given these ideological uses of such a contested term, it seems difficult to understand how ‘religion’ could ever appear to be a neutral category useful for objective and empathetic knowledge. On the contrary, I hold that this duality in the historical deployment of religion, which is still powerfully evident, both elides its contentious value judgments and at the same time inscribes the conceits of the secular as the unavoidable ground of rational judgment.

In this context, Richard’s title ‘Is there anything good to be said for ‘Religion’?’ seems unclear in its meaning. It partly depends on what Richard intends to mean by religion. Is he referring to the Catholic Mass? Or the Prince-Pope Pontifex Maximus? Or the ‘religious orders’ as distinct from the secular priesthood? Or the practice of Communion by English male elites in Parliament well into the 19th century? Or the anointing of the Sovereign head of the Commonwealth, up to and including Queen Elizabeth II in 1953? Does it refer to Christian truth as distinct from Pagan superstitions, as contemporary evangelical missionaries have it? Does it refer to those practices and communities deemed in one powerfully-disseminated contemporary discourse as dangerous, irrational and with a special propensity to terrorism? Or does it refer indifferently to that vast range of practices, from witchcraft to Nagarjuna’s Madhyamika to the rituals of untouchability to ‘shamanism’, all of which are regularly classified as ‘religion’? Or does it refer to the worship of Mozart and devotion to the art of Opera? Why not classify Opera, football, or faith in ‘human progress’ as religious?

But it also depends on what readers mean by ‘religion’. Even if Richard is himself clear about what he intends to mean, there are multiple possible readings which can be taken away by other readers. We have little control over our own intended meanings once they are in the public arena. This is not to mention the problems of translation into non-European languages. One way or another, to suggest that something good or bad can be said for ‘religion’ misses the point about what is being argued.

Richard cites the late anthropologist Roy Rappaport that ritual is the basic social act. But this does not help us distinguish between a religious ritual and a nonreligious, secular one. If ritual is basic, then I would suggest it undercuts the religion-secular binary which can be seen as a historically modern, ideological imposition. I would hazard to say that the idea of a religious ritual – as distinct, for example, from Henry VIII’s discourse on ‘politick rites’- is itself a modern invention.

Furthermore, if I go by Richard’s admittedly and inescapably brief representation of Rappaport’s work, I would ask if ‘ritual’ is being used to refer to a sui generis kind of practice, essentially different from a large range of others, such as training, holding meetings, decision-making processes, editing footnotes and bibliographies, holding elections, participating in conferences, fighting wars, ballroom dancing, or news-reading? Where does ritual end and purely instrumental action begin (if there is such a thing)?

I regret Richard’s resort to the claim that questioning ‘religion’ could lead to the closure of departments and the loss of jobs. One of the things I most respect about Richard – in addition to his outstanding scholarly work – is the way he has stood up for the democratisation of the work-place against the arbitrary and dogmatic authoritarianism of the managerial class, at some cost to his own career. But the managerial class are empowered by the capitalist state, and by the mystification of markets and capital. Is he now saying that academics such as myself should cut and trim their own modest search for truth about the human condition to the templates of the HRM? This itself seems to me to be a capitulation to the regnant ideology of managerialism which he suggests I am indulging. On the contrary, my project questions the way ‘religion’ acts as a discursive cover for the presumed superior rationality of the value of self-maximizing Individuals, and of secular markets and their devoted managers. We have more chance of focusing our intellectual critique and generating a democratic debate about the purpose of universities, and the critical values which they arguably ought to embody (or could embody), by fearlessly questioning the way ‘knowledge’ is constructed. I am rather surprised that Richard doesn’t find this line of thought congenial to his own original research into shamanistic practices.

For me, in my own life, the practice of meditation is fundamental. It has much to do with truth (if I can use that word without sounding pretentious) and is often deconstructive of ‘knowledge’, or puts knowledge in a less exalted and more tentative place. Meditation (for me, at least) undercuts its typical modern ideological classification as a ‘religious’ practice as distinct from a ‘secular’ one. Nor do I have any interest in describing it as ‘scientific’, for that would merely play to the same ideological binary. By classifying such a practice as ‘religious’, its epistemological and ontological implications get de-centred and quarantined, leaving the myths of secular reason and markets unchallenged. If I claim it to be ‘scientific’, then I am still in the contentious market-place of nomenclature that depends on the same stultifying binary discourse.

The widespread practice of classifying communities as ‘religious’ ensures that they will not be taken seriously by the people John Pilger describes as ‘the new rulers of the world’. If the representations of the many diverse communities around the world are to be heard, I think we should desist from committing this act of ‘epistemic violence’ – to adopt an expression from the British Sikh scholar Arvind-Pal Mandair (2010).

* See also Dr Fitzgerald's earlier piece, Questioning ‘the global resurgence of religion’, to which Professor Richards was responding.

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© Timothy Fitzgerald is Reader in Languages, Cultures and Religions at the University of Stirling. His work, background and publications history are summarised here.


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