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Warsi on ‘militant secularism’.

Here are my initial thoughts on Baroness Warsi’s recent outburst on the subject of ‘militant secularism’. There are two.

The first relates to her reference to ‘totalitarian’ regimes. Can anyone out there tell me what ‘totalitarianism’ is? Does the term  refer to a distinct category of regime, or is it simply a fancy new name  for something quite familiar, namely good old fashioned tyranny or dictatorship? It’s a question upon which scholars disagree.  One, Slavoj Zizek, has described ‘totalitarianism as a ‘non-concept’, – and I am sure he is not alone on this point. It is, of course, true that ‘totalitarian’ regimes aim for ‘total’ control of the populations they dominate, – but then so do all tyrants, don’t they? It’s also true (I think) that the term was fist coined in the earlier part of the last century, and with the regimes of Hitler and Stalin largely in mind. So anyone using the term ‘totalitarian’, as Warsi does, rather than – say – ‘tyrannical’  conjures up a spectre of evils whose magnitude is more than normally unspeakable. But that is a rhetorical strategy, and may have no basis in a genuinely tenable distinction.

For myself, I would say that if ‘totalitarianism’ does have a distinct sense, then it must refer to a type of tyrannical  regime in which power is exercised with the help of modern technology. (and I suppose that, here, ‘modern’ must mean ‘twentieth century or later’.) ( I leave Plato to one side.) But if, I’m right, then Warsi must be wrong to state that, ‘in the 20th century, one of the first acts of totalitarian regimes was the targeting of organised religion’, for it is easy to think of tyrannical regimes which, with the help of modern technology, targeted their ideological enemies in order to preserve organised religion.  An obvious example is Franco’s. Franco is on record as having  vowed to maintain Holy Catholic Spain intact, even if he would have to kill half the population. I’m sure it wouldn’t be too difficult to think of other examples.

My second observation relates to Warsi’s reference to ‘militant’ secularism . I could be wrong, but I  had always thought that ‘Onward Christian Soldiers!’ was a religious song. Somehow or other, ‘Onward Cautiously Sceptical Agnostics!’ doesn’t have quite the same stirring ring.

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3 Comment on this post

  1. Interesting post – thanks. You mistake secularlism for agnostacism though, plenty of religious people are secularlists since secularism is supposed to protect their religious freedom as much as the freedom not to practice a faith of athiests and agnostics. And that makes Warsi's points even more ridiculous and off-target.

  2. Thanks for the post, Alan

    My first thoughts were that "totalitarianism" meant good old fashioned tyranny, but reinforced with an attempt to dominate not only actions, but thinking.
    However, several hundred years of religious persecution (both of non-believers and of different-believers) demonstrate that this is not at all new. Religions, as well as other tyrannies, have sought to dominate what people think and punished them appallingly if it differed from the the official line.
    Perhaps "totalitarianism" is a twentieth century concept because of the more widespread effects, the more devasting consequences on whole populations, which as you say is probably a function of technology.
    Whatever the answer, I agree that Baroness Warsi is way off beam. (As is the sending of SEVEN ministers to accompany her to the Vatican – according to the Telegraph -, but that's a different story, perhaps).

    As for "militant", I would add that it is quite appropriate for religious and ideological leaders to use the term – after all, most wars have been launched in pursuit of one or the other…..

    Finally, I agree totally with Steve Cooke – secularism is a protection of the right to one's own belief, whether it be religious or not.

  3. I thought her comments rang completely hollow. "Militant" seems a particularly inappropriate word, given that the atheists and secularists inhabiting liberal democracies** do not choose violence as their modus operandi, and given that monotheistic religious extremists have a history of doing so. [I'm setting aside the odd bit of revolutionary terror (Baader-Meinhof and other loonies) because these folks were not being militant regarding secularism or atheism, they were being militant about political causes. They may have happened to be atheistic or secularist but these were not the properties to which they appealed when seeking to justify*** their violence.]

    **These were the countries to which Warsi was referring.
    ***However inadequately.

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