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
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.
THE INDIVIDUAL BORN | 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
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.