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The Return of Religion Through a Secular Gate - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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A recent survey of the religious situation in France Published by ‘Le Monde des Religions’ magazine, revealed that Catholicism appears to have declined in the state that has long been hailed the ‘Daughter of the Church’.

According to the published figures, those who are considered Catholics constitute no more than 51 percent of the population, compared with what stood at 67 percent in the 1970s. Only a miniscule 8 percent regularly attend Sunday services – that is, less than 3 million French.

What is interesting about the matter is that the decline of the Catholic Church in France – which is also a general European phenomenon – coincided with two phenomena that seem to be contradictory to this striking scene, namely, the crisis of the secular system and the spread of religious sects that are alien to the traditional ritual fabric.

Although the three examples seem to be in contradiction of one another, they do, in fact, constitute a pattern where they explain one another in a sequence that falls within the same context – the collapse of the standard and institutional foundation of historical religions, which forms the religious absolute in accordance with new societal and behavioral models.

Let us proceed with the rejection of the prevalent image in Arabic literature of the contradiction between secularism and religion in view of the fact that secularism emerged as an antithesis to the Church and an alternative to religion.

It is evident that such a conception comes as a result of generalizing the French experience to the various other European contexts that differed in their experiences and which cannot be boiled down to this individual feature that was the outcome of the nature of the French Enlightenment experience. During the aforementioned time, the situation in France had an anti-religion character, whereas the German enlightenment experience assumed one of religious reform, while the English enlightenment took on what was a reconciliation between political reform and religion.

Secular vision, upon the consideration that it is an institutional expression of the rational view and the free management of the sociopolitical affair, becomes implanted in the enlightenment’s system of values in a manner that is institutionally inextricable from it.

In his pioneering works on secularism, Marcel Gauchet illustrates that the political-religious question in Europe passed through three stages:

1- The first stage, which commenced at the end of the Wars of Religion (AD 1598) and lasted to the end of the 18th Century. This stage is characterized by the emergence of the concept of the modern civil state as the entity assigned to maintain civil peace, which necessitates the riddance of ideological affiliation and the assimilation of religious and sectarian diversity by granting absolute authority to political authority and submitting the Church to it. Thus appeared the notion of divine right as a manifestation of the absolute authority of the state, which is not in contradiction with religion but rather derives legitimacy from it by virtue of its absolute dimension.

2- The liberal republican stage, which started at the beginning of the 19th Century and was mainly characterized by the institutional separation between the Church and the State within the context of legal modernism, which formalized the two entities: the civil society and the State. If the first stage, which was characterized by the phenomenon of the submission of what is religious to what is political, reflects a unilateral conception of the political body, then the liberal moment dedicated a new polarity in the collective circle between the political and civil fields – thus making it possible to separate between the religious institution and the political one.

This separation, however, assumed distinct forms: alienation between religion and State in France, the transformation of the Church into becoming the center of civil society in Britain, and transferring the civil role of the Church to the political field in America so that it became included in the roots of civil contract, not in terms of its ritual ideological character but rather in its ethical essence.

3-Gauchet believes that European societies entered a third phase after the long conflict between the Church and the State had subsided, a conflict which became the guiding logic of the modern political culture.

The current paradox is that while the conflict was settled at the Church’s expense, the secular state lost the bet that had organized its political effectiveness in view of the fact that this settlement could not have taken place without the rise of the compensatory religion of the Church, which is the civil national dogma that used the same religious dictionary to undertake the merging ideological function that was always performed by historical religions.

From this perspective, the German philosopher and jurist Carl Schmitt said that civil political concepts were but ambiguous theological statements, led by the term ‘sovereignty’, which forms the basis of civil political thought. With the limitation of the concept of sovereignty and the decline of the nationalistic state, the formulation of the religious question itself was renewed. This does not indicate the return of religion to dominate the political field once again, but is rather indicative of its transformation into fodder for regressive inclinations that are a threat to nationalistic units, even in well-established democracies, in addition to becoming behavioral refuse following the decline of major ideologies of modernization.

Thus, the collapse of the official Church paves way for the emergence of new patterns of religiosity that demonstrate the fact that has always been reiterated by anthropologists; the connection with the Absolute is the only fixed dimension in the collective pattern of human social life.