Far from being a radically new phenomenon, ‘globalization’ is the latest stage of a process that has unfolded over several centuries, and whose origins can be traced to the Renaissance and the conquest of the New World. Ever since the extermination of America’s indigenous population, that process has been at one with the domination of Western countries over all others. This ascendancy has rested not on any physical or moral superiority of the West, but on the material power afforded by its science and technology—which, like the market economy, are products of Western civilization and still closely bound up with it. Western science was founded on the belief that God had bequeathed the earth to man, that he had organized nature according to immutable laws, and that knowledge of these laws would give man mastery over nature. The material strength of the West thus owes much to Christianity, which has cemented its identity.

We are inclined to think that all this belongs to the past, and that Western societies have freed themselves of religion. The ‘disenchantment of the world’ and ‘secularization’ have become clichés spread by the social sciences, and many in the West see the attachment of other peoples to the religious foundations of their societies as an anachronism, slated for disappearance. But we should recall that the meaning of the word ‘religion’ has been reversed in the process of secularization. Formerly the doctrinal basis of society, religion has become a question of individual liberty; a public matter has become a private one, giving rise to endless confusions about religion. In the Europe of the Middle Ages, religion was not a private affair, and thus in its contemporary sense did not exist.footnote1 Medieval religion founded the juridical position of both Prince and subjects. The fact that Christianity no longer plays any constitutional role in several Western states does not mean that these states lack all dogmatic foundations.footnote2 States, like people, are still moved by undemonstrable certainties—a set of beliefs that is not the expression of a free choice, but is a matter of their very identity. Today, to ask the average Englishman if he believes in the Queen, or a Frenchman in the Republic, would be as pointless as it would have been to ask someone in the Middle Ages the same question of the Pope.

Western man’s latest article of faith is that he no longer believes in anything. This notion is especially widespread in traditionally Catholic countries, which are also those where State and Church are most clearly separated. But even the stoutest unbelievers will quickly admit their confidence in the value of the dollars—no more than scraps of paper—in their wallets. The American currency does, it is true, bear the legend ‘In God We Trust’, and its President, who must swear on the Bible, rarely misses a chance to remind us of the special bond between his country and God.footnote3 But the yen or euro, purged of all religious reference, enjoy the same trust. At the very heart of the instrumental rationality of our time we find dogmatic beliefs, instituted and guaranteed by the Law. The economy, as soon as exchange occurs, becomes a system of credit [from credere: to believe]; and the generalization of free trade rests entirely on juridical fictions, such as the legal person, the corporation, or the circulation of financial claims (‘derivatives’, in their latest version); that is, once again: of beliefs. These dogmatic foundations of the market only become visible when the confidence of economic agents starts to falter.footnote4 But no sooner do doubts about the veracity of a company’s accounts arise than the traditional mechanisms of the oath and heavy fines for perjury—which US law is in the process of extending across world—are called into play, to restore a faith in figures that has temporarily been shaken.footnote5 In the last analysis, no States—not even those which claim to be absolutely secular—can function without the support of a certain number of fundamental beliefs that defy any empirical proof, yet determine their mode of existence and their actions. Just as freedom of speech would not be possible without the invariant rules of grammar, so human beings cannot live freely and in harmony without the dogmatics of the Law.

Certain of these fundamental beliefs have come to form part of the juridical dogmata that sustain the institutional structures of the West. The opening declaration of the Preamble to the French Constitution of 1946, repeated in that of 1958, is a good example: ‘the French people once again proclaims that every human being, irrespective of race, religion or creed, possesses inalienable and sacred rights’. The subject of the declaration, ‘the French people’, plainly overflows the confines of our mortal condition, authorizing it to remind the world of what it already explained in 1789. What it announces is the sacredness of man. The dictum is clearly religious in origin, in the earlier historical sense of the term—an enunciation imposed absolutely on all, rather than subject to the individual judgement of each.

Yet to speak here of beliefs rather than religions has in my view the immense advantage of placing all countries and peoples on an equal footing, since all are motivated by beliefs, even if these are not the same. Of course, to see such a perspective as desirable suggests my own founding beliefs, as a descendant of generations of republican school-teachers, and citizen of a state that has made the principle of equality a keystone of its institutions. But a difficulty immediately arises. How can we even begin to reason in terms of equality when numerous great civilizations have, on the contrary, been based on the idea of a rigorous hierarchy of human beings and societies?footnote6 Or when biological inequality between persons or races was long taken for granted in the West itself, as one of the established verities of post-Darwinian science?footnote7 Or when, in the aftermath of the incident of 9/11, some of our political leaders did not hesitate to pronounce Western values superior to all others?

The problem here is not, of course, particularly new, but it is posed today with particular urgency. Are there beliefs common to all humanity, values that are universally recognized, if not observed, which could form a global institutional framework? Or, on the contrary, are doctrinal systems mutually impenetrable, condemned either to ignore or do battle with each other? Today, this issue is tabled first and foremost by notions of human rights. Are they of universal validity, or is their current cult merely a mask for the worldwide dominion of the West, much as Marxists once saw in the law simply a reflection of the balance of forces in a given society? My purpose here will not be to takes sides in this argument, but to suggest a way in which it might be peaceably resolved.

To that end, the first step is to accept that human rights form a dogma of religious origin, articles of a credo rooted in Western Christianity. That does not disqualify them. For as Auguste Comte noted, ‘dogmatism is the normal state of the human mind, towards which it naturally and continually tends, even when it seems farthest removed from it’.footnote8 A dogma is a resource, perhaps more indispensable to human life than any other. For as soon as human beings can speak, their horizons extend beyond the life of the senses—sheer biological existence—to questions of meaning. Where meaning stops, madness lies in wait. Man can act freely only where his actions make sense to his beliefs. As Tocqueville observed, ‘It is easy to see that no society can prosper without such beliefs, or rather there is none that could survive this way’.footnote9