When was the first secular society?

When was the first secular society?

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When was the first attempt to create a secular society? (a society that was intentionally separate from religion). Was the French Revolution the first to discard religion as an legitimizing force and to create secular calendars?

This question makes no sense until a "religion" is unambiguously defined. And this is difficult. Some definitions are so broad that according to these definitions, there is no irreligious society at all.

For example a remarkable book by Vercor, Humans or animals? (one of the places where I have seen a general definition of religion) includes "burial of the dead" and "ritual cannibalism" as some criteria of existence of religion in a society. I think since the beginning of history, (that is since the writing was invented) there was no society where the dead were not buried, or otherwise disposed with some ritual.

According to such broad definitions, Communism or Confucianism, or any philosophy, or a code of behavior, or system of beliefs is called religion. If you invent some narrower definition, which would exclude Confucianism, for example, then China (or parts of it, in different periods of history) is a very ancient irreligious society.

Arguably all societies are formed around institutions. Fukuyama claims, and it seems reasonable, that religious institutions were the most effective institutions between the "tribal" organization and modern secular societies.

@Alex is right that it is difficult to judge how much a given institution relies on mystical or preternatural support. American is by treaty "not a Christian nation", but our money and our governmental rituals pay repeated service to a divine being. (please don't argue the point, merely note that the evidence isn't 100% consistent). On similar grounds, I'd argue that the "secular" status of the Communist party is arguable (the repeated assertions of the role of Communism in destiny, the "incorruptibility" of Lenin's body, the necessity of quoting the Mao and other prophets, etc. Although the official party line may be atheistic, the ritual practice of the members resembles religious behavior.) Outside the Western tradition, I concur with @Alex that Confucianism is a secular institution; I admit that I am not an expert on the field and that in my experience there is no consensus on the topic.

I stipulate that "Religion" and "secular" are difficult to objectively define.
Having said that I think that the French Revolution was the first group to make a positive attempt to exclude religious institutions from the legitimacy of their government. Of course they promptly replaced it with a secular religion; it is equally valid to answer that there has not yet been a secular society.


In her novel Redwood (1824), Catharine Maria Sedgwick (1789–1867) describes the Shaker villages of Lebanon and Hancock, Massachusetts, as a "religious republic" divided into communal "family" units "whose members are clothed from one store-house, fed at the same board, and perform their domestic worship together" (pp. 178–181) while also engaging in an enthusiastic bustle of industry around looms and the community dairy. She also praises the members for their "skillful cultivation" and "snow white linen" (p. 184). In the midst of this mostly flattering portrayal, however, she also observes that these communities "have been visited by foreigners and strangers from all parts of our union—all are shocked or disgusted by some of the absurdities of the shaker faith, but none have withheld their admiration from the results of their industry, ingenuity, order, frugality, and temperance" (p. 181). Sedgwick's conflicted assessment of Shaker culture is representative of the mixture of skepticism, abhorrence, and grudging respect extended by Americans to their brethren living in utopian communities during the same period. The first half of the nineteenth century ushered in a golden era of utopian experimentation. Owenists, Fourierists, Oneida Perfectionists, Mormons, Amana Inspirationalists, and New Icarians all founded utopian communities in America between 1820 and 1870. Each movement was greeted with a mix of revulsion and fascination from within the dominant culture, and their experiments were also registered by the nation's literary elite, who, like Sedgwick, could be simultaneously seduced and repulsed by the new utopianism.

During the rise of secular music in the 14th-century, one of the most important composers of that time was Guillaume de Mauchaut. Mauchaut wrote both sacred and secular music, and he is known for composing polyphonies.

Another important composer was Francesco Landini, a blind Italian composer. Landini wrote madrigals, which is a type of vocal music based on secular poems set to music that had simpler melodies.

John Dunstable was an important composer from England who used 3rd and 6th intervals rather than the 4th and 5th intervals used earlier. Dunstable influenced many composers of his time including Gilles Binchois and Guillaume Dufay.

Binchois and Dufay were both known Burgundian composers. Their works reflected early tonality. Tonality is a principle in music composition wherein at the end of the piece there is a feeling of completion by going back to the tonic. The tonic is the principal pitch of a composition.

Poor Richard’s Almanack

Franklin’s greatest business accomplishment came from the publication of Poor Richard’s Almanack. On December 19, 1732 Franklin published his first almanac under the pseudonym of Richard Saunders. The almanac was published for the year of 1733 and was published once a year for the next 25 years. It contained all sorts of interesting information such as the calendar, weather predictions, sayings, poems and demographics. It also included recipes, trivia, advice, aphorisms, and proverbs about industry and frugality. Franklin considered it a vehicle of instruction for common people who could not afford books, a literature for the masses. Almanacs were the most read secular books in the colonies.

Almanacs were produced in Britain long before they made their way to North America. The first almanac in North America was published by William Pierce of Harvard College in 1639 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The most important were published in New England by Nathaniel Ames of Dedham, Massachusetts, its publication lasted from 1726 to 1775. Benjamin Franklin’s brother, James, also published the Rhode-Island Almanack starting in 1728.

The oldest almanac still in circulation in North America is the Old Farmer’s Almanac first published in 1792 by Robert B. Thomas.

According to the Library Company of Philadelphia only three copies of the 1733 original issue exist. The third copy was found in 2009 in the library of the Berwick Historical Society in Pennsylvania. Here in Berwick, an old industrial town, Franklin printed thousands of copies of his calendar from 1733 to 1760. This original issue was sold in auction by Sotheby’s fetching $556,500.

Poor Richard and Richard Saunders

A 1733 edition of Poor Richard’s Almanac

The success of Poor Richard’s Almanack is due in part to Franklin’s ability to adapt bits and pieces of past calendars with his own skills and wit.

Franklin wrote under the pseudonym of Richard Saunders. Richard Saunders was an English physician and astrologist who wrote under the pen name of Cardanus Rider which in rearranged letters is Richard Saunders. Saunders published Rider’s British Merlin, a popular almanac published from 1626 until the 1830s. The name Poor Richard was adapted from another British almanac, Poor Robin which was first published in 1664. The pseudonym Richard Saunders was initially distinct from Franklin but throughout the years it became linked with Franklin’s character.

Poor Richard’s Almanack was not all serious business, it published jokes and hoaxes. It is believed that Richard Saunders’ personality was modeled after Isaaq Bickerstaff Esq, a pseudonym used by Jonathan Swift as part of a hoax to predict the death of almanac writer John Partridge. One of Franklin’s most famous hoaxes The Death of Titan Leeds (see below) was based on this hoax.

The almanac was a best seller in the American colonies printing up to 10,000 copies a year. Its success brought wealth to Benjamin Franklin. Poor Richard’s Almanack was so popular that Napoleon ordered it translated into Italian and later it was also translated into French.

The first issue of Poor Richard’s Almanack

Richard Saunders introducing himself in his first 1733 almanac:

The death of Titan Leeds

In his first edition Franklin predicted the death of Titan Leeds, a competitor publisher of another calendar. In replicating Swift-Bickerstaff hoax Franklin predicted Leed’s death on Oct. 17, 1733, 3:29 P.M., at the very instant of the conjunction of the Sun and Mercury. He advised his readers to buy the next issue of his calendar to see if his prediction held. When the date of his predicted death arrived and Leeds had not died, Franklin nevertheless published his obituary. When confronted by Leeds Franklin proclaimed that someone had appropriated his name and was being impersonated by an inferior printer.

For the next years he continued to affirm that Leeds had died until 1738 when he actually passed on. Franklin congratulated the person who had usurped Leeds name for finally ending his pretense.

In the 14 th and 15 th centuries in France, the inquisition into the practice of witchcraft resulted in hundreds or even thousands of people being paraded as heretics and burned at the stake. Many of those executed had been told they would be released with a warning if they confessed and expressed remorse, but the unlucky victims were executed anyway.

Common accusations included mysteriously healing an injured or sick person, causing a rival’s bad fortune, causing another to become ill or die, or, one of the most common, causing bad weather. If that sounds weird, just think about how perturbed people get at the television weather man when the weather sucks!

As ridiculous as it may seem today, back then a person was in grave danger if they had been accused of witchcraft, sorcery or devil worship. Although many folks nowadays confuse devil worship with witchcraft, and although a devil worshipper might engage in witchcraft or a witch might also be a devil worshipper, the 2 things are separate and most witches are not devil worshippers. On the other hand, who really knows? After all, you cannot expect a witch to tell the truth!

As we have touched on before in History and Headlines, witch hunts and witch trials have been around since the beginning of society and continue today in one form or another. In Africa, witch hunters still take their job quite seriously. Just like it used to be the case in Europe, people accused of witchcraft are persecuted and exiled from their local communities and sometimes their property is confiscated. (Kind of makes you question the motives of the persecutors.)

The Secularization of the West

The great religious upheaval of the sixteenth century contributed to the long-term decline of religion and the rise of secularism in the West, although few of the participants could have foreseen this at the time.

The great religious upheaval of the sixteenth century contributed to the long-term decline of religion and the rise of secularism in the West, although few of the participants could have foreseen this at the time.

Perhaps the most important effect was the reality of religious division itself. Beginning in the late sixteenth century, Western Christians had to begin to cope with the reality of what would later be called pluralism. Now such pluralism is usually discussed with respect to religious values in public life, but there is a deeper problem which it poses and which is often overlooked. In the midst of a continually multiplying number of groups claiming to have the truth, it becomes difficult for many people to believe that any faith can be true. During the religious wars in France, for example, the essayist Michel de Montaigne, though at least a nominal Catholic, expressed a certain skepticism about all religion. He wondered how the people on opposite sides of the wars could be so certain of their beliefs. The fact that people held to contradictory beliefs with dogmatic certitude was, for Montaigne, grounds for wondering how either side could be right.

His attitude was not widely shared by his contemporaries, but in the next century it came to be expressed more openly. Put simply, the argument of the incipient skeptics was, "If a variety of religious groups each claims to have the truth, and each claims that all the others are in error, does it not seem reasonable that all of them are in error?"

The wars and persecutions which accompanied the religious divisions also had an important effect on the growth of skepticism. The spectacle of bloody violence and hatred directed by Christians at other Christians decade after decade took its toll. The religious wars in Europe lasted from roughly 1540 to 1700. Although they always had political causes as well, religion usually provided the passion and the chief justification for the fighting. Religious persecution was practiced in virtually every Western country until after 1700. One does not often judge the teachings of a religion by the conduct of the people who do not live up to them. However, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, religion did appear as a destructive force, and this certainly had a deep psychological effect.

The reaction was not usually outright skepticism, although there was some of that. More common was a half-conscious decision by many Christians to dampen the passions which their faith generated. Insofar as those passions were murderous, this was a genuinely Christian thing to do. However, religious belief, since it is supposed to infuse the believer's whole life, must transform his being in profound ways. Some religious and political leaders of the late seventeenth century decided, more or less deliberately, to encourage a bland, formal, nearly contentless religion which could never arouse sufficient emotions to threaten disorder.

From the period just before 1700 we can date a familiar type of modern Christianity. It stresses ethical teachings, denigrates the importance of basic doctrines, relegates belief to people's private lives, and is embarrassed by open displays of religious fervor. The familiar modern social convention appeared whereby it is considered bad manners to discuss religion, in part because it is likely to be divisive. Religious toleration came to mean not only allowing others to practice their faith but never implying that their faith might be incomplete or that some matters of truth cannot be ignored.

England was probably the place where such attitudes were most clearly manifest after about 1690. England had two revolutions in the seventeenth century, one of them accompanied by a civil war. Especially in the first one (1642-1660), religion played a major role. An ardent Puritanism was pitted against the Anglican monarchy. Beginning in the late seventeenth century, many Englishmen espoused a religious philosophy called Latitudinarianism which, as the name implies, was a style of church life broad enough to encompass almost everyone. For the next 150 years, membership in the Anglican Church was a social necessity involving minimum conformity to its public observances. But any kind of open religious fervor, anything that smacked of what was called "enthusiasm," was held in disdain. It was in reaction to this aridity that the Methodist movement began.

By itself the fragmentation of Christianity and the bitter conflicts which accompanied it would probably not have produced the secularization of the West. There were other forces at work, the long-term effects of which were only dimly recognized at the time. The most important of these was probably the growth of science.

In 1543, the Polish astronomer Nicholas Copernicus published a book in which he challenged the ancient theory that the earth is the center of the universe. He claimed that the sun is the center and the earth merely a planet. It took sixty years for the new theory to become widely known even in educated circles, but by the early seventeenth century it was the subject of much controversy. The Italian scientist Galileo Galilei was condemned by the Catholic Church for teaching the Copernican theory.

Protestants and Catholics both resisted the new theory because it seemed to contradict the Scripture, which speaks of the sun moving in the heavens. There were other problems as well. Not the least of these was that man had been dethroned from a central place in the universe and was now a mere inhabitant of one of the planets. The image of the cosmos which had been almost universally held for two millenia was called into question, and people wondered about other beliefs handed down from the past.

It would take man a long time to work out the problem of reconciling scriptural authority with scientific discovery. Many more conflicts (for example, over the age of the universe) would arise in the next three centuries. Though many of them had the effect of weakening the credibility of religious authority only slightly, their cumulative effect was powerful.

It would be a mistake, however, to regard the Scientific Revolution as leading directly to secularization. The leading scientists (Galileo and Isaac Newton, for example) were devout. Almost all scientists were at least conventional believers. Indeed, Newton thought that the laws of physics which he formulated made the existence of God more certain rather than less so, since only a Supreme Intelligence could have created such a marvellously ordered and rational universe.

The philosophers inspired by the new science, like Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes, took pains to protect religious belief from skeptical attack. Their very act of protecting it helped subtly to undermine it. They seemed to imply that faith could not withstand rational scrutiny and was primarily a matter of subjective choice. Descartes prided himself on developing a rigorous proof for the existence of God. But his fellow Frenchman Blaise Pascal, as great a mathematician as Descartes and a fervent Christian apologist, asked whether "the god of the geometers" had anything to do with the "God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." (Pascal, precociously, also foresaw that science might become anti-humanistic, by reducing man to a mere speck in the vastness of the universe.)

From the beginning of the European universities in the twelfth century, theology had been the "queen of the sciences," and religion had been seen as at the center of reality. Now thinkers like Descartes "protected" religion by putting it off to one side. Descartes regarded mathematics as the most perfect of disciplines, the one which provided a hope of certitude in other areas of inquiry. Others looked to other sources, such as empirical investigation. Religion was not openly attacked nor, for the most part, was it disbelieved. It just ceased to be important. The dramatic success of the new science stimulated an enormous sense of self-confidence in many people. They assumed that the scientific method would in time unravel all mysteries, solve all problems. Religion was increasingly felt as something unnecessary even if true, to be shunted into a side room of one's life.

If the seventeenth century still treated Christianity with respect, the eighteenth century opened a frontal attack on it. The philosophes (probably best translated as "intellectuals") were self-proclaimed apostles of an "Enlightenment." This term implies the existence of prior darkness, largely the result of Christianity, which was equated with superstition and ignorance. In their mental world there was no room for mystery or the supernatural. Whatever could not be discovered or proven rationally was false.

In the eighteenth century, for the first time since Roman days, there were self-proclaimed atheists, though atheism was not fully respectable even in advanced intellectual circles. Most of the intellectuals were Deists, meaning that they believed in a God like Newton's Supreme Intelligence, who had planned and created the marvellously well-ordered universe. But, after creating it, this "clock-maker God" had left it to run in accordance with its own laws.

There was no divine providence or miracles-God did not "interfere" in his creation. Nor did he reveal himself to his people, in the Scriptures or through the church. All of man's knowledge of God came through his creation, by means of rational inquiry. There was thus no need for formal religion in fact, formal religion was based on falsehood. One "worshipped" God only by living in accord with reason. Prayer was meaningless. The Bible, while it contained some elevated and inspiring passages, was considered a hodge-podge of man-made tales, many of them actually harmful if believed. For the most part the intellectuals of the eighteenth century held to a morality quite similar to Judaeo-Christian morality, but they derived it solely from reason and recognized no religious authority in moral matters. Some of them believed in the possibility of an afterlife but many did not.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, the basic outlines of modern Secular Humanism had been expressed most wittily and influentially by the French writer Voltaire. There was one major difference from modern Secular Humanism: Voltaire could quip that "If God did not exist, he would have to be invented." Most intellectuals of the time thought it unreasonable not to believe in a God, although this was not, as Pascal had foreseen a century earlier, the God of Christian revelation.

The anti-religious sentiment of the Enlightenment was not solely a matter of ideas. Voltaire also often said about the Catholic Church, "Crush the infamous thing!" In all the Western societies, education was largely the responsibility of the churches, and the churches, established by law, were highly influential. Thus the anti-Christian intellectuals also opposed the church as an institution and a social force. The statement "I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it," though often attributed to Voltaire, did not represent his views accurately. He was willing to use coercion against his intellectual enemies.

As far back as the Reformation a few people had, for religious reasons, advocated complete religious toleration. Later, many people espoused limited religious toleration as a way of avoiding destructive civil wars. In the eighteenth century, the intellectuals began to advocate religious toleration as a matter of principle. Their motives were somewhat mixed. In part they urged religious toleration out of respect for individual conscience. In part, however, it was out of the conviction that all religious beliefs were equally false and thus all should be equally tolerated. Voltaire rejoiced that, in a society where there were many religious groups, all of them would be weak.

Probably no more than about a tenth of Europe's population was seriously affected by Enlightenment ideas in the eighteenth century. (Indeed, Voltaire tried to keep those ideas from the masses. He thought they were not ready for them.) But, among the educated classes they were highly influential. By about 1770, it was fashionable to scoff at organized religion and its teachings.

Although the intellectuals of the time portrayed the churches as reactionary enemies of progress, those churches offered surprisingly feeble resistance to the Enlightenment onslaught. In England, except for a few groups like the Methodists, religion slumbered and was content with mere formal adherence. Of this situation Voltaire heartily approved. At one point he raised a storm by claiming that the Calvinist clergy of Geneva secretly agreed with him. In Catholic France the higher clergy were particularly worldly. Many of them viewed the church mainly as a career, and not a few were eager to embrace Enlightenment ideas, no matter how destructive of Christianity. It was not the last time secularism triumphed by the passivity and even active cooperation of the supposed guardians of the faith.

The French Revolution of 1789 accomplished many of the goals of the enlightenment, sweeping away by violence all the social institutions to which the intellectuals objected, including the church. Most of the leading philosophes were dead by then the few still alive found that their ideas did not save them from prison and even execution. If they approved of many of the goals of the Revolution, they did not approve its methods. They had believed in reason, but the Revolution seemed to be the triumph of violent passions and hatreds.

If the Revolution was in one sense the fulfillment of the Enlightenment, it was in another sense its repudiation. It destroyed the philosophes' dream that, having given up religious authority, man could remake his life peacefully and tolerantly. Instead, discrediting all traditional authorities ushered in a period of near anarchy. During the so-called Reign of Terror, thousands of Frenchmen were summarily guillotined. Most of them were probably innocent of any crime, and few of them had been given even the semblance of a fair trial. The Terror, an orgy of hate and revenge, was strong disproof of the Enlightenment belief that man, left to himself, would inevitably behave in a rational and just way. The dark side of human nature asserted itself with a literal vengeance in the mid-1790s.

The Terror was the first example of a familiar modern phenomenon: a movement to remake the world in the name of humanity gives birth to a murderous and destructive fanaticism. Every modern revolution has borne the same witness. It is one of the strongest arguments against total reliance on man and his goodwill. It has also given rise, among thoughtful people, to a strong distrust of all movements which proclaim that they have the welfare of "humanity" at heart. Time and again, this has meant the crushing of individual human beings in the name of a political abstraction.

The facts of the revolutionary Terror are well-known, yet their implications have not been widely recognized. Secular Humanists have often manipulated public opinion in their favor by charging that religion has a history of bloody persecution, while Humanism has always been tolerant. When they want to invoke the specter of murderous intolerance they talk about either the Catholic Inquisition or the "witch-burnings" carried out by both Catholics and Protestants. Rarely is there reference to the "Committees of Public Safety," which implemented the Reign of Terror in the name of humanity.

Modern Secular Humanism has been stained with blood from its very birth. At first, the Revolution seemed willing to tolerate the church if the clergy would promise to be loyal to the regime. Soon the government embarked on a systematic "deChristianizing" campaign. Churches were closed and converted to profane uses, like stables for horses. Religious symbols were destroyed. The religious press was outlawed. All religious services were forbidden. Priests and nuns were rounded up in large numbers and sent into exile, imprisoned, or executed. The aim of the government was to wipe out every remaining vestige of Christianity.

Although its full fury was found in France, similar ideas and practices spread to other parts of Europe where the Revolution itself spread. It became, in time, a permanent feature of European life. Since the Revolution, there have been few instances of physical persecution directed against believers in the West. However, in France and Spain in particular, certain political parties, when in power, have closed religious schools and done all they could to harass the church and destroy its influence. For the most part, the people responsible for such policies could subscribe to the tenets of the two Humanist Manifestoes.

The restoration of the European monarchies in 1815 was generally accompanied by a religious revival. In part this was in reaction to the suppression of religion during the Revolution. In part, however, it was also out of the belief that the philosophy of the Enlightenment had itself been narrow and restrictive. It had not taken account of the depth and complexity of human nature. The dominant cultural movement of the early nineteenth century was Romanticism which, in general, emphasized the profound mysteries of existence. While many Romantics were no more friendly to the church than the Enlightenment had been, some became ardent believers.

Christianity in the Western world may have reached its low point in the eighteenth century. The nineteenth century produced a situation rather like two elevators passing each other, one going up, the other down. There was a widespread, religious revival, both in Protestant and in Catholic countries, all through the nineteenth century. The Oxford Movement in England, whose leading figure was John Henry Newman, is one of the best known. Religious belief and churchgoing were once again respectable, and in some circles mandatory. There were important Christian intellectuals, like Newman and the Danish Lutheran Soren Kierkegaard, which the eighteenth century had lacked.

But the implications of eighteenth-century secularism continued to be developed, in more and more radical ways. The French Revolution established what amounted to a permanent party dedicated to using political power, when it could, for the systematic expunging of religious influence from public life. Science too continued moving in directions sometimes damaging to religion, though some leading scientists (like Louis Pasteur and Gregor Mendel) were devout believers. Besides the conflict over the authority of the Bible (centered now on the creation account in the book of Genesis), there developed in the nineteenth century what has been called "scientism." This holds that only science has the key to truth and that whatever is not scientific is false. Nineteenth-century science sometimes held up the promise of solving all human problems, rendering religion obsolete in the process.

Only gradually were the practical benefits of science, in the form of useful technology, discovered. In the nineteenth century industrial technology came into its own, and it developed its own cult. The avante garde held that in time the practical application of science, through the invention of the right kinds of machines, would solve all human problems. Technology gave to some people such an immense sense of self-confidence that dependence on God came to seem meaningless.

The nineteenth century also gave birth to three new revolutionary systems of thought, those identified with Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, and Sigmund Freud. What all three shared, different though they were in many respects, was a basic materialism. Human existence was described, respectively, by economic necessities, biological evolution, and sexual urges.

All three movements gave further impetus to Secular Humanism in that all three dispensed with God. Marx was a militant atheist. Darwin did not reject God out of necessity, but as he grew older he became more and more a skeptic. Freud regarded religious belief as a neurotic illusion. Yet, in a sense, all three can also be called anti-humanistic, helping to reveal some of the internal contradictions of Humanism itself. Since the days of the Greeks, men had prided themselves on their spiritual and rational natures. This was at the basis of authentic Humanism. Marx seemed to say that most rational thought was a mere cover for economic self-interest. Knowingly or unknowingly, men acted in accord with class interests over which they had no control. Darwin and his followers were never able to resolve man's exact relationship to the animal kingdom or determine how much dignity he could claim by virtue of transcending his animal nature. Freud treated almost all conscious thought as misleading and saw human nature as shaped by unconscious drives of which man had little accurate understanding and even less control.

The few passing moves towards atheism that had occurred prior to 1800 had been turned aside. The Enlightenment itself had erected a bulwark against it. In the nineteenth century, atheism came into its own. The focus had also shifted, subtly but importantly. Earlier atheists were mostly people who thought that there was no rational basis for believing in God. Nineteenth-century atheists argued that belief in God was undesirable. In effect, they willed not to believe in him.

Marx proclaimed atheism as a necessity. All religious belief reflected unjust social structures. Belief in God would necessarily distract people from the struggle for social revolution. The philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, roughly Marx's contemporary and a major influence on him, argued that mankind would remain forever in a kind of childlike state so long as belief in God persisted. It was left for the philosopher Friederich Nietzsche, later in the century, to proclaim the "death of God," by which he meant the death of the idea of God. Nietzsche postulated the Superman who, without the benefit of divine authority or objective moral law, would make his own values and decree the kind of world he would live in.

The strain of modern Humanism which comes down through Feuerbach, Marx, and Nietzsche can be called Promethean Humanism, after the figure in Greek mythology who stole fire from the gods to give it to man. It is a Humanism which bases itself on rebellion and a denial of God. It would counter Voltaire, "If God exists, he must be destroyed." The older, somewhat gentler Humanism deriving from the Enlightenment is less passionate. It was content to say that there is no rational evidence for believing in God.

Enlightenment Humanism had always prided itself on its morality. Its proudest boast has been that, without the sanction of religion, its moral code has been very similar to that of Christianity. But the new Humanism of the nineteenth century embodied a demonic urge to negate and destroy. As Nietzsche saw clearly, it was not only a matter of not believing in God. Once God had been denied, man could achieve true freedom only by denying all moral constraints on himself and inventing his own morality. The human will alone became sovereign. This type of Humanism has often descended into Nihilism, the urge to destroy and annihilate every accepted good. The older, more genteel kind of Humanism has been steadily losing ground to this newer kind, which is in essence profoundly anti-humanistic.

The major intellectual bases for Secular Humanism had mostly been laid by the middle of the nineteenth century. Besides new and revolutionary ideas, the nineteenth century marked the beginning of the age of mass communications. For the first time in history, a majority of the population, at least in some countries, could read and write. Mass-circulation newspapers, magazines, and books began to be published. Most Western nations made at least a beginning toward establishing compulsory education for all children. In addition, most remaining censorship was either abolished or severely curtailed.

The result was that ideas which in the eighteenth century had been confined to an educated elite now started to gain common currency. For a long time they were resisted. Popular culture in the West remained conservative with respect to religious and moral values. But gradually the movement spread. Organizations of self-proclaimed atheists or humanists were established. In the 1880s, an atheist was elected to the English Parliament. After attempts to deny him his seat because he could not swear the customary oath, he was allowed to serve.

America has shared in the general secularization of the West, but it has followed its own path in certain ways. It deserves special consideration.

Hitchcock, James. "The Secularization of the West." Chapter 3 in What is Secular Humanism. (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Books, 1982), 33-48.

Can You Name the Muslim World’s First Secular Democracy?

The brief but inclusive Azerbaijan Democratic Republic shows that innovation can come from where it’s least expected.

The exotic, cosmopolitan city buzzed with activity, its multicultural lifeblood driven in part by a recent oil boom and swept up in intellectual thought and political activism. Petro barons lounged in newly built mansions outside the Old City, where merchants traded in local wares, shopkeepers served mouthwatering culinary delights and residents shuffled through narrow alleys to and from centuries-old houses of worship.

Midcentury Tehran? Caracas in the 1970s? Try Baku during the waning days of World War I.

Though located on the southern fringes of the Russian Empire, the commercial and cultural outpost that now serves as the capital of Azerbaijan wasn’t as sleepy as one might expect for an isolated city on the shores of the Caspian Sea and sequestered behind the towering Caucasus Mountains. In fact, in the brief moment between the collapse of imperial Russia and the establishment of the Soviet Union, a unique set of circumstances here gave rise to something perhaps even more surprising: what local historians say was the Muslim world’s first functioning secular democracy.

If you thought Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s Republic of Turkey — founded in 1923 — claimed that title, welcome to the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR) of 1918–20.

[The Azerbaijan republic] was quite progressive, not only in regard to the new East but even to Europe.

Zaur Gasimov, research fellow, Orient-Institut Istanbul

Though short-lived, the ADR arose in a region of former empires, kingdoms and autocracies to set an impressive precedent. Embracing inclusive parliamentary politics, empowering women and ethnic minorities and promoting quality education, it not only laid the foundation for Azerbaijan but also carved out its own place in history. “Most important, it was a victory of the local secular intelligentsia over the old elite,” says Altay Goyushov, a professor of history at Baku State University.

Located at a strategic crossroads where the Persian, Turkic and European worlds met, the collection of khanates that came under Russian rule was inherently multiethnic and multiconfessional by the turn of the 20th century, populated by Sunnis, Shiites, Armenians, Russians, Poles and many others. Yet a core Azeri intelligentsia — graduates of Russian educational institutes who increasingly came to identify with European-style social democracy — was also crystallizing around the idea of a state governed by the sort of post-colonial institutions that were sprouting up across Europe. It provided a “logical conclusion,” Goyushov says, to the transformation of Azerbaijani society during the 19th century.

With help from the Ottoman Empire’s army, these elites, represented in large part by Mammad Amin Rasulzadeh and his Musavat Party, seized the moment to establish the ADR, whose government was then divided into separate branches and featured a Parliament stocked with a wide range of nationalities, from ethnic Azeris to Jews, and political forces, from nationalists and liberal democrats to Islamists and leftists. Other key pillars of the new Azerbaijan was Baku State University, whose establishment in 1919 marked the birth of a new intelligentsia, as well as women’s suffrage. “It was quite progressive, not only in regard to the new East but even to Europe,” says Zaur Gasimov, a research fellow at the Orient-Institut Istanbul.

In a September 1919 speech, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson reportedly recalled encountering Azerbaijani delegates at the Paris Peace Conference earlier that year. Although he didn’t know their origin upon first meeting them, he was clearly struck: “I was talking to men who talked the same language that I did in respect of ideas, in respect of conceptions of liberty, in respect of conceptions of right and justice.”

Despite its lofty accomplishments, however, the ADR wasn’t destined to last. Unprepared for such a wide-ranging political experiment, Azerbaijani society was woefully bereft of technocrats and other experts well-versed in functional bureaucracy. Under Russian rule, neither Muslims nor Jews were allowed to serve in the military, which forced the ADR government to cobble together an army of foreign hires and novices. That’s in addition to territorial conflicts with neighbors and the weight of international powers vying for influence over the greater region. All this made Azerbaijan ripe for occupation by the Red Army in 1920, according to Gasimov. “Within a couple of days,” he says, “they occupied the whole country.”

Yet the republic’s memory lives on, even if under somewhat precarious circumstances. Azerbaijan continued its nation-building project as part of the Soviet Union, though communist rule proved heavy-handed. The Soviet collapse in 1991 returned independence to Azerbaijan. In spirit — and certainly if you ask nationally conscious Azeris — it’s the logical continuation of the ADR. But for Azerbaijan’s autocratic dynasty, which has ruled the country since the early 1990s, things aren’t so simple.

According to Goyushov, the personality cult carefully built in recent years around patriarch Heydar Aliyev, whose son Ilham took over after the death of his father in 2003, has taken precedence over the memories of the ADR, which are quietly commemorated by the authorities but not celebrated with enthusiasm. “On one hand, they cannot completely deny it,” Goyushov says, “but at the same time, they would like to diminish the role of the republic in general Azerbaijani history.” At its most cynical, Goyushov adds, the current government hoists the ADR as an example of the downfalls of participatory democracy.

Politicized or not, the fleeting republic proves at least one vital point: Political innovation sometimes comes from where you least expect it.

An Islamist Roadmap

To get a better sense of what Turkey’s new ruling elites think of secularism, it may be helpful to listen to their opinion leaders, one of whom is Hayretin Karaman. As a professor emeritus of Islamic law and a longtime columnist of the Islamist daily Yeni Şafak, he is a prominent authority in Turkey’s conservative Islamic circles. He is also a staunch supporter of the Erdogan regime.

In his column, Karaman has repeatedly addressed the issue of whether living under a secular regime is preferable for Muslims, and, if not, what they are supposed to do. In one of his most notable pieces, “Living as a Muslim in the Secular Order,” he argued that while it is nice that a democratic–secular system allows Muslims to freely practice their religion, it is not enough. Islam also demands “Islamization,” Karaman wrote, and that in turn requires that the “flaws” in religious practice “are kept secret, and good morals are manifest.” Therefore, Karaman argued, “it is very difficult for Muslims who live in the laic-secular systems to protect their religion and culture.” Sins cannot be banned and “they can even be advertised in the media.” 15 Kahraman does not see the practical incrementalism of Turkey’s recent leaders as the way to achieve these goals. “No doubt, the primal duty is to change the order,” he wrote. But he also acknowledged that such total reform “is not easily done” and requires “following a long and narrow road.” In the meantime, he added, governments with a “religious and ideological inclination” can “tilt” toward Islam, while Islamic civil society works hard to win hearts and minds. 16

In the Turkey of 2018, one can observe that the soft Islamization Karaman envisioned is already in progress. The AKP government is indeed trying to “tilt” society toward its own understanding of Islam through various measures. These include increasing the number of state-sponsored religious schools sanitizing the national education system by excluding themes like the Darwinian theory of evolution discouraging alcohol consumption with extremely high taxes on alcoholic beverages and banning their advertising and promotion and imposing “national and spiritual values” on mass media through the grip of the “Radio and Television Supreme Council.” Meanwhile, Islamic civil society, with the full support of the government, is thriving in terms of resources and outreach.

This suggests that if the political dominance of Turkey’s Islamic camp continues in the years and perhaps decades to come, the “long and narrow road” that Karaman mentioned could then be taken, and secularism can further be eroded to open the way for an explicitly Islamic order.

The efforts of Turkish Islamists who hope to see a more Islamized Turkey are now having an unforeseen consequence: a powerful secular backlash.

People take photographs in front of the Hagia Sofia during celebrations for Eid al-Fitr at Eminonu in Istanbul, Turkey. Source: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

However, the efforts of Karaman and other Turkish Islamists who hope to see a more Islamized Turkey are also having an unforeseen consequence: a powerful secular reaction. Similar to the conservatives’ reaction to Kemalism, many Turks are developing a reaction to the authoritarian, corrupt, and crude expressions of Islam that have become associated with Erdogan’s “New Turkey.”

As a result, as I recently explained in an article, “Why So Many Turks Are Losing Faith in Islam,” worldviews alternative to Islam, such as deism, are spreading fast in Turkish society. Turkey’s conservatives, with their usual belief in foreign conspiracies, try to explain this away as yet another foreign plot to weaken the nation’s spiritual basis. But even some exceptionally self-critical conservatives admit the reality: what has made Islam quite unpopular in the past decade is primarily the behavior of those who claim to act in the religion’s name. This includes scandalously archaic, irrational, bigoted, or misogynist views of some of the religious scholars who have found much more confidence—and air time—than ever before. It also includes the unabashed exploitation of Islam by politicians—especially those from the ruling AKP. Islamists’ own behavior in positions of power is pushing people away from the faith they claim to uphold. 17

Even some conservatives admit that Islam’s growing unpopularity is due to the scandalously archaic, irrational, bigoted, or misogynist views of some Turkish religious scholars.

Turkish social scientist Volkan Ertit has written that “God is dying Turkey,” in line with most modern Western societies. In his view, despite the “clear Islamic sensitivities” of the party that has ruled Turkey since 2002, data shows that “praying rates have decreased, extramarital sexual [relationships have] become prevalent… the belief in virginity is a point of honour for fewer people… [and] traditional family structures have been shattered.” He argues that “the classical theory of secularization, which claims that modernization leads to secularization, can still explain not only the social transformation seen in historically Christian and Western European countries and their offshoots, but also the social transformation of Turkey.” 18

In other words, just as Kemalism’s effort to de-Islamize Turkey only proved to be a half success, Erdoganism’s nascent effort to re-Islamize Turkey will most likely prove to be a half-success as well—and, similarly, will only help further divide Turkish society, rather than fully transform it.

Religion Declining, Secularism Surging

An ongoing spate of recent studies - looking at various countries around the world - all show the same thing: religion is in decline. From Scandinavia to South America, and from Vancouver to Seoul, the world is experiencing an unprecedented wave of secularization. Indeed, as a recent National Geographic report confirms, the world's newest religion is: No Religion.

Consider the latest facts:

* For the first time in Norwegian history, there are more atheists and agnostics than believers in God.

* For the first time in British history, there are now more atheists and agnostics than believers in God. And church attendance rates in the UK are at an all-time low, with less than 2% of British men and women attending church on any given Sunday.

* A recent survey found that 0% of Icelanders believe that God created the Earth. That's correct: 0%. And whereas 20 years ago, 90% of Icelanders claimed to be religious, today less than 50% claim to be.

* Nearly 70% of the Dutch are not affiliated with any religion, and approximately 700 Protestant churches and over 1,000 Catholic churches are expected to close within the next few years throughout the Netherlands, due to low attendance.

* According to a recent Eurobarometer Poll, 19% of Spaniards, 24% of Danes, 26% of Slovenians, 27% of Germans and Belgians, 34% of Swedes, and 40% of the French, claim to not believe in "any sort of spirit, God, or life-force."

* In the United States, somewhere between 23% and 28% of American adults have no religious affiliation, and these so-called "nones" are not only growing in number, but they are becoming increasingly secular in their behaviors and beliefs.

* Among Millennials - Americans in their 20s - over 35% are non-religious, constituting the largest cohort of secular men and women in the nation's history.

* In Canada, back in 1991, 12% of adults stated "none," when asked their religion - today that is up to 24%.

* In Australia, 15% of the population said they had no religion in 2001, and it is up to at least 22% today.
* In New Zealand, 30% of the population claimed no religion in 2001, but it had risen to 42% in 2013.

* In South America, 7% of men and women in Mexico, 8% in Brazil, 11% in Argentina, 12% in El Salvador, 16% in Chile, 18% in the Dominican Republic, and 37% in Uruguay are non-religious -- the highest such rates of Latin American secularity ever recorded.

* In Japan, about 70% of adults claimed to hold personal religious beliefs sixty years ago, but today, that figure is down to only about 20% In 1970 there were 96,000 Buddhist temples throughout Japan, but in 2007, there were 75,866 - and around 20,000 of those were un-staffed, with no resident priest. In the 1950s, over 75% of Japanese households had a kamidana (Shinto altar), but by 2006 this was down to 44% nationwide, and only 26% in major cities.

* While 11% of South Koreans were atheists in 2005, that has increased to at least 15% as of late, and the percentage of South Koreans who described themselves as religious has dropped from 58% to 52% over the past decade.

* Over 50% of Chinese adults are secular (although in Communist dictatorships where religion is officially oppressed, valid information on people's religiosity is always hard to come by).

* In Africa, while religiosity remains high, there are none the less growing pockets of irreligion: over 5% of the those in Ghana claim to have no religion, and 9% of people in Madagascar and Tanzania, and 11% of people in Gabon and Swaziland are now non-religious.

* Approximately 20% of Botswanans now claim to have no religion.

* Over 20% of Jamaicans are now non-religious.

Many other nations contain significant populations of nonreligious people, such as Slovenia, Israel, Finland, Hungary, Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, etc. -- but a nation-by-nation breakdown is not possible here. Suffice it to say that most countries have experienced notable degrees of secularization over the past century, and for the first time in the world's history, there are now many societies where being secular is more common than being religious.

Although openly supporting atheism is sometimes punished in some Muslim-majority countries - in fact, in 13 Islamic nations, atheism is a crime warranting the death penalty-- there are still numerous signs of growing secularism throughout the Muslim world, although reliable numbers are hard to come by.

Finally, the sheer number of secular men and women on planet earth is unprecedented -- according to the Pew Research Center's latest estimates, there were over 1.1 billion non-religious people in the world in 2010, and that number is expected to increase to over 1.2 billion by the year 2020.

Will this tidal wave of secularization continue to wash over planet earth?
Hard to say for sure.

On the one hand, we know that socialization is the number one engine that drives religiosity: children are raised to become religious by their religious parents. And thus, as more and more people stop being religious, it is quite likely that they won't raise their children to be religious, and thus the inter-generational spread of religion will weaken in the decades ahead. Additionally, secularization is highly correlated with internet access and usage. And thus, as the web becomes more ubiquitous in more people's lives, secularism will continue to grow.

On the other hand, religious people have more kids than secular people. And those nations today with the highest birthrates are the most religious, while those nations today with the lowest birthrates tend to be among the most secular - so demographically, in terms of who has more babies, the religious have the breeding advantage. And this is why, according to Pew's latest predictions, the growth of secularity will most likely level off within a few decades, while Islam will continue to grow, becoming the world's largest religion by 2050.

But for now, churches are closing across the world, faith is fading, and those men and women who live their lives according to secular values and humanist principles are on the rise.

The Impossibility of Secular Society

T here is no such thing as a secular society. My claim is a brutal and paradoxical one: The question about the possibility of a secular society resolves itself, or rather it dissolves itself.

To defend this claim I would like to submit two-and-a-half theses. First, a purely secular society simply cannot survive in the long run. As a consequence, leaving behind secularism is a necessary move, indeed a vital one. Second, the term secular society is tautological, because the ideal of secularity is latent with the modern use of the term society. Third is the half thesis, which I won’t develop here: Whatever comes after secularism, it won’t be a “society” any longer but rather another way for us to think about and give political form to the being-together of human beings.

The use of the term secularism in English began in the middle of the nineteenth century. George Jacob Holyoake (1817–1906) may have coined the word as early as 1846,and one of his main works, published in 1870, bears the title The Principles of Secularism. In 1859, the philosopher John Stuart Mill was still treating the word as a neologism. In On Liberty, after mentioning the religious principles that can motivate human action, he speaks of “secular standards (as for want of a better name they may be called).”

Mill used the term because he was eager to avoid atheistic, which is the more fitting term to describe the opposite of religious. But atheism was hardly the thing in Victorian Britain, and the word was felt to be rude. In the same intellectual atmosphere, the biologist T. E. Huxley, Darwin’s famous bulldog, coined agnosticism during a memorable discussion that took place at the Metaphysical Society in 1869. In present-day Britain, a third word, humanism, is often used with the same meaning and with the same intention: to evoke the possibility of a nonreligious basis for a morally animated society.

The debate for which the word secularism was coined is a false one. Advocates of secularism assume they are proposing a novel possibility, which is that moral precepts can be known without any particular revelation by God. Yet this is precisely what Christianity has taught, explicitly since Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and, implicitly, since Jesus himself. This was lost sight of in the modern era, when many Christians defended religion against skeptical and rationalist attacks by arguing that it is necessary for ensuring the moral basis of society. Men without religion, it was argued, could not be trusted to behave in an upright fashion. So advocates of secularism were drawn into the false debate.

I ronically, and perhaps inevitably, the words that are meant to express secularization are themselves Christian words that have been secularized. One prominent premodern use of secular was to distinguish between “religious” priests, who were members of mendicant or monastic orders, and diocesan clergy, or “secular” priests. These terms continue to be used, often confusing those unfamiliar with the Church’s particular ­language: a secular priest?

Another example is the French adjective for secularity, laïc, or the Italian equivalent, laico. Both are derived from the Greek adjective that designates a member of a people or nation. But not just any people or nation: The Septuagint translated the Hebrew `am—the people of God, the holy nation—with laos, the Greek source of both adjectives. Thus even the advocates of secularism are unable to escape the biblical sources of so much of Western culture.

The root of secular, secularism, and secularity is saeculum. From this Latin word the Romance languages derived their words for century : siècle, secolo, siglo. It receives from Christianity a particular shade of meaning. In the vocabulary of the Church Fathers, saeculum designates the world as Christianity conceives of it. They were profoundly influenced by the Hebrew word ‘olam and the Greek aion, which is often used to render it. These terms stress the transitory, provisional character of the present state of the world. Saeculum is thereby diametrically opposed to the Greek kosmos, the beautiful world order that was believed to be everlasting.

The word also came to designate a century, one hundred years. This semantic evolution did not happen by chance, for one hundred years is not just any length of time.

The sum of seventy plus thirty, it was understood in a symbolic way as the average length of a generation, a bit longer than the traditional human lifespan according to the Psalms: “The years of our life are threescore and ten.”

This use of the term was not uniquely Christian. In ancient Rome, the herald who announced the secular games, ludi saeculares, proclaimed with great solemnity that “nobody who witnessed them saw them already or would see them one more time.” The formula is quoted by Suetonius in a highly ironical context: ludos, quos nec spectasset quisquam nec spectaturus esset. Another historian, Herodian, wrote: “People then called these games ‘secular’ because they had heard that they were celebrated only after three generations had elapsed. Heralds would go all over Rome and Italy, inviting people to come and see a spectacle that nobody ever saw and nobody would see again.”

The ancient usage draws on the fact that a saeculum, a century, is the temporal limit of living memory. It is the halo of possible experience that surrounds the life of the individual. I can keep a remembrance of my grandparents and, more seldom, of my great-grandparents. What my grandfather told me I can tell my grandchildren. I can reach back two generations and forward two, but rarely more, to a period spanning what amounts to a century.

One century is also the limit of the concrete care we can give. I very well can, nay, should think about the future situation of my children, of my grandchildren, possibly of my great-grandchildren. But I can’t care in anything but a highly abstract way about the generations that will come after them. If by some miracle our remote forebears came back to life, or if our remote posterity were now called to life, they wouldn’t mean a great deal to us.

Jonathan Swift drew attention to this century-long limit of human concern in Gulliver’s Travels. In Book 3, he depicts the struldbrugs, wretched immortals of the country of Luggnagg. Till their thirtieth year, they behave like normal mortals. Then they begin to suffer from a melancholy that keeps growing till they reach the age of eighty years, considered the usual limit of life expectancy. Although the struldbrugs live on, in Luggnagg after eighty they are considered legally dead and forfeit every right to their property, which falls to their heirs. Moreover, their own natural affection doesn’t extend beyond their grandchildren. After two hundred years, they hardly understand the language of their fellow countrymen anymore. Their lives outrun the existential limits of the saeculum.

Our intuitive sense of the outer boundaries of living memory and concern finds expression in the field of law. One hundred years, what is known as the tempus memoratum, constitutes the longest possible duration for a contract. For example, the longest possible land lease holds good for ninety-nine years. Beyond that, one enters the field of the “immemorial,” rights held not by natural persons but by legal entities such as monasteries, universities, civic organizations, and of course the state itself. In a certain brocard, or common saying of ancient French law, “He who has eaten of the king’s goose gives back a feather a hundred years later,” which means that for crimes against the state there is no temporal limit. The king remembers forever.

W hat does all this have to do with the idea of a “secular” society? A great deal. The French language possesses two different adjectives meaning “secular”: on the one hand séculier, on the other séculaire. Séculaire means what lasts for more than one century—say, a tree, or a custom. Séculier originally designated a “secular,” a cleric who, as we have seen, doesn’t live according to the rule of a monastic or religious order but instead pursues his vocation in the world as a diocesan functionary. In the modern era, as Mill recognized and imported into English, it acquired the added meaning of an outlook, a person, or a body of people that renounces the transcendent.

There is a profound irony of language here, for the sense of secular that denotes one hundred years is implied in the later, more recent sense that denies the transcendent. Put bluntly: A secularist is a person the inner logic of whose position compels him to act as if mankind were not to last longer than one century. And even: A secularist is a person whose behavior, if universalized, would make it so that mankind would in fact not last more than one century. It is telling that Holyoake, the first to import the term into English, was notorious among his contemporaries for advocating contraception.

Why is this the case? Why is the secularist limited to a hundred-year horizon? For an answer, let us now turn to my second thesis: that the term secular society is tautological because secularity is entailed in the ways in which early modern political philosophy turned toward “society” as the fundamental expression of the being-together of humanity.

Earlier, one spoke of the city—in Greek, polis in ancient and medieval Latin, civitas and in Arabic of the same period, madinah. St. Thomas spoke of the ideal of political unity ordered toward the common good as a communitas perfecta. In this context, the idea of society was limited to practical arrangements for the sake of particular goals, often economic in nature. A societas was a grouping of men who agreed to unite their abilities and their efforts, and the word was used in much the same way as we use company today.

Later, the meaning began to shift, and society replaced city as our most fundamental term for human unity. In the eighteenth century, the German philosopher Christian Wolff wrote, “When men unite with each other in order to promote their greater good by uniting their forces, they enter with each other into a society.” This use draws on the older meaning of practical unity for the sake of common ends. But Wolff makes a further move, dropping the indefinite article— a society—and conjuring a universal form. “As a consequence,” he continues, “society is nothing else than a contract between some people for them to promote therein their greater good by uniting their forces.”

Speaking of “society” as Wolff did—and we do today—lends reality to the fiction of the social contract. This fiction has deep roots in ancient Epicureanism. Men are supposed to have been produced from the earth by spontaneous generation. They then roam the earth and meet almost by chance, or are driven together by negative reasons, such as the necessity to repel wild beasts. They form a “company,” a societas dedicated to collective defense, and this mode of being together is taken as a sufficient basis and explanation for political community.

I t is strange that this extension of the meaning of society should have taken place, for it obscures reality in a profound way. A commercial society or company results from the agreement of its members and dissolves itself when the interests of the members subsequently diverge. To some degree or another, the same holds for other forms of society as envisioned in the classical use of the term.

But peoples and nations aren’t like that. On the contrary, properly speaking, human communities—societies, as we now use the term—never constitute themselves. At each moment they discover themselves as already extant they perpetuate themselves by renewing themselves through a process of intussusception of new members. Only exceptionally do new members come from outside. By and large, they arise from the society itself. The accretion of new members presupposes that there already exists a society that can welcome them.

Of course a body politic also has agency, and the idea of a contract between governor and governed is well known. We have examples of rulers who had their subjects swear allegiance—for example, the caliphs in Baghdad or, more recently, John Calvin when he founded the new polity in Geneva. This and other elements of contractual practice express political duties and responsibilities that presuppose an important role for human freedom. Yet in every case these duties and responsibilities also presuppose an already existing political community. Never has a human community constituted itself by the aggregation of independent individuals who predated it. Never anywhere else than in fiction, that is. Revolutions, constitutions, and declarations of rights may have inaugurated states, established new polities, and transformed nations, but they have never brought a people into being.

I n its use of society as the foundational term for human community, modern political philosophy conceives of civic life on the pattern of a group of acting subjects in a purely human space. The ever recurring image of such a group is one of players around a table. As Thomas Hobbes wrote, “It is in the laws of a commonwealth, as in the laws of gaming: Whatsoever the gamesters all agree on, is injustice to none of them.” It is to be found again in the work of Adam Smith, who speaks of the “great chess-board of human society.” The image loses its metaphorical self-consciousness and becomes conceptually foundational in later authors. John Rawls’ description of the original position provides a good example. And history takes political theory seriously. Our political communities have become “societies” resembling ever more closely a club of gamblers.

For the game to be fair, it must be secular. The space of our democratic societies is flat. Nobody is allowed to stand higher than others. The first to be excluded is the One Above, especially when people claim to have received from him some message or mission that puts them closer to his divine reality—and thus higher. Democratic space must remain inside itself. To put it in Latin: It must be immanent. Tocqueville noticed that aristocratic man was constantly sent back to something that is placed outside his own self, something above him. Democratic man, on the other hand, refers only to himself.

The democratic social space is not only flat but closed. And it is closed because it is has to be flat. What is outside, whatever claims to have worth and authority in itself and not as part of the game, must be excluded. Whoever and whatever will not take a seat at the table at the same level as all other claims and authorities, however mundane, is barred from the game. Again, the Great Outsider must be dismissed.

This is illustrated by a famous anecdote, although its authenticity is not above doubt. When in 1787 the Congress of the United States had painted itself into a corner, leading Benjamin Franklin to suggest that prayers be said to the Father of lights, Alexander Hamilton guffawed that he “did not see the necessity of calling in foreign aid.”

Hamilton was more far-sighted than he knew. A democratic society, not insofar as it is democratic but insofar as it is a society, must be atheistic. We come here to an antinomy: Insofar as a political community governs itself in a democratic way, it must be open to transcendence, because we all have a moral conscience that refers us to the transcendent. But insofar as a political community views itself as a “society,” it must on the contrary be closed in on itself, and therefore must exclude the moral authority claimed by the consciences of its members. Thus our present democracies in the West. They are dominated by a technocratic elite that bases its right to govern on its claim to be able to manage the game expertly, ensuring utilitarian and therapeutic results for all.

T here is a further and more fundamental antinomy. The central task of modern political philosophy is to guarantee the peaceful coexistence of such a group of human beings. This means contriving rules to enable each person to maximize his self-interest without harming others. This is all very well, but this coexistence and the perpetual peace promised by the rules of the game presuppose, by definition, that men exist already, and that they or others will continue to exist. This presupposition modern political philosophy fails to provide indeed, its characteristic strategy for ensuring peace works against it.

Immanuel Kant provides an apt illustration. In a famous passage from Perpetual Peace, Kant explains that the problem of building a just society can be solved, even in the case of a society of devils. It is enough that those utterly evil and utterly egoistic beings are intelligent. This will allow individual devils to see the true nature of their self-interest, which of course includes neutralizing the self-interest of others to the extent that it threatens their own, which in turn requires agreement about neutral rules. Even devils, if rational, can be peaceful players of the game of society.

What Kant did not recognize is that, far from being a harder case than humans, devils are easier. They are fallen angels, to be sure, but angels all the same. As a consequence, they are pure spirits that soar in a special kind of elongated temporality, the so-called aevum. This enables them to shirk the need to reproduce, so they can focus all their energies on the game of self-interest.

By contrast, the existence of men is limited and lasts, as we have seen, at most one century. And so the human species, the same as the other living species, keeps going by replacing the individuals that disappear—replacing them with new individuals, which are begotten by individuals and born to them. A civitas—a nation, culture, or people—is, so to speak, constantly surfing on individuals. If it ceases to do so, it won’t last longer than a century.

In other words, without new life, Kant’s peace won’t be perpetual. And because his peace is perfect only if the players of the game see themselves and their lives in terms of their own rational self-interest, it’s not at all clear why they won’t cease to have children. Indeed, many will say that it’s a positive duty not to reproduce.

H uman communities are not made of pure spirits. And so we face a fundamental political question for ­“societies”: What makes human beings beget children? What will make mankind want to go on existing? One could mention many things different in nature: economic and social conditions, legal measures, the psychological atmosphere of a society. But above all there is the need for two things: a vision and a choice. No society will endure if some people do not look farther than one century, beyond what an individual can experience. We must see beyond the saeculum. Equally necessary is a choice, one I call “metaphysical.” This choice consists in saying that it is good that there exist human beings on Earth: “good” in itself, not just fun for the present generation—which I, by the way, don’t doubt.

Who is empowered to pronounce our existence good? Certainly not man himself. We should remember Jean-Paul Sartre on this point: “We can’t admit that a man might pronounce a sentence on Man.” The only being who can pronounce it is the One who declared at the last day of creation that whatever He had created was not only “good” but, taken in its whole, “very good.”

Rémi Brague is professor emeritus at the Sorbonne and Romano Guardini Chair at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. A version of this essay was presented at the Nanovic Institute for European Studies at the University of Notre Dame.


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