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  • Writer's pictureVladimir Chlouba

Several Notes on Christmas, Multicultural Sensitivity, and Secularism

The recent Christmas season once again reminded us of what has been termed the Christmas controversy. This term refers to disputes that have arisen regarding celebrating or even acknowledging of Christmas. Various social reformists have suggested that the word Christmas should in government, educational institutions, and other secular environments be substituted by less precise and hence less problematic terms such as Festivus. Festive mood is allowed, acknowledging the proper location of this mood’s historical origin less so. Disturbingly unaware of its preposterousness, this illogical understanding of multicultural sensitivity requires, in order to create a safe environment for a multitude of cultures, the elimination of these cultures and their cultural expressions in the first place. As every other product of intellectual analysis, these views are welcome in the free market of ideas. For the sake of intellectual honesty however, they should reveal themselves for what they are – a particular epistemology that cannot claim itself exempt, as no other idea can, from the kind of critical analysis that will lay bare its merits as well as its shortcomings. It is particularly their invocation of the western value of secularism what is in need of scrutiny.

The notion that the various layers of our social fabric and, indeed, of our social life can be neatly separated is of course a myth. To think that terms such as religion, tradition, custom, beliefs, and ideology are separable would be to deny their complicated nature and to contradict the ever-evolving richness of our modern society. In fact, it is high time to admit that the notion of secularism, which to a large extent relies on this separateness, for it wishes to isolate religious views from certain aspects of the public life, is, at least in its pure form, also a myth. Secularism demands that the state and the administration thereof be separated from religion by a clear and unmistakable “wall of separation between church and state.”[1] Yet what exactly does this statement mean? To what extent and in what ways are its demands within the realm of reasonable possibility?

To cut all ties between religion (let us here refer to religion as a set of beliefs, priorities, values as frameworks for judgments, ideas of fairness, etc.) would be to suggest that the state can be run in a purely technocratic manner, i. e. that the government can run its affairs without subscribing to particular principles. Yet just that seems to be entirely preposterous. Our government, legislation, and public life in general are the unmistakable products of ideas. Ideas of what is right, what is fair, what is just. Examples abound. Debates about proper levels of taxation rely largely on the proposed or blamed taxes’ fairness. The entire welfare state relies, besides important practical matters (arguably lower per capita costs of universal health care, for instance), on the notion of solidarity, which is likewise a value, an idea of what ought to be. For that matter, the entire system of justice, besides of course ensuring the kind of societal peace and order needed for a modern society, claims (and must inevitably claim) that it administers and promotes justice. This justice can be eye for an eye or some derivative thereof but whatever understanding of it we choose (knowingly or not) to adopt, there should be no doubt that we are subscribing to a particular idea of justice. To be sure, let us bring the reader’s attention to the fact that different states punish the same crimes with sometimes very different sentences and to seriously assert that one of those countries has been so enlightened as to identify the just punishment for a given trespass would be to exemplify the kind of intellectual laziness and arrogance this article seeks to tackle. Religion, among other ideologies, is a powerful source of the values that states in Europe and the United States have adopted since their inception. When we root for change, we root for a particular kind of change, one that is inspired by particular values, often based in religion(s), whether we know it or not. The true danger of subscribing to the technocratic view of the state and post-ideological world views is that they conceal their ideological nature – indeed, they are just as ideological as their predecessors and their false promise to move beyond useless ideological debates is indicative of their latently totalitarian nature.

If such a complete separation between state and religious ideas is beyond the realm of possibility, what, then, is the meaning and use of secularism? I have written elsewhere that when it comes to the western values and religion, “secularism as well as religious freedom are the only justifiable principles.”[2] I do not think that I am guilty of elevating a principle which I subsequently disobey by expressing my criticism of, say, radical secularism. Rather, I am obliged to clarify my thought by qualifying the principle of secularism and explaining what exactly I mean by it. For ridding the public sphere of any symbol that traces its origin to Christianity is not what I mean when I refer to secularism.

Secularism as I understand it does not attempt to rid the public sphere of all symbols and traditions that may trace their origin to a particular religion, for to do so would be to battle tradition and custom and, ultimately, identity. Rather than attempting to sterilize the public sphere invariably and completely, the kind of secularism that I argue for (which has, in my view, been until recently practiced in the West) is concerned with creating a space where various religious traditions can display their subjectivity without, and this is perhaps crucial, arrogating an exclusive position for this particular subjectivity. This kind of secularism, which allows various ideas to be expressed freely and to make statements about the human experience, whether positive or normative, without claiming epistemological superiority, is entirely within the realm of possibility and it is also not a myth. Naturally, the aforedescribed fault line is not likely to be located easily. While calling Christmas by its real name will in all probability pass the test, minting the words In God We Trust on every coin may not. While refraining from administered prayers in public schools is likely to pass this test, subscribing to the festive mood of late December while refusing to acknowledge the unquestionable traditional origin of that mood is seriously mind-boggling.

Secularism, I shall conclude, is not characterized by its demand to wipe out any traces of tradition and religious subjectivity from the public sphere, rather, it holds that no religious or traditional subjectivity shall claim exclusivity and superior status. The chief objection to this understanding of secularism has not, perhaps surprisingly, come from religious communities. Demands that Christmas shall from now on be called “Holidays” or “Festivus” have typically been raised by radical secularists (who, I believe, do not actually understand wherein the wisdom of secularism lies and instead elevate their own epistemology to the level of a political program), not competing religious groups.

[1] Thomas Jefferson in his Letter to the Danbury Baptists, 1802

[2] CHLOUBA, Vladimir. What Do We Mean When We Talk About European Values? 2015.

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