Are Religion and Politics Separable?
The idea that religion should not encompass social affairs has been a subject of debate, especially in the Renaissance and The Enlightenment era. This article is a continuation of the history of the idea of secularism that sees religion as separable from politics and, under the modern connotations, claims to promote a certain ‘social pluralistic harmony’, focusing on the intellectual transformations since the Middle Ages till the present day.
The Renaissance and the split between church and state
The European consequences of the domination of the ill-informed and irrational Church was the rise of the Renaissance, extending between the 14th and 15th centuries, which laid the foundations of the secularism as we know today. According to Mesbah Yazdi’s narrative, the inception of secularism is also traceable back to the totalitarianism, intellectual mischief and limitations imposed by the Catholic Church which was dominant over all of Europe, specifically Eastern and Western Rome. The irrational and unscientific conduct of the Church gave rise to revolts against the political Christianity, planned or otherwise, and finally paved way for the Renaissance which benefitted from the opportunity and thereafter limited the role of the Church only to heavenly affairs, in lieu of the past unpleasant experiences with the political dominance of the Church. This preceded a division between religion and society in such a way that it circumscribed the role of God and his laws only to heavenly affairs while making man responsible for the affairs in the world:
In this way, the slogan of “God, heaven and celestial kingdom” gave way to another three- pronged catchphrase, i.e. “man, earth and terrestrial life” and Westerners separated religious questions from the serious issues of life, assuming that life affairs are worldly matters and must be solved on earth instead of resorting to God in the celestial world for solutions. This trend became known as “secularism,” i.e. this world and earthly life. The place of religion is in the church and temple; there, you may cry, supplicate and repent as much as you want, but once you step out of the church into the social scenes and face serious life affairs, you will have nothing to do with religion. Religion has a specific domain and politics has another. Politics means management of social affairs while religion is concerned with the relationship between man and God. In this way, the relationship between religion and politics in Europe and Christianity was severed, according to Yazdi.
Their primary reduction of religion to a mere individual matter and connection with God, while being absolutely absent in the concerns of social issues, sowed seeds for later global secularism. This experience of poeticizing religion, thereby making it impractical, was also learned by the Islamic societies, such as that of Turkey, and had penetrated almost every religious circle around the world. The thoughts of the newly apoliticizing Muslim societies at that time have been painted by Yazdi:
“If you want your religion to remain safe and that the Qur’an and Islam be respected, you have no alternative other than taking religion away from the political scene and entrusting politics to the politicians so that the reputation of clerics and religious scholars will be preserved, their image not tarnished and their undue interference in the political affairs not disrupt things.” 1
Secularism, as we know today, is the idea that religion should not have any involvement in the state affairs, instead of being a full-fledged animosity towards religion, as it was in the past. This idea, as stated earlier, is the main product of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment era, and is a repeated theme in the works of Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke, Denis Diderot, Voltaire, Baruch Spinoza, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Paine. This thought of separation between religion and politics has been proven to have had some of the most significant transformative effects on the society, according to Spiro 2. Secularism has also more or less become a political ideology which lets multiple religions be practiced in the society without any danger, thus claiming to promote a peaceful, pluralistic co-habitation of individuals belonging to different denominations in a society, while still maintaining that politics should holistically deny access to religious teachings in order to let a society remain one of the ‘neutral societies’ in D L Munby’s narrative. 3
Historically there has been only a scarce need to confront the idea of secularism because it was too insignificantly widespread for it to be the cause of any worry for the non-secularists. However, in the recent couple of centuries, with the onset of the global expansion of secularism, a number of anti-secular theories have also been developed in order to revitalise the omnipresent current pivotal role of religion in all areas of individual and social life, including politics. Amongst the most recent Eastern responses against the Western rise of secularism, are the works of great scholars such as Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, Ayatollah Ruhullah Khomeini and Ayatollah Muhammad Hussain Tabatabai. In the next few articles we will explore the arguments of these scholars and ascertain the degree of inseparability between religion and politics.
- Spiro, K. (2017) The Enlightenment: The Age of Reason gave Jews civil rights, but its emphasis on a https://www.simpletoremember.com/articles/a/the_enlightenment/Godless society was bound to backfire. Retrieved from: http://www.simpletoremember.com/articles/a/the_enlightenment/