By Mohammad Mazhari

Coronavirus showed secular ideas are not enough to encourage people to a greater good: Jeff Haynes

September 12, 2021 - 16:28

TEHRAN - Jeff Haynes, emeritus professor of politics at London Metropolitan University, says the coronavirus pandemic has proved that secular ideas are not effective to appeal to people about working for the greater good.

“Most recently, the coronavirus pandemic offers yet more proof that it’s not enough to appeal to people’s feelings of patriotism or to other secular ideas about working for the greater good of the greatest number of people,” Prof. Haynes tells the Tehran Times.

“Tackling Covid-19 has required everybody to make personal sacrifices to protect society as a whole. But in many countries, there was resistance from individuals who thought that the task was too great — who did not want to be part of that mutual project or were opposed to submitting to the state’s regulations,” Haynes adds.

Many political observers believe that the 21st century is the age of religion’s return to the public sphere, especially politics.

Since the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, West Asia and Muslim countries have witnessed the rise of Islamic movements fluctuating between radical groups and moderate movements.

This new wave has raised many questions about the status of religion in modern politics and lifestyle, especially after the spread of Covid-19 when the states and governments failed to coax their citizens to observe health protocols.  

The modern world lacks something in politics and the public sphere to push people towards a greater good, according to Haynes.

“The language people use to think through public health and justice issues has become deeply fractured and politicized,” he argues.

 “It is possible that religion, which offers a rich and complex set of metaphors capable of uniting a broad swath of people, is an important component. Particularly in countries where most people identify as belonging to religious faith, faith-based appeals for fairness can have resonance and be effective in helping mold behaviors.”

Following is the text of the interview: 

Q: How do you see the link between modern politics and religion? Does morality or ethics in the modern era stem from religions?

A: In recent years, the association of religion to both state and non-state actors’ policies and actions has become important for understanding political outcomes in many parts of the world. This is a novelty because the international system was long seen as a demonstrably secular one. These fundamental secular norms were enshrined in the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) – particularly the notion of state restraint in religious matters, and the gradual privatization of the latter implying political marginalization. This encouraged a strong belief among most scholars that political discourse is predominantly secular. 

Second, religion influences political outcomes involving civil society. Finally, all religious actors’ political influence is linked to their ability to exercise ideational power. Both states and non-state actors can be influential in this regard. Is religion a force for good or evil in the modern world? It can be both, depending on the actor, the circumstances and the context.  

Q: According to some surveys, most people in the U.S., a country that claims it leads democracy and modernity in the world, are religious. Could we say religion has made a comeback after an era of marginalization in Europe?

A: Until fairly recently, however, the study of religion and politics was long circumscribed by the once-dominant secularization paradigm. For decades after World War II, modernization and secularization theories channeled scholarly attention away from a focus on the impact of religion on politics, predicting that the importance of religion in politics would inevitably decline. Such an assumption, however, failed to explain the resurgence of religion in many political systems in the world from the 1970s and 1980s. Although secularization has clearly occurred in many countries, there has also been a substantial revival of religion in many parts of the globe. Contrary to the tenets of secularization theory, the impact of religion on politics has not declined tout court; instead, it has changed in rather complex ways, while the separation of religion and state has paradoxically decreased with higher socio-economic development throughout the world.

Yet, the study of religion and politics has been a difficult area for inquiry due to the complexity of the interrelationship between the two. Although there are a number of studies of religion and politics in particular countries, there is less comparative analysis on this theme because of the complex variety of relationships in play.

Q: Despite the emergence of extremist religious groups, there is evidence that they are bankrolled and supported by corrupt governments or tyrannical regimes to achieve political goals. In your view, what are the main roots of extremism over the last few decades?

A: The return of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the brief reign of ISIS in the Middle East (West Asia), the appearance of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Africa, attacks by Buddhist extremists on minorities in Myanmar and Sri Lanka—these and many other acts of violence related to religion give the impression that the 21st century is the age of religious extremism. Similar acts have appeared through the centuries and in every religious tradition, although they have been seen with increasing frequency in the last decades of the twentieth century and the first decades of the twenty-first. In the recent rise of extremism and other forms of violence often associated with religious nationalism, the forces of globalization are critical. These forces undermine the worldwide supremacy of the idea of the secular nation-state and the notion of secular nationalism as its ideological basis and offer religious nationalism and transnational politics as alternatives. Thus, acts of religious extremism have to be seen in context as part of the larger pattern of the rise of religious nationalism and transnationalism in a postmodern global world.

Q: Do you see any serious position for values like justice and equality in modern-day life? Or there are other regulations that control and direct our lives?

A: Scientists, policymakers, and ‘ordinary’ people around the world examine complex ethical dilemmas. For example, what responsibilities do individuals have in the face of climate disaster? How can we address health care disparities that continue to devastate communities? How do we convince people to set aside their personal preferences and do the right thing? How do we make our world a fairer place?

Most recently, the coronavirus pandemic offers yet more proof that it’s not enough to appeal to people’s feelings of patriotism or to other secular ideas about working for the greater good of the greatest number of people. Tackling Covid-19 has required everybody to make personal sacrifices to protect society as a whole. But in many countries, there was resistance from individuals who thought that the task was too great — who did not want to be part of that mutual project or were opposed to submitting to the state’s regulations. 

The language people use to think through public health and justice issues has become deeply fractured and politicized. It is possible that religion, which offers a rich and complex set of metaphors capable of uniting a broad swath of people, is an important component. Particularly in countries where most people identify as belonging to religious faith, faith-based appeals for fairness can have resonance and be effective in helping mold behaviors. 

Q: How could some political figures disguise themselves behind religious slogans? For example, Republicans in the U.S. wage war, undermine democracy, and establish a coalition with tyrannical regimes under religious justifications. The most prominent case is Trump.

A: In the United States, known for the separation of church and state, candidates of both major parties, Republicans and Democrats, make speeches from church pulpits. Today, candidates from both parties speak openly of their faith and its implication for their policies. In 2016 and 2020, Donald Trump, selected a presidential running mate, Mike Pence, for the latter’s electoral appeal for many right-wing Christian evangelicals. 

The renewed focus on religion and politics in the USA, however, occurred much earlier as political events in the 1980s reminded social scientists of the power of religion to influence political outcomes in various parts of the world. The rise of the Christian Right indicated that religious movements can evolve along with political parties, changing political outcomes as a result. Democracy does not simplify the relationships between religious institutions and political parties. Instead, it makes politics more complex as religion influences political issues and debates in a number of ways.

Leave a Comment

1 + 3 =