The Death of Secularism: Russia, Turkey, and Western Cluelessness

by Aristotle Papanikolaou | ελληνικά | ру́сский | српски

Turkish and Russian flags

“Secular” is a tricky word. Most associate it with “no religion,” “absence of religion,” or “decline of religion.” At one time, it was pretty much the consensus in the Western world that with increased modernization, which usually meant technological and scientific advancement, religion would no longer really be needed and would simply fade away. This is one of the many examples of how irony drives history, as a consensus held by Western intelligentsia over the post two centuries—and with enormous arrogance—has proven manifestly false. Religion is not going away; it never went anywhere.

That tragic irony is on full display in Russia and Turkey. As most of the media, regional experts, and government officials pay attention to Turkey’s military provocations in the eastern Mediterranean or Russia’s influence in Syria—as they should—no one seems to be noticing a remarkable parallelism that has emerged between the two countries, and it has to do with religion. In both countries, the religion-hating kind of secularism took root almost at the same time:  for Russia in 1917 under Lenin and for Turkey in 1923 under Ataturk. For decades, the world witnessed not simply the laïcité of France, but the active oppression and repression of religion, which lead to a cultural and political cleansing of religious influence in Russia and Turkey.  The cultural cleansing is evident in the fact that to be Russian or Turkish was absolutely severed from any religious identity.   And while the majority religions—Orthodox Christianity and Islam—both suffered under these secularist regimes, religious minorities had it just as bad, if not worst. In Turkey, alone, Orthodox Christianity in Constantinople went from over 100,000 adherents just after World War II to under 2,000 today.

Over the past few decades, a remarkable, almost imperceptible shift has occurred.  Religion has returned to Russia and Turkey with a vengeance. It didn’t happen overnight, but Putin and Erdogan have relinked their national histories and identities to their religious past—Russia to Orthodox Christianity and Turkey to Islam. Many examples could be given, but the most recent are the changes to the Russian constitution and the conversion of the church of Hagia Sophia to a mosque. Religion is back in Russia and Turkey. It may not be the “all-encompassing reality” (José Casanova) or function as a “common theological perspective” (Jefferey Stout), but it is shaping the cultural and political landscape of both countries.

Why? Internally, the answer is simple—it is politically useful. In Russia, after the controversial 2011 elections, Putin found it expedient to start drawing on Russia’s religious past to strengthen himself politically. Since then, the Russian Orthodox Church has become major player in domestic affairs, as evidenced by legislative victory on the “gay-propaganda” law, as but one example, and the recent changes in the constitution. In Turkey, as hard as Ataturk tried to repress the religious convictions of the Turkish people, he was less successful than his Soviet counterparts. Erdogan is appealing to an existing population of faithful Turkish Muslims for whom the Ottoman past is still present. Erdogan’s conversion of the church of Hagia Sophia strengthens his position with this political base. 

What is more surprising is how the return of the cultural and political influence of religion functions geopolitically for Russia and Turkey. The research from the ECR-funded Postsecular Conflicts Project has shown definitively how the Russian regime has used Orthodox Christianity to be a transnational “moral entrepreneur” and has forged alliances with conservative Christians in the West—mostly American evangelicals—in order internationalize the culture wars around the notion of “traditional values,” which was also included in the recent changes to the Russian constitution. Erdogan’s geopolitical aspirations were articulated when he declared that the conversion of the church of Hagia Sophia into a mosque was simply a first step in regaining Al-Aqsa on the Temple of the Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem. What unites both geopolitical positions is the blatant anti-Westernism, and this time religion is very much shaping this East-West divide, even if it also cuts through it. And it is in this defining geopolitical role of religion where Western cluelessness seems most obvious.

Many argue that we live in a post-secular world, but this declaration is true only if it was true that religion ever went away.  Its resurgence in Russia and Turkey would indicate that the religion-hating kind of secularism is doomed to failure. There is, however, another way to see the “secular,” which is a restructuring of the political and cultural landscape in such a way that religion is not the “all-encompassing reality” and does not function as a “common theological perspective.” This repositioning opens to the door to pluralism—political, cultural, and moral. This repositioning need not look the same, as even now it takes on different shapes in France, Norway, and the United States. Even though it is a western construct, this way of thinking of religion’s repositioning has gone global and can take shape in a way that challenges western preconceptions. As Charles Taylor states, “[i]n order to merit the name ‘secularist,’ regimes in contemporary democracies must be conceived not primarily as bulwarks against religion, but as good-faith attempts to secure a few basic goals.” For Taylor those goals are simply freedom, equality, and pluralism. 

There are some western academics who claim that this notion of secular-as-pluralism is simply Christianity in disguise attempting to perpetually colonize the world with liberal ideology. Indeed, there is a strange alliance, but for different reasons, between conservative Christians and those whom Cécile Laborde calls “critical religion theorists” in their seeking the demise of the secular and its corresponding liberal notions of human rights, inviolable dignity, and freedom. And while conservative Christians continue to hope for a reversal of the moral disestablishment in the US, most anti-secular academics have failed to articulate any other alternative to liberal values. To some extent, their own anti-liberal vision of the post-secular has enabled Russia’s and Turkey’s versions of “managed democracy.” It’s not that Russia and Turkey are anti-democratic—so the argument goes—it’s just that their particularist version of democracy is not that of the godless west.

The death of the Cold War has ushered in the age of the “post-secular” dictator, and in Russia and Turkey, those dictators have crushed their countries’ legacy of religion-hating secularism only to pretend to support “democracy” by using religion for internal political purposes and for geopolitical maneuvering. For the West to say “good riddance” to the secular would be to play into their hands. Instead, we should be reminding the world of that other kind of secular, one that shapes a space in order to maximize political, cultural, and moral pluralism for the sake of human rights, inviolable dignity, irreducible uniqueness, and freedom. Theologically, if according to an Incarnational logic the mystical is inevitably political, then Christians must not naively celebrate the “post-secular” either in its Russian-Turkish or critical-religion-theorist forms, but should, instead, actively shape and embrace the secular-as-pluralism.

Aristotle Papanikolaou is the Archbishop Demetrios Chair in Orthodox Theology and Culture and the Co-Director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University.