On Public Squares

Photo/Catholic Church (England/Wales)


On Public Squares

Ian Linden

28 Sep 2010

The recent visit by Pope Benedict XVI to Britain took the edge off the contemporary Punch-and-Judy show between secularism and religion in the public square. There was certainly a binary opposition in his talks but it was between "aggressive secularism" and "an open secularity". The message was to stop the attacks, let's talk and have a conversation. Keep the doors open. Keep the public square open for religious counsel. The missing second paragraph was, at least, implicit: we can learn from each other.

This will evidently be a conversation involving more than one faith. The different faiths, of course, give a different weighting to the public and private but they all wish to be heard and treated seriously in their contributions to moral and political debate. Moreover, modern politics is hardly brimming over with exciting and innovative visions of how to achieve wellbeing and organise a moral economy and society in a time of crisis.

The "public square" is a nice but irenic metaphor. It conjures up an idyllic picture from both sides of the Mediterranean with a church cosily in the square on one side of the sea nd a mosque in the square on the other. But it is of course a much more complicated and changing space than that. More like St. Mark's in Venice with its crowds from many nations, the sea scarily but intermittently bubbling up through the gutters to angle depth and the restaurant bands playing as on the Titanic. Moreover, today's public square is dominated by the mass media and cyberspace, virtuality as much as locality. It is far from cosy.

The difficulty is that the mass media show a persistent indifference to any consistent account of what might be meant by "secularity" or "secularism", and showcase several disparate features of today's society under the heading of "secular". Does the term merely chronicle a European phenomenon: "the death of God and the growth of 'disenchantment' in the developed world"? Does it describe the sharp decline in attendance at formal worship in mainstream religious organisations. Is "secular" the dominance of scientific explanation and management discourse in the public domain and the evacuation of concepts of the spiritual and transcendent from the way people see and talk about the world? Is it a belief that there is no directionality associated with human life, no purposeful journey, no Good to be found as the purpose and end of life?

Or is "secular" an account of what is widely agreed to be a desirable constitutional and political arrangement designed to avoid, or resolve, inter-religious conflict – with an accompanying historical account of how this arrangement arose as enlightened princes sought to end wars of religion? This has remained a compelling argument: what could make more sense than Indian secularism after 1947.

Is it a renewed commitment to Republican ideals with a touch of anti-clericalism - and perhaps Nietzsche's will to power still lurking in the cultural undergrowth - alongside a hidden delight that Prometheus is Unbound? Or more simply, like the offensive description "non-white" or, less so, "non-Catholic", perhaps it is merely whatever religion is not, or what journalists want it to be.

It would help to know precisely what people are talking about when they champion the "secular" especially if they are posturing as its passionate advocates. If it means Reason above superstition, the last two Popes would be justified in claiming that they were passionate advocates of reason in matters of faith. Or, come to that, they could point to the tradition of mediaeval Muslim, Jewish and Christian philosophy. The differences may be far less great, or much more nuanced, than imagined.

But one thing is sure: a vision of secularism that makes secular thinking normative and dominant as of right in the public square is now contested. The day when the bearers of religious traditions are treated as prisoners on parole, tolerated as long as they don't go back to their bad old ways, may be passing. Perhaps the right image is the London square reserved for residents who suddenly find some non-residents have stolen the gate keys and are sitting discussing on their favourite bench. Far better if they'd been invited in.


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