Today's date:
Winter 2002


God Is Not a Head of State

Jean Daniel is editor-in-chief of Le Nouvel Observateur, which he founded in 1964 and has been at the center of French intellectual life for the last three decades. He is also an administrator of the Louvre Museum. He prepared this article for the "Intellectuels du Monde" meeting sponsored by NPQ and UNESCO in New Delhi in 1997.

Paris-The issues are basic: Should we render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's, separating the temporal from the spiritual? Or, if we believe that such a separation is impossible, are we led to the conclusion that religious belief in a divine order should dominate civic organization? Must we then consider a theocratic state as legitimate? If we grant this, the issue boils down to whether such a theocratic state can respect the minorities within its jurisdiction if they hold a different religion from that of the state or if they have no religion at all.

However, if we consider that a separation between the spiritual and the temporal is desirable and possible, we are forced to ask ourselves about the role of a secular state. Can one have political ethics with no spiritual basis, or laws without any transcendental affirmation? Or is the state merely meant to organize the coexistence of the various religious communities? The issue is then to discern the categorical imperatives of a federative government, such as natural and civil rights. In other words, can the ethics of a godless secular state be lastingly legitimate and effective?

GOD AND STATE | There are at least two examples of pure theocracies in the world today: Iran, which practices Shi'ite Islam, and Saudi Arabia, which practices Sunnite Islam. There are other less "pure" examples elsewhere in Islam and in Israel where theocracy has been amended or somewhat modified by the influence of democracy.

Iran is seen to persecute its minorities on occasion while Saudi Arabia merely forbids the worship of any faith other than the state religion. This state religion is intolerant because it takes itself to be divine and universal, and it leans toward ethnic and religious grouping and even ethnic and religious cleansing. (One could claim that totalitarian Communist states also practiced a state religion, since only the priests of their single party were considered capable of deciphering the sense of history.)

On the other hand we have witnessed in the West an anti-theocratic movement beginning with the English Revolution in 1679, followed by the American Revolution in 1787 and the French Revolution in 1789. From the idea of habeas corpus to the Declaration of the Rights of Man the machinery emerged for the death sentence passed on God. A denial of God as head of state was proclaimed.

I am talking here, of course, about the God of monotheism. From the point of view of another of the world's most important civilizational traditions, India, our Western revolutions were not needed to separate the spiritual from the temporal. There is nothing in the sacred writings of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism or Sikhism which regulates the lives of its citizens-nothing that compares with the Jewish Torah, the Catholic doctrines and the Muslim Shari'a. This does not mean, of course, that people are not deeply imbued with religion. In fact the opposite is true.

Interestingly, the modern West and India enjoy a form of secularity close to the definition of religion found in Greek and Roman antiquity. To Aristotle and Cicero religion was seen as separate from civic administration or the state. The gods were omnipresent but they were not necessarily obeyed.

What, then, has happened to our secular states where politics and religion no longer seem to know their respective places? Does Indian fundamentalism stem from the reaction to a Hindu identity threatened by imported monotheism, albeit now secular?

According to the great French scholar Sylvain Levi, there is also nothing in the sacred writings of polytheistic India to incite intolerance, even less violence. Nevertheless it seems the Indian state has been reduced to arbitrating in so-called wars of religion-even though this democratic sanctioning has no legitimate popular consensus.

It appears that the United States has often found itself in circumstances similar to India: Religion is totally separate from the state although its citizens are broadly organized into religious groups and multicultural communities. The Great American Dream in recent times has become somewhat sterile, a colorless and neutral legal administrator of intercommunity conflicts. In the aftermath of the implosion of the Soviet system, and after the Gulf War experience which left the US sanctioned by the world community as the singular superpower, America is wondering if its citizens have less in common than they have differences. They all come together not under the banner of assimilation or oneness, but of coexistence.

Religion is, of course, separate from the state in France, too. But the beheading of Louis XVI meant more than just a symbolic death for the Godhead of State. I shall even dare to suggest that in a way the individual, transformed into a citizen, was born in France between 1789 and 1791, even if almost two centuries went by before he reached maturity. The invention of the modern individual was a hugely presumptuous creation-the free thinkers, radicals and Voltairians had been content to rally against the power of the Catholic Church, while remaining mistrustful of the people.

The Revolutionaries and members of the Assembly created this Promethean idea of the sovereign individual taken out of his religious context, his origins, his environment and his social class. The Republican state in this view is not merely the arbitrator for the various communities which have no legal or official entity-it is the expression of popular sovereignty by free and equal individuals.

At the end of the 20th century, group interests-"communities"-are starting to spring up again in France, sometimes joining together to lobby for some reform or other. This tendency toward "communitarianism" is undoubtedly as alarming for Europe as it is for the US. We can see in Lebanon and the former Yugoslavia where this kind of convulsion leads.

POST-COMMUNIST COMMUNITARIANISM | At the end of the 20th century, we have entered what can be called the era of "communitarianism." Why is this? Three reasons come to mind:

• What we have forgotten is that man is a religious being. He is more than Aristotle's political animal or Hobbes' wolf. He is, and always has been, a social and religious being. The "individual" was an invention, a construction. He appeared late in human history, preceded by the community, without which he cannot exist. He keeps wanting to get away from it, but at the same time keeps wanting to get back into it.

The French Hellenist Jean-Pierre Vernant admitted that he had spent his life thinking like Marx that nations and religions were doomed by history. Later he realized that he could understand little about his subject, ancient Greece, unless he resigned himself to accepting the solid permanence of both concepts within man.

It is evident by now that everything in modern life which too brutally rips an individual from integration into his religious community ends up causing a reaction, sometimes even a regression.

• For some time now we have been going through a crisis of Enlightenment Reason that emerged with the birth of the individual. The cult of Reason, the progress of Science and also the organized cult of History and its Chosen People (or Class) replaced transcendence that was worshiped and experienced in a religious manner. As we know, the cult of Reason even led to totalitarian ideologies. There is no longer any point in dwelling on how Stalin's successors brought back Russian-style chauvinism and an eschatology where "the Future" supplanted "the Beyond."

This crisis of Reason does not just come from its derived ideologies or even the scientific limits that scholars have recently noted. According to Emmanuel Levinas, it stems from the tremendous outcome of the two ideologies of Progress-liberalism, which ended up in Nazism and Stalinism. It is clear that the crisis of Reason leads either to a temporary nihilism or a permanent need for transcendence.

• Our century has not just snatched from the gods all civic powers, the ability to destroy mankind, to re-create man and to reproduce himself ad infinitum through biotechnology; this century also enjoys a ubiquity of images, the obliteration of space and time with air waves and satellite transmissions. What kind of "new man" will emerge from this mediasphere? We have no idea, but we do know that there is only one Earth, one world, one planet, one media space.

From a philosophical point of view it is disconcerting to think that nothing human can remain unknown to us. But awareness of the unique nature of our world does not mean achieving unity. Quite the opposite. And the upheavals we must suffer before we achieve this unity will be terrifying.

Population movements, soaring birthrates, the unprecedented mingling of peoples, the mixing of cultures and the babble of the world's language-all give rise to nervous reactions and bewilderment. Remember that Babel, far from being a tribute to multilingual cosmopolitanism, was a curse. The tower of Babel is a tower of punishment and misery.

Rather than happily accepting our fate as one planet Earth, we wonder who we are, preferring to be what we were-or what we thought we were. We run after what is called "authenticity," which often means re-inventing our own roots and claiming to have rediscovered our fathers' religion, a religion whose message we sometimes selectively use to reject others.

THE NEED TO BELIEVE | The need for something religious is felt by some as a lack and by others as nostalgia. It might be regret for a world of continuity and the kind of immanence where an animal feels an integral part of its community, like "water in water." To Georges Bataille it is a need for intimacy with things and with others. It may also be regret for a transcendental and original state, like the fulsome soul in Plato's universe, or Paradise before the Fall.

Mircea Eliade emphasized the rituals in ancient Greece, India and Christianity-reconstructed for the circumstances-which symbolically fulfilled the desire to return to the supposed era of founding myths.

If we contemplate the compelling logic of the three reasons I have just given we can grasp the fragility of those secular regimes which claim to counter or ignore it. We can also understand how if even the most totalitarian system manages to satisfy man's basic religious needs and yearning for origins it can be assured of a future. We can see clearly the essence of despotism and the precarious nature of democracy.

My interpretation here is rather pessimistic and the reader is in no way obliged to share it. However, it is useful to remember that the religious act existed before religious faith, and that the construction of a system of belief often corrected what was imperfect in natural religion. For example, the sacrifice of Abraham would lead, through the customs practiced by the Chaldeans, to human sacrifice. In other words, there are plenty of reasons for taking into account man's naturally religious side, but there are even more for resisting the drift back to a natural state where temporal and spiritual were fused.

The religious act colors, nourishes and impregnates the political act, but religion cannot on its own inspire the political organization of the secular city. It is vital to take into account the indomitable nature of the religious act, but it is quite another thing to submit the people's institutions-the great achievement of man's dignity-to any manifestation of religious belief.