This paper was prepared for a symposium held at the Oakland High School for the Arts under the auspices of California Governor Jerry Brown in the summer of 2013. The occasion was the publication of Beyond Economics and Ecology, a collection of Illich's essays on these themes, edited and introduced by Sajay Samuel. The conference was called After the Crisis: The Thought of Ivan Illich Today...
POLITICS AND RELIGION IN THE THOUGHT OF IVAN ILLICH
The heading of today’s session is politics and religion, so I’d like to begin by reflecting on these terms, both of which can be extremely slippery. I know they have practical, everyday meanings – we will usually agree in ordinary talk that what goes on in churches and mosques, synagogues and temples is religion, while what is discussed in legislatures and government offices, is politics – but if we inquire a little more deeply, they become quite difficult to distinguish. One of the hallmarks of the modern age was the distinction between a private sphere in which one was free to cultivate one’s religion, and a public realm governed by the canons of secular reason. This regime began to take shape at the beginning of the modern age, roughly the 16th century, and it’s arguable that before that time there was no such thing as religion in the sense in which the word is used today. Wilfred Cantwell Smith, the great Canadian scholar of religion writing in the 1960’s says: “religion as a discrete category of human activity separable from culture, politics and other areas of life is an invention of the modern West.” Before the 16th century - at the earliest - the word can denote a virtue, a disposition, a habit – a practice let’s say - but not the adoption of a set of propositions or beliefs as “my religion.” In fact Cantwell Smith goes on to say that “the rise of the concept of religion is in some ways correlated with a decline in the practice of religion itself.” (Just as an aside here some of the slipperiness of the word religion can be seen in that quote, in which Smith, having just said that religion is not a transhistorical essence but a modern invention then goes on to speak of “religion itself” as if it were just such an essence. This shows, I think, the difficulty we still have in speaking of these matters.) By the beginning of the eighteenth century, according to the historian of Christianity John Bossy, the idea of religion is well established. “By 1700,” he writes, “the world was full of religions, objective social and moral entities characterized by system, principles and hard edges.” And religion once distinguished from politics became in many ways its scapegoat: the conflicts between the nascent national states of the 16th and 17th centuries, to take just one example, became known as the wars of religion, when they could just as plausibly – more plausibly - have been called the wars of state-making, and taken as illustrating the arbitrary and violent character of state power, rather than the violent and arbitrary character of religious belief.
One could say a lot more about the segregation of the secular from the religious in the modern world, and about the fateful imperial reorganization of other civilizations and cultures along these lines during the colonial era, but the point that I want to make here is that this whole mythology has come undone in our time – undone to the extent that, in some circles at least, one hardly needs to argue the point any more.