Posts filed under ‘Politics’
I have an acquaintance who is currently doing his PhD in bioethics and who recently published a paper on bioconservatives vs. bioliberals. That is, he is concerned with the ethical questions in enhancing or even perfecting humans through science and technology.
As a layman, I definitely learned something from the paper about the current debate within this particular field of ethics and, as my acquaintance put it, about “the crucial question of the ultimate goals of biotechnological interventions.”
As he explained to me, the main criticism of the paper is directed against people who “refuse to speak of an ideal at all,” although they “cannot avoid having an ideal influencing the way they wish to enhance.”
I think I agree. But in the paper, he charges bioconservatives with an “untenable ambiguity between criticizing and endorsing ideas of human perfection,” meaning that by not wanting to use (or restricting the use of) science and technology to enhance human perfection, they, themselves, have a certain idea of the perfect human being in mind, namely one that is not enhanced.
In the paper, there are also charges made against bioliberals, but I’d like to restrict my comments to the charge against bioconservatives for now.
Of course, it is true that anyone who makes any kind of proposition in regard to human behavior has some kind of ideal in mind. Otherwise the person would not make a proposition at all. People who say that everyone should do as they please have the ideal of individual autonomy in mind. People who say that human perfectibility is not desirable thereby say that another human state is more desirable and hence, in a certain sense, more perfect.
But this observation, as true as it is, seems to me little more than a tautology. It says little more than, “People who make a normative statement, no matter of what kind, have a certain norm in mind.” Naturally. But does that merit the charge that bioconservatives have an “untenable ambiguity” in regard to human perfectibility? I doubt it.
To make clearer why I doubt the merit of this charge, let me use a few (rather old) examples from other fields. Take political philosophy, for instance. According to the thinking of the paper, one may charge Machiavelli’s realpolitik with the same kind of “untenable ambiguity” as the paper charges bioconservatives, because Machiavelli makes the prescriptive (=idealistic) statement that a ruler should not be too idealistic but rather use whatever methods work to maintain order and protect the city state against enemies. One could then take the criticism of Machiavelli’s ambiguity further and claim that his Prince is really just as idealistic as Plato’s Philosopher-King, because he makes just as many normative statements about him as Plato does about his explicitly ideal ruler. Therefore, one might say, Machiavelli should bring his implicit idealism into the light of explicit discussion instead of pretending that he is abandoning the political idealism of the likes of Plato.
However, to my mind, such a charge is more sophistic than helpful and blurs the very important distinction between the idealism of Plato’s Philosopher-King and the realpolitik of Machiavelli’s Prince. Plato is clearly an idealist (at least if we take the text of his Republic at face value) and Machiavelli is clearly a realist (at least in the Prince), and making normative statements about being flexibly realistic does not make him an idealist.
To give another example, this time from the earliest literature we possess, which already deals with the big themes of the human condition and the ideal human life: In the Epic of Gilgamesh, an ancient king of Uruk (modern-day Iraq) called Gilgamesh loses his best friend and realizes that he, too, shall one day die. Hence, he goes on a quest to find immortality, but in vain. Not only does he learn that immortality is reserved for the one couple that survived the Great Flood in a boat, because it was a unique situation that led the gods to bestow immortality on them, but the rejuvenating Plant of Life is also stolen from Gilgamesh by a serpent. Gilgamesh therefore has to accept his mortality, and he proceeds to engage in great building projects in order to make a lasting name for himself in that way.
The Epic of Gilgamesh seems to make the point that, in order for a human to flourish, he or she needs to accept their mortality. In other words, the story can be said to set up a kind of ideal of what the good life is, but at the same time the story conveys the strong message that the good human life is far from perfect. “Ideal under the very imperfect circumstances” is not the same as perfection.
Or take that famous inscription at the temple of Delphi. There, the Greeks were instructed to “know thyself,” that is, to know the limits of the human condition, and this self-knowledge can be said to have been an ideal. But the ideal consisted precisely in the acknowledgment that, under the circumstances, humans are not and can never be perfect.
In my view, it would be confusing to say that recognizing the existence of imperfection as a precondition for many good things is to erect another standard of perfection, as the paper seems to charge certain bioconservatives with doing. It is not another standard of perfection but simply the recognition that certain good things hinge on the existence of imperfection.
That’s the two cents from a layman for now, written with much ignorance about the details of today’s bioethical debate.
In the last few weeks, I’ve been discussing Virgil’s epic poem about the legendary events that eventually led to the founding of Rome, drawing some parallels to the founding of the United States. I had asked why it is that we as humans seem to have the need to create mythological and semi-mythological pasts for the group to which we belong.
Now I would like to ask a second question: Why is it that we feel that the founders of our group should continue to determine the present, even after several centuries have gone by and times might have changed radically?
Again, if anyone doubts that we do this, just look at some of the debates within American society. Whether it is the right to bear arms or the question of the place of religion in society, most sides of these debates seem to agree that what the Founding Fathers thought and intended should continue to—at least to an extent—determine our actions today.
Many Christians are at pains to point out how religious the Founding Fathers were, and many others are at pains to point out how secular the Founding Fathers were, but there is a common assumption that underlies both of these positions, namely that what the Founding Fathers thought should in some sense still define American society today. If the Founding Fathers were mostly Christians, then this is meant to show that the United States is at its heart a “Christian nation,” and, in order to stay true to itself, it needs to retain that Christian identity. If, on the other hand, the Founding Fathers were highly critical of Christianity, then a secular spirit ought to pervade American society.
Both sides want to call Americans back to what they truly are, suggesting that the United States cannot remain to be the United States if it does not stay true to what the Founding Fathers thought. Never mind that Deism, which influenced many of the Founding Fathers, was a fashion of the time and has since gone mostly out of fashion. No, the religion or lack thereof of the Founding Fathers is still felt to be relevant today and is hotly debated. Why?
This idea of appealing to the Founding Fathers in support of one’s own view is not new. Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas had very different views on slavery, but they both agreed that the Founding Fathers should have a say in the matter. The only problem was that they had not said anything official about it, and so Lincoln tried to prove that the Founding Fathers were really, in their heart of hearts, against slavery, and his opponents attempted to prove the opposite.
Similarly, in Virgil’s Aeneid there is a notion that Aeneas should encapsulate Roman values and virtues, that he is a prototypical Roman, and that this “spirit” of Rome ought to transcend the ages. Something similar might be going on with Americans in relation to their Founding Fathers. There is a sense of an American identity, of American values, of a “spirit” that transcends generations and needs to be retained in order for America to remain America.
All right, my kids are calling me to play with them. As always, feel free to disagree.
My recent thoughts on Virgil and the Founding Fathers of the United States raise an important question, namely: Why is it that we seem to have the need to create mythological and semi-mythological pasts for the group (such as a nation) to which we belong?
If anyone doubts that we still do create semi-mythological pasts for ourselves, the United States does serve as a pretty good example. Even though we have, in comparison to the founding of Rome, an abundance of hard historical facts about Columbus, about the first settlers in North America, about the war for independence and the founding of the American republic, this has not kept Americans from mythologizing these events.
(Just to clarify: I am using the word myth in a broad sense here, not in the specific sense of being stories about the gods, although, since the notion of divine destiny is so strong in American myths, they might qualify as myths even on that account.)
In these myths, Columbus becomes a great heroic figure who, standing alone, bravely challenges the whole worldview of his time. George Washington becomes larger than life, a symbol rather than a real man of flesh and blood, around which many legends can be spun.
To repeat the question, why is it that we have this propensity to mythologize? Is it again this sense of purpose that I talked about in my last posts? Can an empire or an ethnic group or a modern nation state not exist without some common identity that is built on a mythical past?
It can be argued that Homer greatly contributed to giving the loose connection of independent Greek city states a common identity. Without Homer, would the Greeks maybe have never felt any connection to each other at all? How much did Virgil contribute to the success of the Roman Empire? Would it have held together that long without him? Would the English ever have become that strong without looking back at the golden age of King Arthur? What would the Jewish people be without the Hebrew Bible? Would they have survived all these years as a distinct group if they did not have Abraham, Moses and David to draw on?
Or am I overstating the importance of creating a common identity rooted in a certain view of the past?
This need to look back at a larger-than-life past seems especially strong in cases where the identity of a group is not based on ethnicity, such as in the case of the Roman Empire or the United States.
Although even in the case where there is a degree of common ethnicity, there seems to be a need to call up a legendary past, especially when there is disunity among that ethnic group. The Brothers Grimm, after all, did not collect their German fairy tales just for entertainment, but as a nationalistic project to help unify the many German-speaking kingdoms of the early 19th century.
Perhaps a contributing factor to the rise of national myths is that a truly unifying identity needs to be dug up from the bottom, so to speak, from the common people, not imposed from the top. And the common folk just do have a tendency to mythologize the past and thus provide the stuff out of which a national identity can be woven. The Brothers Grimm, at least, seem to have done this quite consciously, trying to get in touch with the common people and digging up a unifying national identity from them. Virgil, too, did not simply make up a bunch of legends, but drew on previous literature, myths and folk tales.
Is such mythologizing necessarily a bad thing or can it also be a good thing that inspires us in positive ways?
I’ve kind of been on a Russian kick lately, finally getting around to the The Brothers Karamazov (I had only read the chapter on the Grand Inquisitor up to now) and going through some other material on Russian history and literature. My purpose was not specifically to discover something about Hegel, but I guess it’s hard to get away from him if you study 19th-century intellectual history in the West.
As elsewhere, Hegel had a huge influence on the Russian intelligentsia, which took off in full force in the 1830s. The very word intelligentsia, which is used cross-nationally nowadays, was coined at that time in Russia and originally denoted that specific movement in Russian history. The intelligentsia were a group of people from various occupations who were opposed to the political order of the day.
In true Hegelian fashion, they defined themselves as sharing a certain “spirit,” a view that often had religious overtones. And – surprise, surprise – the way this spirit manifested itself was in historical national development. Although the intelligentsia fell roughly into two opposing groups, the “Westernizers” and so-called “Slavophiles,” they both shared Hegel’s belief that the world was an organic whole that could only be understood when considered in its entirety. Influenced by Hegel and other German Romantics (if it’s right to call Hegel a Romantic) such as Schelling, they had no desire to fragmentize the world through scientific reductionism, but to find the big ideas that gave unity to all fragments.
Naturally, this meant that Russia, too, had to find its place in the evolution of the world spirit. The only but significant difference between the Westernizers and the Slavophiles was the question what this place was supposed to be. As the name suggests, the former thought that Russia simply had to catch up with the West, whereas the latter emphasized Russia’s own identity distinct from the West.
The debate between these two groupings within the intelligentsia was set off by the “First Philosophical Letter,” published by Petr Chaadaev in 1836. Just like Hegel seems to personify Time by describing historical development as a Spirit that gives meaning and purpose to history, and particularly manifests itself through nations, Chaadaev personified history by describing Russia as Time’s “orphan.” By that he meant the lack of a cultural evolution in Russia, which, according to Hegel, should be normal. Given Russia’s unique placement between Asia and Europe, such arrested development was inexcusable.
The Westernizers heartily agreed and thought that the way lay forward – toward more modernization adopted from the West. The Slavophiles, in contrast, thought that the answer lay in uncovering the good things from the past that had been buried. But, like I said above, both shared Hegel’s basic philosophy. Both believed that history was the source of national identity and that one had to find the key unifying idea in order to move along with the Zeitgeist.
Of course, Russia was just one of many places where Hegel’s wide influence was felt, but I do wonder whether Russia had been so open to Marx later on if Hegel hadn’t prepared the ideological ground. What do you think?
In response to this post on mixed economies and mixed constitutions, someone asked me: “What is that feature defining a good constitution, if not the degree to which that government is democratic itself?”
I would say this feature is the value of freedom, not democracy as such.
Pure democracy does not equal freedom. If the free speech of a Socrates starts to get on the nerves of the majority, a democracy can simply decide to bump Socrates off, as in fact happened. In order to ensure as much freedom as possible – in order to ensure that even ugly, potbellied Socrates with his unnerving questions about the definition of words can freely walk around the Agora and talk as much as he wants – one needs to have non-democratic safeguards within a democratic system. As Rosa Luxemburg said, “Freiheit ist immer die Freiheit der Andersdenken” (“Freedom is always the freedom of those who think differently.”)
But not only individuals may lose their freedom in a democracy, a democracy may actually take away everyone’s freedom by terminating itself. It can vote in a dictator. This happened in the German democracy prior to Hitler, and for this reason the new German democracy after the war tried to build in safeguards that would make it much harder for the democracy to terminate itself.
Something similar may be said about the United States. Since the Founding Fathers valued freedom, they recognized that a pure democracy would not be the best vehicle for ensuring freedom. Hence such extremely non-democratic institutions as the Supreme Court.
Not maximum efficiency in decision making nor stability as such, but as much long-term freedom for as many people as possible – this is the mark of a good constitution. To believe this, however, one obviously needs to value freedom. Implicit in the question of what makes up a “good” constitution is the question of what we value. Do we value individual freedom? Then a good constitution is that which promotes freedom and equal opportunities (=justice). Do we value unity? Then a good constitution is that which promotes conformity with the polis.
And what constitutes a good economy? Well, what do we value? Material prosperity, freedom, human happiness, the happiness of the many non-human sentient animals on this planet …?
I recently wrote a post on Hegel. Someone commenting on the post called my description of his thoughts “dead wrong,” which, however, does not keep me from writing a few words on a neo-Hegelian. Perhaps I will be slightly less wrong this time.
The neo-Hegelian I am talking about is Francis Fukuyama. He is especially known for his 1989 essay (and subsequent book) “The End of History,” in which he argues that the spread of Western liberal democracy might mark the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution. According to Fukuyama, we have, as it were, come to the end of history—because human history is driven by ideologies, and those have reached their final stage in the form of liberal democratic Capitalism.
Since I am not a complete determinist when it comes to human psychology, I agree that human beings can have genuinely creative ideas that have the potential of changing and shaping the material world—within certain limits. If I did not believe that ideas had huge consequences, I don’t think I’d be as interested in philosophy as I am.
I also think there is something to Fukuyama’s analysis about the collapse of Communism and the general acceptance of liberal democratic Capitalism. But to call it the “end of history” is, to me, far too premature. It might well be that in a few decades or centuries, all higher forms of human civilisation will collapse on a global scale and will have to be built up again more or less from scratch, perhaps on some so far wholly unanticipated ideological basis. It might well be that in a few millennia, global liberal democratic Capitalism will be seen as a relatively brief and rather curious phase in world history.
Perhaps future generations will look back at our present civilization much like we look back at bygone civilizations. This year, I went twice to the British Museum in London, where they have a large selection of mummies and other artefacts from Egypt. We now look back at the more than 2500 years of highly developed culture in Egypt, from the pyramids of the Old Kingdom to the suicide of Cleopatra, and we can see that it was just a phase in human history. But how difficult it would have been for a Pharaoh in the Old Kingdom to conceive that there would be radically different societies in the future, and that he would one day be considered part of the ancient past! How difficult it would have been for him to conceive that his ideologies that drove him to build the pyramids would one day be obsolete, replaced by new ideologies that would drive people to construct very different monuments! How horrified he would have been if he had known that one day tourists would walk past his mummy in a museum and that school children would point their little fingers at his shrivelled-up face in fascinated delight—at him who was meant to be preserved for eternity!
I don’t know what the future will bring, but I’m open to the idea that in 50,000 A.D. there will be a small section in some museum labelled “21st Century: Global Liberal Democratic Capitalism”—one of many sections and perhaps one that, in 50,000 A.D., only a few specialists really know much about. Hence I will leave it to future generations and future centuries to judge the long-term significance of our current developments.
90 YEARS OF COMMUNISM IN CHINA: One German Who Is Partly Responsible for It (and no, I don’t mean Karl Marx)
The Communist Party in China just threw a big party. One person partly responsible for the rise of modern Communism, even if inadvertently, is Georg Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), particularly his philosophy of history.
Now Hegel himself said that it is only possible to understand something in retrospect, after having the full picture, the implication being that those who wish to understand his philosophy basically need to read everything he has ever written. By that account, I am ill qualified to write this post, since I am still in the thick of Hegel’s mental forest, trees all around, and some of very peculiar shape. I have not yet made it out of the woods of Hegel’s thoughts far enough to look back and see the whole forest.
But others have, and they can provide the vision I am lacking. One of them is Darren Staloff, who said that Hegel’s philosophy of history can be summed up in four sentences:
- History is the dialectical process whereby spirit comes to know itself and realizes its Idea.
- Freedom is the idea of the Spirit and Spirit is Reason in-and-for-itself.
- The means of this realization, or cunning of Reason, is the passions of the individual as both subject and object of history, and its form is the State.
- The national spirit is a moment in the development of the World Spirit and for each such moment as for all, the owl of Minvera spreads its wings only with the setting of dusk.
Everything clear? No? Then let me try to elucidate.
1. History as a Dialectical Process
Hegel believed that history was a process similar to a thought process of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. This was later picked up by Karl Marx, an ardent Hegelian who saw history as a process in which the synthesis of Communism would arise out of the antithetical relationship between the working class and the ruling class. But Hegel, unlike Marx, did not think that this was a mindless process propelled merely by economic forces, but was actually the expression and realization of the “Weltgeist” (the “World Spirit/Mind”). I am still trying to wrap my mind around what exactly it is that Hegel means by this “Weltgeist.” It seems to me a kind of conglomerate of Christian theology, pantheism, nationalist sentiments, and faith in progress, producing a uniquely Hegelian “incarnation” that, through its pseudo-personal nature, allows Hegel to have his cake and eat it too. But more about that in a moment.
2. Freedom as the Idea of the Spirit and the Spirit as Reason
Here again, Hegel’s thinking is shaped by the concept of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. He sees Reason—that is, abstract, non-material thinking—as an expression of “God.” The antithesis of this divine Reason is Nature, and the synthesis of Nature with the divine Reason meets in the human race and thus produces the “Weltgeist,” the collective mind of man. This collective mind of man strives toward freedom, which does not mean freedom from state control, but freedom in the sense of Kantian autonomy, a freedom in which the “Weltgeist” becomes conscious of its own rationality. And, naturally, Hegel’s own philosophy is the primary means by which this happens.
3. The Realization of Reason in the Individual and the State
Hegel saw it as a positive occurrence when passion and ambition seized individual human beings to such a degree that they drove the process of history forward. History thus becomes incarnate in “Great Men”, in the Caesars and Alexanders and Napoleons of the world. They are the ones who move the “Weltgeist” toward its own realization. This self-realization of the collective “Weltgeist” takes place most fully in the modern State. Hegel, then, in contrast to John Locke, considers the State not to be merely a means to the happiness of individual human beings, but an end in itself. The individual human beings within the State are only the means by which the Whole is formed, similar to an eye in the human body that would be completely useless if separated from the body.
4. The Owl of Minerva
It follows from the last point that the Whole is always much more important than individual parts. In fact, it is only the Whole that gives meaning to the parts. That, for Hegel, is true for the modern sate as well as for the understanding of history. The particulars of history can only be fully understood in retrospect, when the “Weltgeist” becomes aware of itself and thus reveals how all the individual parts of history fit into the whole. Since Hegel claimed to have this holistic view of history, we must conclude that he thought human history was nearing its end.
Reasons for Hegel’s Views
As perplexing as Hegel can be, I find it much less perplexing why he should have come up with the philosophy he did. The late 18th and early 19th century saw the rise of modern Biblical scholarship that cast into doubt many of the Christian dogmas hitherto held in common by most people in Christian Europe, but that did not mean that people suddenly thought in completely non-Christian terms. Hegel could no longer affirm the orthodox doctrines of Christianity, but he retained many Christian ideas. Hence he divided history into the stages of the “Father,” the “Son”, and the “Holy Spirit,” and he viewed great leaders as a kind of “incarnation” of the “Weltgeist.” He could no longer fully believe in the personal God of Christianity, and yet he could not fully free himself from him. Hence his “God” is a pseudo-personal entity that is able to endow people with a sense of purpose without making the moral demands of orthodox Christianity.
Also, Hegel lived at the time of the Industrial Revolution when ideas of inevitable progress and evolution started to take hold of people’s minds. Hegel’s philosophy strongly reflects this blind belief in a constant forward-movement, this optimism about the unstoppable march of the human race toward ever greater achievements, ever greater understanding, ever greater triumph over Nature.
Furthermore, during Hegel’s lifetime, you had the rise of nationalism. The ripples of the French Revolution were felt throughout the world, and Napoleon united his people, while the German people were still divided among Prussia and the various German principalities. It is understandable that Hegel felt a great need for Germans to form a greater national identity and put the State over their individual interests. Therefore it is not surprising that his “Weltgeist” should manifest itself primarily through a national spirit, and particularly through Prussia.
All of this is understandable, and I think Hegel would have been a great poet who could have captured his “Zeitgeist” through subjective writings. The problem is that he wanted to be more than a poet and turned his subjective sentiments into a supposedly objective philosophy. As Bertrand Russell writes in his History of Western Philosophy, Hegel first formed his ideas through mystical experiences and only later intellectualized his essentially non-rational concepts.
Hegel might have been presumptuous about his interpretation of history, but he certainly left his own mark on history. It can be argued that without him, the world today would be radically different. Without Hegel, there would have probably been no Marx, and without Marx, there would have probably been no modern Communism, and without modern Communism, the whole 20th century would have been radically different. So yes, ideas can move history, albeit in a different way than Hegel proposed.
In my last post, I mentioned Rousseau’s desire for more transparency. However, I did not mean to suggest that he actually recognized the importance of privacy, but that his over-emphasis on transparency was understandable in its historical context.
What, then, was the historical context in 18th-century Europe? One might say that even in Rousseau’s time, there had been enough examples of Republics in which the majority oppressed a minority. Therefore, the argument goes, Rousseau should have recognized the importance of protecting the rights of the individual against the possible tyranny of the masses.
Well, it is true that Florence, Venice, the Netherlands and the Swiss Confederation were called “Republics,” some of them centuries before the French Revolution. But they were not Republics in the sense that we understand that term today. As James Madison wrote in 1788:
“What then are the distinctive characters of the republican form? Were an answer to this question to be sought, not by recurring to principles, but in the application of the term by political writers, to the constitutions of different States, no satisfactory one would ever be found. Holland, in which no particle of the supreme authority is derived from the people, has passed almost universally under the denomination of a republic. The same title has been bestowed on Venice, where absolute power over the great body of the people is exercised in the most absolute manner by a small body of hereditary nobles.”
It is in this sense that Switzerland was a “Republic.” Karl Viktor von Bonstetten, a patrician from Bern, called one of the Swiss regimes “organized ideally for evil, where the good is impossible.” He said that the bailiff was the judge of life and death. “Uncountable are the abuses of such a regime. In no corner of the earth, no matter how dismal, has torture raged so wildly as in Italian Switzerland. The bailiff, who had no salary, had to live off fines, those pecuniary punishments, and with these he compensated for the corruptions with which his office has been purchased.”
Geneva, Rousseau’s birthplace, was also called a “Republic,” but did not yet belong to the Swiss Confederation. It was a small independent Protestant state, an aristocratic oligarchy. The Founding Fathers of America considered the “Republic” of Geneva a perfect model for how not to rule a state.
John Adams said about Geneva: “The history of this city deserves to be studied with anxious attention by every American citizen. The principles of government, the necessity of various orders, and the fatal effects of an imperfect balance, appear no where in a stronger light. The fatal slumbers of the people, their invincible attachment to a few families, and the cool deliberate rage of those families, if such an expression may be allowed, to grasp all authority into their own hands, when they are not controlled or over-awed by a power above them in a first magistrate, are written in every page.”
Hence, prior to Rousseau and during his own lifetime, there had been no state that experienced the violence and the tyranny of majority factions against minorities. Even in those “Republics,” it was always the rule of a powerful minority over a less powerful majority.
The USA is secular because it is religious and it is religious because it is secular. The two feed on each other. The different conflicting religious groups from the 17th through the 19th century created gradually (in some parts of America very gradually!) a secular framework so that each group could exercise its convictions freely. And it was precisely this “free market” of religion that gave it a huge boost, making the 20th century arguably the most religious in American history.
Europe has been very different in this regard, as Ben Dupre writes in his book 50 Big Ideas You Really Need to Know:
“European countries are both less religious and less secular than the USA. This reality is not often fully acknowledged within Europe itself, however. Modern, self-styled ‘secular’ Europeans typically look uncomprehendingly to the east, where they see the dangerous fundamentalism of Asia; and superciliously to the west, where they detect the bland fervour of American religiosity. With zealots on each side, the temptation from the superior middle ground is to see secularism as the crowning achievement of European, rather than Western, civilization. But the picture is misleading.
The European self-image is based on a semi-mythical narrative of secularization that had its origins in the Renaissance, when man first usurped God’s place at the centre of the stage of human interest and when distinctively scientific explanations of man’s place in the world began to displace theologically inspired accounts. This process reached its crisis, according to the usual story, in the religious wars that reached their bloody climax in the 17th century. At this time the destructive sectarian passions released by the Protestant Reformation were eventually calmed by a secular transformation that was inspired by the Enlightenment thinkers such as Hobbes and Locke and swept along the tide of scientific progress.
The cumulative effect of these processes was that political theology based on divine revelation was replaced by political philosophy based on human reason; and that religion was removed to its own protected and private sphere, while an open and liberal public sphere was created in which freedom of expression and toleration of difference prevailed. And it was, furthermore, on this rich secular compost that democracy blossomed and thrived.
Unfortunately, this comforting tale, cherished as both the genealogy and the justification of modern European secular identity, is flawed in crucial respects. With the notable exception of France (where the revolution saw secularism, or laïcité, paid for in the blood of its citizens), no European country has been entirely or consistently secular. Indeed, the immediate product of the 17th-century religious wars was not a Europe of modern secular states but a patchwork of confessional, territorial ones; the only freedom (if any) generally allowed to religious minorities who found themselves in the wrong confessional territory was the ‘freedom’ to go elsewhere.
Much of this situation has persisted to this day. The United Kingdom, for example, has an established church, as do the Lutheran countries of Scandinavia, while other nations, such as Poland, Ireland and Italy, remain essentially Catholic. Where strict secularism has prevailed for a time, as for instance in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, there has often been violence, repression, intolerance and profoundly illiberal government. There is no clearer indication of the equivocal nature of European secularism than the fact that in the last decade of the 20th century the Balkans could be ravaged by wars that were motivated as much by religious differences as ethnic ones.”