Rethinking Secularism – Introduction

Challenging the Bifurcation

In the Introduction to their Rethinking Secularism (2011), Craig Calhoun, Mark Juergensmeyer, and Jonathan Van Antwerpen begin by announcing that not only a host of political activism but a rising tide of scholarship has emerged challenging established understandings of how the terms “secularism” and “religion” function in public life. “Reigning theories of secularization have seen mounting critical attention…[l]ong the product of a relatively unexamined set of assumptions within the social sciences, dominant ‘modes of secularism’ have…recently come under intensified scrutiny.” The editors and writers of this volume seeks to take stock of this new tide of scholarship.

The issues of religion and secularism, they write, are “rooted in a mythic understanding” of the Peace of Westphalia (1648), as the supposed separation of sovereign nation-states from religious traditions. Despite its mythical nature, this myth was powerful, and thus thrived, leaving “religion” as something to be “rediscovered” more recently. They concur with Robert Keohane that “the attacks of September 11 reveal that all mainstream theories of world politics are relentlessly secular with respect to motivation.” These theories ignore, the editors add, “the impact of religion, despite the fact that world-shaking political movements have so often been fueled by religious fervor.” All this hinges on what is often called a “differentiation of social institutions,” which is basically the notion that the state, economy, and civil society are relatively autonomous, and, thus, “separate from the proper domain of religion.”

But the separation of politics from religion is increasingly a challenged bifurcation.  Activists around the world have challenged, for example, the supposed universality of Western secularism. These activists reject the Western distinction between “politics” and “religion,” and that such concepts should not be uncritically exported to other regions. Thus the editors argue that the “very use of the term ‘secular’ signifies that we are buying into a secular/religion distinction that in some ways defines not only the secular sphere itself but also the real of the religious.”

“Secularism,” moreover is only one of a cluster of related terms. Reference to the secular, secularity, secularism, and secularization can mean different things in confusing ways. These terms operate “in different conceptual frameworks with distinct histories.”

Much social conflict arises from the notion that religion and secularism are in opposition. The editors urge readers to “rethink the categorizes that makes such conflicts possible.”

Secularism and Religion

As a matter of fact, the editors tell us that “secularism is defined in tandem with its twin concept, religion, and how we think about one of these paired concepts affect the way we think about the other.” And with the rise of politically active religious movements, not only do we encounter challenges our thinking about the public role of religion, but it also queries our operative notions of secularism.

The reason for this conflict is that most of us are unconsciously affected by a grand narrative involving secularism in the spread of modernization. The editors provide the case of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India, who viewed secularism as one of the “pillars of modernity.” For Nehru, secularism meant at least two different things: “social attitudes that were free of intolerance and ideas undergirding the state’s just laws and egalitarian political processes that were untainted with preferences for one group over another.”

This image of secularism and modernity was founded, fomented, and fostered in the minds of European reformers at the time of the Enlightenment. The eighteenth-century antagonism against religion was, in the final analysis, a profound disdain for the power of the church and its clergy. Additionally, Enlightenment thinkers were reacting against the preceding century’s Wars of Religion and the need to find a new moral basis for social order in the absence of a specifically religious justification.

The editors point out that the Enlightenment association of secularism with modernity required a clearer notion of “religion.” “The term ‘religion’,” they write, “was not one that was frequently used, even by Christians, until the Enlightenment’s deployment of the secular/religious distinction.” In other words, “religion,” as a set of proposition beliefs, was a creation of the Enlightenment. “Religion” makes sense only in juxtaposition to secularism. “It is used to demarcate the ideas, practices, beliefs, and institutions that are related to particular faiths and traditions…at once labeling these as religion and limiting religion’s scope.”

Although today we think of “secular” as something that is contrasted with “religion,” the root of the word merely referred to the affairs of a worldly existence and was used in the Middle Ages specifically to distinguish members of the clergy, who were attached to religious orders, from those who served worldly, local parishes. “The notion of the secular order is not particularly anti-religious, but rather continues a tradition of differentiating church and state that has existed for centuries in Christianity and is replicated in different ways in other traditions.” Thus the disparity between the “secular” and the “religious” is a rather recent invention.

Secularism and Secularization

The idea of secularism, then, does not presume a secularist stance toward politics and public life. This is another thing entirely. That is the idea of secularization, which suggests “a trend, a general tendency toward a world in which religion matters less and various forms of secular reasons and secular institutions matter more.” Thus discussions of secularization typically present modernity as necessarily involving a progressive disappearance of religion and its replacement with secularism. But this is a invented narrative, designed to present religion as an illusory solution to problems that could be met in modernity by the more “realistic” and “efficacious” methods of secular reason. But again, religious practice takes many forms other than advancing propositions which may be true or false. “From marriages to mourning, form solidifying local communities to welcoming newcomers into large and foreboding cities, from administering charities to sanctifying wars, religion involves a range of actions and institutions.”

The Current State of Play

The remainder of the book offers chapters presented by a range of thinkers, from philosophers to political theorists and sociologists. As I finish each chapter, I will post a new entry dedicated to it.

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