This is the first in a series of posts responding to Mark Lilla’s The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West, published by Knopf. –Ed.

In my view, Mark Lilla reproduces in a very seductive narrative the two main myths of modern Western secularism:

a) that the “religious passions” are particularly prone to violence and therefore dangerous for politics. Supposedly, this was the dramatic lesson from the catastrophic experience of the long, brutish, and nasty religious wars of early modern Europe which left European societies in ruin.

b) that the “Great Separation” of religion and politics, namely the secularization of the state and of politics and the privatization of religion, was the felicitous response of Western societies to this catastrophic experience. Hobbes is here the great hero who opened the way for purely secular political philosophy and offered the formula for a secular Leviathan that would tame the religious passions.

Beginning first with the second premise, Hobbes may well have inaugurated the tradition of modern secular political philosophy, but as a historical narrative of the actual transformation of political institutions in early modern Europe, this is simply a historical myth. The religious wars of early modern Europe and particularly the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) did not ensue, at least not immediately, into the secular state but rather into the confessional one. The principle cuius regio eius religio, established first at the Peace of Augsburg and reiterated at the Treaty of Westphalia, is not the formative principle of the modern secular democratic state, but rather that of the modern confessional territorial absolutist state. Nowhere in continental Europe did religious conflict lead to secularization, but rather to the confessionalization of the state and to the territorialization of religions and peoples. This was the formula of the continental European Leviathan.

Moreover, this early modern dual pattern of confessionalization and territorialization was already well established before the religious wars and even before the Protestant Reformation. The Spanish Catholic state under the Catholic Kings serves as the first paradigmatic model of state confessionalization and religious territorialization. The expulsion of Spanish Jews and Muslims who refused to convert to Catholicism is the logical consequence of such a dyamic of state formation. Ethno-religious cleansing, in this respect, stands at the very origin of the early modern European state. Religious minorities caught in the wrong confessional territory were offered not secular toleration, much less freedom of religion, but the “freedom” to emigrate.

For almost three hundred years, European societies continued exporting all their “sects” and religious minorities overseas, while the confessional territorial boundaries between Catholic and Protestant and between Lutheran and Calvinist throughout Europe remained basically frozen until the drastic secularization of post-World War II European societies made those confessional boundaries seemingly irrelevant.

As to the second assumption driving Lilla’s argument, that the religious impulse is an apocalyptic one, imposing God’s justice by violence, it is indeed astounding to observe how widespread is the view throughout Europe that religion is intolerant and creates conflict. Mark Lilla simply offers an erudite version of this secularist “doxa.” According to the 1998 ISSP public opinion survey, the overwhelming majority of Europeans, practically over two thirds of the population in every Western European country, holds the view that religion is “intolerant.” Since people are unlikely to expressly recognize their own intolerance, one can asume that in expresing such an opinion Europeans are thinking of somebody else’s “religion” or, alternatively, present a selective retrospective memory of their own past religion, which fortunately they consider to have outgrown. It is even more telling that a majority of the population in every Western European country, with the significant exception of Norway and Sweden, shares the view that “religion creates conflict.”

Such a widespread negative view of “religion” cannot possibly be grounded empirically in the collective historical experience of European societies in the 20th century or in the actual personal experience of most contemporary Europeans. It can plausibly be explained, however, as a secular construct that has the function of positively differentiating modern secular Europeans from “the religious other,” either from pre-modern religious Europeans or from contemporary non-European religious people, particularly from Muslims. Most striking is the view of “religion” in the abstract as the source of violent conflict, given the actual historical experience of most European societies in the 20th century. “The European short century,” from 1914 to 1989, using Eric Hobsbawm’s apt characterization, was indeed one of the most violent, bloody, and genocidal centuries in the history of humanity. But none of the horrible massacres—neither the senseless slaughter of millions of young Europeans in the trenches of World War I, nor the countless millions of victims of Bolshevik and communist terror, nor the most unfathomable of all, the Nazi Holocaust and the global conflagration of World War II, culminating in the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—none of those terrible conflicts can be said to have been caused by religious fanaticism and intolerance. All of them were rather the product of modern secular ideologies and of very secular “passions.”

Yet contemporary Europeans, and Lilla with them, prefer to selectively forget the more inconvenient recent memories of secular ideological conflict and retrieve instead the long forgotten memories of the religious wars of early modern Europe to make sense of the religious conflicts they see today proliferating around the world and increasingly threatening them. Rather that seeing the common structural contexts of modern state formation, inter-state geopolitical conflicts, modern nationalism and the political mobilization of ethno-cultural and religious identities, processes central to modern European history that became globalized through the European colonial expansion, Europeans prefer seemingly to attribute those conflicts to “religion,” that is, to religious fundamentalism and to the fanaticism and intolerance that is supposedly intrinsic to “pre-modern” religion, an atavistic residue which modern secular enlightened Europeans have fortunately left behind. One may suspect that the function of such a selective historical memory is to safeguard the perception of the progressive achievements of Western secular modernity, offering a self-validating justification of the secular separation of religion and politics as the condition for modern liberal democratic politics.

Indeed, what I find most disturbing in Lilla’s genealogical reconstruction, presented as a straightforward history of ideas, is the attempt to attribute the violent impulses of modern secular totalitarianism to the rebirth of religious politico-theological messianism as a reaction to the “stillborn God” of liberal German Kulturprotestantismus. Barth and Rosenzweig are surreptitiously presented as “guilty by association” with Gogarten and Bloch, fellow travelers respectively of Nazism and Communism, who, one must infer from Lilla’s narrative, opened the gates to the religious apocalyptic demons who had been kept in check by secular political philosophy since Hobbes. One could easily reconstruct a more direct and less contorted genealogy from Hobbes’ Leviathan to the totalitarian state. Ferdinand Toennies and Carl Schmitt, two Hobbesian secular political thinkers, could easily be linked to an anti-liberal secular (not religious) politico-theological discourse which not only prepared the ground but offered explicit political philosophies more akin to the totalitarian Leviathan. But such an attempt would offer a no less distorted and problematic genealogical history of ideas.

The point is that “religion” has no monopoly on the “passions” and taming “religious passions” offers no security from secular political violence. At least the discourse of “the end of ideology” of the 1960’s, just before the counterculture and the worldwide student rebellions, knew that “secular ideologies” could be as dangerous and as deadly as “religious” ones.

Lilla’s construction of the “great separation” is based on a paradigmatic contrast between theocratic political theology and secular political philosophy, a pure analytic construct, which is however then superimposed upon real history as a real separation which actually happened supposedly in the 17th century with Hobbes. Even as a pure analytic history of ideas, such a construction would be highly problematic.

But certainly a history of ideas that disregards altogether social history, institutional political history, and the history of mentalities, is not in a serious position to offer a credible interpretation of Western developments, much less to present “the actual choice contemporary societies face…between two grand traditions of thought, two ways of envisaging the human condition.”

The great separation, if there was one, was not a radical break that happened in the 17th century but rather had a long medieval history. The process of Western secularization must either remain unintelligible or be simply the projection of a secularist philosophy of history, unless one begins with the premise that the very category of the saeculum was a particular Western medieval theological and legal-canonical category, which is not to be found in earlier forms of Eastern Christianity, nor for that matter in other axial civilizations.

Sociologically speaking at least, the “great separation” was a long-term historical process that began with the Papal Revolution and the Investitures conflicts of the 11th-12th centuries and attained its modern institutionalization first with the American and French revolutions. Crucial, however, in challenging Lilla’s account is not just the fact that the separation began de facto much earlier in the Middle Ages, but that when it actually happened institutionally for the first time in the constitutional separation of church and state in the United States, it owed a lot to the influence of religious “fanatics” and “enthusiasts,” namely to radical “sectarians.” Dissenting Baptists played a crucial role in guaranteeing the passage of the Virginia Statute on Religious Liberty, which served as the model for the First Amendment.

The arguments of the Deist Jefferson owed much, no doubt, to the tradition of secular political philosophy inaugurated by Hobbes, most particularly to Locke’s defense of “toleration.” But the argument for “religious freedom,” so brilliantly elaborated by the anti-establishmentarian Madison in “Memorial and Remonstrance,” has a different intellectual pedigree, namely the theological argument of dissenting sects and religious enthusiasts claiming the individual right to religious freedom and to freedom of conscience sheltered from both absolutist state and ecclesiastical institutions. The dual clause of the First Amendment had certainly the function of protecting the secular state from religious entanglements, but even more importantly, and this is what distinguishes the American separation from the French secularist one, to protect the free exercise of religion in society from both secular state and hegemonic church.

Moreover, the separation of church and state in the United States did not entail the great separation of religion and politics that Lilla seems to presuppose. The entanglement of religion and politics has been a constant in American history and many of the movements for social and political reform, from abolition to civil rights, from temperance to women suffrage, used as much the discourse of Christian political theology as that of secular political philosophy. American secularism and American liberalism owe more to the political commitment and the civil disobedience of religious “fanatics” and “enthusiasts” than liberal secularists like Lilla are apparently willing to recognize.

One should be suspicious of any argument that presents the multiple alternatives facing contemporary societies around the world today as a simple binary choice between theocratic political theology (i.e., religious fanaticism) and secular political philosophy (i.e., liberal toleration). To present such a dichotomous alternative, as “the two ways of envisaging the human condition,” not only ignores the many other complex ways in which Western and non-Western societies have envisaged the human condition, but it views societies as individual actors facing existential choices, a rhetorically dramatic but rather problematic conception of human history and of the human condition.