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The rise of secular religion

By Peter Sellick - posted Wednesday, 13 December 2006

Michael Casey (private secretary to Cardinal Pell) has written an article entitled “Democracy and the Thin Veneer of Civilisation” for the November issue of Quadrant.

Casey is a sociologist with theological application and his article is essentially about the paradox of secularisation that on the one hand proclaims the end of religion and on the other nurtures religion by other names. The article begins:

The growing suspicion with which nineteenth century thinkers came to regard religion led to it being treated as a form of ideology. But over the course of the twentieth century it became clear that sometimes it is more illuminating to treat ideology as a form of religion.


This thesis holds despite the fact the ideologies of the 20th century were often avowedly anti-religious. For example, in the 1997 film Kundun, Chairman Mao Zedong, in a face to face encounter with the Dalai Lama, tells him that “religion is poison”. Could anyone argue that the cult of Mao was not a religious phenomenon?

Totalitarian secular religion uses violence to assert its orthodoxy, initially in the terror of the French revolution then down through the years in the Stalinist purges, the Jewish Holocaust, the millions of deaths in China’s cultural revolution and the killing fields of Pol Pot.

Casey points out that not all secular religion is totalitarian and that there has arisen democratic variants, drawn from extreme versions of free market capitalism, feminism and environmentalism:

Democratic political religion … makes explicit appeals to inclusiveness and tolerance, repudiates violence, recognises individual autonomy, and does not have a pronounced ritualistic and liturgical dimension. It is directed to the modification of human nature and society rather than to the revolutionary regeneration of humanity, and pursues its ends where possible through judicial and administrative coercion and more generally through capturing the “commanding heights” of the culture. The attitude to traditional religion ... is hostile.

A third form of secular religion exists as civil religion. In America we see this writ large when patriotism morphs with a form of Christianity that has lost its orientation of being in the world but not of it.

When we hear Federal politicians in Australia talking about mateship and a fair go as being quintessentially Australian values, we know we are in the realm of civil religion. Civil religion is designed to “foster unity and collective identification”.


These forms of religion arise because the process of secularisation did not remove the necessity of making sense of life and the world and it was this pressure that produced a “metamorphosis of the sacred” in which adherence was transferred from a transcendent object to an object or force in the world, be that the Fatherland, the proletariat, the free market or the egalitarian society.

These are the old gods who now walk the earth in the absence of the iconoclasm of the Church. The theological naivety of the population produced by the decline of the church and the separation between church and state, that disallowed faculties of theology in our universities and hence the training of teachers in theology, has removed from us ancient methods of discernment that would call these movements for what they are. In our ignorance they remain masked as unalloyed agents for good.

When the masks are removed, secularism is best seen not as a necessary condition of modernity but as one of its paradoxes, since it has substituted one religion for another in the name of freedom from all religion.

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Note: while every attempt to accurately represent Michael Casey’s article has been made, not all of the opinions expressed may be attributed to him.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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