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'Body of the nation: why women were mutilated in in Gujarat' by Martha Nussbaum

The body politic and the politics of the body

The religious origins of Western secularism


This is a revised and expanded version of a paper read in 1994 at a seminar on secularism organised by the Centre for the Study of Democracy, the University of Westminster  


 William Blake, 'The Whore of Babylon'

IN THE WHOLE OF HUMAN history there are probably no political ideals which have been celebrated so consistently, over so many continents and so many centuries, as the twin ideals of Western democracy and Western secularism. Partly because one of the freedoms which democracies cherish is that all ideologies should be open to critical examination, it is frequently assumed that the best place to understand the real nature of secular democracies is from inside a ‘free society’ of the kind which democracy allegedly brings into being. Yet habitual environments have a tendency to become invisible. For those of us who live inside the liberal democracies of the West the real nature of liberalism is sometimes extremely difficult to grasp.


We believe, of course, that we enjoy all the benefits of freedom – that our political culture is characterised by dissent, disagreement, by full and open debate of every important question. In some instances this may well be true. But a quite different perspective on Western society can be found in an anecdote related some years ago by the journalist Simon Louvish. ‘A New York academic friend,’ he wrote, ‘once told me of a puzzled visit by a group of Russians touring America just before the age of glasnost. They had criss-crossed the United States, he said, reading the newspapers and watching the television coverage of the free society, and discovered that all the opinions, on vital issues, were the same. “In our country,” they said, “to get that result we have to have a dictatorship, we imprison people, we tear out their fingernails. Here you have none of that. So what’s your secret? How do you do it?”’


The story may well be apocryphal. But the question which is posed in it is one we should ask ourselves more frequently than we do. If we did we might begin to recognise that the perspective on Western democracy revealed in Louvish’s anecdote, although it may well may well be unusual and disturbing, is very far from being unique.


To take but one other highly significant example, we might well consider the kind of scepticism which is felt by countless Muslims about the ideals of freedom associated with democracy and secularism. Possessing still the visceral sense of history which is alien to most Western intellectuals, many Muslims know all too well what the Western passion for freedom has meant in terms of their own history. They know that the cutting edge of the Western conscience has frequently been a sword, that democracy has often appeared in the form of an invading army, and that freedom of speech has sometimes signified the right to engage in obscene and insulting blasphemies directed against Muhammad and the Koran.


The sceptical anger of many Muslims when they are faced by Western cries of democracy, freedom and conscience is expressed well in the words of Rana Kabbani, writing in 1989:


Is the Western conscience not selective? The West feels sympathy for the Afghan Mujahedin, propped up by American intelligence just as the Nicaraguan Contras were, but feels no sympathy for militant Muslims who are not fighting its cold war battles but have political concerns of their own. As I write, Palestinians are dying every day in the Occupied Territories – nearly 600 dead at the latest count, over 30,000 wounded and 20,000 in detention without trial – savage and prolonged curfews are imposed as routine collective punishments, homes are blown up, pregnant women gassed and beaten and unarmed boys kicked to death by regular soldiers, yet Israel remains a democracy in Western eyes, an outpost of Western civilisation. What is one to think of such double standards?


Considering these circumstances it is not surprising that an extremist political Islam has taken root all over the world, fuelled by historical grievance, by poverty, by an overriding sense of powerlessness. The West bears more than a measure of responsibility for this phenomenon. For by interfering so forcefully in Muslim affairs, by overthrowing nationalist rulers (as was done in Iran, for example, in 1953) and setting up puppets in their place, by uncritical support for Israeli excesses, by milking Muslim resources and conspiring to keep the Muslim world economically, culturally and politically enthralled, the West has made us what we are: enraged and unforgiving.[1]


It is the long history of humiliation which Kabbani recalls here which helps to explain why many Muslims living in the latter part of the twentieth century tend to see the forces of secularism and democracy not as harbingers of liberation and rational enlightenment, but as the latest manifestation of an essentially religious war which the Christian West has fought against Islam for very many centuries. To Western secularists, the Crusades belong to a bygone age, as does the entire concept of Christian imperialism with which they were associated. To many Muslims, however, the Crusades continue. Democracy is their war-cry.


The Muslim perception of democracy as a crusading and essentially repressive force is one which most secular liberals in the West have immense difficulty in understanding. We may well be aware of the way in which, historically speaking, the ‘freedom of Christ’ tended to be enforced with the sword. But we like to regard the tradition of modern liberalism as entirely distinct from this ancient Christian attitude towards freedom. We therefore tend to trace this tradition back to the great rationalist thinkers of the European Enlightenment or to nineteenth-century secular thinkers such as John Stuart Mill.


Some Westerners would concede that there have been occasions in our recent history – during the Gulf war perhaps, or at certain moments in the Rushdie affair – when a culture which has long nurtured the twin ideals of liberal individualism and secularism has slipped into habits of thought and patterns of rhetoric which seem to belong not to the twentieth century and a supposedly secular, post-Christian age but to a much earlier century, and to an age of faith. Yet such lapses can easily be explained as regressive phenomena, the products of a kind of mass-psychosis in which a traumatised culture momentarily relives an episode from its distant childhood. The other possibility – that in moments of crisis secularism sometimes allows its rational mask to slip in order to reveal, momentarily at least, its true, essentially religious nature – is one which seldom needs to be discounted for the very simple reason that it is so rarely entertained in the first place.


It is just this possibility, however, which I want to explore in this essay, which is an attempt to challenge the orthodox or ‘common-sense’ understanding of the process of secularisation.


The orthodox view of secularism maintains that it is a stage in which human cultures grow out of their need for religious ideologies, and gradually free themselves from all forms of repression, tyranny and irrational superstition. Church and state are separated and religion, insofar as it survives at all, is relegated to the private sphere. It survives in the body politic as a kind of ideological appendix which no longer has any real political function.


Because most of us know remarkably little about the history of our culture, and because we in the West appear to know startlingly little about our own Judaeo-Christian tradition, it is extremely easy to persuade people to accept the view of historical progress out of which the orthodox understanding of secularism grows. The emergence of secular political states, on this view, signifies the triumph of reason and the defeat of religion.


What I would like to suggest here is that orthodoxy has turned historical reality upside down. If we only knew our religious tradition a little better than we do, we would recognise that the ostensibly secular ideals of the Enlightenment and of modern liberal individualism, far from signifying the defeat of the Judaeo-Christian religious tradition, are actually its greatest triumph. For the great prophets of the Judaeo-Christian tradition did not set out to make their favoured religious ideology all-powerful and all-visible. They set out to make it like their God – all-powerful and invisible. Insofar as this ideal was ever achieved it was achieved above all in the Christian tradition – and especially in the Puritan tradition. If we wish to understand the true origins and nature of the kind of body politic which is idealised in the democratic West, we need to examine afresh our own cultural revolution – the religious revolution which took place in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.


The very notion that we have ourselves been subject to a cultural revolution is itself something of a heresy. It is a heresy which has been most forcefully and eloquently proposed by the historian Christopher Hill. In his book The World Turned Upside Down, Hill considers the historical significance of the protestant ethic which he characterises as ‘an emphasis on the religious duty of working hard in one’s calling, of avoiding the sins of idleness, waste of time, over-indulgence in the pleasures of the flesh’: 


I want to emphasize the extent of the revolution in man’s thinking and feeling which the imposition of the protestant ethic involved. Protestant preachers in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century undertook a cultural revolution, an exercise in indoctrination, in brainwashing, on a hitherto unprecedented scale. We only fail to recognise this because we live in a brainwashed society: our own indoctrination takes place so early, and from so many directions at once, that we are unaware of the process. Brainwashing is something which other peoples do. Only in our own day, with the beginnings of the widespread rejection of the protestant ethic in our society, and with examples of alternative indoctrinations in other societies, can we grasp the vastness of the achievement of those who initially imposed it – even though it took several generations.


The preachers knew what they were doing. Their language is revealing. They were up against ‘natural man’. The mode of thought and feeling and repression which they wished to impose was totally unnatural. ‘Every man is by nature a rebel against heaven,’ declared Richard Baxter, ‘so that ordinarily to plead for a democracy is to plead that the sovereignty may be put into the hands of rebels.’ Only the strongest religious convictions could steel men to face the sacrifices, the repressions the loss involved: and it took generations for those attitudes to be internalised. ‘It is the violent only that are successful,’ wrote the gentle Richard Sibbes, ‘they take it [salvation] by force.’[2]


These paragraphs are, I believe, among the most penetrating which have ever been written by any modern historian. For what they ask us to recognise is that our own society and our own modes of thought and feeling are the product of the forced internalisation of a body of sacred doctrine. As Christopher Hill himself implies, it is only if we compare our cultural history with the history of Stalinisation in Russia or of Mao’s cultural revolution in China that we can begin to comprehend the depth and the implications of the cultural conditioning to which, historically, we have ourselves been subjected.


It is certainly true that the Reformation marked but one stage in the Christianisation of Europe. The effective Christianisation of Europe took place over at least ten centuries, and during this time practically every form of popular religion and collective ritual was systematically destroyed. But this process of cultural destruction was most intense during the centuries which followed the Reformation and without the zeal of the early Puritans it could never have been carried through with such ruthless spiritual efficiency.


If we are to understand the cultural and psychological consequences of the revolution in sensibility which Hill describes we must first consider the strength and the effectiveness of the Puritan attack not only on sexual love, but on all forms of emotional expression, romantic love, and even the bonds of affection within the family. For by the most rigorous form of the Puritan conscience the whole realm of human feelings, impulses and appetites was defined as carnal and sinful; it was this realm – the realm of ‘natural man’ – that the most zealous Protestants set out to repudiate, repress or systematically destroy through Godly discipline, in order that the life of the pure spirit might finally be instituted.


Behind this Puritan quest for the life of the spirit there lay the enduring influence of the Christian gospel. The leading spirits of the Reformation, from Luther onwards, never tired of invoking the words of the New Testament as the sanction for their own boundless religious zeal. Given their religious premises, their literalism, and their compulsive veracity, they could do nothing else. And when they did so they could not but recognise the extent to which even those who professed membership of the Christian community fell short of realising the ideals set out in the Bible. For the New Testament did not only contain a set of abstract beliefs. It set forward a way of life. Christians were not put on earth to live a life of pleasure. They were adjured by Paul to put to death those parts of themselves that belonged to the earth. They were not to indulge the body, or even the affections. These were to be crucified. ‘And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its affections and lusts.’ (Galatians 5:24 AV)


Christians were not to allow themselves to be governed by any non-piritual consideration – even by emotional relationships with family and friends. For Jesus himself had demanded of his followers that they should hate their family and their very selves:


Once when great crowds were accompanying him, he turned to them and said: ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, even his own life, he cannot be a disciple of mine. (Luke, 14:26 AV)


For centuries, ever since Jesus had preached his gospel, small contingents of Christians attempted to realise these ideals. In the early centuries of the Church they had left the world and entered monasteries. In faithful obedience to their scriptures they had turned their backs upon their families and, as the outward charter of their ideal of inward self-hatred, they had taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. As marks of their contempt for their own flesh and for all emotional indulgence, they had beaten their bodies with cords and whips until the blood ran. In an effort to attain spiritual purity they had chastised themselves and one another. They had fasted, they had prayed, they had locked themselves in solitude and wept in despair and contrition.


The monasteries in which they embraced such rigorous disciplines were living monuments to the doctrine of contemptus mundi. But they also gradually became centres of learning in which the underlying ethos of Western science and Western rationalism was evolved. In his account of this development, Max Weber implies that the ethos of Christian asceticism underwent some mysterious transformation, as a result of which it became emancipated from ‘planless otherworldliness and irrational self-torture’ and developed instead a ‘systematic method of rational conduct’ whose aim was to free all those who followed it from the power of irrational impulses.[3] What this account fails to explain is how a form of asceticism which was essentially destructive was converted into a form of rationalism which Weber holds to be constructive.


The question can be answered only if we recognise that the physical discipline associated with what Weber calls ‘irrational self-torture’, and the kind of intellectual discipline which was eventually cultivated by the great monastic orders, had the same rationale and ultimately followed the same psychological pattern.


When Christians scourged themselves with whips they did so in order to achieve purity; the aim of chastisement was chastity, as the shared etymology of the two words suggests. The fantasy which Christian ascetics thus acted out was that by inflicting hurt upon their bodies they might succeed in destroying the unclean substance they were supposedly made of. The monastic idealisation of reason had a similar origin. One of the traditional religious functions of reason, from Augustine on, was to chastise concupiscence and, by instituting a state of rational purity in the soul, to bring the Christian closer to God. Mental discipline was thus the counterpart of physical discipline and it too set out to eliminate the defilement of the body by systematically suppressing emotions, appetites and irrational impulses. As Weber writes, the aim of such rational asceticism was ‘to enable a man to maintain and act upon his constant motives, especially those which it taught him itself, against the emotions’. Its ‘most urgent task’ was ‘the destruction of spontaneous, impulsive enjoyment.’[4]


Weber’s attempt to see the rise of rational asceticism as bringing with it a complete emancipation from ‘otherworldliness’ and ‘irrational self-torture’ is ultimately confounded by the negative role which the new mental discipline ascribed to reason. For the rise of monastic rationalism did not change the underlying attitude of Christians towards purity. Their spiritual journey remained as much conditioned by the doctrine of contemptus mundi as it ever had been. In many respects the emergence of ascetic rationalism merely translated into mental terms – terms which were ultimately more subtle and more psychologically effective – the forms of self-contempt and self-chastisement which are found in the cruder and more primitive forms of asceticism. In this manner reason was usurped by a powerful spiritual elite and used for a fundamentally irrational end. In the new form of religious rationalism, as in Plato’s rationalistic idealism, empirical truth was disregarded in favour of transcendence, and purity was treated as the criterion both of knowledge and of spiritual goodness.


In all these respects – and this Weber himself recognises – the rise of rational asceticism in the great monasteries of the middle ages helped to usher in the specific form of Puritanism which was adopted by Protestants after the Reformation. But superimposed on this underlying continuity was a very significant element of discontinuity. For to the most rigorous kind of Christian, possessed of that compulsive veracity and obedience to the letter of the scriptures which was above all encouraged by the spirit of the Reformation, even the extremes of self-denial practised in the great monasteries of the West were not enough. They were to be rejected not because they represented excesses of asceticism, but because they still fell short of that absolute spiritual asceticism preached in the New Testament.


What Jesus and Paul had condemned most passionately were the externals of religious asceticism. It was for the marks, rituals, outward signs and charters of spiritual poverty that they had reserved their deepest contempt; it was the inward reality of spiritual poverty, alone and undefiled by bodily externals, that they had demanded of their followers. Purer than the faith which had taught them purity, these zealous religious revolutionaries had recognised intuitively that ascetic religions have an inbuilt tendency to subvert their own absolute ascetic ideals. This they do by restoring in ritual that which is denied in doctrine. It is through the medium of bodily ritual that traditional religions keep alive, in an attenuated and negated form, the sensuality which pure spiritual asceticism seeks to destroy absolutely. It was, above all, of such sensual ritualism that Jesus and Paul had sought to cleanse their own Jewish faith.


The Puritans, with their authentically Pauline capacity for divining any form of bodily or sensual indulgence, however deeply it might be concealed beneath outward austerities, set out to revive the spirit of the New Testament and to purify their own paganised faith of all ritual satisfaction or sensual indulgence. What they intuitively recognised was that scourging and chastising the flesh was a way not of extinguishing the sensual imagination, but of keeping it alive. By paying an outward penance in the form of bodily pain, traditional Christian ascetics were doing what men and women have often done in the context of their sexual lives: they were using physical pain and fantasies of punishment as the medium in which some degree of erotic and emotional freedom could be conjured back into the imagination without inflicting any hurt on the conscience.


Something very similar could be said about every one of the rituals, charters, codes of discipline and other externals which had come to surround the cultivation of spiritual poverty. As external forms of discipline were multiplied, so the inner conscience relaxed with the result that Christian ascetics often liberated the very levels of sexual fantasy they sought to destroy. In the delusional world-view which was now embraced by these same Puritans, the only way forward to the absolute purity idealised in the gospels was to renounce all forms of ritual discipline together with the monasticism which was their institutional stronghold.


Luther, Calvin and their successors repudiated monasticism, together with the whole notion of physical penances not because they embodied a form of asceticism which was too rigorous, but because the very impossibility of the monastic ideal almost inevitably engendered a form of asceticism which was too lax. Yet the rejection of the monastic ideal was not total. In their repudiation of monasticism the leaders of the Reformation saw themselves as faithful followers of the scriptures. For although the teachings of Jesus did indeed idealise a life of poverty, chastity and obedience, that life was, by example, to be led in the world.


In order to put this gospel ideal of worldly asceticism into practice, what the early Reformers attempted to do, with all their uncompromising zeal, was to make the world their monastery. The pursuit of spiritual purity which had once been the vocation of the few was now to become the duty of the many. The Puritan ethic thus demanded of every Christian man and woman what had never been demanded of any monk or nun: that they should daily expose themselves to all the snares and temptations of the world and still remain virtuous.


The spirit of the true Puritan’s hostility to monasticism is still preserved in the book which has probably had more influence than any other on British and American culture – John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. ‘The way to the Celestial City,’ writes Bunyan, ‘lies just through this town, where the lusty fair is kept; and he that will go to the City, and yet not go through this town, must needs go out of the world.’[5]


Commanded by their Church to live out their profound asceticism in the very heart of the ‘lusty fair’ of life, Puritan men and women were thus placed in a position where, in order to live up to the ideals of their faith, they had to behave like a saint who, when the fruits of sensuality and emotional satisfaction were dangled before his very lips, will still turn away his head in contempt and disgust.


It was in order to guard against that sensual fall into sin which everywhere threatened the inhabitants of the new worldly paradise of Puritanism that Puritan leaders and preachers multiplied Godly discipline to a degree and with a psychological intensity which had never been encountered before in any broadly based Christian movement. Even here there was no complete break with the Catholic tradition, however. During the later middle ages the Roman Catholic church had increasingly sought to impose a form of monastic discipline upon the laity, and had encouraged individuals to engage in self-scrutiny, in a systematic weighing of their sins, and in the organisation of their own conscience. It was this attempt to secularise the monastic virtues, to use Weber’s own illuminating terms, which continued and intensified during the period of the Reformation.


The deep continuity between the rational asceticism of the Reformers and the rational asceticism developed in the great monasteries of the West is even more important than the superficial discontinuity. Martin Luther, we should recall, had himself been a monk; Calvin had received a severe religious training and attended the same religious school as Ignatius, who would go on to found the Jesuit order. When such reformers left their monasteries and their religious institutions – and eventually their Church – it was not because they had failed to internalise the ideals of monastic discipline. Rather they had internalised them so successfully and so deeply that they could no longer tolerate the dissonance which they saw between these pure ideals and the impure human reality of the Church all around them, where sensual freedom and financial acquisitiveness were everywhere apparent, even, as Luther found to his disgust, in Rome itself. It was nothing other than their own profound internalisation of the discipline of monasticism that Luther, Calvin, Knox and their kindred spirits set out to impose on their followers.


It was this formidable project which lay at the heart of the exercise in religious indoctrination which they, and the Puritan preachers who came after them, undertook.


In the secular monasticism of the Puritan movement the rule books and the codes of discipline which the founders of the great Catholic orders had written with quills upon parchment in the gloomy light of their cells were no longer to be copied laboriously by other monks into hour books, illuminated and enriched with some of the greatest treasures of Christian art, and used as the external charters by which the daily lives of monks and nuns were to be ordered, by which sins were to be weighed and penances prescribed. Instead these ancient rule-books and codes of discipline were to be scored with the cold, hard steel of religious conviction upon the soft flesh of every human heart, so that every Puritan could become his own abbot, regulate his own day, weigh his own sins inside the dark cell of his own conscience and there prescribe and inflict the penance which he deemed just.


It is in just such a profound internalisation of the rational asceticism of Western monasticism that we find the very essence of the psychology of Protestantism, the very origins of the modern Protestant conscience. But it is here also that we find the roots of the modern tradition of liberal individualism and the beginnings of the process of secularisation out of which modern European and American democracies would eventually emerge.


The process of internalisation was, necessarily, a slow one. The early Puritan leaders did not abjure rule-books and traditional disciplinary sanctions, for in the social conditions in which they worked, they could not. At Zurich Zwingli took the initiative in forming a board of moral discipline and drew up a list of sins to be punished by excommunication, sins which included theft, unchastity, perjury and avarice. In the same spirit Calvin in Geneva composed his Institutes – a manual of discipline which brought even the lightest action under a rigid spiritual rule. Drunkards, contemners of religion and dancers were excommunicated; religious dissidents were defined as ‘heretics’ and burnt, like Servetus, on pyres of green wood which, because it burnt slowly, inflicted greater and more enduring pain on the sinful flesh.


Torture was used systematically, a child was beheaded for striking its parents and, in sixty years, a hundred and fifty men and women who had transgressed against Calvin’s discipline were burnt at the stake. Through his reign of terror Calvin succeeded, in the view of John Knox, in turning Geneva into ‘the most perfect school of Christ that ever was on earth since the days of the Apostles.’ He achieved this, as R. H. Tawney has written, ‘by making Geneva a city of glass, in which every household lived its life under the supervision of a spiritual police.’[6]


This was the reality of Puritan discipline in the early stages of Calvinism. But the ideal was very different, and for this ideal to be realised, the spiritual police force with which Calvin surrounded the members of his church had to be relocated inside the conscience of every individual Christian. It was in pursuit of this ideal that Puritan preachers set out to arm each one of their flock with a personal spiritual discipline and thus to create the authentic Puritan conscience.


If we are to seek out the inner psychological reality of the Puritan conscience – which is the form of conscience idealised in all modern Western democracies – we can do no better than approach the problem by way of the words of the Puritan Richard Baxter which are cited by Christopher Hill: ‘Every man is by nature a rebel against heaven,’ wrote Baxter, ‘so that ordinarily to plead for a democracy is to plead that the sovereignty may be put in the hands of rebels.’[7]


In logical terms the implications of Baxter’s words are clear. But his words are despatched with such speed, and with such extreme sureness of aim that, even though we may glimpse their initial direction, we may fail, because of our own moderate vision, to see that point of human nature at which they eventually strike home. For the ultimate implication of Baxter’s words is extreme indeed. What they suggest is nothing less than this: that for democracy to be a political possibility, the very rules of the body politic must themselves be recreated inside the individual body of every member of that democracy. It was the achievement of Puritan leaders to seize upon this principle intuitively and apply it with a rigour and an effectiveness which had never previously been seen. For it was by creating the Puritan conscience that they succeeded in constructing an imaginative replica of their own political ideology inside the bodies of their followers.


The political system which was recreated within the identity of the individual Puritan was, like Calvin’s own original political discipline, rigid and authoritarian. For in the constitution of the Puritan there was to be but one absolute and unquestioned ruler. This ruler was the rational soul which, since it was God’s viceroy, was to be defined by its spiritual purity, and its deliverance from any trace of pollution by the carnal body and the carnal feelings.


In order that the absolute sovereignty of this ruler should remain unchallenged, all Puritans were commanded by their spiritual instructors to fortify the government of their own reason with a spiritual police force no less cruel than Calvin’s at Geneva. In every part of the body and in the very depths of the heart the spies of the conscience were posted. Every deviation was reported, every excess registered, every move made by the insurrectionary powers of the body was charted anxiously and spiritual forces were immediately sent out to put down the rebellion.


In order that dangerous forms of association should not grow up within the human imagination and rise in solidarity against the tyranny of reason, any attempt to organise the imagination systematically was implicitly outlawed; the right to engage in systematic intellectual organisation (which is to say in scientific inquiry) was possessed only by the rational soul which was ruled always by the iron will of God.


Since subversion might grow from any form of human relationship which was not rigorously policed, affections were crushed, friendships distrusted and any spark of human warmth which could be deemed excessive or self-indulgent was trampled on by the agents of the spirit. Then, in order that the rebel forces which had been bound and hurled down into the dungeons of the conscience should not attempt to throw off their shackles, the Puritan made all work – including intellectual work – into an instrument of self-chastisement until the body, bound within its dungeon, was mortified with a pain deeper than any whip or scourge could inflict. Idleness became a sin unclean, almost, as adultery. ‘The standing pool is prone to putrefaction, wrote Richard Steele in 1684, ‘and it were better to beat down the body and keep it in subjection by a laborious calling than through luxury to become a castaway.’[8]


Insofar as the Puritan movement within the Christian Church was in the vanguard of a concerted attack on all notions of external hierarchy and episcopal authority, arguing instead for the enfranchisement of the individual Christian believer, the ideology of Puritanism itself envisaged a kind of ecclesiastical democracy. But in order that the profound rigidity of this democracy should not be challenged, the political body of the individual Puritan was not a democracy.


Human reason was not to rule over the body firmly but justly, consulting at every step with ordinary human feelings and impulses and with the untutored and unprejudiced evidence of the senses. It was to rule cruelly and autocratically, in splendid isolation from the body and the feelings, accountable only to the pure eye of God. So that the rational soul, which is God’s viceroy, might rule supreme, the carnal body – which was imagined as the repository not only of sexual impulses, but of all sensuousness and all emotions including love, pity, fear and affection – was disenfranchised; in the political processes of the individual body of the Puritan, which were also the intellectual processes, all those elements of the human identity which belong to the ordinary commonwealth of the human imagination had no part to play and were allowed to cast no vote.


For it was only after they had first created, deep within the bodies of their followers – and above all in the bodies of those who would become members of the political and intellectual elite – an imagination which was not simply authoritarian but totalitarian in its nature, that the most extreme leaders of the European movement we now know as the Reformation, felt secure enough of God’s enduring sovereignty to be able to concede to these followers, within the limited province of ecclesiastical organisation at least, the outward forms of freedom and democracy.


It should be recognised that this cultural revolution was not limited in its scope to those countries where Protestants came to hold the balance of ecclesiastical power. The crusading zeal of Puritanism was part of a much larger movement of rigorous reform which swept through almost every part of the Christian Church from the fifteenth century onwards. Very similar sentiments would eventually be manifested in the Counter-Reformation within the Roman Catholic church, in the spiritual disciplines introduced by Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuit order, and by other reformers.


When the rigour of these reforms came into conflict with the enduring ritualism of the Roman Catholic Church it sometimes issued not in Puritanism but in deism or in the anti-clericalism of rationalists such as Voltaire, who was himself educated by the Jesuits, and who has been described by one French historian as ‘the lay Loyola of the Enlightenment’.[9] In all these, and in many other respects, the eventual emergence of full-blown republican and democratic ideals in eighteenth century Europe was itself part of the heritage of the Christian Church in Europe.


The contribution made by this same cultural revolution to the emergence of European secularism should not be difficult to divine. For the Puritan attack on the ‘externals’ of religion sometimes modulated into an attack on all forms of organised religion. When organised religion was gradually driven out of the central role which it had once played in affairs of state, however, this in no way signified that it had been ‘relegated’ to a more peripheral role. For what happened increasingly, as the rigorist cultural revolution of Reformed Christianity was carried deeper and deeper into the body politic, was that an outer religion of laws, rituals and observances was replaced by an inner religion of spiritual self-discipline and of the conscience. To the extent that religion appeared to become increasingly invisible it did so not because it had been banished from the body politic but because it had been secreted in its very citadel – in the political bodies of the individuals into whose hands the government of the state was now gradually committed.


In terms of the aspirations of the great prophets of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, this ‘disappearance’ of religion into the depths of the self represented not a defeat but the greatest of all triumphs. For one of the fiercest ideals of St Paul, who had derived it directly from Old Testament prophets like Ezekiel, was that the laws of God should be written not upon tablets of stone, but upon the inward conscience of the individual believer. In helping to realise this ancient religious dream, the Puritan and Catholic rigorists who carried through a cultural revolution in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries did not only bring into being the psychological preconditions of modern secular democracies, they also helped to create the underlying ethos of modern science and modern rationalism and of the liberal individualism which remains the dominating ideology of the West. If religious ideologies appear to play no part in liberal secularist societies, it is not because they have been left behind or in some way marginalised. It is because they have been so profoundly internalised into our secular values and into our very secular identities that we no longer need them in any strong external form.


It was George Orwell who suggested that the perfect totalitarian society was one in which all citizens are so trained to habits of obedience that there is no need for policemen. It could be said that the perfect secular society is similar. It is one in which individuals have been so deeply indoctrinated with religious values – in the case of the West with the world-dominating dreams of Christianity – that they no longer have any need for priests, for churches, nor even for the very idea of a God.


Those of us who live in the secular democracies of the West might well ask why, if our own society is indeed the product of a repressive and in many respects tyrannical cultural revolution, we have, for the most part, failed so conspicuously and so tragically to understand this dimension of our history.


One way of answering this question is to point out that all the revolutionary ideologies which have emerged out of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, from the time of Moses to the time of Marx, have sought to mystify their own repressiveness and to represent doctrines which are profoundly contemptuous of the ordinary springs of human vitality and human community as celebrations of ‘freedom’. The revolutionary ideology developed by Christian rigorists in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was no exception. To a quite surprising and disturbing degree secular liberals in modern Europe have uncritically adopted the repressive ideology of freedom developed by our Christian forefathers. Failing to recognise that the very doctrines of freedom we have resorted to in an attempt to strike off the chains of our repressive past are themselves profoundly repressive, we have again and again betrayed ourselves deeper into the realm of unfreedom by the very zeal of our efforts to escape from it..


One of the reasons that we generally fail to recognise this is that we have substituted for the real history of Puritanism a reductive and misleading caricature. At the same time we have tended to take over uncritically the psychological theory which is implicit in Judaeo-Christian ideology itself. According to this theory, the more deeply the rigorous ideals of Christianity are internalised the more people will become interested in purely spiritual matters, and the more certainly will their interest in the sinful realms of sex and violence be extinguished. In historical reality, however, it is precisely this theory which has been confuted by the behaviour of zealous Christians throughout the centuries.


Martin Luther succinctly formulated what might be termed the ‘paradox of purity’ when he observed that ‘the more you cleanse yourself, the dirtier you get’.[10] What he was implicitly recognising was the fascination of sin – that the more any particular form of human behaviour, appetite or impulse is cast into the realm of the unclean by those who pursue purity, the more psychologically compelling it becomes. The pursuit of purity thus actually serves to promote an imaginative obsession with anything that has been explicitly or implicitly defined as obscene.


Throughout history the Judaeo-Christian tradition has provided countless illustrations of the manner in which its own attempts at rigour have consistently led into just this kind of contradiction. The workings of the ‘paradox of purity’ can be seen clearly in the writings of the Old Testament prophets. Again and again the zeal which is shown by these prophets to serve the God of Israel goes hand in hand with their rage to denounce the gods of every other religion – especially the religion of the Canaanites – as inferior and evil. Specifically, prophets such as Amos, Ezekiel and Jeremiah introduced into Western religion the notion that any form of religion which set itself up against the pure cult of Yahweh was to be imagined in explicitly sexual terms as a prostitute, and its adherents reviled accordingly.


Israel – the faithless Israel against whom the prophets railed – was imagined in compulsively sexual and obscene terms as the bride who had become a whore and whose sadistic murder was therefore legitimate and necessary. The twin themes of unfaithfulness and prostitute-murder were taken up in late Jewish and early Christian apocalyptic and developed, through the figure of the Whore of Babylon, into one of the central motifs of all sectarian conflict within the Judaeo-Christian tradition. In this respect the zealous pursuit of purity which was demanded by the cult of Yahweh led directly to the production of what can only be termed ‘religious pornography’, in which the murder of a woman – the Whore of Babylon – was portrayed as a consummate spiritual good.


A very similar psychological pattern can be seen in the attempts made both within Judaism and in Christianity to adopt a rigorist attitude towards sexual behaviour. Far from extinguishing religious interest in sex this rigorism engendered a prurient scholarly interest in the entire realm of the ‘unclean’ which found expression in the Talmud, in the Old Testament itself and, subsequently, in the pastoral theology developed by the Roman Catholic Church. In the medieval Church the sacrament of confession in particular became associated with an exhaustive theological inquiry in which practically every imaginable form of behaviour, including various different techniques of masturbation, and almost the entire range of the sexual ‘perversions’, were described in intimate, and at times pornographic detail.[11]


The sexualism of Christianity grew directly out of its attempt to negate and control both sexual behaviour and the sexual imagination. One of the aims of the Puritan movement was to excise this sexualism by attacking all the external rituals and observances which appeared to promote it. This was the dream of the Puritan rigorists. The reality was that by making even sterner demands of individual Christians, the leaders of the Puritan cultural revolution merely succeeded in tying the knot of sexualism even more tightly. Far from finding a way out of the paradox of purity, the post-Reformation Christian church found itself driven even deeper into the very kind of imaginative obsession with the realm of the obscene which it had sought to escape.


The original propaganda of the Lutheran movement in Germany used the fantasy of prostitute-murder as one of its motifs and portrayed the pope and his followers in obscene and scatological terms. Systematically, the supporters of the Church of Rome were smeared with the excrement of the imagination and the papacy was represented as the ultimate source of all corruption. It was this source of defilement which, according to the propaganda of German Protestantism, was destined to be cleansed from the face of the earth.[12]


A similar apocalyptic vision eventually became the psychological engine which Puritans in Britain and America used in order to bring about their cultural revolution. It was in the medium of sadistic and pornographic fantasies which themselves looked forward to the murder of a prostitute – the Whore of Babylon – that Puritans mounted their massive onslaught against ‘natural man’ – against all forms of sensual and sexual enjoyment; against the spontaneous expression of physical affection; against ritual licence, collective exuberance and laughter; against the human imagination itself.


Both in the United States and in Western Europe, and above all in Protestant Europe, the process of internalising the most rigorous and repressive elements of Christian doctrine was largely completed by the end of the nineteenth century. From that time on the original sacred ideology of Christianity, which depended heavily on terror and on apocalyptic fantasies which upheld the doctrine of hell and the eternal punishment of the wicked, was, in a sense redundant. It certainly had no role to play in affairs of state. Christian theologians, however, have by no means ceased to write, and in the last hundred years the theology they have produced has tended progressively to repudiate the central doctrines of Christianity as they are set out in the New Testament. The most significant change which has taken place in Christian theology is in the area of eschatology. The change has been characterised succinctly by S. G. F. Brandon:


The secularisation of Western society has coincided with a growing uncertainty among Christians, of most denominations, about their traditional eschatology. Although the ancient concepts of Judgement, Heaven and Hell are still current in hymns and prayers, and are enunciated in the reading of the Bible, the imagery in which they were originally presented is now found embarrassing.[13]


As a result of this process of theological revisionism, the form of Christianity which most contemporary Christian profess no longer resembles the Christianity of John Wesley, of Martin Luther, of St Augustine, of St Paul or of Jesus himself. Instead of seeking to preserve the scriptural and historical traditions of their faith, many of the most influential Christians have effectively re-created it, filling it with a spirit of pluralism and tolerance which it has never before possessed. Turning to view their own society from the security afforded by this beguiling fiction, these Christians have often been appalled by the seeming dissonance between their ideals and the violent, acquisitive and pornographic culture which has grown up in the very society in which the Christian gospel has been preached most intensively and most successfully.


One eloquent rejoinder to such bewilderment is to be found in some words written by John Updike in the introduction to a book about the role of Satan in Christianity: ‘Alas, we have become, in our Protestantism, more virtuous than the myths which taught us virtue; we judge them barbaric.’[14] Even Updike, however, is evidently unable to entertain another possibility: that the very myths which have taught us virtue are the same which have taught us cruelty; that much of the viciousness of modern popular culture, together with its obsessive concern with sexual ‘perversions’ and with sado-masochistic rituals, is the historical precipitate of Puritanism.


Yet the more closely we examine the history of orthodox Judaeo-Christian doctrine in relation to the process of secularisation the more plausible this view becomes. For it would seem that the fantasies which were once expressed in Christian demonology, in Christian visions of hell and in the sexualism of the medieval church as a whole, have not disappeared from our culture any more than the rigorist Christian ethos out of which they were born. Instead these fantasies have been ‘disconnected’ from the Christian imagination by Puritanism and by Protestant rationalism, and secreted instead on the one hand in secular intellectual movements such as psychoanalysis, and on the other in the thriving sub-cultures of satanism and science fiction, of horror comics and pornography. In the dissociated post-religious culture which has in this way been brought into being, Christians and rational humanists alike are often unable to bring themselves to believe that the very forms of fantasy they now readily revile once lay at the orthodox heart of the religious tradition which our culture tends still to revere.


Partly because they remain committed to intellectual methods of ‘depth analysis’ which systematically disregard the obvious and which tend to discount as merely ‘surface phenomena’ almost all the most easily observable aspects of human and cultural behaviour, secular intellectuals in the West have often failed to register the internalised puritanism and cruelty of their own society. Yet the cruel and destructive features of Western secularist societies have sometimes been perceived with great clarity by Muslims, particularly in countries where they have found themselves in conflict with Western regimes.


One of the greatest tragedies of our modern world is that the majority of Islamic thinkers, while they can see clearly the moral vacuity of Western liberalism and Western secularism, have failed just as completely as their Western counterparts to analyse the historical and psychological origins of these ‘secular’ ideologies. They too have failed to understand that the tragedy of the secularist West is, in large measure, the product not of the failure of religion but of one of the most successful religious revolutions in the whole of Judaeo-Christian history. Islam has thus frequently sought to combat what it misperceives as Western ‘decadence’ with the very kind of religious rigour out of which the Western secularist consciousness itself was wrought.


Partly because it can see the cruelty of the West so clearly, this kind of Islamic rigorism has frequently been unable to perceive its own cruelty. Both Islamic rigorists and secularised Muslims in the West thus frequently forget that Islam finds itself in a position to contest American imperialism and the predatory encroachment of Western secularism on the Islamic world partly because it belongs to the same massively successful religious tradition out of which both Judaism and Christianity themselves emerged. Islam, in short, forgets that it too belongs to the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and that it too, like Judaism, Christianity and indeed Marxism, preserves, at the very heart of its own historical faith, an apocalyptic and essentially imperialistic dream of world-domination.


It is because just such an imperialistic dream remains central to the internalised puritanism of Western secularism and Western liberalism that the conflict between Islam and the West has become so deep during the latter part of the twentieth century. Only if we begin to undo the knot we have tied in our understanding of our own history is it likely that this conflict can be lessened during the twenty-first century. That is why it is important both for Muslims and non-Muslims to begin to lay aside the secularist mystification of the origins of secularism and to replace it with a deeper understanding of the relationship between religion and secular modernity. We need above all to recognise that the body politic brought into being in Western secularist democracies owes its immense poverty and its deep moral confusion not to the defeat of religion and the triumph of the body but to the triumph of religion and the defeat of the body.



This is a revised and expanded version of a paper read in 1994 at a seminar on secularism organised by the Centre for the Study of Democracy, the University of Westminster


[1] Rana Kabbani, Letter to Christendom, Virago, 1989, pp. 54-5

[2] Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution, Penguin, 1975, pp. 324-5

[3] Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Allen and Unwin, 1930, pp. 118-9

[4] Weber, p. 119

[5] John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), Penguin, 1965, p. 126. See R. H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926), Penguin, 1938, p. 200ff.

[6] Tawney, p. 125

[7] Baxter, quoted in Hill, p. 325

[8] Steele, quoted in Tawney, p. 241

[9] Marc Fumaroli, ‘Arts of Persuasion: The Lasting Influence of the Jesuits on Voltaire’s Style and Thought’ The Times Literary Supplement, 27 January 1995, p. 16

[10] Luther, quoted in Erik H. Erikson, Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History, New York: W. W. Norton, 1958, p. 61. One might compare Luther’s remark with James Joyce’s even pithier ‘dirty cleans’.

[11] See John T. Noonan, Jr., Contraception:A History of its Treatement by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists, Harvard University Press, 1965; James Cleugh, Love Locked Out: A Survey of Love, Licence and Restriction in the Middle Ages, Tandem, 1964, pp. 77-97

[12] See, for example, R. W. Scribner, For the Sake of Simple Folk: Popular Propaganda for the German Reformation, Cambridge University Press, 1981

[13] 16. S. G. F. Brandon, [reference to be added]

[14] John Updike, introduction to F. J. Sheed, ed., Sounding in Satanism, Mowbrays, 1972, p. vii




© Richard Webster, 2002