Evangelicals & evangelicalisms, Sex in A Secular Age:

The ruse of “secular humanism”

posted by Michael Warner

Discussions of the secular can often be peculiarly remote.  Whenever secularism is imagined as unbelief, or political neutrality, or an empty social space to be filled up with religious pluralism, it can be difficult to remember how it can also serve as a framework of corporeal experience and struggle.  We are used to associating corporeal discipline and affect with religion, but not with the secular.  So it might be excusable to begin with some personal reflection, not for the sake of autobiography but in order to tether analysis in some awareness of how the problem comes to have stakes.

In the late 1970s, coming out as a gay person was indistinguishable—for me—from the arduous project of developing a secular self-understanding.  Since I wish to understand the relation of sex and secularity, what is important for the purpose of this discussion is just how arduous this development of a secular self-understanding was.  The difficulty of this process is something that people routinely forget about secularism, especially when terms like “secular rationality” come into play.

I had come from that wing of American Protestantism that had only learned in the 1970s to mobilize itself.  After a long history of isolation through fundamentalist self-understanding, the Protestants of my milieu had shifted to a more evangelical political style.   The elements of this style lay deep in American history, but this was the first time that a movement context not only united charismatics such as Pat Robertson with fundamentalists such as Jerry Falwell, but created a pan-Christian alliance—that is, Protestant and Catholic activists working together.  Interestingly enough, all the issues that enabled the creation of this alliance had to do with sexuality in one way or another: the ERA, Roe v. Wade, gay rights, teen pregnancy, the pill, and so on.  These Christians needed sex in order to exist as a movement.  They also needed a narrative, and the main storyline was that they were fighting a hegemonic force.  In the 1970s, they learned to call that force “secular humanism.”

As I was coming out of this evangelical fundamentalist self-understanding toward something that would afford more scope for coming out, I looked around for that secular humanism that I’d heard so much about.  Imagine my surprise and disappointment—despair, nearly—when I discovered that it didn’t exist.

Most of the movements that these religious mobilizers were fighting—that is, the social movements of the ’60s—had not been organized around an idea of secular humanism.  Instead, many of them were anti-humanist.  Many of them didn’t really think about whether they were secularist or not.  Many of them, in fact, had a lot of play for religious activists, including gay liberation, which, as we’re now discovering, had a large role for various church organizations and religiously-minded folk.  So the story of secular humanism was, in large part, a kind of ruse, one that seems to have been developed by Francis Schaeffer and then picked up by others.  But learning that it was a ruse was a key insight for me in choosing to research the history of the secular.

The development of my secularity was more than the intimate pain of sacrificing family membership, of being thought to be a backsliding sinner.   There was also the sense—whenever I looked at the situation with my old eyes—that in going secular, as it were, I was joining the enemy that was “secular humanism,” that great and powerful antagonist that had given such heroic significance, in this world and the next, to the pious struggles of my family and the network of churches that was our world.

Not only that, the transition was difficult because the language of normativity seemed to be only on the side I was leaving.   The conflict between evangelical Christians and secular humanism was imagined—and here the evangelical apologists were greatly abetted by the liberal proceduralism in which American secularists usually justify themselves—as a conflict between norms and license, values and no values, ethical purpose and appetitive dissolution (one finds this same antinomy, upended, in such queer theories of sexuality as Leo Bersani’s influential notion of “shattering”).

What, then, could motivate this transition?  What could carry one through the struggles and conflicts of dissolving one familial and social world in search of another?  And how could that other world be imagined, since it seemed so averse to avowing itself?

There are of course many answers to these questions, but all leave something to be desired as an articulation of that affective/corporeal struggle.  An ethical language of autonomy was something, to be sure, though it didn’t explain much about sexuality, since monkish abstinence can just as easily be autonomy, and (as Bersani reminds us) self-shattering in sexuality isn’t fully in line with norms of autonomy, either.

My situation was admittedly unusual.  Most people, in America or elsewhere, do not encounter religion and secularism as such mutually exclusive worlds as they were for me in the moment of coming out, and even in my own situation I now recognize that the evangelical mobilization from which I emerged was in many ways already a profoundly secular one.  My point here is that the main paradigms for understanding the secular still leave us with little to say about the corporeal, affective, and ethical reeducation through which I, like many others, had to plunge.

Talal Asad, in a very important essay called “What Might an Anthropology of Secularism Look Like?”, calls people to think of the secular not just as a legal or governmental ideology of neutrality or distance, not just as an institutional framework for coordinating private religiosity, but as a culture that has its own practices, its own sensorium, its own hierarchy of faculties, its own habits of being.  It’s not clear to me that one can, in fact, identify something like a secular subject with quite the confidence that he seems to believe (one reason being that modern secular societies, in the sense expounded by Charles Taylor in A Secular Age, include quite religious subjects; one cannot locate the difference between the religious and the secular simply at the level of “the subject”).  But Asad rightly shows that it is important to understand the secular as something having a lot more thickness and inhabitable subjectivities.  What is the lived and embodied dimension of the secular?  In what ways does secular culture exceed the governmental-legal framework?   And how is this bodily secularity related to the thin accounts of “secular rationality,” “Enlightenment rationalism,” or the other trends generally invoked to describe the rise of the secular?

It would be vain to try to associate sexuality as closely with the secular as the anti-secularists would like to believe.  It is not the case—as I was led to believe by all the rhetoric in my family—that there is a real unity between a secular humanist philosophy and the process of secularization that culminated in the sexuality movements of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.  But the sexual body has long been the scene of barely articulate struggles to imagine a post-Christian order—as for example in the seventeenth century appearance of libertinism, which was very often associated with atheism by its detractors; or in the development of what Taylor calls an immanent counter-enlightenment.   These struggles mark both the internal histories of the West and its relation to the rest of the world.  In another post, Elizabeth Povinelli asks us to remember that the very idea of sexuality carves up the space of carnality so as to make the antinomies of Christianity (and the inversions of those antinomies in late Christian culture) seem natural.   Neither secularity nor sexuality quite makes sense without this history.

At present we are again seeing a rise in anti-secular rhetoric in which sexuality is taken to be indicative of the secular order.  But that rhetoric is now globalizing; it is no longer the idiom of American evangelicals alone.  These struggles, and the need to understand them, are likely to deepen.

[See also: Michael Warner’s “Memoirs of a Pentecostal Boyhood.”]

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4 Responses to “The ruse of “secular humanism””

  1. I am in the midst of reading Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism (for the first time, I am sorry to admit) and I was struck by Warner’s assertion that secularity lacks the corporeal. Frye gives us a secular humanism that is right there at the heart of our cultural tradition and that is thoroughly corporeal. He writes, “Religions, in spite of their enlarged perspective, cannot as social institutions contain an art of unlimited hypothesis. The arts in their turn cannot help releasing the powerful acids of satire, realism, ribaldry, and fantasy in their attempt to dissolve all the existential concretions that get in their way.” In significant part because Western culture included the classical non-Christian tradition from early on, it has always had a powerful secular presence. It is only a fundamentalist assumption (though one that has periodically been expressed by Christians over the centuries) that this secular tradition is incompatible with the religious one. I would think that a professor of English would find almost infinite cultural resources for cultivating a secular humanism not necessarily related to Christianity in his very field of study.

  2. I am baffled by the reference to my “assertion that secularity lacks the corporeal.” Professor Bellah is far from the mark here. Indeed, I was essentially saying the opposite. Perhaps I need to quote the second sentence of my post again, with particular reference to the qualifying clauses at the beginning: “Whenever secularism is imagined as unbelief, or political neutrality, or an empty social space to be filled up with religious pluralism, it can be difficult to remember how it can also serve as a framework of corporeal experience and struggle.” It’s also puzzling to see my project characterized as “cultivating a secular humanism.” Again, I thought I was fairly explicit that this was not my term or my goal. I invite readers to check for themselves.

  3. I guess I am found guilty of completely misunderstanding Professor Warner. I don’t want to continue this argument because I am sympathetic with his cause, though confused by his response. I guess my confusion arises from the very title of his piece, “The Ruse of Secular Humanism,” and his declaration later on that he was in despair when he discovered that secular humanism doesn’t exist. My point was that secular humanism is alive and well as it was in Shakespeare’s time and before and after, and it has nothing to do with Dawkins, Hitchens or any of the ignorant despisers of religion.

  4. avatar Ryan Cragun says:

    Dr. Bellah, why the enmity toward Dawkins and Hitchens as “ignorant despisers of religion”? Certainly Dawkins doesn’t approach religion from a social scientific perspective, but few have worked as hard as he has to illustrate that intelligent design and creationism are anti-scientific. He may not have your understanding of religion, but he’s not generally an “ignorant” individual. Likewise, Hitchens is no fan of religion, but with good reason from his perspective; to quote Martin E. Marty, “Religion motivates most killing in the world today.”

    I can understand criticizing their approach or even their more angry rhetoric, but calling them “ignorant” seems inappropriate. This is especially true in light of the hateful speech emanating from the religious. Dawkins and Hitchens would love to see religion disappear, but not through violence. Can the same be said of religious extremists?

    (Oh, and Dr. Warner, I can empathize with your struggle to find yourself in the secular world. The “spiral of silence” surrounding secular humanism in the US is still somewhat surprising. Nice post.)

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