Tuesday, November 15, 2011



 Bandhu Ishanand Vempeny, SJ
‘Secularism’ is not a dispassionately thought out, philosophically established and theologically legitimatised concept. One may say that it is rather the fallout of various socio-religious, economico-political, etc. movements and upheavals in the West. Here we provide a brief over-view of these circumstances. The various movements or circumstances described below are not only not exhaustive, but also not mutually exclusive or independent of each other.

1. Anticlericalism

Anti-Caesaro-Papism and Anti-clericalism have quite something to do with secularism and secularist movements in the West. After the fall of the Roman Empire there was no political leadership in Europe equal to the task of saving the people from lawlessness and chaos. The only institution, which could rise to the occasion was the Church. The Pope, Bishops and the Priests, by and large, were the most learned people of the period, and people to a great extent, found them reliable and trust-worthy. Kings and princess began to function in subordination to the clerics. The medieval European princes, however grudgingly, considered the Pope their Suzerain Lord and he anointed the European kings with the implication that they should obey him. The Pope and the Clergy rapidly acquired enormous wealth, privileges and power which caused great resentment among the masses, nobles and the kings. If religious leaders with their enormous powers, both esoteric and exoteric, are looked upon as oppressors in practically all the religions, in medieval Europe there were additional reasons for this resentment.

The Popes (“Sovereign Lords”), Cardinals (“Princes of the Church”) and Abbots (‘Land-Lords’ and ‘Commanders’ of large number of loyal, dedicated and self-sacrificing ‘armies’) were real critics and challengers of royal and princely power and authority. In an age which was connected with the eras of the “Divine Rights of Kings”, and in which knightly chivalry, belligerency and war-mongering were glorified, it was natural for kings and princes to look down upon, if not always oppose, these ecclesiastical leaders, especially those who did not have a military or royal background. The Church leaders gradually began to lose authority and power over such spheres as politics, economics, education and the like. This anti-clerical situation paved the way for this Western ideology.

2. Renaissance

The Encyclopedia Britannica points out that “The ‘Renaissance’ or ‘Renascence’ is a term used to indicate a well known but indefinite space of time and a certain phase in the development of Europe[1]. Roughly speaking, during the period 1450 to 1500 the wind of Renaissance was the strongest which, though started much earlier in Italy began to sweep over the whole of Western Europe. This phenomenon is also known as the “Revival of Learning” to insist on the shift of the great men of the period away from the traditional Christian literature especially Scholasticism, to the world of the Greek and Latin classics. It was an age of intense inquisitiveness, daring adventure and undreamed of discoveries and inventions. To speak of Italy alone, the cradle of the Renaissance, Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio in the field of literature, Raphael, Da Vinci and Titan in painting and Donatello, Michelangelo and Sansavino in sculpture blazed new trails. In the evolution of ‘secularism’ and ‘real-politik’ the influence of political thinkers like Machiavelli and Guicciardini cannot be exaggerated. Aristo in Italy, Cervantes in Spain, Erasmus in Holland, Rabelais in France and Shakespeare in England placed before the people new worlds of ideas and feelings, through their writings. The two competing absolute powers, the theocratic state and the theocratic Church, on which medieval culture stood, began to be questioned, challenged and sometimes ignored.

As in the case of any revolutionary change and upheaval, however, the Renaissance was not all milk and honey. This is what the Encyclopaedia Britannica with reference to Italy says about its evil fallouts:

“Italian society exhibited an almost unexemplified spectacle of literacy, artistic and courtly refinement crossed by brutalities of lust, treasons, poisonings, assassinations, violence. Steeped in pagan learning, desirous of imitating the manners of the ancients, thinking and feeling in harmony with Ovid and Theocritus, and at the same time rendered cynical by the corruption of papal Rome, the educated classes lost their grasp upon morality. Political morality ceased almost to have a name in Italy. The Christian virtues were scorned by the foremost actors and the ablest thinkers of the time, while antique virtues were themes of rhetoric rather than moving springs of conduct”[2].

During the Renaissance, with its worship of reason and unbridled pursuit of freedom, religious obscurantism, dogmatism and authoritarianism were opposed vigorously. The Church with its claims of super-natural revelation and emphasis on other-worldly concerns began to be sidetracked and looked down upon. Such a situation augured well for a ‘secularistic ideology’.

3. Revolutions in Science, Technology and Industry

It is too well known to labour the point concerning the numerous scientific inventions and discoveries of this age, which paved the way for industrial revolution, and which in its turn accelerated the pace of urbanization. The names of Copernicus, Descartes, Roger Bacon, Darwin, Leibniz, Newton, Galileo, Columbus are bound up with the Renaissance. Our interest in speaking of the scientific achievements of this age to see how it prepared the world for ‘secularism’.

Whereas pre-scientific man offered divine or super-natural explanations for such natural phenomena as earthquakes, epidemics and solar eclipses, the man of science began to explain them through causes and effects perceivable in the world. As scientists began to unravel more and more the mysteries of the universe, religious assumptions and beliefs with regard to the origin, destiny, etc. of the world began to look more and more irrational and outdated. The success of the scientists in their own field was stupendous, but when they got into the fields of philosophy and theology they began to make arrogant and dogmatic pronouncements. When Lamarck told Napoleon Bonaparte that he did not need the ‘God-hypothesis’, he was voicing the opinion of many a scientist of the fag end of the Renaissance.

4. The Reformation

The Reformers like Luther, Calvin and Melanchthon made clear-cut division between the Church and the state, making them two parallel centres of power catering to different needs of man. This led to the 'privatisation' of religion narrowing its realms of operation more and more, while the state began to take control of areas like education, health care, social welfare etc. The Reformers were very religious persons, and what they wanted was to see the Church engaging herself with the spiritual welfare of the Faithful rather than accumulating enormous wealth and worldly power without allowing her to have time or interest for the spiritual welfare and the other worldly concerns of the Christian people.

The Reformers had their reasons for opposing the Church authorities especially the Pope and for supporting the princes and the kings. The Medieval Pope’s like Boniface VIII wielded almost unbridled authority. The Bishops and Priests too were very powerful. The monasteries with their huge amount of wealth had become like independent princely estates. The Church as a whole became very authoritarian and fell into various types of corruption. The kings and princes who had been struggling to get rid of the papal authority over their kingdoms, were hand in glove with the Reformers.

5. The French and Marxist Revolutions

The French and Marxist revolutionaries opposed the churches tooth and nail. During the French Revolution, as a symbol of the triumph of reason over religious dogmas, state over the Church, a nude woman was made to dance on the altar of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Marxists turned many churches and cathedrals into museums and other institutions of secular interest. They put in prison numerous priests and nuns who represented religious authority. Whereas the secularism of the Protestant Princedoms, which got independence from Papal authority, was religion-friendly the secularism of the French and Bolshevik Revolutionaries was anti-religious and atheistic. The secularism, however, being practiced in the West European Democracies, is one that has clipped the wings of religions and confined them to the sacristies and sanctuaries. Rightly, therefore the Dictionary of Christian Theology concludes: “Thus ‘sacred’ or ‘religious’ activity has been increasingly confined to a narrow area of ecclesiastical activity and personal piety”[3].

[1] “Renaissance”, Op. Cit., Vol.,19, p.122
[2] Op. Cit., p.128
[3] A. Richardson (Edit) London: SCM Press, 1976, p.310

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