Is ethnic nationalism a surrogate religion?

The notion of foreignness relies on a separation of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ and today’s world, it is often ethnicity and nation—two terms that are related but not necessarily coterminous—that create that us-them dichotomy. It is crucial to realize, however, that the ideas of ethnicity and nation are hardly timeless. We tend to cherish our so-called ethnic or national identities as if they are embedded in our DNA, and while there is of course nothing necessarily wrong about doing so, it is also essential to bear in mind that far from being natural, ethnic or national identities are socially constructed—and, what’s more, only socially constructed very recently. In order to understand where we are today in the struggle to abolish foreignness, it is useful to look back into the past to see where it ideas of foreignness came from.

In this connection, it is perhaps helpful to consider the 1988 text “The Ethnic Origins of Nations” by Anthony Smith. In the book, Smith tacitly agrees with other notable nationalism scholars, including Ernest Gellner and Benedict Anderson, in asserting that nationalism is essentially a modern phenomenon: it is only as a result of modern technologies that the concept of a nation could even be conceived. But Smith also complicates this assertion of nationalism’s modernity by pointing out that nations tend to have pre-modern “ethnic cores,” or what he terms ethnie. Accompanying a nation’s ethnic core, according to Smith, are myths and legends about a nation’s past, imaginations of a golden age in the distant path, and the romanticizing of the national landscape, which all function to tie a people together—and, in turn, exclude others.

While a thorough consideration of Smith’s work in all its complexity is beyond the scope of this discussion, it is perhaps interesting to note a remark that Smith makes almost in passing in the eighth chapter of his book. Smith makes this claim: “[N]ostalgia for one’s ethnic past has become more acute and more widespread and persistent in the modern era, with the decline of tradition and salvation religions. In this sense, ethnic nationalism becomes a ‘surrogate’ religion which aims to overcome the sense of futility engendered by the removal of any vision of an existence after death, but linking individuals to persisting communities whose generations form indissoluble links in a chain of memories and identities.” Regardless of whether we agree or not, it is an assertion provocative enough to deserve consideration.

Smith’s characterization of ethnic nationalism as a ‘surrogate religion’ stems from his assessment of the role of “science, utilitarian philosophies and acquisitive materialism” had in “promot[ing] a secular conception of history.” Until modernism and its accompanying secularism, traditional religion has endowed humans a distinct sense of time, both with respect to the span of history, positioning them in a tradition from millennia before, and with respect to their own lives, promising life eternal even after the end of terrestrial or corporeal life. When secularism pushed religious thought aside, the innate human yearning for a sense of timelessness did not simply go away. Rather, society filled the void created by religion’s marginalization with burgeoning notions of ethnic nationalism, the idea that a certain people were entitled to a piece of territory in part because their forefathers had also lived in that same territory. This is what Smith seems to argue.

Of course, as Smith persuasively illustrates, ethnic nationalism’s claim to a timeless nation was to a large extent a fabrication. European nations—not just recent creations like Italy and Germany but also supposedly ancient countries like France and Britain—were created in the last few centuries. Before that, the various peoples living in what is now, say, France, had little conception of being “French.” The idea of a collective “French” past was a modern construction. Of course, ethnicity is something with historical roots, but it was ambiguous and without real boundaries, only coming to be reified in recent centuries.

Is ethnic nationalism, then, just filler for the void left when religion is removed from society? That is for each individual to judge on his or her own. But thinking about ethnic nationalism as not merely a state of mind or a general concept but something as institutional and deeply rooted as a religion has profound implications for how we perceived foreignness. Perhaps nationalism is not so innocuous as one would think; perhaps we are buying into a complex, recently constructed system of thought when we insist on ethnic definitions of nationhood.


  3 comments for “Is ethnic nationalism a surrogate religion?

  1. admin
    August 17, 2014 at 4:02 pm

    Hey Julian,
    That’s true. It would be a boring world if we were all the same. The idea is probably more about celebrating and accepting our differences – we don’t all have to be the same to get along and appreciate each other.

  2. Julian Lee
    August 17, 2014 at 11:17 am

    Humans want foreignness/familiarity. May as well say “Abolish all human desire and make the world totally boring and the same.”

  3. February 3, 2012 at 8:02 am

    I fully ccunor, kak. The only real ‘opponent’ of the government is the society -which is, on my opinion, being self-determined by the media as the society’s guard of truth -.A failing government portrays a failed society (or vice versa, don’t really know). Then again, a failing government cannot secure a better living for a better civil society. Hence, the vicious circle

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