A secular religion is a communal belief system that often rejects or neglects the metaphysical aspects of the supernatural, commonly associated with traditional religion, instead placing typical religious qualities in earthly entities. Among systems that have been characterized as secular religions are capitalism, communism, Juche, anarchism, fascism, nationalism, democracy, monarchism, conservatism, reactionism, liberalism, progressivism, transhumanism, Auguste Comte’s Religion of Humanity, and the Cult of Reason and the Cult of Supreme Being that developed after the French Revolution.
Main article: Secularism
The term secular religion is often applied today to communal belief systems—as for example with the view of love as our postmodern secular religion. Paul Vitz applied the term to modern psychology in as much as it fosters a cult of the self, explicitly calling “the self-theory ethic […] this secular religion”. Sport has also been considered as a new secular religion, particularly with respect to Olympism. For Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games, belief in them as a new secular religion was explicit and lifelong.
The theory of political religion concerns governmental ideologies whose cultural and political backing is so strong that they are said to attain power equivalent to those of a state religion, with which they often exhibit significant similarities in both theory and practice. In addition to basic forms of politics, like parliament and elections, it also holds an aspect of “sacralization” related to the institutions contained within the regime and also provides the inner measures traditionally considered to be religious territory, such as ethics, values, symbols, myths, rituals, archetypes and for example a national liturgical calendar.
Political religious organizations, such as the Nazi Party, adhered to the idealization of cultural and political power over the country at large. The church body of the state no longer held control over the practices of religious identity. Because of this, Nazism was countered by many political and religious organizations as being a political religion, based on the dominance which the Nazi regime had (Gates and Steane). Political religions generally vie with existing traditional religions, and may try to replace or eradicate them. The term was given new attention by the political scientist Hans Maier.
Totalitarian societies are perhaps more prone to political religion, but various scholars have described features of political religion even in democracies, for instance American civil religion as described by Robert Bellah in 1967.
The term is sometimes treated as synonymous with civil religion, but although some scholars use the terms equivalently, others see a useful distinction, using “civil religion” as something weaker, which functions more as a socially unifying and essentially conservative force, whereas a political religion is radically transformational, even apocalyptic.
The term political religion is based on the observation that sometimes political ideologies or political systems display features more commonly associated with religion. Scholars who have studied these phenomena include William Connolly in political science, Christoph Deutschmann in sociology, Emilio Gentile in history, Oliver O’Donovan in theology and others in psychology. A political religion often occupies the same ethical, psychological and sociological space as a traditional religion, and as a result it often displaces or co-opts existing religious organizations and beliefs. The most central marker of a political religion involves the sacralization of politics, for example an overwhelming religious feeling when serving one’s country, or the devotion towards the Founding Fathers of the United States. Although a political religion may co-opt existing religious structures or symbolism, it does not itself have any independent spiritual or theocratic elements—it is essentially secular, using religious motifs and methods for political purposes, if it does not reject religious faith outright. Typically, a political religion is considered to be secular, but more radical forms of it are also transcendental.
Origin of the theory
The 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) argued that all societies need a religion to hold men together. Because Christianity tended to pull men away from earthly matters, Rousseau advocated a “civil religion” that would create the links necessary for political unity around the state. The Swiss Protestant theologian Adolf Keller (1872–1963) argued that Marxism in the Soviet Union had been transformed into a secular religion. Before emigrating to the United States, the German-born political philosopher Eric Voegelin wrote a book entitled The political religions. Other contributions on “political religion” (or associated terms such as “secular religion“, “lay religion” or “public religion”) were made by Luigi Sturzo (1871–1959), Paul Tillich (1886–1965), Gerhard Leibholz (1901–1982), Waldemar Gurian (1902–1954), Raymond Aron (1905–1983) and Walter Benjamin (1892–1940). Some saw such “religions” as a response to the existential void and nihilism caused by modernity, mass society and the rise of a bureaucratic state, and in political religions “the rebellion against the religion of God” reached its climax. They also described them as “pseudo-religions”, “substitute religions”, “surrogate religions”, “religions manipulated by man” and “anti-religions”. Yale political scientist Juan Linz and others have noted that the secularization of the twentieth century had created a void which could be filled by an ideology claiming a hold on ethical and identical matters as well, making the political religions based on totalitarianism, universalism and messianic missions (such as Manifest Destiny) possible.
An academic journal with the name Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions started publication in 2000. It was renamed Politics, Religion & Ideology in 2011. It is published by Taylor & Francis.
Key qualities often (not all are always present) shared by political religion include:
- Differentiation between self and other, and demonisation of other (in theistic religion, the differentiation usually depends on adherence to certain dogmas and social behaviours; in political religion, differentiation may be on grounds such as nationality, social attitudes, or membership in “enemy” political parties, instead).
- A transcendent leadership, either with messianic tendencies, often a charismatic figurehead.
- Strong, hierarchical organisational structures.
- The control of education, in order to ensure the security, continuation and the veneration of the existing system.
- A coherent belief system for imposing symbolic meaning on the external world, with an emphasis on security through faith in the system.
- An intolerance of other ideologies of the same type.
- A degree of utopianism.
- The belief that the ideology is in some way natural or obvious, so that (at least for certain groups of people) those who reject it are in some way “blind”.
- A genuine desire on the part of individuals to convert others to the cause.
- A willingness to place ends over means—in particular, a willingness (for some) to use violence or/and fraud.
- Fatalism—a belief that the ideology will inevitably triumph in the end.
Not all of these aspects are present in any one political religion; this is only a list of some common aspects.
Suppression of religious beliefs
Political religions compete with existing religions, and try, if possible, to replace or eradicate them. Loyalty to other entities, such as a church or a deity, are often viewed as interfering with loyalty to the political religion. The authority of religious leaders also presents a threat to the authority of the political religion. As a result, some or all religious sects may be suppressed or banned. An existing sect may be converted into a state religion, but dogma and personnel may be modified to suit the needs of the party or state. Where there is suppression of religious institutions and beliefs, this might be explicitly accompanied by atheistic doctrine as in state atheism.
Juan Linz has posited the friendly form of separation of church and state as the counterpole of political religion but describes the hostile form of separation of church and state as moving toward political religion as found in totalitarianism.
Loyalty to the state or political party and acceptance of the government/party ideology are paramount. Dissenters may be expelled, ostracized, discriminated against, imprisoned, “re-educated”, or killed. Loyalty oaths or membership in a dominant (or sole) political party may be required for employment, obtaining government services, or simply as routine. Criticism of the government may be a serious crime. Enforcement can range from ostracism by one’s neighbours to execution. In a political religion, you are either with the system or against it.
Cult of personality
Main article: Cult of personality
A political religion often elevates its leaders to near-godlike status. Displays of leaders in the form of posters or statues may be mandated in public areas and even private homes. Children may be required to learn the state’s version of the leaders’ biographies in school.
Myths of origin
Political religions often rely on a myth of origin that may have some historical basis but is usually idealized and sacralized. Current leaders may be venerated as descendants of the original fathers. There may also be holy places or shrines that relate to the myth of origin.
Revolutionary France was well noted for being the first state to reject religion altogether. Radicals intended to replace Christianity with a new state religion, or an deistic ideology. Maximilien Robespierre rejected atheistic ideologies and intended to create a new religion. Churches were closed, and Catholic Mass was forbidden. The Cult of the Supreme Being was well known for its derided festival, which led to the Thermidorian reaction and the fall of Robespierre.
According to Emilio Gentile, “Fascism was the first and prime instance of a modern political religion.” “This religion sacralized the state and assigned it the primary educational task of transforming the mentality, the character, and the customs of Italians. The aim was to create a ‘new man’, a believer in and an observing member of the cult of Fascism.”
“The argument [that fascism was a ‘political religion’] tends to involve three main claims: I) that fascism was characterized by a religious form, particularly in terms of language and ritual; II) that fascism was a sacralized form of totalitarianism, which legitimized violence in defence of the nation and regeneration of a fascist ‘new man’; and III) that fascism took on many of the functions of religion for a broad swathe of society.”
“Among committed [Nazi] believers, a mythic world of eternally strong heroes, demons, fire and sword—in a word, the fantasy world of the nursery—displaced reality.” Heinrich Himmler was fascinated by the occult, and sought to turn the SS into the basis of an official state cult.
See also: Stalin’s cult of personality
In 1936 a Protestant priest referred explicitly to communism as a new secular religion. A couple of years later, on the eve of World War II, F. A. Voigt characterised both Marxism and National Socialism as secular religions, akin at a fundamental level in their authoritarianism and messianic beliefs as well as in their eschatological view of human History. Both, he considered, were waging religious war against the liberal enquiring mind of the European heritage.
After the war, the social philosopher Raymond Aron would expand on the exploration of communism in terms of a secular religion; while A. J. P. Taylor, for example, would characterise it as “a great secular religion…. the Communist Manifesto must be counted as a holy book in the same class as the Bible”.
Klaus-Georg Riegel argued that “Lenin’s utopian design of a revolutionary community of virtuosi as a typical political religion of an intelligentsia longing for an inner-worldly salvation, a socialist paradise without exploitation and alienation, to be implanted in the Russian backward society at the outskirts of the industrialised and modernised Western Europe.”
Main article: Juche
The North Korean government has promulgated Juche as a political alternative to traditional religion. The doctrine advocates a strong nationalist propaganda basis and is fundamentally opposed to Christianity and Buddhism, the two largest religions on the Korean peninsula. Juche theoreticians have, however, incorporated religious ideas into the state ideology. According to government figures, Juche is the largest political religion in North Korea. The public practice of all other religions is overseen and subject to heavy surveillance by the state.
During the long rule of President Saparmurat Niyazov (President from 1990 to 2006) large pictures and statues of him could be seen in public places in Turkmenistan. In an interview with the television-news program “60 Minutes”, Niyazov said the people of Turkmenistan placed them there voluntarily because they love him so much, and that he did not originally want them there. In addition, he granted himself the title “Türkmenbaşy”, meaning “Leader of all Ethnic Turkmens” in the Turkmen language. A book purportedly authored by Niyazov, Ruhnama (“Book of the Soul”, first published in 1994) was required reading in Turkmenistani educational institutions and was often displayed and treated with the same respect as the Qur’an. The study of Ruhnama in the academic system was scaled down after Niyazov’s death in 2006 but to some extent continues as of 2008.