The Guardian last week saw some particularly high-quality entries in the competition to write the stupidest thing possible about religion. Tobias Jones is terrified of “totalitarian” Richard Dawkins, who is apparently poised to carry out a genocide of religious believers. A. C. Grayling fights back, accusing homophobic protestors of “an obscenity against human rights” (whatever that means), and a desire to institute widespread torture. Grayling loses in the “who’s the stupidest” stakes because the particular religious people he is incoherently attacking are indeed bastards; but Jones does say one thing that is slightly suprising and might be worth a bit more comment:
Christians feel particularly aggrieved because we believe that Jesus invented secularism. Jesus’s teachings desacralised the state.
He’s right, but I’m not sure this has quite the positive consequences Jones suggests, though. I’ve been reading St Augustine recently, and what strikes me as interesting is his hostility to the civic republican position in which politics is an arena for virtuous action. For Augustine, the world is fallen, and so any political organization of this world is necessarily immoral. To even think about politics in ethical terms is a category error. This is the desacralization of the state accomplished by mainstream Christianity; not, as Jones thinks, a justification for “dissent from state absolutism,” but quite the contrary, an immunization of the state from ethical critique. Augustine’s City of God is the secret core of liberal moralism: the problem with moralism is not the attempt to unite the ethical and the political, but the attempt to separate them, in order to elevate the moral and thereby abolish the political.