Is Chile a Secular State?

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By Agustín Squella, PhD in Law, Professor of Philosophy of Law at the Universidad de Valparaíso. Member of the Academy of Social, Political and Moral Sciences, Instituto de Chile. National Award Recipient in Humanities and Social Sciences

Translated by Anthony Rauld

When it comes to the issue of faith, the question is usually a simple one: “Do you believe in God?” and this seems to lead to one of two answers, without leaving much room for other equally plausible responses, which someone might want to consider beyond a simple “yes” or “no”.  What I want to say is that when confronted with such a question, there are more options than the two apparent ones, because for many men and women, the existence of God—using John Updike’s literary image—is presented as something that is quite blurry and obscure, “like a face through the fogged glass in a bathroom.”

In effect, between those two most common answers—“yes, I believe”; “no, I don’t believe”—it is possible to identify at least five different alternatives situated along a spectrum between those two extreme and exclusionary conclusions.

These positions correspond to: the one who chooses to suspend judgment with respect to the existence of God; the one who doubts that very existence; the one who believes only in the possibility of the existence of a superior being; the one who affirms the existence of God, but declares that it is unknowable to the human mind; and, finally, the one who only thinks he believes.

The first one of these positions—suspend all judgment concerning the existence of God—is the one that is considered agnostic, that is, it belongs to those who admit that they do not know, and that it is not knowable whether God exists or not.  The answer once given by Jorge Millas to the question, “what happens between God and you?” helps to illustrate this position: “Between God and I nothing is going on,” responded the philosopher.  “If he has created me, I am not aware of it; if his Providence conserves me, I do not notice it.  I do not know the fear of his justice, or the confidence of his love, or the blessing of his mercy.  I say “God” and darkness engulfs me; I lose in an instant the only thing that saves me from the daze provoked by the mysterious routine of the universe: my capacity to think.”

The second position—further away from pure and simple atheism, but equally distant at the same time from the firm stance of the believer—is the state of doubt or indecision with respect to God.  Juan de Mairena, Antonio Machado’s fabulous imaginary character, constitutes a good example of it, as depicted in his famous verdict: “God, besides believing in or denying Him, can also be doubted,” a phrase that reminds us of the ambiguous, but sincere, invocation of the epileptic’s father in the Gospel of San Marco: “I believe, Father, succor my disbelief.”

On the other hand, the third position mentioned above is closer to the position of believer, although it does not fully coincide with it: it is the one who believes, although not exactly in God, but only in the possibility that he might exist.  This position, we think, is exemplified by the attitude developed by the English novelist Graham Greene, who when asked about his motives for converting to Catholicism responded that, “before anything, it was indispensable to believe in the possibility of the existence of God.”

The fourth position, that is, those who affirm that God exists, but who also admit to the unknowability of God, corresponds to Hobbes, and also Locke.  Here we are dealing with silent believers, not pontificators, who limit themselves to believing in God, but would never think to argue for it.

Finally, there is a fifth position, which is the same as the position of the philosopher Gianni Vattimo, corresponding to those who “think they believe”, and who believe that people should be satisfied with this—to think that they believe and not to believe blindly—since only a weak faith like this can smooth over the message and the practices of religions that throughout history have acted aggressively towards those who did not share their faith.

Now I want to address the distinction between “secularization” and “secularism”, which, in certain respects, corresponds to the distinction between “laicism” and “laicity”.  However, “secularization”, strictly speaking, alludes to a historical process that we have lived through, and which we continue to live through on a global scale, especially in the West, where it is quite advanced; “secularism”, meanwhile, alludes to the ideology that supports or pushes this process, although “secularism” can also mean something else: the ideology that repulses or rejects religions, and, even, the very idea of God.  On the other hand, “laicism” is what is said about someone who is laicist.  But “laicist” can also mean several different things, depending on the different contexts in which the term is used: within a religion, like Catholicism, the one who is not a member of the clergy; the one who proclaims that the state must be separate from the religions and churches and behave in a neutral manner with respect to the messages belonging to each one of them; and the one who advocates an education that does not include the public education of any religion.  “Laicism”, on the other hand, is equivalent to the second meaning of “secularism” mentioned above.  And if we included “religions” and “churches” separately, it is to prevent confusion.  In that way, for example, if Christianity is a religion, then Catholicism is only a church, a Christian church to be sure, but one that coexists with many other churches that share the Christian religion.  Vattino confirms that churches are to religions what soccer teams are to soccer.

So, “secularism” for me is the ideology and the practices of rejection or repudiation of religion altogether, and I call “secularization” the human attempt to achieve an explanation about the entire world without needing to appeal to the affirmation, nor even to the hypothesis, of the existence of God.  Understood in this way—as a process where practices that are strictly human, like art, science, politics, the state, the law, are explained and grounded without any need for the idea of God—secularization is not only compatible with religiosity, it also becomes possible to see in them two phenomena that are radically human, and therefore, in certain respects, convergent.

One of the thoughts best reflecting this last idea we owe to a man of faith, the Jesuit theologian Henri De Lubac, who said that “if God rested on the seventh day, that means someone was going to have to take care of things afterwards.”

Understood in this way, is not secularization a process favorable to religion since it highlights better, and hence reinforces, on the one hand, the realms of the eternal and sacred, and the temporal and the profane on the other?  Owing to it, would not—in the words of Teilhard de Chardin—“the core of religion manifest itself to us more distinguishably and vigorously than ever?”  Does not the Constitutional Pastoral “Gaudium et Spes” follow a similar vein, when it affirms, referring to the new conditions of our time, that “such conditions affect religious life: for one thing, the critical stance, when it is sharper, purifies it from the magical conception of the world and from the continued existence of superstitions, and demands each day a more truly personal and active adherence to the faith,” all of which results—concludes the document cited—“in that not a few people are able to reach a more vigorous understanding of God”.

I will add that, as seems obvious, morality is independent from religion in the sense that just as morality is possible with God, that is, a morality that takes its precepts from a religious faith—for example, Christianity—which is in fact adopted by those who share this creed, it is also possible to have morality without a God, in other words, a secular morality.  This means that it is not only the believer who can develop a sense of the good, determine the path to achieve it, and carry it out to the greatest extent possible.  It is often asserted, erroneously, that without God everything is morally permissible, an idea that completely precludes the possibility of a laicist morality.  However, and contrary to reality—since many non-believers act morally and can give reasons for doing so that have nothing to do with the existence of God, or with divine rewards or punishments that religious subjects attribute morally correct or incorrect behavior to—the idea that without God everything is permitted is sometimes turned around, since religious fanaticism in the name of faith often justifies the physical elimination of those who are not part of the religious faith in question, or, in other words, the infidels.  Was it not “Allah” that came from the lips of the Islamic terrorists who crashed their planes into the twin towers in New York?  Was it not in the name of “God” that the Catholic inquisition tribunal denied patrimony and even life to those who did not believe in Him, or who simply blasphemed?  Was it not the Calvinist reformers who in 1553 burned alive the Spanish doctor Miguel Servet because he declared to be against baptism for newborns?

Coming back to religious morality, that is, to the symbols of moral comportment that belong to particular religious faiths, there is also the problem that not all believers of the same religion share integrally its moral code, or, similarly, not everyone has the same interpretation of the moral message of the founder of the respective religion.  On the other hand, and from the more specific context of a particular church, not all believers behave, nor do they follow the moral prompts that the ministers and authorities of those religions impose.  This means that there are no perfect convergences between those who share the same religion, or between those who form part of the same church, when it comes to morality; while this does not relativize morality, it does make religious morality more complicated.

Looked at from a certain point of view, not only is a laicist morality possible, it is also more admirable than one based on religion, since the non-believer that lives up to the moral standards he has autonomously adopted depends neither on the promise of salvation, nor on the threat of eternal condemnation.  What moves him then?  The devotion to the moral image that he has built of himself, the impulse to escape remorse and guilt, the conviction that it is not acceptable to cause harm to another, and, even, the acceptance that everyone, from the point of view of morality, needs to secure from oneself and from others.  There are many reasons for the non-believer to have and sustain a morality: Fidelity to oneself, to live without remorse or guilt (as much as imperfect beings are able to), respect and consideration for others, and moral self-esteem based on the moral judgment of oneself and of others.

Now, with respect to the relationship between the state and religions, I see four possible alternatives: the confessional state, the religious state, the secular state, and the anti-religious state.

The first of these—the confessional state—is that which adopts a specific religion as the official one, excluding all others.  The second—the religious state—is that which, without adopting an official religion, supports all existing religions, understanding that they are beneficial to society; as such, a religious state grants all religious faiths and denominations benefits like subsidies, transfers of public infrastructure, tax exemptions, and so on.  Meanwhile, the secular state is one that does not adopt an official religion, and adopts neither a favorable or negative stance towards religions in general, and, in the same vein, does not support or condemn them.  A secular state maintains itself neutral with respect to religions and their various institutional manifestations and makes them neither entitled to benefits nor victims of ill will, declaring and respecting the broadest religious freedom, including the right to be unaffiliated to any religion at all.  Finally, an anti-religious state would be one that considers religions harmful to civic life and to the development of society, and therefore prohibits them and prosecutes all of them equally.

In such a context, what is Chile today in the 21st century?  It is clearly a religious state.  It is not confessional, or secular, and neither is it anti-religious, but it is religious, since it helps in different ways all denominations and faiths (although almost always it prefers one above the others), on the admission, although not explicitly, that those denominations and faiths are a benefit to society, and that it is crucial to support them in the propagation of faith and in the positive practices associated with it.  A religious state believes that religions and churches collaborate in the maintenance of good moral standards in society and that because of this they must be strengthened by public policies and resources, which the state develops for them.

The question now is what kind of state do we want to have going forward?  Assuming that we are going to exclude, right from the start, both the confessional state and the anti-religious state, do we want to continue being a religious state, friend of religions, or should we opt for one that is simply secular, neutral with respect to them?

Here we have a good question, I think, especially in the context of the constituent process (for a new constitution) we are currently living through.

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