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Religion, spirituality and politics

23 February 2008

Recently a blogging friend, Nemeton wrote:

I am strongly opposed to ID cards and consider that introducing them is a form of oppression that I would strongly resist – and I think all people of conscience (religious or secular) have the right to resist such tyranny. But my ideas on this come from my political identity as a free citizen, not my religious identity as a Wiccan Unitarian animist (both my political and spiritual identity come from my personal values, and not the other way around).

The same blogger on another occasion queried my use of the term “neopagan”, and perhaps there is a link. The statement “both my political and spiritual identity come from my personal values, and not the other way around” is quintessentially modern. And neopaganism can be either modern or postmodern, or a combination of the two. It can never be premodern. Paleopaganism, on the other hand, is basically premodern in outlook.

Modernity tends to be analytical. It breaks things down and pulls them apart in order to analyse them. It looks at each component, and isolates it for further study. So political identity, spiritual identity and personal values can be examined separately and in isolation from one another, and classified in terms of cause and effect.

In contrast to this approach, Orthodox Christian theology is holistic. In the holistic outlook, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Political identity, spiritual identity and personal values form a whole greater than the sum of those parts. The analytic method can only take you so far. You have to look at the whole as well.

I wrote about this in another blog post in Notes from underground

Modernity tends to be analytic rather than synthetic. It seeks to understand things by breaking them down rather than by building them up. It relegates ‘religion’ to the ‘private’ sphere. It is individualist rather than communal. Modernity is not holistic: its analytical approach seeks to reduce wholes to their components, to disassemble and dissect, and to see the whole as purely the sum of its parts. The holistic view of Orthodoxy (and many premodern societies) is quite alien to this approach.

Religion, as we understand and use the term today, is itself a modern concept [1]. It would be unthinkable for a premodern person to hold a set of personal values, and then, in effect, to go in search of a religion to embody them.

One incident that made me particularly aware of this was when I was a student and a fellow student who was a Christian was banned. Other students organised a poster protest in downtown Pietermaritzburg, and I was preparing a poster I planned to hold, with the words “Jesus is our King, not Vorster”.

Another student, who was a secular humanist, objected to this wording, and said it was too narrow, and that one should protest in terms of “wider human values”. The trouble was, what he saw as “wider human values”, I saw as a narrow and limited view. And vice versa.

In his modern and humanist view, there was a wide field of human values. Within those there was a smaller subset, labelled “religion”, and within that subset was a yet smaller subset, labelled “Christianity”. Thus from his point of view, my poster was horribly narrow. He would no doubt have preferred something wide and abstract like “Arbitrary banning destroys rule of law”. Even “destroys” might have been too concrete, and an even more abstract term like “abrogates” would have been preferred.

I saw my wording as wider. God was the creator and king of the universe, and thus it represented universal values. And this pipsqueak Vorster was setting himself up against the ruler of the universe.

There was also a practical and political reason for this. Vorster had already, by his past actions, showed that he cared nothing for the rule of law. To protest against his destruction or abrogation of the rule of the law missed the point. He wanted and intended to destroy the rule of law, and replace it by the rule of man, namely himself. But the government he represented claimed to be the defender of “Western Christian Civilization” and so proclaiming that his action destroyed the credibility of that claim would be more likely to hit home than abstract bleatings about the rule of law.

Of course Mr Vorster was not likely to pass that way to see what was written on the posters, but in South Africa in those days one could be sure that the Security Police would note what was written on the posters and who carried them, and sometimes take photographs of them as well. The notes and photographs could be filed in the dossiers the SB kept on opponents of the government and in due course the content would be conveyed to Mr Vorster the next time they asked him to ban someone. “Jesus is our King, not Vorster” almost certainly raised his blood pressure more than “Arbitrary banning abrogates rule of law”. It also might have the undesirable (from the government’s point of view) effect of undermining the faith of voters in the government’s bona fides when it claimed to be defending “Western Christian civilization”.

So the government was very keen on the idea of that “religion and politics don’t mix” and on more than one occasion Vorster warned those who attacked apartheid on theological grounds to “cut it out”.

So here I present both a Christian and a humanist worldview, which in one sense are complete opposites. Each sees itself as wider, and the other as narrower. They have entirely different perspectives.

Earlier today I got a message from another blogger about the liberation struggle in South Africa and its spiritual basis. Here are some preliminary thoughts, linked to the example above. I was a member of the Liberal Party, and while the humanist student in the example I gave was not, there were several others with views similar to his. The student whose banning we were protesting against was, however, both a Christian and a member of the Liberal Party. And one of the interesting things was that people with radically different religious backgrounds and worldviews were able to work together in a political party for common political goals. Christians, atheists, humanists, agnostics, Jews, Muslims and Hindus worked together for a common political goal of a democratic nonracial South Africa. Their reasons for pursuing that goal may have been very different, and almost opposite. But no matter what the reasons, they were able to agree on a political goal and a political programme.

At one level, this could be seen as an outworking of modernity. All these people must have laid aside their differences, and worked for a common goal. They put their religion into the private sphere, and did not let it interfere with their politics.

But this is exactly what did not happen, in many cases. Yes, there were some who were religiously indifferent. But for many their personal values and political and religious identity could not be separated.

Notes and references

[1] Harrison, Peter. 1990. “Religion” and the religions in the English Enlightenment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN: 0-521-38530-X

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 27 February 2008 4:37 pm

    Thats an interesting distinction between the post/modern “neopagan” and the premodern “paleopagan” (spit – durn thats hard to say).

    Question: Do you see a role for the paleopagan in contemporary culture / spirituality?

  2. 28 February 2008 5:31 am


    You can catch glimpses, like the recent statement by the Minister of Health that traditional medicines don’t need clinical trials, and some of the blog reactions to that from Enlightenment types.


  1. Modernity, premodernity and traditional medicine « Khanya

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