Rethinking secularism:

The mundane against the secular

posted by Simon During

[At an SSRC colloquium this past May, Michael Warner and I brought together a group of scholars in the humanities and social sciences to discuss the first chapter of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, alongside recent articles by Gil Anidjar, Jürgen Habermas, and Saba Mahmood. This weekend, remarks made by Simon During at that colloquium are being posted at The Immanent Frame. Transcripts of remarks by Talal Asad, Akeel Bilgrami, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, Colin Jager, and Jonathan Sheehan are also available. —ed.]

First, I would like to make a simple observation about institutional position. The research university has long been at the heart of European, and thence global, secularism—if we think of secularism as the progressive social/intellectual distantiation from supernaturalisms. The implications of this alignment press on us not least because it means that academic anti‐secularist arguments risk bad faith. And it means that such arguments, even if inspired by non‐European situations, canʹt avoid questions about their relation to European political theory and, in particular, to the tradition of counter‐revolutionary critique of secular progressive modernity whose most recent manifestation has been that transnational new right which, as Jan‐Werner Mueller has shown, draws inspiration from Carl Schmitt. The structural link between European conservative political theology and post‐colonial anti‐secularism makes for strange encounters. For example, it would not be hard to deploy Carl Schmittʹs postwar affirmation of the anti‐liberal, anti‐democratic partisan for a sympathetic account of contemporary jihadism.

At the same time, as we know, the division between the secular and non‐secular is less hard‐ edged than it seems. To offer a well‐trodden example from the U.S. abortion debate: Is ”the right to life” a secular or religious principle? Even ”the right to choose” can be regarded as religiously sanctioned, were we to pursue Harold Laskiʹs supposition that “the affirmation of the right of each human being to fulfill his individuality” constitutes Christianityʹs best contribution to world civilization. Indeed the political cogency of abortion debate sound‐bites depends on their grounds being indeterminable in regard to secularism.

Such strategic ambiguity poses difficulties for Habermas, whose argument, I think, depends on a hard distinction between propositions that are amenable to “secular justifications” in “public political debate” and those that are not. But the abortion debate exposes the appropriateness of secular justification as such to question since secular justification for life, say, can threaten rather than supplement lifeʹs religious sanction. In instances like this, as Charles Taylor has implied, opposing parties meet not on the basis of a Rawlsian overlapping consensus but on joint submission to an established social order, happily or not.

In modern societies, one of the goods offered by this established social order (letʹs call it nation‐state capitalism) is what Iʹll call the secular adiaphora—the world of consumption and entertainment which is equally indifferent to (if not independent from) religion, politics and enlightened knowledge. Mediatized entertainment is of special interest because, for all its indifference to religion and politics, it provides both with so many of their resources and can thus transform them, and not just in the West. Originally, before the Christian era, “secular” meant “of the ages”—profane human lifeʹs sheer duration and rhythms. The contemporary secular adiaphora—a ceaseless stream of celebrities, fictions, fashion and sport—has, for all its non‐secular utilities, structural affinities to that primordial concept. For the secular adiaphora marks the persistence of the simple human capacity to live on, to inhabit continuous mundane repetition. In this case, the Pascalian realm of “distraction” is transubstantiated into a fundamental condition of temporal being. And this sphere binds societies today. Itʹs also where secular distantiations from liberal state secularity can emerge in echoes of the ethos of a secular anti‐secularism given philosophic force by Nietzsche. Or as one could also say: the secular adiaphora is not just where the secular loses its ties to enlightened reason and progress, but where it is absorbed by the mundane.

These remarks rub against Gil Anidjarʹs fascinating paper and in particular his claim, following Ashish Nandy and T.N. Madan, that we should regard Christianity as the agent of European colonialism by recognizing that Christianity has “disenchanted its own world by dividing itself into private and public, politics and economics, indeed, religious and secular.” In making this move, Anidjar asks us to dethrone concepts like modernity and capitalism as master signifiers of European domination. Anidjar comes to his argument in rescuing Edward Said from himself by showing that Said was not the secularist he claimed to be. Itʹs worth recalling that Said himself often thought of his secularism as a commitment to “affiliation” (against ”filiation”) two aspects of which are pertinent here. Said was committed to associational identities and collectivities against nativist ones like race, nationality and inherited religious confession. And he was committed to an analytic method which, in the post‐structuralist mode, seeks to find exchanges, flows, mutations rather than autonomies and antinomies. It may be that Said could not logically commit himself simultaneously to programmatic secularism and to affiliation to the degree that the latter breaks down the hard distinction between the secular and the Christian along the lines that Anidjar proposes. From this perspective, Anidjar seems right to recognize a tension between Saidʹs anti‐Orientalism and his secularism. But affiliation also breaks down the hard distinction between Christianity and other religions so as to prevent us conceiving of the history of imperial modernity as religious warfare in Anidjarʹs spirit, or indeed, in Samuel Huntingtonʹs.

My own inclination would not be to pursue Anidjar along this theoretical track but to invite him to spell out the historical evidence on which his case must ultimately rest, as well as to explore counter‐instances. His argument, after all, is finally more historical than theoretical. So Iʹd invite him to tell us more about both non‐Christian secularities and the reception of Christianity outside the boundaries of the West. (China might be an instructive case: The impact of the Jesuit mission created a stronger and codified Confucianism, a religion of empire to use Chris Bayleyʹs phrase, directed against Western trade and exchange while later Protestant missions sparked the millenarial offshoot of Christian soteriology that led to the bloody Taiping rebellion against both the Qing regime and the British. In both cases, Christianization hardened anti‐imperialist resistance in terms that complicate Anidjarʹs argument).

But let me end these brief remarks by citing an old case of non‐European secularity from the Europe‐Asia trade route. As recorded in Halycut, sometime around 1550 CE in todayʹs Iran, an English trader met a traveler from Gujurat. The man from Gujurat was ʺasked concerning his opinion in religion, what he thought of Godʺ and replied ʺthe three chief religions in the world be of the Christians, Jewes, and Turks, and yet but one of them true: but being in doubt which is the truest of the three, [I] will be of none.ʺ In an ambiguously non‐religious gesture, he chose instead to worship the sun, that natural symbol of a lifeʹs secular duration. Can we parse that worship of eternal return as a moment in a Nietzschean secular anti‐secularism which today may take the form of non‐participation in liberal progressivism, a form of non‐ participation most popularly available through immersion in industrialized, mediatized culture itself? An immersion in that culture which (to draw upon the rich array of Christian attitudes to the world albeit in a profoundly unchristian (and un‐Nietzschean spirit)) at the very least does not preclude charitable contemplation of that culture by intellectuals like me.

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