TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Secularism, Fundamentalism, and Culture

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Michael Millerman looks at Frederik Stjernfelt’s “Secularism is Fundamentalism! The Background to a Problematic Claim,” from Telos 148 (Fall 2009). Frederik Stjernfelt and Jens-Martin Eriksen’s The Democratic Contradictions of Multiculturalism is also available from Telos Press in our online store.

What Leo Strauss demonstrated in his studies on the foundations and crisis of liberalism—an achievement that continues to bring both honor and infamy to his name—recurs in the guise of an unsolved problem in both the popular press and in learned company as a debate over the question of whether secularism is what it ostensibly opposes: a rigid fundamentalism. In these circles, the question is provoked less by purely theoretical considerations than by such utterances in the public sphere as are bound to infuriate a sect’s opponents, or confirm them in their suspicions: the Christian American Family Association‘s director of issues analysis refers to “secular fundamentalists” as “the American Taliban”; Quebec Cardinal Marc Oullet, who had a chance to become Rome’s new Pope, complains of “secular fundamentalism” and the “dictatorship of relativism” when defending the Catholic faith; the inquisitor Simon Blackburn quips that a recent book by an established and respected philosopher, who questions the materialistic atheism of the day, ought to be blacklisted as prohibited reading.

This phenomenon comes in other, more or less grotesque forms, too: liberal conservatives in the UK insist that the Anti-Fascist leagues are as fascist as Mussolini; groups who support the Arab government that was eager to assist Hitler in the extermination of the Jews rally against Israelis, whom they call the new Nazis; Left becomes Right; anti-Terrorism, Terrorism.

The logic of inversion is at the heart of Frederik Stjernfelt’s essay “Secularism is Fundamentalism! The Background to a Problematic Claim.” In this essay, Stjernfelt deals only with the claim that secularism is fundamentalism, not with the other claims I’ve noted as exhibiting that logic. But his reader can apply the analysis more generally to the other issues of inversion that might be of particular interest, for Stjernfelt lays bare the mechanism that underlies many of these confusions or deliberate distortions.

Stjernfelt begins his essay by remarking that the claim that secularism is fundamentalism “is now heard more and more frequently” (39). Most often, it comes from “religious people who have themselves been targets of attack for fundamentalism . . . and . . . feel compelled to pay back this criticism in the same currency” (39). The strategy behind the claim is an effective one, since, by reducing all points of view to some kind of fundamentalism, it renders them “equality legitimate.” The religious fundamentalist thus accepts that he is a fundamentalist, but adds, as it were: “we’re all fundamentalists, only some of us can admit it openly and defend our fundamenta, while others, like you, are deluded and deluding fundamentalists—inconsistent and dishonest ones; what’s more, your foundations are nihilistic and diabolic.” He might even call ostensibly objective social scientists “teachers of evil and immorality.”

Stjernfelt, however, spoils the magic trick of inversion by showing us how it works: “it is only possible to claim that secularism is a fundamentalism by closing your eyes to some basic differences,” he writes. And he proceeds to elaborate some of those differences: fundamentalism requires that you follow to the letter some book of holy writ, but secularism has no books of holy writ (not even Spinoza, not even Hobbes). Therefore secularism cannot be a fundamentalism. Moreover, secularism “makes no ontological assertions about the deepest fundament of the world” (40), whereas religious fundamentalisms do precisely that. And this is “very important to understand” (41). Indeed. Secularism is not a doctrine about God or the angels, prayer or the right way of life; “it only addresses the political structuring of modern societies” (41).

We might have reservations about some of these claims. But let us grant them and Stjernfelt’s initial thesis: secularism is not fundamentalism, and to say otherwise is to be quite mistaken about a number of basics. It is at this point that Stjernfelt begins to make a new argument, well worth considering. In the case of the “secularism as fundamentalism” trope, he avers, the logic of inversion has its roots in the notion of culture. Hence, the critique of the notion of culture informs the rest of the essay.

For Stjernfelt, culture “refers to a group of human beings that shares a set of values that determines their access to the world” (42). As it is used by those he opposes, it designates a barrier that cannot be crossed. An individual is inextricably bound up with, that is, determined by, his or her culture. And cultures can’t be compared. In the discourse of culture, “human sacrifice, war, stoning, and the cutting off of hands is one set of values, while the striving for art, science, and democracy is another, and it is impossible to claim that one is superior to the other” (43).

Ironically, the Left has adopted talk of “culture” uncritically, despite “the inherent conservatism” of the notion of culture (43n5; 48). Both Right and Left had criticized bourgeois culture (44), the Left especially once it moved away from orthodox, economic Marxism (44). For the Right this entailed the defense of “national culture”; for the Left it resulted in the adoption of an inherently naïve and dangerous “multiculturalism” (46n11). And “the tension between the two types of culturalism—national culturalism and multiculturalism—is a war between brothers and does not constitute a basic opposition in actual politics” (48).

Stjernfelt’s discussion of these matters includes a helpful and important distinction between the Enlightenment tolerance of and multicultural respect for differences, in which he argues persuasively that “the demand for toleration is intimately connected to freedom of religion and the freedom of speech, while the demand for respect, by contrast, is connected to the demand for limits on freedom of speech and religion” (47). Accordingly, Left secularism, by adopting multiculturalism, ends up fighting for respect, not tolerance, and hence for the limitation of freedoms that it ostensibly supports. That is, there is, it seems, a hypocrisy or inconsistency on the Left, but what is important about it is that it arises because the Left ditched the notion of society and adopted that of culture.

Stjernfelt provides numerous illuminating examples of how this logic plays out, from the 1947 opposition by the American Anthropological Association of the 1948 UN Human Rights Charter, on the grounds that human rights discourse doesn’t taken into account cultural differences, to the attempts by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to criminalize criticism of Islam (49). Indeed, his unmasking of the (politically motivated) de-politicizing effects of the rhetoric of culture (50) makes for mandatory reading, as does the critique of the fashionable notion of “the Other” (51–52).

The upshot of the essay is this: if you support Enlightenment principles and democratic ideals, drop all talk of culture, which obscures every important issue and makes it impossible to draw the relevant distinctions between illiberal, undemocratic, barbarous fundamentalisms and a secularism worth defending. The failure to draw these distinctions risks “[opening] the door to never-ending religious wars” (53).

This well-written, well thought out, and well-executed attack on the notion of culture in the name of principles of free speech, freedom of religion, and democracy deserves to be read and pondered over, especially by those whom it seeks to upbraid and scold in the manner of a concerned friend: the multicultural Left. At the same time, it points beyond the program of defending principles and chastising friends toward the more difficult problem of the crisis of modern rationality. Therefore, it should be supplemented with readings that probe the deep roots of that philosophical crisis, whose practical effects, potential harms, and conspicuous contradictions Stjernfelt has admirably described.

Read the full version of Frederik Stjernfelt’s “Secularism is Fundamentalism! The Background to a Problematic Claim” at the Telos Online website. If you are affiliated with an institution that is an online subscriber to Telos, you have free access to our complete online archive. If not, you can purchase 24-hour access to this and other Telos articles at a per-article rate. Follow the article link for more details.

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