TEHRAN – Professor Eric Thomas Weber says modernity is not “anti-religious” and that secularism is not an inevitable result of modernity.
Professor Weber made the remarks in an interview with the Tehran Times.
Following is the text of the interview:
Modernity in the West involved a series of challenges to previously unquestioned authorities. With the development of the printing press, members of the public were able at last to read religious scriptures for themselves. When they came to think differently than the dictates of their established religious authorities, tyranny became more difficult to sustain. The idea that people had to believe in and interact with God through an intermediary was itself a matter challenged in Europe, especially when religious figures proved time and again to be corrupt or immoral.
As masses of people considered Scripture for themselves, great varieties emerged in interpretation. The power struggles which followed upon religious diversification demonstrated the fact that unified religious authority had long rested upon the suppression of education and of individual freedom. People discovered their own power of assessing the justifications of others.
Consequently, they increasingly saw their own connections to God as direct, rather than mediated. The demand for the justification of authorities and for knowledge transferred over into other areas of life and the sciences.
Modernity in the West can be understood in connection with slow democratization. The more citizens appreciated their own power of interpretation and of assessment of the justifications that others offer, the more powerful they became. At the same time, religious diversity caused new problems, as small groups wished to create a society according to their own views, views which others did not share. Therefore, when the state stepped in to require adherence to a national religion, the government was recognized as oppressive. In time, states transformed. Nations could either continue to control people’s religion through coercion, or incline towards maximal toleration, even to the point of secularizing.
In the United States, Americans often say that the country is Christian, yet the U.S. government was explicitly prohibited in the very First Amendment to the Constitution from establishing a state religion. Secularization of government was a consequence of democratization in the West, yet this is far from saying that modernity is “anti-religious.” In one way of interpreting developments, the secularization of governments is the consequence of the pursuit of greater religious freedom, not less. Such freedoms when extended to all, however, generally protect non-believers as well as religious believers.
At bottom, the question of the modernity of a society can be answered in terms of the freedom of the people to question its established authorities, including the religious ones. Therefore, modernity demands governments that are either tolerant of profound questioning and variation or that are secular. In this sense, secularism is not an inevitable result of modernity, but the choice between religious coercion and tolerance is.
Dr. Eric Thomas Weber is associate professor of Public Policy Leadership at the University of Mississippi and is the author of Democracy and Leadership. He is presenting only his own views in this article.