The concept of sectarianism is largely associated with factions and divisions within a religion, especially in two major faiths, Christianity and Islam. However, there is also now an increasingly used expression called ‘secular sectarianism.’ This is about factionalism within a secular ideology, especially one which directly or indirectly sees itself as being as grand an idea as the idea of faith. In fact, in some cases, it wants to actually replace it as a new kind of faith.
Most secular ideas, however, retain a democratic respect for religion, as long as it remains relegated to dealing with the people’s personal spiritual matters, and does not interfere in the worldly workings of the state and government. But there have been episodes where some followers of a secular ideology broke away to re-mould this ideology into a new faith that was to replace the old religions. In the late 18th century, when a violent revolution in France overthrew the French monarchy and Catholic clergy, the intellectual leadership of the revolution looked to create a secular democratic republic.
However, within this group were also those who believed that the revolution had only been able to weaken the political role of Catholicism, and that a new religion was needed to completely expunge it from French society. In the 1987 anthology, Readings in Western Civilisation, the American academic Keith M. Baker writes that a faith called ‘Cult of Reason’ was founded complete with ‘temples of reason.’ This did not go down very well by most of their compatriots who saw it as a contradictory act. How could secularism, which insists on separating Church and state, become the source of a new state religion? Secondly, the detractors also pointed out that the idea of reason, in the political context at least, rationalised this separation instead of becoming a theological doctrine itself.
The Cult of Reason was therefore a short-lived idea and sidelined. However, soon it was replaced by the ‘Cult of the Supreme Being.’ This was mainly conceived by the radical French republican, Maximilien Robespierre.
When his faction of French revolutionaries overwhelmed the ‘moderates,’ Robespierre declared the new faith as the state religion. In the 1989 book, A Cultural History of The French Revolution, historian Emmet Kennedy writes that Robespierre insisted that a belief in a godhead was important for social order, but it needed to be done through reason. This, however, did not stop him from organising festivals to honour the ‘god of reason.’
With intensifying economic and political tensions and polarisation, the nature of internal conflicts in societies is evolving. What was once purely a religious construct is no longer limited to matters of religious faith.
This again was problematic. The ‘moderates’ in the French assembly, that had come into being after the revolution, had agreed with the revolution’s pursuit of completely abolishing the monarchy and neutralising the political power that the clergy and the Church once exercised. However, many of them were also of the view that religion’s social utility need not be attacked. Ironically, Robespierre, who detested his moderate colleagues, agreed. But he suspected that remnants of the Church might be used to usurp his faction’s power in the assembly. So, he decided to create a whole new faith to fill the void left behind the receding avenues of Catholicism.
The contemporary Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Žižek, in his book Virtue and Terror, explains Robespierre as a highly contradictory character who placed the ‘necessity’ of violence and terror in the context of ideas that were actually opposed to those that he was propagating. In fact, in an early exhibition of secular sectarianism, he opposed the idea of separating faith from politics, by quoting the 18th century French philosopher Voltaire as follows: ‘If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.’
Secondly, Robespierre fully understood how, for centuries, the Catholic Church in Europe had managed to gather tremendous degrees of political and economic power. But since the French revolution was directly aimed at abolishing this power along with the monarchy, Robespierre decided to replace Catholicism with an alternative faith. However, he planned to use it in exactly the manner in which the clergy and the monarchy had used Catholicism to sustain their power.
To Robespierre, the ‘Supreme Being’ was a deity called Liberty. This, to him, was a ‘living deity’ which was to be worshipped through democracy and reason. This then would lead to a life of virtue and the immortality of the human soul. The moderates were left horrified when Robespierre started to hold festivals which looked quite like the ones held by the fallen clergy of yore.
Even though he was already ordering the beheading of critics, he also made it unacceptable to reject the new faith. When his faction’s acts became too radical, the moderates managed to remove him through an internal coup. His faith too was abolished.
The contemporary Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Žižek, in his book Virtue and Terror, explains Robespierre as a highly contradictory character who placed the ‘necessity’ of violence and terror in the context of ideas that were actually opposed to those that he was propagating.
Robespierre’s faction, believing itself to be purer republicans and revolutionaries (compared to the moderates), could not help but fall into a ‘god complex,’ with the right to judge what was politically correct and what wasn’t.
In the 1960s, the Red Book that carried quotes of the founder of communist China, Mao Tse Tung, became a sacred tome in China and Mao became a living deity of sorts. Of course, in theory, communism is atheistic, but when Mao whipped up a ‘Cultural Revolution’ in 1966, ‘Maoism’ almost became a religion. Those in the Chinese Communist Party who exhibited distaste or concern towards what Mao had triggered, were cut down by fanatical mobs, waving the Red Book and claiming to be on the right sides of the revolution. International communism split into various factions.
Ajay Gudavarthy in his book, Secular Sectarianism: Limits of Subaltern Politics, writes that, over the years, because of intensifying economic and political tensions and polarisation, the nature of internal conflicts in societies is changing. According him, old class and ethnic conflicts remain, but they are being increasingly added to by conflicts within marginalised groups who were once most likely to remain united.
He gave the examples of racial equality and women’s rights groups who, after finding the need to expand their identities beyond the usual ‘binary’ ways that race and gender are perceived and debated, have ended up spending more effort battling other such groups who may think otherwise. It’s like standing in front of a mirror and shouting at your own reflection, believing the reflection to be the enemy. In a way then, sectarianism is not unique to religions alone.
Published in Dawn, EOS, July 5th, 2020