Human Values

Human values

On religion and secularism in the public space

Author: Maria Martelli

Note: This essay is written as a result of a course on paradigms of secularization at the Master for Advanced Sociological Research, 2018, coordinated by Sorin Gog. It is an exercise in answering contemporary debates regarding secularism and religion in the public space, and it is in conversation with the writings of Monika Wohlrab-Sahr, Veit Bader, Rajeev Bhargava and Tariq Modood.


I remember my first displeasure regarding religion in public space. It wasn’t about churches or headscarves, as the first ones are too ubiquitous and the latter, extremely rare in Romania. It was about religion in school, and it happened very early on, as I was always suspicious of the fact that we would be taught Christian-orthodox religion as a ‘course’ in middle school. I remember trying to take a pragmatic approach to what we were being taught, trying to understand it in a way that, maybe, was considered ‘secular’. When being given a test about Andrei Saguna, a bishop of the orthodox church, and knowing he has helped build hundreds of schools, I calculated about how many schools per month/week that would be, given his lifespan. That was considered either inappropriate or blasphemous by the teacher, who, I remember, gave me a small mark written in the colour red. Interestingly, this teacher was a woman and thus not a priest, unlike many of the other teachers of religion. I mention this because (although I have no recollection of this reasoning) I might have hoped that she had understood my process, given the fact that she was not a preacher in the institutionally established sense (in church). This little event I see now as being meant to make a separation, in the teacher’s eyes, between what is church-related, and thus undisputable, unthinkable, and not-to-be-understood, but taken-as-it-is, and the rest of our schooling, which, in the ideal sense, was supposed to teach us to question things – but also didn’t. Later on, my dislike of religion in schooling didn’t subside but only grew. It annoyed me that we would have religious icons in our classroom, and I kept making secret plans with my best friend, that we would bring a little buddha, and maybe a Quaran too, just to spite teachers. We knew it would be too bad to take that icon away, so we thought if one religion is allowed, why not all religions? Well, even then it was clear that not all religions were welcome. We didn’t need an Islamophobic orthodox priest/teacher, he was just the cherry on top of the feeling that all of this isn’t about religion at all, it’s about Christianity, and more precisely, Ortodoxism. Rajeev Bhargava (2011) does very well to criticize Tariq Modood’s (2011) proposed solution to the incompatibility between the coming of Muslims and moderate secularism – simply adapting what we have won’t be enough because, while European secularism might be modifiable to accommodate Christians, it is biased against Muslims (Bhargava, 2011). It is not enough to adapt state institutions that we already have, as Modood urges us, because they’re un-adaptable. Of course, the crisis that puts secularism as a ‘hot debate’ in Western Europe is, as Modood and Bhargava agree, an issue regarding immigration and maybe even multiculturalism, but such is not the case in Eastern Europe, and not in Romania. Here, we debate with/against our own ‘single’ state religion, Christianity, with an overwhelming majority of population identifying as part of the Eastern Orthodox Church. It is very much the case Bhargava presents, we’re a ‘single’ religion state, but even this single religion presents issues to the table. One mustn’t go far: be it the ‘schools vs. cathedrals’ debate, the 2018 referendum for the re-definition of family as being made solely by a man and a woman, or any online atheists/agnostics forum – it’s clear, a fight between the ‘secular’ and the ‘religious’ is ongoing. Now, Bhargava’s (2011) suggestion – to look at other practices of states/churches, both Western or non-Western, to find better ‘secularisms’ elsewhere – is sensible. This looking is a good starting point, but just seeing what has already been done will be little help in deciding what to do next. How to organize the state, the public space, its institutions, and religion? This requires a guiding compass, not only the knowledge that north and south exist.

I know now that in high school I saw secular spaces as ‘clear’ from religion, empty of it, and that was naïve. Secularism has a history. The ‘expulsion’ of religion from public space and its regulation, is, in part, a specific European phenomenon that engaged Christianity and enlightenment. I believed in secularism, but it didn’t give us anything fun, mostly because it wasn’t around much in real life, but rather on the internet. Thus, another one of my best friend and mine’s marvellous plans was to devise a religion that would keep one from having to go to school too often. Because religious ideas seemed to have such power over state institutions – Christian orthodox ideas, but even some minority religions would get days off to honour their traditions – our way of taking back power as underage citizens was to circumvent the system, by appealing to this other apparatus that had weight over it: religion. We understood religion as a set of organized ideas about the world that are grounded in something beyond the human, and thus unquestionable by human means. Maybe this is the ‘key’ to unveiling why secularism and religion are different as categories, although both have a history, a context, and are wielded with power and as power. I do not mean to keep at this with broad claims, I know religion is indeed studied by its scholars, it is changed, it is spoken and reformed. Yet, the values it ultimately stands on are not „human” values – in the case of Christianity, they are given by superior beings.  This might also be one reason why my high school religion teacher devalued thinking about sacred practices in mathematical ways. It might it be that only concepts that are alike can truly compete against the other, only the sacred with the sacred, the human rights with the human values.

While secularism is often un-reflexive and doesn’t recognize its flaws or its biases, it is about human norms, written by humans. This not to say that there is a definitive ‘human’ anywhere to characterize the whole species – exactly why we might need ‘secularisms’. In that sense, I lean more towards agreeing with Monika Wohlrab-Sahr (2011), as she points to four types of secularities based on different values: „secularity for the sake of individual liberty; secularity for the sake of balancing religious diversity; secularity for the sake of societal integration and national development; and secularity for the sake of the independent development of societal sub-spheres”. To do away with the concept of secularism altogether, as Veit Bader (2011) proposes, although might seem like a good idea, is rather unfeasible. Replacing it with liberal-democratic constitutionalism will solve little in my opinion, being more like sweeping our problems under the rug. While we might win some clarity on the front of definitions, as it is often unclear what secularism even is (Bader, 2011), we might lose the ability to name what principles actually govern our institutional arrangements. Even though Veit Bader argues that LDC is not a foundational ideology, but „a meta-constitutional and meta-legal theory”, and even if it is so, it cannot ignore facts of lived-life, it cannot stand for what discourses already have power and have acted over society, but even less over practices that are rooted in exactly this dichotomy of religion/secularism, private/public. As such, it seems more sensible to go with what Wohlrab-Sahr and Bharvaga propose, to begin and keep going with anthropologies of religion and secularism in multiple, yet unexplored and untranslated contexts, and discuss from there on how we can find values on which to commonly agree, be them based on our own humanity or beyond it.

To say we need to learn more is all well, but how to go about putting it in practice? It has fallen upon me to understand that it is only dystopia that breeds no conflict. When dealing with issues that are capable of breeding such hatred and separation, it might be necessary to agree on how to handle conflict, and what kind of conflict is necessary, if not beneficial. How can we make ‘structure’ that is resilient to both discussion between opposing sides and to change/reform if needed, without the pitfall of slowly giving in to gross human rights violations? Not to say that human rights have no history either, but to draw hard lines on what kind of path is acceptable. Secondly, it might do to see that not all that seems opposing is truly in the opposite, as many religious share grounding values with each other and with liberalism, democracy and human rights. It does well to listen to multiple voices, but even more, when making legislation, to see the various meanings of the way things are talked about and done, understanding each choice in the context in which it is made. Once history is present, and the present is more visible and put forth, it is then that we can speak about the future. More importantly, no history should be made without giving space to the most historically marginalized voices. Mistakes should not be repeated.

To conclude, issues regarding values should be out-front treated as such. Our values should not be hidden within our social structures, unable to be entangled from the very way we speak and act, and taken „as given”, as ”always has been”, as „truth”. See, we did not invent any religion, my best friend and I. It was too much trouble for something we didn’t believe in. As soon as it was legally possible, we signed ourselves away from religion class and skipped it, even though we had nowhere to go, as the school gate was closed and guarded, and we weren’t the jumping-over-the-fence type. We didn’t bring in little buddhas either, but we kept arguing with the teacher/priest from time to time, but only because he indulged us. As if any side could change the mind of the other. We wished we had done school in a truly secular institution, but we also wished it had been less nationalist, and less authoritarian in its teaching style. Ultimately, what was truly insidious was school’s right-leaning meritocratic ideology, hidden much deeper than its religiosity, unchallenged and accepted by most. In that sense, when the public institutions are at bay, the most dangerous – and most powerful thing – is what’s hidden. We should keep both religions and secularisms in our horizons, and never deny them their context and history. No teaching, or public space, should be dreamt of as „neutral”. There is no such thing as neutrality, but shades and sides of different values, and if we cannot even name them, how, then, might we know that we want to live and abide by them?



Essay written in conversation with the writings of:

Monika Wohlrab-Sahr (2011)

Veit Bader (2011)

Rajeev Bhargava (2011)

Tariq Modood (2011)






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