Leiden Law Blog

The Dichotomy between Secularism and Sectarianism

The Dichotomy between Secularism and Sectarianism

Secularism used to be seen as the best solution for people who share different religions to harmoniously live together in the world. However this idea has been severely challenged in the past two decades. This blog aims to briefly consider one of the challenges. As one of the most prominent critics of secularism, Charles Taylor twice made provocative criticism of secularism as a sectarian idea, first in an official report on Quebec, entitled Building The Future: A Time for Reconciliation (2008)—which is in response to Quebec’s increasing public discontent concerning religious accommodation—and also in a later work entitled Secularism and Freedom of Conscience (2011). In short, Taylor objects to secularism because the underlying view of the world and of human nature as an all- encompassing secular philosophical conception is not liable to be shared by all citizens, and those who embrace any sort of religion are becoming second-class citizens, a fact which ultimately renders secularism into a sectarian doctrine. In this blog, I am going to clarify two matters, 1) secularism by no means denotes sectarianism, in fact secularism opposes sectarianism; 2) it is sectarianism rather than any religion per se that results in religiously fanatical violence.      

Sectarian, according to the Oxford dictionary, denotes 1) an action carried out on the grounds of membership of a sect, denomination or other group; 2) rigidly following the doctrines of a sect or other group. It is a derivative of sectary which also refers to a member of a religious or political sect. The origin of the word “sectary” stems from the mid-16th century Medieval Latin word sectarius, which means adherent. Sectarianism later is identified as bigotry, discrimination, or hatred arising from attaching importance to perceived differences between subdivisions within a group, such as between different denominations of a religion, class, regional or factions of a political movement. Let us suspend the political negativity associated with the concept of sectarian for a moment and centre on the factual aspects of it. Sectarian doctrine requires 1) strong adherence, usually leading to actions, 2) strong adherence displayed in regular patterns among its adherents and, in most cases 3) such strong adherence attached to one particular sect. Secularism, on the other hand, does not meet the factual requirements of sectarianism. Secularism is, above all, a creed advocating the separation of church and state in politics. However, secularism’s demand for separation has always been translated by Taylor as a deprivation of religion, an inferior position of religion compared to secularism. According to that particular trajectory of argument, “rigid” secularism is alleged to be as precisely sectarian as state-religion politics, as long as secularism displays the similar group division that state-religion also manifests. On the contrary, secularism working as a reasonable political structure cultivates solidarity and prevents group division. Secularism is not the opposite side of atheism, Christianity or, Islam. It can in fact co-exist with any of them. Every precept of secularism opposes sectarianism. Secularism is not a narrow-minded devotion confined to any sect or factional viewpoints.

Let’s envisage and compare what sectarian politics is in two hypothetical states. In a catholic nation, for instance country A, if the country’s policy and politics are settled in accordance with its catholic doctrines then the adherence to certain sects can be anticipated, thus we can safely claim it is a sectarian political system. Another hypothetical country, B, with a large population of football fans who support different clubs, has made its laws and policies in the best interest of the sport of football. Insanely as it sounds, country B also manifests a strong political sectarianism, favouring the sport of football. One day, non-football fans in country B from diverse backgrounds harbouring different ethical creeds finally decide to act against and change all the laws and policies that privilege football’s interests. Country B’s laws, politics and policies are altered into a different system, such as those in any democratically legitimate country, no longer taking any specific considerations for football fans other than securing their freedom to pursue their passion for football. Such a system is neutral for football fans and non-football fans, also for football fans of different clubs too. Does this new legal set up also demonstrate a sectarian characteristic in its politics by favouring non-football fans, rendering football fans into second-class citizens and promoting non-footballism? The interests and position of football and football fans are certainly diminished compared to the previous situation, but can we claim that non-football fans amount to an alliance, allied by not-caring-for-football? The sectarianism allegation of secularism would immediately collapse in view of the above hypothetic analogy. Country B’s new political system assuredly does not display sectarianism. Accordingly, how can secularism which promotes a separation between church and state be called sectarianism? That is precisely where Taylor goes astray: he takes the non-football fans’ appeal for not-pro-football principles and policies as something shared by and only by those non-football fans. In actuality there exists no such shared attitude. What they request is merely reasonable politics, which is desired by every reasonable person in society. The strong adherence and exclusive attachment expressed in unified patterns and shared by adherents cannot be found in secularism. Secularism is not a narrow-minded devotion confined to any sect or factional viewpoints.

Religious extremism is an imminent threat to human civilization, but punishing the extremists and even condemning the religion will not solve extremism on a fundamental level. Even if, hypothetically, the threat of religious fanaticism was one day eradicated by strong armed tactics, any form of fanaticism is likely to resurge so long as the root of fanaticism still exists, which is fanatical sectarianism. In politics, sectarianism has been burdened by strong negativity since its birth. Sectarianism regards its own sects as the only truth and thus demands interest, evaluation, recognition and respect for its own group. Christians did not stop persecuting each other and causing large-scale bloodshed until the 19th century. Atheistic governments in World War II and post war Soviet Union not only resulted in the most abhorrent governance in history, they also committed the crime of murdering millions. It is fanatical sectarianism that keeps people apart, not certain sects of beliefs or doctrines themselves.

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