STATE DISPENSATIONS TODAY: DEBATING & QUALIFYING THE LABEL “SECULAR”

Michael Roberts Dec 2007

The LTTE has been characterized as a secular organization by Robert Pape and a number of scholars. The term is taken as understood, but when I deployed the concept in order to challenge this reading as facile, I was immediately confronted by Indian scholars who asked for a clarification of the term. Their approach in turn was informed by the manner in which the concept has been deployed in India since Nehru’s time as well as more recently in opposition to fundamentalist forces in both the Hindu and Islamic camps.


In the conventional reading “secular” denotes an organization that is not explicitly linked to a religious denomination or forms of government guided by religious notions. It is sometimes implicitly linked to the idea of rationality so that its opposite is deemed to be “irrational” (and thus magical, superstitious, otherworldly). As such, it is implicitly or explicitly opposed to the category “religious.”
My definition of “secular,” however, is coined in opposition to the broader category “supra-mundane,” a term that embraces “religious” sentiments without being confined to them. The “supra-mundane” refers to any beliefs and practices that have faith in cosmic principles as a force in the world of human activity. Besides religious rites and ideas, it embraces activities guided by astrology, numerology, superstition, shamanistic notions and other practices that would fall within the Weberian idea of “the enchanted.”
It follows that I define “secular” in a strict fashion. Guided by British colleagues I find that Britain is not a secular state because of its links with the Anglican Church through the Crown. But this note is then qualified by my insistence on the force of context: in this instance, a society that today is permeated by secular practices and ways of being, so that committed religious practice is confined to a distinct minority of Britain’s population.
Such an emphasis on context in my perspective places an onus on the “embodied practices” of the population from which an organization springs, and to which it necessarily caters. This phenomenological emphasis on the meaningful actions of those under study means that I go beyond the formal declarations of any organization. I stress its ‘daily’ operations – operations that are deciphered by the yardstick of “supra-mundane” opposed to “secular.”
Likewise, where any organization fosters practices that embrace a number of religious denominations in ecumenical fashion (without necessarily favouring one denomination) that organization is deemed “non-secular” because it has oriented itself on such occasions towards the supra-mundane cosmic world.
Ever since the second-in-command Seelan died on 6th July 1983 the LTTE began a process of legitimization and mobilization that can be described as “dead body politics” (Katherine Verdery’s phrase from another context). The expansion and institutionalization of their rites for their dead, the māvīrar (great heroes) as they are called, has also been identified as a “cult” by scholars who are not antithetical to the LTTE. In this usage “cult’ is not disparaging (though rationalists would tend to use the term in with such an implication). In my reading, then, the māvīrar” cult and its supra-mundane potentialities undermine the facile identification of the LTTE as secular.

This is a Summary version of disjointed thoughts assembled in a Comment. We encourage readers to post critical comments after reading the longer version.

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One Response to “STATE DISPENSATIONS TODAY: DEBATING & QUALIFYING THE LABEL “SECULAR””

  1. A Comment – with attention to church history as well

    Aloysius Pieris, s. j.
    This comment was entered in response to an invitation from Michael Roberts and places a different slant on the debate at the same time that it challenges him — and others.

    1. The “secular” (from Latin saeculum, meaning ‘world’) has come to mean the world which has boldly declared its independence from the interference and the domination of any religion. In the French Revolution (1789) , which was the first experiment of that kind in the West the religious institution from whose domination the nation emancipated itself was the Roman Catholic Church. In the French model, the State took charge of all areas of human life, except religious worship, as the obligation of the state: education, marriage, health, and so on and kept the church at bay. But in the American model (1876), which took inspiration from the French precedent, the “secularizatrion” implied only the “separation of State and Church”, so that both institutions independently shared the burden of education, health, and so on. In the latter model, religious institutions exercised their freedom in rendering service though parallel organs. If I am right in what I say, here, (check me) then one must conclude that Roman Catholic Church in Vatican II (in the document Dignitatis Humanae) seems to uphold this second model thanks to the influence of the American Jesuit, John Courtney-Murray. Pope Benedict (like his predecessor) is still contesting the French Model and cannot comprehend the American Model. He speaks against secularization, by which he seems to mean laicization and de-clericalization of European society. It is not just Christianity, but the church as an institution that he wants to see installed as the conscience of European society.

    2. The proper French word used even today is laicité, meaning “lay-ness” (laicity) as opposed to the clerical. Much confusion has been generated in the current debate because the origin of the French model is not traced back to its Roman Imperial times, something that Courtney-Murray seems to have done. I see the following stages in this process:-
    (a) Courtney-Murray reminds us that Augustus was both Emperor (Summus Imperator) and the High Priest (Pontifex Maximus) enjoying both the divine authority (jus divinum) and civil supremacy (jus civile) so that there was no human society outside the empire but only barbarians.
    (b) When the Empire was Christianized (or rather when the Christianity was imperialized in the 4th century, the Christian Emperors seem to have continued this MONISTIC model of authority. But within a century and a half, the Pope intervened to bring in the truly Christian model of DUALISM, i.e., separation model:-
    (c) Thus in 494 CE, Pope Gelasius I, wrote to the Byzantine Emperor Anasthasius I: “Two there are, august Emperor, by which this world is ruled on the title of original and sovereign right—the consecrated authority of the priesthood and the royal power.” This lapidary statement is known as the magna carta of religious liberty! This was how the Church claimed its independence from ‘secular’ authority’ while admitting the legitimacy of the latter. But……
    (d) By the middle ages (Courtney-Murray does not mention it) the successors of Pope Gelsaius I, such as the so called “canonical popes” ( Gregory VII, Innocent III and Bomficae VIII) went to the other extreme of falling into ECCLESIASTICAL MONISM, claiming that both civil (secular) and spiritual (sacred) authority was vested in the papal office, so that there was no legitimate societas humana out side the societas perfecta (Christian Europe), and even salvation of ‘non-Christians’ depended on being subjected to papal jurisdiction. [I have cited the relevant texts in my open letter to John Paul II: “There are Two Things Your Holiness” and in many other articles and in my critique of Ratzinger’s Dominus Jesus, both found in the inter-net].
    (e) This ecclesiastical ‘monolith’ lasted in Europe till the French Revolution, which (in my opinion) opted for the Roman and Byzantine secular monism, whereas the American model preferred the Gelasian DUALISM.

    3. Thus the ‘secular’ has turned to be a non-sacred this-worldliness, a Western Model which travels with its technocracy to the non-Western world. After studying its ‘de-sacralizing’ effect on our Asian Cultures, specially on the folk-religiousness (pejoratively referred to as ‘animism’) which consists of a sacred this-worldliness as opposed to Major Religions that advocate a “Transcendent Horizon of salvation”, I tried to bring a much needed clarification by introducing the word cosmic religiosity in contrast with not only the secularism (of the West) but also with the transcendentalism of the Major Religions, which therefore earned the name metacosmic. Though resisted initially by some Indian theologians (because they were theologizing on ethereal speculations of the Upanishads etc., neglecting the cosmic spirituality of the tribals and the dalits who are treated as slaves) soon this terminology was accepted in the theological circles. Moreover, as the inventor of the terminology, I was asked to provide the entry on “cosmic-metacosmic” in the Dictionary of Third World Theology (Obis Books, Maruknoll NY. To my great joy, the two words have been absorbed into the official teaching of the church after they were used (in my sense) in John Paul II’s encyclical Redemptoris Missio, thanks to the two original drafters of that document, Zago and Du Puis who happened to by my friends!!!!!

    4. Now you realize that cult of the dead as well as the cult of gods (cosmic powers) cannot be other-worldy, super-natural, supra-mundane or metacosmic. LTTE heroes are raised to level of sacred this-worldly powers otherwise they vanish into the transcendental sphere, which is not interested in mundane goals such as Eelam. For the Buddha relegated the deva-cult to the lokiya realm not to the lokottara realm. It is precisely these two terms that I translated as cosmic and metacosmic. Thus all ancestor worship as well as cult of divinized dead-heroes (Bandara deyyo in some parts are identified with SWRD) are treated by Buddhists and Hindus and even Confucianists and Shintoists under the rubric of mundane, this-worldly, and yet sacred. That is why ‘cosmic’ is used in place of the secular which is opposed to the sacred.

    I’ll take on from there, when I get a little time to spare.

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