Rethinking Secularism: José Casanova’s The Secular, Secularizations, Secularisms

José Casanova’s exemplary essay in Rethinking Secularism is one of the best I have read on the subject. Casanova, a professor of Sociology at Georgetown University and a Senior Fellow at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, engages secularism from a critical analytical angle. Because there are multiple and various ways of experiencing the secular, what we need is to differentiate between such experiences, as the “secular,” “secularization,” and “secularism.”

The Secular

There has been a radical—if not paradoxical—reversal in how the term “secular” is understood. The secular as a modern epistemic category is used to construct, codify, grasp, and experience a realm or reality differentiated from the “religious.” That is, the secular has often been assumed to be simply the “other of the religious,” that which is non-religious.  As such it functions as a residual category, something left over from the “religious,” a remainder. But in our modern “secular age,” as Taylor puts it, the secular encompasses the whole of reality, in a sense replacing the “religious” altogether. This naturalization of the non-religious, of unbelief, of the secular, completely reverses the traditional view. The secular is no longer the residual category, it is the category, the norm. Understood as a natural reality, the secular is the true natural social and anthropological condition or substratum that remains when the “religious” is lifted or disappears.

Casanova remarks that this reversal is quite the paradox. “Rather than being the residual category, as was original the case, the secular appears now as a reality, tout court, while the religious is increasingly perceived not only as the residual category, but also as a superstructural and superfluous additive, which both humans and societies can do without.”

But according to Casanova, such a reversal is the uncritical and unreflexive functionalist ideologies of theories of secularization and secularist worldviews. Such ideologies often disregard—and indeed sometimes mask—the particular and the contingent historical process of the secular, projecting instead a universal human development. In the end such ideologies of the secular as a natural and universal substratum “avoid the task of analyzing, studying, and explaining the secular.”

Casanova takes up the task in the remaining pages of his essay. He begins by pointing out that the term “secular” first emerged as a theological category, as a unit of a dyadic pair of religious/secular, as mutually constitutive. In its original theological meaning, to secularize meant to “make worldly,” to convert religious persons or things into secular ones, as when a religious person abandoned the monastic rule to live in the saeculum, “the worldly age,” or when monastic property was secularized following the Protestant Reformation.

From this point of historical origins, Casanova draws our attention to at least two dynamic forms of “secularization.” First, there was an internal Christian secularization, a process which aims to spiritualize the temporal world, bringing the religious life of perfection out of the monasteries and into the secular world, the countryside, the urban, the court. This was the chosen path of those associated with the devotio moderna, with medieval movements of Christian reform, eventually receiving a  radicalized form by Protestant reformers. Second, there was a converse process, that of anticlericalism and laicization, a liberation of all secular spheres from ecclesiastical control. This was the chosen path of the French Revolution and later subsequent liberal revolutions. “Its aim was the explicit purpose of breaking the monastery walls to laicize those religious places, dissolving and emptying their religious content and making religious persons, monks and nuns, civil and laic before forcing them into the world, now conceived as merely as secular place emptied of religious symbols and religious meanings.” Such as path of laicization, argues Casanova, could well serve as the basic metaphor of all subtraction narratives of secular modernity. It is important to note that in both forms the “secular” means the same thing, as the worldly age.

Closer to our own day, Casanova points another, and narrower, way of conceiving the “secular” as that of self-sufficient and exclusive secularity. We mentioned this point in Taylor’s essay, so we will be brief here. The secular in this sense is a self-enclosed reality, where people are simply “irreligious,” closed to any form of transcendence beyond the purely secular immanent frame. Taylor describes this phenomenological experience of the immanent frame as constituting an interlocking constellation of the modern differentiated cosmic, social, and moral orders. That is, all three orders are understood as purely immanent secular orders, devoid of transcendence and thus functioning etsi Deus non daretur, “as if God would not exist.”

This understanding of the secular, however, is deeply problematic. This naturalization of unbelief, or non-religion, as the normal human condition in modern societies corresponds to the assumptions of dominant theories of secularization, which postulate a progressive decline of religious beliefs and practices with increasing modernization, so that the more modern a society happens to be, the more secular, and thus the less religious. But the connection between secularity and modernity becomes questionable, according to Casanova, when we realize that in many modern non-European societies are fully secular yet their populations are also at the same time conspicuously religious (e.g. the United States or South Korea).  Thus this second, and modern, meaning of the term “secular,” as being devoid of religion, the secular does not happen automatically as a result of processes of modernization or even as the result of the social construction of a self-enclosed immanent frame; rather, it needs to be “mediated phenomenological by some other particular historical experience.”

Casanova finds this particular historical experience in the “stadial consciousness” inherited from the Enlightenment narrative, which understands the change in the condition of belief as a process of maturation and growth, as a “coming of age,” and as progressive emancipation. It was the construction of this quasi-natural process of development, this philosophy of history, which has functioned as confirming the superiority of our present modern secular age over other supposedly earlier, and therefore primitive, religious forms of understanding. “To be secular means to be modern, and therefore, by implication, to be religious means to be somehow not yet fully modern.” Thus any remnant of thus “surpassed” condition, to a primitive mode of thinking, becomes an “unthinkable intellectual regression” in our modern times.

The function of the secular as a philosophy of history, and thus as ideology, is to turn secularization into a universal teleological process of human development from belief to unbelief, from primitive irrational or metaphysical religion to modern rational post-metaphysical secular consciousness.

Casanova’s core criticism against this second, modern definition of secular (i.e. as ideology) is that in places where such secularist historical stadial consciousness is absent or less dominant, as in the United States or in most non-Western post-colonial societies, the process of modernization is unlikely to be accompanied by a process of religious decline. Indeed, Casanova persuasively argues that it was this secularist stadial consciousness that was the crucial factor in the widespread secularization that has accompanied the modernization of western European societies. “Europeans tend to experience their own secularization as a natural consequence of their modernization. To be secular is experienced not as an existential choice, but, rather, as a natural outcome of becoming modern.” This consisted, according to both Casanova and Taylor, as stadial accounts or conceptions of history, which emerged first in the Scottish Enlightenment from thinkers such as Adam Smith (1723-1790) and Adam Ferguson (1723-1816). According to these and subsequent thinkers, human society passes through certain stages, e.g. hunter-gatherer, agricultural, commercial. These stages, usually defined ultimately in economic terms, describe an advance. Higher ones represent development, a gain, from which it would be quite irrational to try to retreat once they have come about. But as we have seen in the work of Dan Edelstein and others mentioned in these posts, such a narrative is a modern myth.


While the “secular” may be a central, modern epistemic category, “secularization,” usually refers to actual or alleged empirical-historical patterns of transformation and differentiation of the”religious” and the “secular” institutional spheres from early-modern to contemporary societies. As Casanova explains, although the social sciences view secularization as a general theory, it actually consists of distinct and, ultimately, disparate parts: (1) institutional differentiation, such as state, economy, and science, from the religious; (2) the progressive decline of religious beliefs and practices as a result of modernization; and (3) the privatization of religion as a precondition of modern and democratic politics.

The tendency of social scientists to view all three processes as intrinsically interrelated components of a single general teleological process of secularization and modernization, is, however, deeply problematic. In recent years two of the sub-theses of the theory of secularization, namely, the decline of religion and the privatization of religion, have undergone numerous critiques and revisions. Yet the core of the thesis, the single process of functional differentiation of institutional spheres, remains relatively uncontested.

Why? Answering this question once again leads us to another paradox. As already mentioned, the “secular” first emerged as a particular Western Christian theological category. Yet its modern antonym, the “religious” is itself a Western-European modern secularist category. By recognizing this paradox, we begin to comprehend the critical significance of the colonial encounter in European developments, the concomitant globalization of the category of religion, and the hotly disputed and debated how, where, and by whom the proper boundaries between the religious and the secular ought to be drawn.

Indeed, the very category of secularization becomes deeply problematic once it is placed in this historical context, as Eurocentric. European secularization should be seen, according to Casanova, as provincial, as the exception and not the rule (but even here there is some ambiguity—see my forthcoming Grace Davie post, Europe: The Exception that Proves the Rule?). This historical process was exceptional, and is unlikely to be reproduced anywhere else in the world with a similar sequential arrangement and with the corresponding stadial consciousness. “Without such a stadial consciousness,” writes Casanova, “it is unlikely that the immanent frame of the secular modern order will have similar phenomenological effects on the conditions of belief and unbelief in non-Western societies. Secularization thus requires—indeed, needs—a stadial consciousness, a narrative of progressive stages from the primitive to the modern.


Finally, there is “secularism,” viewed as a worldview and ideology, or more broadly to a whole range of modern secular worldviews and ideologies which may be consciously (or unconsciously) held and explicitly (or implicitly) elaborated into philosophies of history and normative-ideological state projects or cultural programs. But “secularism” may also be viewed, as we have seen, unreflexively or be assumed phenomenologically as a taken-for-granted normal structure of modern reality, as modern doxa or an “unthought.”

Casanova finds it fruitful to draw a distinction between secularism as statecraft doctrine and secularism as ideology. By statecraft Casanova means the principle of separation of church and state, between religious and political authority. Such a principle neither presupposes nor entails any substantive theory of religion. But when the state hold explicitly a particular conception of religion, one enters the realm of ideology.

There are at least, according to Casanova, two basic types of secularist ideologies. The first we have already mentioned, which is grounded in some progressive stadial philosophies of history that regulate religion to a superseded stage. The second is related to the first, in that it presuppose religion as either an irrational force or a non-rational form of discourse that should be banished from the democratic public sphere.

Reformed philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga, William P. Alston, Nicholas Wolterstorff, William J. Wainwright, George I. Mavrodes, and many others have shown the latter to be utterly bankrupted and no longer tenable. For his part, Casanova, being the sociologists and not the philosopher, is more interested in examining the extent to which secularist assumptions permeate the taken-for-granted assumptions and thus the phenomenological experiences of ordinary people. Such secularism “stands for self-sufficient and exclusive secularity, when people are not simply religiously ‘unmusical’ but are actually closed to any form of transcendence beyond the purely secular immanent frame.”

At this point Casanova returns to the crux of his argument, that in places where secularist stadial consciousness is absent, processes of modernization are unlikely to be accompanied by processes of religious decline. It follows that there must exist a normative self-image, a narrative, a belief that being religious is not modern. “To be secular is this sense means to leave religion behind, to emancipate oneself from religion, overcoming the non-rational forms of being, thinking, and feeling associated with religion.” Indeed, it is this assumption that entails both “subtraction” and “stadial” theories of secularity.

It is this essentializing of “religion,” of the “secular,” and even of the “political,” that is the fundamental problem of secularism as ideology. The whole idea of “religion is intolerant,” or “religion is in conflict,” with various modes of modernity is a construct that functions to positively differentiate modern secularists from the “religious other,” either from premodern religious Europeans or from contemporary non-European religious people, particularly Muslims. But such a view, as numerous historians of science have discovered, can hardly be grounded empirically in the collective historical experience of Europeans societies.

Why has this view nevertheless persisted? Casanova perceptively suggests that such a view of religion as the source of violent conflict is actually connected to “retrospective memory.” By viewing religion in the abstract, detaching it from historical reality, secularist ideology places modern secularist problems on the “religious other.” Indeed,

from 1914 to 1989, twentieth-century Europe can be characterized as one of the most violent, bloody, and genocidal centuries in the history of humanity. But none of the horrible massacres—not the senseless slaughter of millions of young Europeans in the trenches of WWI; or the countless millions of victims of Bolshevik and Communist terror through revolution, civil war, collectivization campaigns, the great famine in Ukraine, the repeated cycles of Stalinist terror, and the gulag; or the unfathomable of all, the Nazi Holocaust and the global conflagration of WWII, culminating in the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—can be said to have been caused by religious fanaticism and intolerance. All of them were, rather, products of modern secular ideologies.

Yet contemporary Europeans, and many worldwide “intellectuals,” obviously prefer selectively to forget the more inconvenient recent memories of secular ideological conflict and retrieve instead a fictionalized account of religious wars or conflict with modernity. As Casanova puts it, “one may suspect that the function of such selective historical memory is to safeguard the perception of the progressive achievement of Western secular modernity, offering a self-vindicating justification of secular separation of religion and politics as the condition for modern liberal democratic politics, for global peace, and for the protection of individual privatized religious freedom.”

But nothing could be further from the truth.

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