“Positive Secularity”?


I saw this morning that the Catholic international news agency, Zenit, reported on September 12, 2008, that French President Sarkozy greeted the visit of Pope Benedict XVI with a speech that promoted what he called a “positive secularity.” Zenit quotes President Sarkozy as saying,

It would be crazy to deprive ourselves of religion; [it would be] a failing against culture and against thought. For this reason, I am calling for a positive secularity. . . . A positive secularity offers our consciences the possibility to interchange — above and beyond our beliefs and rites — the sense we want to give to our lives.

While Sarkozy unfortunately slips into a kind of “secular transcendence” by wanting an interchange “above and beyond our beliefs and rites” (if we talk above and beyond our beliefs, I’m not sure what kind of non-trivial things we would end up talking about!) I nevertheless like the basic connotations of the idea of a positive secularity (without knowing fully what Sarkozy really means by it). I like it especially if for no other reason than it highlights the potential for a different kind of societal ethos over against a “negative secularity” in which all religious interchange is ruled out of court in advance in favour of some supposed “neutral” (and I would argue, chimeral) non-religious standpoint. In fact, the notion of positive secularity arguably better allows for a fundamental commitment to freedom over against a negative secularity that finds itself in the awkward situation of having to limit freedom of religious expression and interchange of ideas to preserve a minimalist lowest common denominator devoid of all religious language.

Oliver O’Donovan rightly points out that a commitment to the Gospel is finally a commitment to freedom (cf. 2 Cor 3:18 – “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom”), particularly freedom from the absolute political and religious claims of fallen humans. As he notes, by sending Jesus Christ, in whom all authority in heaven and earth rests, “God has done something which makes it impossible for us any more to treat the authority of human society as final and opaque.” (Desire of Nations, 253).

The challenges of what a positive secularity would look like are probably just as massive as the challenges of trying to figure out how to accomodate religious conviction in what appears to have been a failing experiement in “negative secularity.” But maybe this small shift from the negative to positive could be an interesting starting point for discussion about the place of religion in a secular society nonetheless.


5 thoughts on ““Positive Secularity”?

  1. David, I should probably think about this longer, if for no other reason than lack of understanding of what “positive secularity” looks like. In the very least, Sarkozy is speaking out of a French socio-political context which I am only partly familiar with.

    At first pass, the concept seems like political double speak, in effect, a way of comforting the “religious” while not conceding anything to them. I am concerned, as you have rightly raised, that it presumes the ability to transcend our beliefs. In essence, our beliefs become subordinate to a higher principle of “secularism.” It strikes me as some sort of neo-gnosticism. The higher pleroma is the transcendent principle, namely it doesn’t matter what you believe so long as it rests among a dialog of equals under the principle of “positive secularism.” To be honest, it sounds rather Canadian.

  2. yeah, it is probably better than “negative secularity”. i like the sounds of it simply because it seems less suspicious of religion and more like it will promote dialogue. it is funny to imagine how you “transcend” religious talk, i think more truly it is like saying we’ll agree to “humble ourselves” to find common ground and speak from there, without relinquishing our convictions. it is nice to hear him admit that religious beliefs are a sort of common ground, even though they go in all sorts of directions from there.

    i’m curious to see what the pope had to say about it, if anything.

  3. ScaryBarry

    Good day,
    Bill, I agree with your assessment on “positive secularism” sounding Canadian but we use the word “tolerance” and that a “higher principle” of secularism seems to be the guiding point of dialogue. This attempt to place belief and religion “under” something suggests the attempt to “control” them with the authority of the state for the betterment of society. Perhaps, this “mediating” point will prevent negative secularism from continual bashing and trashing, limiting and ultimately (if it goes that far) forbidding religious dialogue altogether. Tolerance, on the other hand, I think is different than what was proposed by Sarkozy. My experience with tolerance, not sure if you find it the same, leads to some sort of nebulous and empty commitment to “put up” with differences around us rather than address them and find harmony in our country. Individual rights are tagged on to this commitment to prevent abuse and hopefully allow freedom to individuals, but I find no arena for dialogue unless the local paper in the editorial section counts. Rather than harmony and learning from among different “communities” of belief, I find our country would rather fight for “individual” rights and freedoms.
    Like the rest of you, I would really like to know what this positive secularism looks like when fleshed out.

  4. Barry, I agree with you’re comments on tolerance. At first pass “positive secularity” sounds like a condescending form of tolerance that permits dialog in a way a not unlike a parent talking to a child about life. “Yes, Johnny I know you want to be a fireman when you grow up. I wanted to be a fireman when I was your age too, but when I grew up…” One the one hand the foundation of childhood is affirmed, but on the other hand it is merely childhood, not the stuff of mature sophisticated adults. Perhaps I am reading WAY to much into this.

    CQ David, what say you?

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