Associate Professor and Director of the Centre for Research on Democracy and Law, Department of International and European Studies, University of Macedonia
“The difficulties of faith in modern times and the implications for democracy”
Introduction: The dynamic invasion of Modernity in the West
Secularism as liberation and as a fissure
But this freedom that was conquered since the beginning of the 20th century left some kind of nostalgia – a metaphysical ‘fissure’ – which is produced by the feeling that we have forever left behind the era of innocence, when man spontaneously believed in a higher power and in the traditional faith, and when he referred naturally to God (“natural religion” according to Kant). This feeling, which can be said to be similar to the feeling of innocence of childhood, left a very large void, just as large as God’s place in our lives before the secularization of Modernity (“an omnipresent absence”, according to the philosopher Alain).
Two analogies between the Modernity of the 16th and the Postmodernity of the 21st century
The 16th century, which represents the beginning of the secularization process that resulted in the “omnipresent absence” of God, is marked by Protestantism. Protestantism, and the merciless and terribly bloody religious wars that followed, was undoubtedly a turning point for the West, Modernity, and Europe, because it marked the end of the one and only revealed faith. From this, the basic philosophical and experiential attitude of modern man was born, which can be said to be characterized by two basic things: distrust and relativism. Distrust and relativism have their source in the religious rupture that took place in the 16th century in Europe. The modern societies that emerged from old Europe at the cutting point of the 16th century gradually understood themselves as “laïques”, i.e., as secular, as not in need of religious references.
But the factor that brought a radical change in the landscape and makes the present era show some analogies with the 16th century is the establishment of a European Islam. Islam plays an active, decisive role, because where Europe had come to perceive itself as a fully secularized society, with distrust and moral relativism, comes a very dynamic religion and resurrects the God who had died (according to the famous maxim of Friedrich Nietzsche). And along with that, it upsets the certainty of the Western man that he was essentially finished with alienating and irrational religious beliefs. Therefore, here we have a certain analogy to the 16th century, with the influx of a new religion, which is upsetting the situation up to that time in the West.
A second point of analogy between the novelty of Modernity of the 16th century and today’s era of Postmodernity, which appeared as a consequence of the religious rupture with the emergence of Protestantism, is the deregulation of knowledge. Not long before Protestantism, which shook Western Europe from end to end, printing also appeared. The printed book removed from the hands of the Church the monopoly of knowledge. The fact that one could set up a printing press somewhere and print, even illegally, from the simplest pamphlet to a whole treatise, deregulated the control of knowledge. Today, by analogy, we have the Internet, which is a much more advanced development, but in the same vein as the invention of typography, i.e., that of complete deregulation of the scattered sources of knowledge. With the Internet, we are witnessing the propagation – in an anarchic or even cacophonous way – of a hotchpotch of knowledge, data, and information, which looks more like a chaotic universe than a well-structured cognitive reserve. But in both cases, i.e., in both the 16th and the 20th century, we have had a deregulation of the control of knowledge.
The search for the possibility of faith in Postmodernity
The French Revolution, the point in time when religion’s contract of mutual trust was broken
But does that mean that we are also done with faith? Probably not. The French revolutionaries themselves did not have the illusion that they could close the chapter called “religion”, i.e., that they could abolish religion and impose social atheism. Their main ambition was to subdue religion, to place it under the sovereignty of the political – as religion had placed under its sovereignty the political for centuries in the Christian West – so that it too would become a tool in the hands of the political. But at the same time, they sought to establish the famous cult of the “Supreme Being” (“Être Suprême”), which takes the form of a triangle with one eye on the forehead of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen and in many other texts of that time. Because the French revolutionaries were very conscious of the need to unite the people around some kind of metaphysical belief: if not the classical Christian faith, which was in the hands of the Catholic Church, which they should subdue, at least something that would take its place, a fairly undefined and deistic Supreme Being. The French Revolution itself did not have atheism, the abolition of religion, as its pretense; that should be clear, but it is often not.
The incredible need to believe
However, the term “faith” is now used in a very different way than before Modernity. We are no longer talking about faith in a single religion or in God or even in some gods. Here we are talking about something much broader and very often amorphous, what Spinoza called “conatus” (life impulse of beings) and Freud called the “principle of pleasure” (a principle that brings beings close to one another). It is the indestructible psychic need that pushes us not only to associate and love others, but also to build together ideals, a common ideal society.
Science and religion
But the modern triptych “science – technology – politics” has now entered a deep crisis in the postmodern era. What has become of scientific and technical progress? We certainly have a great deal of scientific and technological progress – and fortunately. This progress – especially technological progress – has produced, however, as a negative aspect, societies which are largely mechanistic, cold, obsessed with the production of material goods and their consumption. But the irony here is that even this condition brought about by science and technology is partly based on foundations, which are as unprovable as those of religious faith. Let us look, for example, at the capitalist belief in the “invisible hand of the market”, namely that the market regulates itself and that it will find by its own a rational point of balance. We are essentially dealing with another form of Divine Providence, namely an invisible force (now called the “free market”), which is supposed to be able to rationally regulate life on its own. In other words, it is also basically, at least in part, a theological thought. Even the (neo)classical economic liberalism, which is very often materialistic, indifferent to the divine, or even openly atheist, is also basically theological. We cannot easily escape from this condition. It is even doubtful whether this is possible at all. However technicalized our lives have become because of science, again this condition remains: science and technique itself have in their foundations some kind of religious faith, which of course is desacralized.
Whatever happened to all these secularized religions, all these promises of earthly happiness, all these political programs, all these mass movements of people who pursued a better society, who had believed in the promise of secularized but theological prosperity of a worldly nature? Many of these systems of thought have been discredited; they have lost the “credere” (their credibility, their faith). Science is indeed the last stronghold. But science, too, is no longer all-powerful: it cannot explain everything, nor can it – nor should it – epistemologically invalidate transcendence itself. This cannot happen because science and religion are placed on two different levels of discourse. Science is no longer as we understood it at the apogee of Modernity, i.e., all-powerful; science can be reconciled, certainly at very different levels of discourse, with religious faith.
The necessity and difficulty of faith in Postmodernity
The moral relativism of Postmodernity and conspiracy theory as dangers to democracy
After at least three centuries of scientific rationality, we have come to say that we no longer believe in anything, or that everything is as believable as everything else, that everything has the same moral value as everything else, as there is no longer a system of values or some values that are superior to others. Why? Because we cannot establish any kind of hierarchy anywhere; it would be “authoritarian” or “dominant” or “colonial” to do so, as we often hear today. We have reached this point of established relativism, which however is unlivable because nature has “horror vacui” (i.e., horror of the void) and in place of the void in the need for faith, left behind by God who died (or in any case we took away from His throne), in place of the older absolute truths, even in place of science (which is no longer what it used to be, since we observe a pervasive opinion about science now that everyone has a “viewpoint” about science in the social media), an anarchic landscape of conspiracy sects, a diffusion of conspiracy theories has been established. We have by now entered into the deep waters of cognitive psychology, where this need for faith, precisely because it has collapsed as a whole and relativism has occurred, is replaced, in the worst possible way, by an unregulated, cacophonous, and very dangerous and destabilizing conspiracy theory for our societies. This is very much illustrated by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has become the privileged field of conspiracy theory: everyone now has his own truth and opinion, everyone knows better about vaccines than scientists, who tell us that vaccines are safe and that they have passed all three phases of clinical trials; and everyone writes on these matters in the social media, and is not ashamed of doing so because he knows that others will believe these conspiracy theories as well.
These foci of absolute relativism, i.e., essentially of conspiracy, are pervasive. There is no longer an established right reason that is commonly acceptable. We have a very high hysterical coefficient (if we use a psychoanalytic term), a very high level of doubt and distrust, with a neurotic approach to reality, which is not accepted as it is. There is a difficulty in accepting the authorities: the expert who speaks, why is he an “authority”? Why does he know better than I do?
The postmodern man has reached the stage where he is not just the man of Modernity, who believed in nothing, following the project of Modernity to evacuate the religious faith, to get it out of the picture. He is a man who believes whatever – which is worse than the previous condition. We have religious faiths, rather of a sectarian type, which have now been freed from any kind of control. This control of the priesthood that we were fighting against, we are now nostalgic of it to some extent because it could control faith. Now these various sectarian, conspirational, anarchic and obscurantist beliefs have been completely deregulated, resulting thus in modern superstitions. This is because there is no longer a higher authority, to which we naturally refer and which we accept, an authority that we accept that what he is going to say is true. Everyone essentially turns his impulse into knowledge. To put it simply: everyone believes what suits him and is isolated in a place where the rest believe the same, so they provide feedback to one another (the social media play a decisive role in this development).
Paradoxically, conspiracy theory is an inverted fear: conspiracy theorists mainly believe what scares them. Am I afraid of vaccines for some irrational reason? I believe that vaccines are fake, the product of a conspiracy to control us, and so on. That is, we now have a “democracy of the naive”, of those who naively believe whatever. We might even say that we have a “democracy of the foolish”, if I may say so, where anyone can believe whatever he wants. In this universe of deregulation, which is exacerbated by the downpour of information, and especially of images that flood our screens, an idolatry of the image prevails: it is difficult for us to find an edge of all these images and to understand which image is of greater value and which one has no value at all.
Religious fanaticism and radicalization as results of relativism
Hence the famous “return of the religious”. Yet we are not dealing literally with the return of the religious. We are not talking here about a return of religious faith and classical religious belief as we knew them. Here we are talking about a cry of despair, which is also taking on a collective form. In other words, it is the desperate search for a certainty where certainties have collapsed. And what greater certainty than paying with your own blood for your own ideas – whatever they may be? In jihadism, ideas do not matter much; what is important is the idea of testimony, i.e., that one chooses to be a martyr (“to testify”), to die for what he believes, to prove to everyone, by his martyrdom, that they live in a lack of faith. By killing and cancelling the opponent, he makes a complete reversal of eschatological hope. Jihadism is based on the hope that the act of wiping out the “infidels” from the surface of the Earth can alleviate a little the despair that many have within them and give them a certainty.
This is a very different faith, a “complete inversion of all values” (Nietzsche). Before, either religious or secular ideals had as their mission to unite us (religare), i.e., to unite the individual with society and to form a community. Today all this no longer exists. Religion has been individualized in this extreme, radical way as an absolute expression of our individuality: I will show everyone who I am and what I am worth, even through a terrorist act of death. In other words, we have a break in the chain of transmission of knowledge and values. Everyone, in his own corner, can make his own, personalized tools of “faith” using the Internet. It is a purely identitarian, enclosed faith that closes you to yourself; you claim a religious identity that cuts you off from others – and you even see others as enemies that you must neutralize.
Some concluding thoughts
So what can be done here? Are things so bad?
The second thing we keep is a need for a renewed morality. As Jürgen Habermas (one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, secularized – not religious – and clearly a thinker of the Enlightenment), says it himself openly: We must rediscover the sources of our civilization, which are religious, to give a new impetus to a renewed morality.
Connection and morality, then. A moral attitude of connection with the rest: that is the modern meaning of the sacred. And we see this in the current pandemic, where my own body is a bearer of responsibility and if I get vaccinated, I will do so out of faith in the community with which I am connected and because I have to protect others – and of course myself – from being part of the viruses’ transmission chain.
Therefore, in the contemporaneous condition, one can very well be both agnostic and faithful, provided of course that we take these good elements and leave everything else, which caused, and unfortunately still causes, the rivers of blood of religious (Islamist in this case) terrorism. Are we exiting religion? Possibly. Modernity has indeed taken us out of religion; we have indeed dethroned God and His throne has been left empty. But it has not taken us out of the need for social connection and morality. It has not taken us out of the need for faith, for transcendence – regardless of whether it has a religious reference or not.
In summary: An exit from religion for a re-entry, essentially, into religion. Because the right reason – as already understood by Blaise Pascal, who was a brilliant scientist himself, when he developed his polemics against Descartes in the 17th century – is not enough for a full life. One cannot have a human life, community, and ethics only with the radical Cartesian doubt and the religion of science, the religion of right reason. We have seen that this cannot stand: it has brought as many problems and dangers as those of the previously imposed religion from above. There are two extremes, as Pascal said: one extreme is to exclude right reason and the other extreme is to accept only right reason. Essentially, that is, we are talking about an exit from classical religion and a re-entry into a universe where this bipolar contrast between rationality and faith no longer has a reason to exist. In other words, we can have a fuller understanding of humans as whole persons, in need of both right reason and faith, regardless of whether this faith is religious or secular, because otherwise one will not be a full person.
 French law on the Separation of the Churches and the State (Loi de séparation des Églises et de l’État) of 1905.
 Immanuel Kant, Religion and Rational Theology, Allen W. Wood & George di Giovanni eds. & transl., Cambridge, UK: The Cambridge edition of the works of Immanuel Kant, 1996.
 Alain, Propos sur la religion, Paris: PUF, 1969 (original edition 1938).
 Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, Joseph Devey ed., New York: P.F. Collier, 1902 (original edition 1620).
 René Descartes, Discours de la méthode, Charles Adam & Paul Tannery eds., Paris: L. Cerf, 1902 (original edition 1637).
 Friedrich Nietzsche, Also sprach Zarathustra, Ditzingen: Reclam, 1978, p. 5 (original edition 1883-1885).
 Julia Kristeva, Cet incroyable besoin de croire, Paris: Bayard, 2018.
 Sigmund Freud, Die Zukunft einer Illusion, in Gesammelte Werke, Bd. 14. London: Imago, 1948 (original edition 1927).
 Benedict de Spinoza, The Ethics, transl. R. H. M. Elwes, Project Gutenberg, part 3 (original edition of Ethica, ordine geometrico demonstrata 1677).
 Sigmund Freud, Zur Technik der Psychoanalyse und zur Metapsychologie, Norderstedt: Vero, 2015 (original edition 1911).
 Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, Ditzingen: Reclam, 2000 (original edition 1882).
 Alexis de Tocqueville, De la démocratie en Amérique, tome 2, Paris: Pagnerre, 1848, p. 176.
 Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Der Antichrist: Versuch einer Kritik des Christentums, Hamburg: Nikol Verlag, 2008 (original edition 1895).
 Jürgen Habermas, “Religion in the Public Sphere”, European Journal of Philosophy 14(1), 1-25 (2006).
 Blaise Pascal, Pensées, Léon Brunschvicg éd., Paris: Hachette, 1904, tome 1, p. 98, pensée n° 78: “Descartes inutile et incertain” (“Descartes is useless and uncertain”) (original edition 1670).
 Blaise Pascal, Fragment “Soumission et usage de la raison” n° 4/23, Paris: Éditions de Port-Royal, 1669, chapitre V: “Il faut savoir douter où il faut, assurer où il faut, se soumettre où il faut. Qui ne fait ainsi n’entend pas la force de la raison. Il y en a qui pèchent contre ces trois principes, ou en assurant tout comme démonstratif, manque de se connaître en démonstrations ; ou en doutant de tout, manque de savoir où il faut se soumettre ; ou en se soumettant en tout, manque de savoir où il faut juger” (“We have to know how to doubt when we must, assure when we must, obey when we must. Those who do not proceed in this manner do not understand the force of reason. There are people who disobey these three principles, either by assuring everything as demonstrative, thus lacking knowledge as to demonstration; either by doubting everything, thus lacking knowledge as to when one must obey; or by obeying
everything, thus lacking knowledge as to when one must exercise judgment”).