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The embrace of the community

The idea of the sovereign individual regarded independently of his religion and his origins is a relatively recent development. It was preceded by the idea of a community towards which the individual has contradictory feelings.

by Jean Daniel

Let us get down to essentials. We are here first and foremost to know whether we should render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's and whether the temporal can be separated from the spiritual.

If we believe, for whatever reason, that such a separation is impossible, we must conclude that religious belief in a divine order should dominate civic organization and we must consider a theocratic state as legitimate. This being the case, one question that arises is whether theocratic states can respect their minorities 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 must ask ourselves about the role of a secular state. Can political ethics exist without a spiritual basis, or laws without a transcendental basis? Or is the function of the secular state merely to organize the coexistence of different religious communities? If it is, then we must examine the categorical imperatives of a federative government and the natural or civic rights it lays down. In other words, are the ethics of a godless state legitimate and effective?

God as Head of State

The English Revolution of 1688, the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789 were major initiating events of an anti-theocratic trend. From the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679 to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1791 we can see the emergence within the civic community of a movement to pass sentence of death on God and deny Him a place as Head of State. Secularism as it is practised in modern states coincides with the definition of religion found in Greek and Roman Antiquity.

Aristotle and Cicero regarded religion as separate from civic administration. The gods were omnipresent, but they were not necessarily obeyed. We should now ask ourselves what has happened in our secular states to change the nature of our expectations of religion and politics. I hope that I shall not be accused of Gallo-centricity if I refer to the French example, or what is left of it, since it is being threatened on all sides. In France too religion is separate from the state. Furthermore, with the beheading of Louis XVI, the death of God-as-Head-of-State was more than just symbolic.

In a sense 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. This was a hugely presumptuous creation. The free thinkers, the radicals and the Voltaireans who had contributed to the Encyclopédie had contested the power of the Catholic church, whilst remaining mistrustful of the people. The Revolutionaries and the members of the Constituent Assembly created this promethean idea of the sovereign individual, someone considered apart from his religion, his origins, his environment and his social class. The republican state was not merely the arbitrator between the various communities, which had no legal or official existence. It was the expression of popular sovereignty by free and equal individuals. Now, communities are starting to spring up again in France, forming ranks and sometimes joining to lobby for some reform or other. This is undoubtedly an alarming trend, as we can see today in its ludicrous convulsive culmination in the United States, in Lebanon and even worse in the former Soviet Republics and the former Yugoslavia. We are living in the era of communalism.

Why is this? I should like to suggest three reasons.

Man is a religious being

First, we have forgotten that Man is a religious being. He is more than Aristotle's political animal or Hobbes's man who is wolf to man. He is, and always has been, a social and religious being. The individual is an invention, a construction, which appeared late in human history. The community existed before the individual, who cannot exist without it. The individual keeps wanting to get away from the community, yet always wants to return to it. A great French Hellenist, Jean-Pierre Vernant, admitted that he had spent his life thinking like Marx that nation and religions were doomed by history. Later, he said, he realized that he could understand nothing about his subject, Greece, unless he resigned himself to accepting the permanence of both concepts within Man.

The first conclusion is that everything in modern life which too brutally assails the individual's integration into his religious community will eventually cause the individual to react, sometimes even to regress. The expression "religious community" must not be taken to imply a community of believers. What is most often regretted in religious tradition is not faith or even belief, but a certain balance in a patriarchal society imbued with religious feeling.

Secondly, we have for some time been going through a crisis of reason linked to the emergence of the individual. The cult of reason, the progress of science and the organized cult of history and the people have been celebrated and experienced in a religious way. The cult of reason has even led to totalitarian ideologies.

The crisis of reason does not only stem from the ideologies that led it astray or even from the scientific limits that scholars have recently imposed on it. According to the French philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas, it results from the tremendous outcome of two ideologies of progress liberalism which ended up in nazism, and communism which bore Stalinism along with it. "World wars and local conflicts, national socialism, bolshevism, the camps, the gas chambers, nuclear arsenals, terrorism and unemployment it's all too much for one generation." I feel I must add to this the horrors of colonization and decolonization. This crisis of reason leads to either a temporary nihilism or a permanent need for transcendence.

The powers taken from the Gods

I attach even more importance to the third reason. Our century has not only dispossessed the Gods of all powers in civic life, of the power to destroy humanity, to recreate humankind and to reproduce ad infinitum. It also enjoys the ubiquity of images, eliminating space and time by means of waves. What kind of New Man will emerge from the mediasphere? We have no idea, but we do know that there is only one earth, one world, one planet. From a philosophical point of view, it is disconcerting to think that nothing human can remain unknown to us. But knowing that the world is one does not mean that its unity has been achieved. Quite the opposite. And it is to be feared that the upheavals we must suffer before we achieve this unity will be terrifying. Population movements, soaring birth-rates, the mingling of peoples, the mixing of cultures and the babelization of the world's languages everywhere gives rise to anxieties, withdrawals and tensions.

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. Before accepting to be happy to belong to planet earth, we wonder who we are and prefer to be what we were or what we thought we were. We chase after what is called "authenticity", which often means reinventing our roots and claiming to have rediscovered our fathers' religion, a religion whose message we sometimes use selectively in order to reject others.

For some the need for the religious expresses a lack; for others it expresses nostalgia. It may be regret for a world of continuity and immanence where an animal feels an integral part of its community, like "water in water". To the French writer Georges Bataille, it is a need for intimacy with things and with others. It may also become regret for a transcendental and original state, such as the soul in Plato's universe or paradise before the Fall. The historian of religions Mircea Eliade identified and studied rites in ancient Greece, India and Christianity which show or imply a need and desire to return to an imagined time of origins and an age of founding myths which can, when necessary, be reconstructed.

If we contemplate the force of the three reasons I have just given, we can assess the fragility of regimes which claim to counter or ignore it. We can also understand how systems that manage to satisfy humankind's basic religious needs can have a future, however totalitarian these systems may be. Finally, we can see the essence of despotism and the precarious nature of democracy.

The sacrifice of Abraham

We also start to fear a return to the religious socio-psychological phenomena described by the French scholar René Girard, who sees proximity as the key to aggression and its continuance. For Girard, the enemy is the person next door, one's brother, what the Ten Commandments call one's neighbour. If we are asked to love our neighbour as ourself, it is precisely because he is the person we are most likely to treat as a rival and thus consider hostile. The person who resembles me most strongly but who is not me is my enemy. He is the part of myself which I like in myself but of which I am dispossessed because it is outside me, and so I wish to destroy it. In other words, fratricide is the only real war. We only fully hate what we know best, and from which we are separated by hardly anything any little difference will do.

In this situation there can be no spontaneity in love; the initial drive is to appropriate what is identical. Love can only exist in this social (and thus religious) self at the price of immense selfrestraint, in fact a kind of rape. In the nature of the sons of Abraham, therefore, there is an initial inaptitude for love because they are religious before being the sons of the Prophet. The heritage of Abraham and eventually the Judaeo-Christian heritage is not one of love at first sight but of learning to love. If we adapt the reflexes observed between religions, races and nations, we arrive at the Balkan proverb quoted today by a Croatian leader: "We have no friends. We just have allies among the enemies of our enemies".

This is a very pessimistic interpretation, and we are in no way obliged to share it. However, it helps to remind us that religion exists before religious belief and that initially belief often corrected what was imperfect in natural religion. For example, the sacrifice of Abraham would lead, through the customs practised by the Chaldeans, to human sacrifice. Now, what is taken to be a return to religion is often a return to what preceded religion and what faith corrected, or would have corrected by evolving. In other words, there are many reasons for taking into account Man's natural religious side, but there are even more for resisting the results of this drift back to nature. Certainly we must fight for the separation of religion and politics.

In conclusion, I would say that religion colours, nourishes and impregnates politics, but religion alone cannot inspire the political organization of the community. It is one thing to take into account the irreducible nature of the religious act, but it is quite another to submit the institutions of people who have achieved the dignity of the individual to the manifestations of religious belief.

We asked how to provide a basis for the need to resist Man's irreducible religious nature. I think that the answer lies in the universal nature of everything that emerges into consciousness. The eighteenth-century philosopher Montesquieu answered this question in a way that has since become widely accepted. It is worth recalling here: "If I knew some scheme which was advantageous to myself but hurtful to my kindred, I would banish it from my mind. If I knew of some scheme which was advantageous to my kindred but hurtful to my country, I would try to forget it," he wrote. "If I knew what was of advantage to my country, but hurtful to Europe and the human race, I should regard it as a crime."


Read also our Interview with Jean Daniel, The state of the nation, UNESCO Courier , December 1995

Jean Daniel

The French writer and journalist Jean Daniel is founder-director of the Paris weekly Le Nouvel Observateur. He has been an ardent champion of the cause of human dignity and a lucid and critical observer of the events of the last half century. The author of many novels and essays, he was recently awarded the Albert Camus prize for a collection of short stories entitled L'ami anglais (Paris, Grasset, 1994).