restricted access Preface
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P r e f a c e In a world disturbed by conflicts that sometimes pit religions against states, it is not easy to define the respective weights one ought to assign to one or the other in public decisions or private choices. The major religions have a tendency to claim an absolute position, regarded as conferring upon them an influence over social and political life that borders on exclusive. There are cases in which religious authorities exercise public power directly, and others in which they reserve the right to control the state, even to challenge the foundations of its sovereignty from within. This raises a number of questions. Should a religion necessarily penetrate all levels of society and the state, as is envisaged by the monotheist religions? Is it legitimate that its doctrines and obligations be imposed on all individuals? These are problems for all faiths, albeit not always in the same terms. Can one compare the situation that obtains in Christian countries with those known to peoples who adhere to Islam? And what of those regions that do not know the revealed monotheisms, such as China and India? How do they manage diverse religions? How do they treat minorities? These are central issues in contemporary politics, and not only in states struggling with religious antagonism and absolutism. Is the situation in our democracies totally clear? In some of them, religions are in principle separate from the state, public actions and individual conscience being alike freed from any religious obligation. In others, by contrast, there exist concordats. And what should one say about the special relationships that American democracy maintains with a number of its principal religions? Confronted with the multiplicity and complexity of situations, is secularity (so often praised!) the most appropriate solution and the best guarantee of freedom of conscience? Is there not a risk that this will be seen as interfering in the life of individuals in an intolerable manner and likely to provoke dissent xx Preface from certain sectors of society? Moreover, is otherness in religious matters an obstacle to civil peace, as it is understood in liberal democracies? Is diversity by its very nature going to create obstacles to good relations within the citizen body of any given nation? Finally, are secular democratic societies truly devoid of religious influences? Answers to these questions necessarily vary in the very different contexts of the many states and regions of the world. Hence the need to take a step back in order to reflect on, among other problems, the questions now being posed regarding the principle of secularism that constitutes, in its diverse forms, one of the foundations of our democracies. Undoubtedly, the study of texts and inscriptions in Latin does not provide the ancient historian with any particular legitimacy to intervene in this most contemporary debate. But when he or she takes the trouble to step outside this specialization in order to question the methodological principles that guide research, it may in consequence be possible for such a person to enrich that debate. For the past half-­ century, in fact, numerous scholars have toiled to bring to light and to explore the otherness that characterizes the religious conduct and behaviors of our ancestors. In ancient Rome, at least up until the fourth and fifth centuries ce, when Christianity became the sole religion, religious practice was conceived as a form of social conduct, without any claim to dominate the conscience. As Fontenelle said, “Do as the others do, and believe what you want.”1 In contrast to Fontenelle’s dismissive tone, and indeed, to that of many modern historians, ritualism without dogma is neither as ridiculous nor as decadent as is often claimed.2 That said, the progressive bringing to light of its specific qualities could not have occurred absent the operation of a principle of secularism: every researcher endeavoring to overcome his or her own convictions and personal practices, in order to confront behaviors and beliefs that are definitively other. It is this very approach, together with the results that it has produced, that is today being contested, even denied, by certain recent approaches that struggle to accept the results of this well-­ known principle of secularism, which is to say, of religiously disinterested research. In fact, this overall debate encompasses a wider range of questions than that provoked by the image one might provide of civic religion, the religion of the citizens that the ancients called “public religion” (sacra publica). Rather, it concerns more generally...