Civil Religion : Judith Butler

William Lamson / Solarium
William Lamson / Solarium

Civil Religion / Judith Butler

Secularism as Religion


In Balibar’s 1985 Spinoza and Politics, he follows a complex and compelling trajectory through Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, and the Ethics, to show how a political structure of democracy is articulated through the reflections on religion, specifically on God, law, nature, and love.1 Spinoza is said to lament the degeneration of religion into superstition on the one hand and dogmatism on the other. Further, he seeks to distinguish both theology and theocracy from what he calls “true Religion”—of which the latter would ally the dictates of revealed religion with those of reason.2 Balibar begins this text by claiming that one can find the contours of a theory of democracy in Spinoza’s Tractatus, one for which actions or deeds prove to be central to both faith and to freedom. Balibar follows Spinoza closely as he seeks to understand how “true religion” differs from theocratic notions of institutional authority and its command structures. What does true religion mean when it is not only separated from theocracy, but functions as a critical perspective on its operations? And how is true religion related to freedom understood as potentia, the immanent power of the individual that is irreducible to egotism or individualism?

By clearly opposing the mandates of religious institutions that seek to curb the operation of free thought, Spinoza seeks to know and elaborate the very power of free thought, an inquiry that involves rethinking power not merely as potestas (external power) but as potentia (immanent power), and rethinking freedom, not as individual prerogative, but as an exercise of power crafted and intensified in relation to others. Theology is faulted politically for its deep ties to hierarchy and caste, which is why defeating one ruling theology by installing another is no solution, simply shifting the site of potestas while failing to reverse the priority of potestas over potentia. The radical critique of theology would have to take aim at the social hierarchy between the so-called elect and the masses, those it governs or subordinates. All this happens through recourse to a critical method that, in Balibar’s language, “frees faith itself from theology.”3

And though I cannot in these few pages reproduce the subtlety of Balibar’s exposition, I do hope to underscore that this faith liberated from theology is not a merely subjective experience, but, alas, “true religion.” True religion restores and intensifies the immanent powers of freedom, ones that are exercised and actualized in the context of interaction or communication with others. If we move too quickly to the conclusion that that freedom has been successfully transposed into a form of social exchange, we forget that Spinoza identifies the will of God, associated with “true religion,” “with nature itself, [nature] in its totality and its necessity.”4 For Balibar, this apparently speculative problem of understanding how the will of God can be so identified with nature is to be approached less as a metaphysical problem than as a practical one. In what sense, or where, is something called “God” operative in nature and true religion, and how are they then related to one another?

As Balibar points out, the philosophical problem that Spinoza confronts is how to relate human freedom to the order of the world. If both freedom and nature are “ordered” in some way, and related to one another, then that can only be understood by understanding how they both act. If faith shows itself in works, then any theocratic authority that intervenes in acts seeks to negate the freedom or potential expressed or actualized in those acts. If freedom is figured apart from acts and works, and if faith, too, is said to exist apart from deeds, then both are wrenched out of the structure of action that gives them meaning. Even as it is the task of the sovereign to determine the public good, according to Spinoza, the sovereign oversteps its mandate if it interferes at the level of deeds and works thwarts their emergence or curbs their expression. Deeds and works are expressions of what Spinoza calls the “freedom of religious conscience”5—and it is that practical determination of faith that constitutes “true religion.”6 There are checks on the sovereign and checks on the individual, and those limits articulate a sustainable bond. The individual checks her own freedom in transferring her own sovereignty to the external sovereign authority, which means that both sovereign and citizen are bound by practices of self-limitation, even though overstepping and interference happens, or threatens to happen, all the time.

As Balibar elaborates the nascent structure of a democratic theory found in Spinoza’s theological writings, working always between the Tractatus and the Ethics, it becomes clear that consensus, for instance, is derived from faith, and that faith, or potentia, is the practical and social determination of freedom, close, we might speculate, to Marx’s idea of “living labor.” Something is alive in this potentia, enacting and exposing its relation to what is living in nature, to the animate order of nature, an order that is manifest less as principle than as conatus; that actualization of what is living in nature is what links human freedom to the order of the world. It also explains why theocracies that deny or destroy true religion are “essentially sad.”7 If and when true religion is suppressed, the living basis of the polity is destroyed. This is why the effective absorption of religion into theocracy is the death of religion, and precisely not its actualization. The success of theocratic rule, the triumph of potestas over potentia, destroys the very possibility of the determination of an action at once free and social, defining one version of tyranny. Conversely, there is something in religion that subverts theocratic rule. This may or may not be a fully deliberate or conscious strategy. As Balibar, following Spinoza, puts it: “there is a tendency already present within religion itself to pervert its own aims.”8 In other words, there is something in religion that resists its realization as the structure of a state. Its aim is less teleological than practical, and its institutionalization is in some sense its death.

Although I cannot lay out all the links of this argument, an argument that Balibar continues in a piece published in 2012 entitled “Spinoza’s Three Gods and the Modes of Communication,” it is worth noting that Balibar finds that God takes several forms for Spinoza, some of them quite surprising.9 There seems to be recourse to God as anthropomorphic sovereign, but God is also rendered distinctly as Law detached from all anthropomorphism; this happens when God, or the divine, is said to be love, but also nature. These latter renditions lead Balibar to emphasize the ethical and political implications of a practical form of freedom that is always co-determined within and by a social and political world. The point is not only that the conatus, that desire to persist in one’s own being, is enhanced or diminished depending on the dynamic interactions with other living beings, but that a desire to live together, a pulsation that belongs to co-habitation, emerges that forms the basis of consensus, and that this political principle and practice follows from the very exercise or actualization of the desire to persist in one’s own being. One desires to persist in one’s own being, but that can only happen if one is affected by the other, and so without that fundamental susceptibility there can be no persistence.

This is the point that Deleuze partially clarified about Spinoza.10 But the political implications exceed his view. If one’s one being is implicated in the being of others, then persisting in one’s own life implicates one in a transitive situation of supporting and being supported by the persistence of another’s life. My life is never exclusively mine, since life itself is a transitive relation. This persistence in one’s being, which turns out to be constitutively linked with the entire order of social and natural life, is, moreover, not a substrate of action, but action itself, since the desire, understood as a power, a potential, is acted upon and acting. In “Spinoza’s Three Gods and the Modes of Communication,” Balibar redefines Spinoza’s God this way: the absolute meaning of God is “the idea of agire, acting (and agency), and more precisely of acting necessarily.”11 As I understand it, no God stands behind this kind of acting as a metaphysical phantasm; whatever God is, God is operative in that acting. We are not led to ask, then, what grounds the metaphysical justification of God? We ask whether and where and how this notion of God becomes operative. If what is called “God” proves to be an immanent feature of socially determined and free action, and that action is enabled and intensified as part of an exchange, then action emerges within a field in which the living body is acted upon and acting upon others, sometimes sequentially, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes in ways that do not allow us clearly to distinguish between active and passive modalities. This transitive field of acting and acting upon is one way of describing the operative domain of true religion, transitive in the sense that it passes over and incites. It is in fact this potential that is socially generated on the basis of the transitivity of the conatus that constantly contests the idea of God as sovereign law-giver. I think it is fair to say that, for Spinoza, God may give the law in the form of command, but no sovereign may fully intervene upon the conatus and its actualization in action without losing its legitimacy as a sovereign. The command is issued, but whether or not action complies with the demand is not predictable. Such a formulation not only foregrounds the possibility of an embodied and social freedom, but it also exposes the sovereign as less than all-powerful. This last point becomes all the more clear when we learn from Balibar that Spinoza tends to identify God with Law, and specifically with the site of enunciation whereby law is communicated. At that point, the anthropomorphism of God falls away, and in its place emerges the performativity of law-giving. The law is given in a situation in which obedience is not precisely secured. Indeed, if God is the law, God is also, it seems, love, which names the social, dynamic and generative character potential of the conatus. One might say that in relation to law and to love, the operative moment of God is the performative. We find both features in Spinoza’s work, which means that in his work we also find the textual theatre for the mutual contestation of law and love.

Now that dimension of God called love, the Deus sive Amor sive Homo, once again leaves the anthropomorphic conception of the divine in elaborating those affective relations among individuals freed from all ambivalence. This pre-Freudian account of love freed of hate centers on the mutuality of acting and loving, or, perhaps better, the transitive generation of love at the expense of hate. At one point in the text, the idea of God is understood as precisely this middle region, if not that middle voice, where the actor’s love is not altogether distinct from the lover acted upon: the augmentation and intensification of both passions depends upon a way of acting and being acted upon that is not easy to distinguish. On the one hand, it sounds like Merleau-Ponty’s “the intertwining,” that unedited piece at the end of The Visible and the Invisible, but given that this scene of love is now called true religion, it might all be closer to Martin Buber’s “Between Man and Man”—the divinity in and as the relation. What is most timely, however, is the idea that “true religion” is to be found in that affective and loving relation among humans that, in Balibar’s terms, “saves” them from their unhappiness.

In Balibar’s Spinoza, we find as much on the topic of sadness as we do on happiness. Love acts, acts upon others, but love also is realized or actualized through works, which intensifies the potentia among humans, linking their lives to the living and natural process of the conatus in ways that cannot be fully determined by any commanding or exterior law. Indeed, what Balibar calls the “practical rule” to love thy neighbor, the one that of course, struck Freud as so improbable (why would we not be prone to have hostility as our first relation to the neighbor?), has a saving power. The argument follows neither from utility nor from any other measure of instrumentality. As Balibar puts it, to love one’s neighbor performs its own result, generates its own intensity and enhancement, more fully actualizing true religion and even happiness. It also builds the rudiments of civil society that is not yet, or not ever, subject to external law.

There are of course many complex problems here, including the psychoanalytic argument that there is a constitutive ambivalence in all relations of love, and the various political insights into multiplicity and antagonism within political life that we find in democratic theory throughout many centuries. Since I cannot take all that on in this essay, I wish only to return to the critical relation between true religion and theocracy in Spinoza’s text, guided by Balibar’s reading. If theocracy is an attempt to destroy true religion, and true religion moves beyond various anthropomorphic and anthropocentric conceptions of God, this puts Spinoza not surprisingly closer to the Jewish tradition than the orthodoxy of his synagogue would have understood; at the same time, he takes up the Christian doctrine of love. Love may not be the basis of civil society, but it may articulate some of its basic structures. The multiplicity of desires ideally enhances one another within the context in which no repressive law, no command structure, intervenes upon their realization. One can see how Spinoza became the inspiration for anti-Statist politics on the Left.

My final question is whether this important framework elaborated by Balibar in his early and recent work functions in some way in his discussion of secularism and his proposals about how best to adjudicate religious claims within a state that defines itself as secular—or laïc, in the French sense. I will not here go into the various secularism debates—though it is important to note, as Aamir Mufti has shown, that the “secular” in Edward Said is not the same as “secularism” in Asad.12 I take that point. But perhaps we would do well to think about the process of secularization as it is variously formulated by Talal Asad, Saba Mahmood, but also by Carl Schmitt. In the study of religion, there is a debate about whether religion is, or should be treated as, a concept. Or whether it needs to be understood as an embodied way of life, a set of practices or rituals, even a matrix of subject formation and its manner of reproduction. The idea of religion as a concept inserts the problem of religion into philosophical debate, transforms and readies the phenomenon for its place within a philosophical vocabulary. Whatever quarrel there might be between philosophy and religion is swiftly resolved when religion is treated as a concept. The history of its usage and meaning is at once presupposed and obliterated in that moment when it becomes consolidated as a concept. It does not matter which religion, or which practices, at the moment in which we arrive at the generalization that subsumes them all. The point is one that Reinhard Koselleck made about conceptual history, and one that Marx himself made about abstraction, namely, that the sedimented meanings of a term are covered over when it is transformed into a conceptual reality. Nietzsche’s point was somewhat different, arguing in Beyond Good and Evil that concepts are the cumulative effects of dead metaphors. Similarly, secularization names the process by which religious practices are transformed over time into secular concepts—perhaps even deadened and sanitized for secular consumption. And though secularism is mainly figured as the stage or mark of a progressive history that ultimately leaves religion behind, it is itself defined and formed by the religious traditions that produced its basic terminology and structure its operations. One of the great features of Spinoza’s Tractatus is that it shows us those moments of that conversion precisely without covering it over.

So if we turn to Balibar’s consideration of those operations of arbitration and mediation used to negotiate among conflicting religious claims, we have to ask where this power of arbitration and mediation comes from. Is it a secular operation, the distinctive secular operation of mediating among religions claims, and is itself clearly outside, or beyond, the domain of religion? Spinoza refers explicitly to the secularization of many of the religious concepts that he analyzes in the Tractatus; in fact, that process of secularization articulates the possible structure of a democratic theory in that text. The enigmatic hyphen that joins the theological to the political in the title never did quite tell us how to read that relation.

In Balibar’s recent work, including an article entitled “La France aux laïques?” he explicitly criticizes those French cultural positions that take laïcité to be an identity.13 The mandate of laïcité for the state, Balibar reminds us, was to maintain institutional neutrality in relation to its citizens, establishing a rigorous separation between church and state. Laïcité has at least two meanings, one which insists that religion should not represent public power, but another, derived from Locke, and the focus of much of Balibar’s own reflections, which endeavors to preserve the autonomy of civil society and, in particular, the liberties of conscience and freedom of expression. In this light, the emergence of a laïcité identitaire appears as a contradiction in terms. Of course, one can maintain secularism as a set of personal beliefs or even as a self-proclaimed identity, even rally behind secularism as a personal cause, but those beliefs or that identity position belong to an indefinite number of beliefs that are, or should be, protected by laïcité. In other words, how can laïcité name that neutral operation of power that protects one’s personal beliefs and also be a personal belief protected by that very power? On the one hand, if secularism names institutional neutrality, then it provides the possibility of mediating the conflicting views, including conflicting religious views. Secularism would not be one of the various liberties of conscience, including religious liberties, that it mediates. It stands apart as the neutral mediator. Secularism would not be distinguished as one of the cultural formations or identities in relation to which it is charged with maintaining neutrality. When secularism becomes a civil religion, or, what we might call now, an identity position—a form of publicly avowed identity ready to fight with religious identities or, in the case of France, pitted against Islam, then it forfeits the very neutrality for which it stands, and becomes one of the warring positions in need of mediation.

Of course, all this becomes more complex if laïcité preserves the religious foundation of the state in Catholicism precisely by enshrining the Catholic/republican distinction as the defining one for the understanding of laïcité itself. If the state is secular by virtue of not being Catholic, then Catholicism is negatively preserved as the defining religion for the state. Much has been written, especially about the Dreyfus affair, but the general point is that established forms of laïcité distinguish among religions worthy of protection and others figured as the force against which protection is needed.

Spinoza himself avowed the secularization of the religious concepts he considered, by which he did not mean that the religious meanings were negated by the secular ones, but that the tension between true religion and theocracy formulated basic tensions between individual and state powers. For Spinoza, it was clear that the religious meanings continued to inform and shape secular concepts, even as secularism sought to separate itself from religious concepts and practices. Whether secularism reanimates certain religious traditions even as it insists upon its separation is, of course, of the utmost importance to people who hold strong views on all sides of the question. So one question I am left with is whether “true religion” in Spinoza limits theocratic power in the way that secularism is supposed to safeguard the religious neutrality of the state. Is the effort to separate religion from state already happening in the formulation of true religion, and if so, is true religion truly one precursor of what we now call laïcité. Is love not related to mediation, as it surely was for Hegel in his Early Theological Writings? Further, the question of where and how to mediate among conflicting religious claims in civil society appeals precisely to a neutral party or a neutral site for that mediation. What and who is vested with the task of conflict resolution, and for what reason? What is this model of love without any remainder of hate? Is true religion then, precisely as a way of articulating civil society in its multiplicity, precisely the framework for mediating not only between religious claims, but the very conflict between secularists, conceived as identitarian and sectarian, and non-secularists, understood as adhering to any number of religious views, or even as accommodating that multiplicity? If we thought that secularism is the name for institutional neutrality and neutral mediation, we might ask whether it is not the animated result of something like “true religion” in Spinoza’s sense. Is secularism the true religion of civic life, or is the contemporary oscillation between religion and secular positions the new form of conflict within civil religion?


Judith Butler is Maxine Elliot Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Program of Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley. She also holds the Hannah Arendt Chair at the European Graduate School.


Published on May 29, 2018

1. See Étienne Balibar, Spinoza and Politics, trans. Peter Snowdon (London: Verso, 1998); first published as Spinoza et la politique (Paris: Universitaires de France, 1985).

2. Spinoza writes, “I assert that in a state of nature everyone is bound to live by the revealed law from the same motive as he is bound to live according to the dictates of his sound reason, namely, that to do so is to his greater advantage and necessary for his salvation” (Baruch Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise, trans. Samuel Shirley [New York: Hackett, 2001], p. 182). See also Balibar, Spinoza ad Politics, p. 6.

3. Balibar, Spinoza and Politics, p. 7.

4. Balibar, Spinoza and Politics, p. 12.

5. See Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise, ch. XX.

6. Balibar, Spinoza and Politics, p. 49; Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise, ch. XIV.

7. Balibar, Spinoza and Politics, p. 47.

8. Balibar, Spinoza and Politics, p. 9.

9. Étienne Balibar, “Spinoza’s Three Gods and the Modes of Communication,” European Journal of Philosophy 20:1 (2012), pp. 26–49; this paper was first presented as “Thinking with Spinoza: Politics, Philosophy, and Religion,” at Birkbeck College London, May 7–8, 2009.

10. See Gilles Deleuze, Expressionism in Philosophy, trans. Martin Joughan (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990).

11. Balibar, “Spinoza’s Three Gods and the Modes of Communication,” p. 30.

12. Aamir R. Mufti, “The Missing Homeland of Edward Said,” in Conflicting Humanities, ed. Rosi Braidotti and Paul Gilroy (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), pp. 165-184.

13. Étienne Balibar, “La France aux laïques?,” in Lettre ouverte contre l’instrumentalisation politique de la laïcité, ed. Christine Delroy-Momberger, François Durpaire, and Béatrice Mabilon-Bonils (Avignion: l’Aube, 2017); available in English as “Laïcité or identity?,” Verso Blog, August 31, 2016,