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Written by Louay Safi   
Nov 29, 1999 at 08:00 PM
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Overcoming the Religious-Secular Divide
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Secularism refers to complex and multifaceted attitudes and practices that cannot be easily captured in a brief description or rendered into a simple definition. While one may find certain similarities between modern secularist attitudes and practices and those that existed in pre-modern societies, it is fair to say that secularism as we know it today is an essentially modern phenomenon that grew in the modern West, and later took roots in different societies.

In its essential sense, secularism denotes a set of notions and values whose aim is to ensure that the state is neither engaged in promoting specific religious beliefs and values, nor uses its powers and offices to persecute religion. To prevent state officials from using their political authority to impose a narrow set of religious attitudes and values on the larger society, and to foreclose the possibility of using religious symbols to agitate one religious community against another, western intellectuals embarked on a project that aimed at separating political authority from religious affiliation. To do that, the Enlightenment scholars embraced a set of concepts and principles, and used them as the basis for reconstructing modern European consciousness. The new political ideology advanced by Enlightenment activists and thinkers emphasized concepts such as equality, freedom of conscience and conviction, and the supremacy of law, all of which were advocated by the Religious Reformation that put an end to the ancient regime of Europe. 

The underlying socio-political morality advocated by the pioneers of the secular state in Europe was derived from the religious tradition delineated by the religious reformists of fifteenth century Europe, but argued in rational terms and common-good logic. Early advocates of the separation of state and church, such as Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, had no intention to undermine religion, or faith in the divine, but rather predicated their reformist ideas on the notion of God and civil religion. Descartes, for instance, argued "that the certainty and truth of all knowledge depends uniquely on my awareness of the true God, to such an extent that I was incapable of perfect knowledge about anything else until I became aware of him."[1] Similarly, Rousseau, while critical of the way religion was traditionally taught and practiced, recognized the need, even the necessity, of religious commitment and faith for the modern state to function properly. He, therefore, identified a number of "dogmas", and argued for their inclusion in the "civil religion" he advocated: "The existence of an omnipotent, intelligent, benevolent divinity that foresees and provides; the life to come; the happiness of the just; the punishment of sinners; the sanctity of the social contract and the law – these are the positive dogmas. As for the negative dogmas I would limit them to a single one: no intolerance."[2] 

Even Kant, who limited the notion of truth to empirical experience and labored to set morality on rational foundation insisted that "without a God and without a world invisible to us now but hoped for, the glorious ideals of morality are indeed objects of approval and admiration, but not springs of purpose and action."[3] However, by denying the possibility of transcendental truth, and as a result of the relentless attack on the authority of revelation as a source of ethical and ontological knowledge, secularist scholars have been able to successfully marginalize religion and undermine morality. The efforts to ground morality in utility and cost-benefit calculation, rather than truth, proved to be counter intuitive and futile, and gave rise to egoism and moral relativism.

There were, of course, intellectuals who have less sympathy to religion particularly among French intellectuals, but these did not represent the larger sentiments of the great majority in Europe. The French revolution displayed a clear anti-religious sentiment, but these were not, as Nietzsche was to discover later, directed against religion per se, but against organized religion represented primarily by the Catholic Church. “Modern philosophy, being an epistemological skepticism, is,” Nietzsche argued, “covertly and overtly, anti-Christian—although, to say this for the benefit of more refined ears, by no means anti-religious.”[4]

The essential secularist sentiment is, therefore, rooted in the religious reformation; more specifically, it is rooted in the Protestant revolt against religious hierarchy and centralized religion. Secularism was not originally intended as a way to separate religion from society or religious consciousness from political action, but only to isolate the state from the church structure and to separate religious and political authorities.

The tone started to change, however, a century later among progressive European intellectuals who saw in religion a negative force whose elimination, they believed, was essential for further emancipation and progress. Karl Marx, while agreeing that the secular state has successfully neutralized religion and purged it from the public sphere, still saw a great danger in religious life. This is because, he argued, secularism reduced religion into a private matter only insofar as the state is concerned. However, the privatization of religion gave it in effect more influence in the organization of civil society. Even in the United States where religion has been domesticated and individualized to the greatest extent, it continues to divide society into distinct religious communities, thereby allowing for the formation of internal solidarity with a clear bearing on economic life. Religion, Marx further thought, is an instrument is the hand of privileged classes to justify social misery and economic inequality. In The Jewish Question, Marx has the following to say about the need to emancipate humanity from religion:


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