The emergence of modern secularism over the last several hundred years has been truly epoch-making, and it has reshaped our entire world. Even in regions of the world where religious revival has taken virulent forms, fundamentalists encounter champions of secularism. Where secularists are absent, it is only because they have been imprisoned, killed, or driven out. Where religion once sealed off the limits of the thinkable, in the modern era a new epoch cracked open these closed boundaries. For unprecedented millions around the world, fundamentalist belief has become more and more one possible choice among several. The actual clash that defines our world is not between allegedly Judeo-Christian and Islamic civilizations, but between closed and open worldviews. It is not a clash between civilizations. It is a clash within them, among their members and among the possibilities existing within these specific cultures. An open worldview is capacious enough to embrace both religious belief and outright nonbelief. Here, the secularist worldview actually intersects with the examples of moderation and tolerance found in all the great faith traditions.
Yet, insofar as this is possible, it is only on the grounds prepared by secularism. For secularism emerged historically as the only mode humans have found to successfully and peacefully manage the tensions of diverse belief systems within a pluralistic framework.
To understand this point, we need for a moment to set aside our discussion of secularism as a worldview based on nonbelief and instead consider secularism from another angle, namely the institutional development of the secular sphere. And to do this, we need to recall the long history of the distinction between the religious and the secular within the Christian tradition. This is a distinction as old as Christianity itself.
Jesus Christ himself counseled, “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” St. Augustine enshrined this division as a philosophical principle when he separated the city of God from the earthly city, and drew a sharp line between the sacred history contained in the Bible and the secular history of the affairs of men. Medieval Christian thinkers distinguished between the spiritual and the temporal, medieval lawyers distinguished between ecclesiastical and temporal powers. These two powers were meant to operate together in a harmonious and complementary way, though in actuality the Middle Ages witnessed almost continual competition between the Pope and the worldly monarchs. Ironically, secularism has its origins in this Christian idea of the saeculum. Of course, the original Christian concept of the secular had nothing to do with nonbelief, but with a division of human reality into two distinct regions. Moreover, in the medieval imagination, the division between the ecclesiastical and temporal powers was unmistakably superseded by the higher power of God. Yet the seed was planted for the development of the modern idea of a secular state and society.
The modern democracies of Europe and the Americas all, in some way, preserve this division between the secular and the religious. But a funny thing happened on the way to modernity. The relationship between secularism and religiosity got reversed. Where religion and the all-encompassing reality of God defined the boundaries of the medieval secular domain, in modern democratic societies the secular envelops the religious. The secular sphere now sets the appropriate boundaries of religion within public life. Of course, it is a basic dimension of this modern arrangement that the state does not meddle in matters of private conviction, but make no mistake: it is of fundamental concern to the state that it retains the right to define the relationship between private belief and public life. Insofar as believers bring their beliefs into the public realm, they have to operate on the terms of this secular arrangement.
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