TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

A Swede versus Enlightenment

The following post is a reply to Rolf Hugoson’s post “Debating the Nordic Consensus Culture.”

Rolf Hugoson has, for some reason, felt challenged by the way three Danish papers appeared in Telos under the headline “From Scandinavia.” Apparently, he missed the token Swede in the lineup of contributors.

But as for myself, I do not at all address Scandinavia specifically in my paper—I was even unaware the paper was to end up under the headline of Scandinavia. So: sorry for not addressing Sweden in a paper that is not about Sweden, nor indeed about Scandinavia. My paper is about an international issue occurring in many countries: the tension between secularism and defenders of radical religion. For the same reason, I shall not go into Hugoson’s different musings about Scandinavia and the possible causes of minor cultural differences between Scandinavian countries.

By way of introduction, Hugoson claims I “pose” as a liberal. What is that supposed to mean? I am a liberal. Posing as a political scientist, he attacks my position making the following claims:

(1) Secularism is not an ideology; it is something I make it into.
(2) Secularism can not be disentangled from religions.
(3) Culturalism is no danger.
(4) All Danes think alike.

(1) As to the first claim, the very subject of my paper is that secularism has been made into an ideology by its opponents. Theo van Gogh’s murderer in Amsterdam stabbed a piece of paper to the dead man’s breast, denouncing the “fundamentalism of the infidels.” This gave rise to an international 2007 debate around the notions of “secularist fundamentalism” and “Enlightenment fundamentalism.” Famously, Pascal Bruckner attacked Timothy Garton Ash for using that phrase about Hirsi Ali—and in the ensuing debate, Garton Ash withdrew his support to this notion (as to this debate, see the website So the reason why I discuss whether secularism can be a fundamentalism is simply that some people claim it is. I claim it is not.

(2) As to the second claim, Hugoson surprisingly writes:

Is not secularism more than a recently discovered rational system of arguments? To many, it instead appears to be a long-term cultural shift, involving new ways of belief and rarely being easy to disentangle from previous religious epochs.

It is difficult to believe somebody posing as a political scientist is not able to “disentangle” secularism from religion! Hugoson makes no less than two major mistakes in this brief quote. One: he identifies secularism with secularization. The latter is the historical process of becoming more secular, a process which has taken place, to some extent, in most Western European countries during the recent three centuries. It is not this process my paper addresses. I address secularism. That is the principle that the state should remain neutral as to religion. This may take several forms— either by a split between state and church, like in France or Sweden, or by the maintaining of a state church kept at a long distance from any political influence, like in England or Denmark. This leads to Hugoson’s second error in the quote: Secularism in this sense is a political principle, and it is very easy to entangle that principle from previous religious and political epochs—there was no trace of secularism in any European country as late as 1650, barely by 1750, and as an explicit principle, secularism has only become widespread during the nineteenth century. Read Jonathan Israel’s groundbreaking books to learn about the origins of secularism as a principle (Radical Enlightenment, 2001).

(3) Hugoson’s only comment to the culturalism issue is by saying that the danger it poses seems “a bit exaggerated.” Not exactly a strong proof for a hypothesis. The reason is probably that Hugoson is himself a culturalist; cf. his wild ideas of trying to infer actual political differences from national historical destinies going back to the Viking age! My claim is that current national conservatism—as we find it in closely related forms in the populist parties Dansk Folkeparti and Sverigedemokraterne, in Denmark and Sweden, respectively—forms the current shape of right wing culturalism. Here we find claims that Danish and Swedish citizens should conform to special nationalist cultural beliefs and behaviors, going against Enlightenment standards like equal rights for all citizens and freedom of religion. On the other hand, left-wing culturalism can be found in the claims that immigrant cultural groups should be preserved unchanged, including beliefs and behaviors going against Enlightenment values, like a ban on apostasy, censorship, curtailment of women’s rights, and much else. These two currents take place on each their political wing so they do not form one “ideology of culturalism,” as Hugoson writes. But my claim is that even if they take each other as enemies, they share the same basic way of thinking—taking the individual to be determined through and through by his culture. I claim this idea is wrong and, what is more, politically dangerous.

In not even taking these claims—which form the central argument of my paper—seriously, Hugoson displays a degree of political correctness that is flabbergasting. Many Danes would ridicule his hands-before-closed-eyes position as being typically Swedish; I would not, as I know too many Swedes sharing my own position to claim such a thing.

(4) All in all, Hugoson concludes with a “skepticism vis-à-vis the Danes.” But this is, of course, in itself a piece of culturalism. Danes do not mean the same thing or think in the same way. And my points of view are not those of the other two Danish contributors. My points of view are much closer to positions held by individual Swedes like Arne Ruth or individual Norwegians like Thomas Hylland Eriksen. My position is not at all specifically Danish—no matter how much Hugoson tries, in a fit of culturalist convulsions, to find the root of current differences of opinion in the varying landscape forms of Scandinavia or in the collective unconscious of national defeats or victories from time immemorial.

As to any idea of a “consensus culture” of the North, I can conclude: there is next to no consensus between Hugoson and myself. I claim Enlightenment principles are central to modern democracy and should be defended; Hugoson claims those principles need no defense and may not even be disentangled from religion.

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