Rethinking secularism:

Religion is not a standalone category

posted by Timothy Fitzgerald

The invention of “religions” in the modern discursive form is also the invention of the secular state and the modern idea of “science” as essentially different from “religion.” In any given context of modernity we are always dealing with “religion” in various binary oppositions, which are all dependent on the bottom-line distinction between religion and whatever is assumed to be non-religion, now referred to rhetorically as the secular. In discussions about religion, its separation from, and thus relation to, other discursive non-religious domains such as science, politics or economics is usually only acknowledged tacitly and in passing, if at all, conveying (say) an untroubled and unquestioned sense that religion and politics or religion and science or religion and economics are essentially distinct, and thus in danger of getting confused.

Tomoko Masuzawa is always an interesting writer and I would like to register my agreement with her when she says elsewhere on this website:

My suggestion… is that we seriously consider the possibility that the story of secularization, on the one hand, and the discursive apparatus that has hitherto sustained our notion of religion, on the other, might be two essential body-parts of a single beast; and that this may be why we cannot tweak, upgrade, or discard the notion of “the secular” without questioning the other part.

This argument has been made by others (for example, Talal Asad) and also myself in several articles, published debates (some of them related to Japan) and three recent books. I discussed the mutually parasitic relationship between “religion” and other categories such as the secular state, “politics,” “society” and other secular discursive domains in a book called The Ideology of Religious Studies, where I argued that:

…the category religion is at the heart of modern western capitalist ideology and [...] it mystifies by playing a crucial role in the construction of the secular, which to us represents the self-evidently true realm of scientific factuality, rationality and naturalness.

It was the theme of a conference I organized at the University of Stirling in 2003 called “Religion and the Secular: Historical and Colonial Contexts.” From this conference came a book of essays by 12 different authors. In 2007 I also published another monograph developing this view in considerable historical detail, entitled Discourse on Civility and Barbarity. What I believe Masuzawa’s insight entails, methodologically, is that discourses on “religion,” which operate on the assumption that it is a stand-alone category with its own distinctive referent, are at base conceptually flawed (hence the central problem with her in other respects fascinating book, The Invention of World Religions).

My argument is that “religion” is not a stand-alone category with its own distinctive referent but is unintelligible without simultaneous cognizance of those practices which in any strategic context get put in the category “non-religion,” which is the bottom-line meaning of “secular” in modern rhetoric. This binary opposition of religion::non-religion is a modern invention, and in stark contrast to the much older Anglophone binary between Religion as Christian Truth and all those irrational pagan practices which are at best mere parodies of true religion. This latter, older discourse is no longer dominant, yet it continues, and all constructions and readings of “religion” are consequently ambiguous to say the least. The modern so-called “scientific” concept of generic religion is actually a transformation of a much older, Christian, ironic usage referring to pagan superstitions as parodies of True Religion.

The line between the two terms of the modern rhetorical construct [religion - secular] is porous so neither term has any self-evident meaning, though the derivations of the term “religion” in Christian history, and especially Protestant Christian history, opens a gate for a stream of Christian-derived ideas which have been projected as generalizable attributes. This may explain why Europhone people all seem to know, or rather assume they know, instinctively what the meaning of religion is. Masuzawa’s sub-title picks this feature up well: “…How European Universalism was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism.” The assumptions about the universality of “religion” have been preserved in the plural language of “religions.” However, this ideological transformation of the universal and singular (Religion means Christian Truth as opposed to pagan barbarity) into the multiple species “religions” of a single genus “religion” is also a transformation in what it means to be Christian. Whereas the singularity and universality of Christianity encompassed the church-state and authorized its own science and its own “political” practices, today to be Christian is to practice a personal and essentially private right licensed by the non-religious nation state.

In actual cases it is an opposition which is asserted energetically, as when for example the Archbishop of Canterbury is scolded by the media for making statements which are too “political.” Or when a Mullah is described as being really a political leader using religion to forward his political agenda, as though “religion” and “politics” can stand in for one another only under camouflage. The religion-secular binary usually takes specific forms of separation and mutually-displacing opposition, such as religion versus politics, or religion as distinct from the state, or religion as opposed to science, or religious education against secular education/law etc. As I have shown in considerable detail in my own work, none of these terms has any essential meaning, they are constantly subverted in a range of practices in all societies where the distinction is part of the dominant ideology, and yet the boundaries between them, and the contested places where they ought or ought not to be distinguished, are defended passionately.

These rhetorically-constructed distinctions between the religious and what falls outside religion (which logically must be non-religion, or domains and practices which are deemed to be non-religious) are supported by other problematic binaries such as natural and supernatural, inner and outer, spiritual and material, soul and body, private and public, metaphysical and empirical, faith and knowledge, and arguably female and male. All of these binaries, taken on their own, one by one, are inherently problematic, but they operate in circular fashion to keep the semantic chain rolling. Each binary displaces the other in a continual displacement of meaning.

The dominant use of terms like religion and secular have changed radically since the 17th century in line with other profound shifts in our constructions of the world; yet they are taken not only in religious studies but throughout the academy and in popular discourse as eternal verities, as though the claimed essential distinction between religious practices such as tea ceremony or sung evensong and non-religious practices such as giving a dinner party or performing an opera is part of the natural order.

Why is it so important to impose this ideological division universally? And in what sense has it been taken universally, either in the UK or in Japan?

I would like therefore to take issue with Morris Augustine, who responded to Tomoko Masuzawa earlier. I respect his knowledge of Japan and note he has lived there for 35 years. My own stay in Japan was only 13 years, though I return every year. But the problem lies in knowing what is meant in both English and Japanese by the key terms used. When Japanese people tell Morris Augustine that they are very happy with the separation of religion and the state, is everybody clear what is being separated from what? I have had disagreements with learned colleagues about the problem of describing and analyzing “religion” uncritically in the Japanese context, and one of these debates is available on the internet (However, I may have been over-generous regarding the theoretical sensitivity of anthropologists in this arena, for anthropology is also a contributory agency for recycling “religion” discourse. I also find problems with the attribution of “religion” to the UK, so I deny that this is an orientalist projection.).

For one thing it should be noted that the Japanese male literate elite were aware in the 1860s or 70s that they were deemed a semi-barbarous nation (rather than outright savage, based on the classification of societies or nations used widely in the 19th century by anthropologists such as E.B. Tylor, lawyers, missionaries and generally), and that if they wanted to achieve the degree of civility of the advanced countries such as the US, Britain or France one of their tasks was to adopt a written constitution which separates religion as a private and voluntary right from the secular state as the hallmark of a modern Nation. This gave rise to a debate among the Japanese elite about which word should be used for “religion,” since it was not self-evident what religion meant to the Japanese in their own terms. This was not because there was anything lacking in the Japanese language or way of life, which was undoubtedly every bit as sophisticated and rich as that of Euro-America. It was just that Japan was different, just as most colonized polities, or those threatened with colonization, were different in significant respects from each other and from Europe.

Anybody who has lived and worked in Japan, as Morris has, will agree that many things today which have been adopted by Japanese institutions as a result of what many Japanese people describe as outside pressure (gaiatsu) have been transformed and operate in significantly different ways in Japan, including capitalism, democracy and the exercise of power. For most Japanese people at the time of the opening of Japan in the Edo and Meiji periods “religion” meant Christianity, and that was foreign to Japan. It smelled foreign (stink = kusai) like butter. At first it seems that in the Meiji Constitution of 1889 and the Imperial Rescript on Education (1890) the newly invented state Shinto was classified as national morality and in structural terms took the equivalent place where the “secular nation state” stood, in the sense that, whereas “religions” were now to be identified and classified as private voluntary organizations, national morality and complete obedience to the Emperor was a public duty. This ideology was called Kokka Shinto, or State Shinto. In short, the Japanese had to invent “religions” and also what they understood in Japanese translation by a modern secular nation state, Kokka Shinto, simultaneously.

Of course the imported terms of the religion-secular distinction, and, crucially, their translation into Japanese language, have become institutionalized in Japan, not only in the US written Constitution of 1946 but also in government policy, academia and the media. On the other hand, there are many aspects of Japanese life, many significant everyday practices, which look like ritual, which is one of the strongest contenders for a definition of religion. What I think this aspect of everyday life shows us is that human practices do not fall easily into two great baskets, the religious and the secular, the religious and the non-religious.

Yet the same is true of modern Britain. Whether we are talking about Japan, Britain or any other nation, does it for example make sense to ask if nationalism, patriotism, and the rituals of the national flag, are religious or secular? Is the Nation State (which nobody has ever seen) not a transcendental entity which receives regular ritual veneration from all branches of the establishment, live sacrifices in our war heroes, and arguably a form of worship by the whole nation at the Cenotaph in Whitehall in London? Is there an essential difference, as in the difference between a religious act and a non-religious act, between dying for one’s country and dying for one’s God? It would be perfectly normal and meaningful English to say that “the opera singer is devoted to her art and worships Mozart,” nor would it be unnatural to add “she religiously practices the scales everyday.” Why should such perfectly current English be seen as merely metaphorical speech? On what grounds? What is it a metaphor for? In the case of Japan, the “religions” called Shinto or Confucianism are (I would suggest) modern reifications which are more intelligible as deeply embedded elements in everyday Japanese practice, cultivated in the schools, universities, and corporations, practices which constitute a profound conception of human relations, deeply affect pedagogy and domestic life, and reproduced in all institutions, a rich plethora of ways of behaving and expressing values that cuts across the religion-secular dichotomy and show us that we do not need this category except as a problem that needs analyzing. When I asked my Japanese students, as I often did in both English and Japanese, if they were interested in religion, a typical reply was that they did not have any real relation to religion, which seemed associated with Christianity for them. What about visiting the shrine (jinja) or the temple (o-tera), or participating in a festival (o-matsuri), all of which form part of the construction of the “religious world of the Japanese” in many text books? Typically the answer would be that that isn’t religion, that’s Japanese traditional custom. What constitutes religious behaviour as distinct from secular custom and tradition seems arbitrary and not self-evident.

When is etiquette closer to secular or religious practice? Or is this distinction completely useless for understanding etiquette, since arguably it is both and therefore neither? Is the tea ceremony a religious ritual (as was argued in an anthropological journal, the JRAI) or a non-religious ritual? One point I would like to make here is that different Japanese people in different contexts (like all different humans in all different contexts) will say different things, depending on their education, relative degree of seniority, language being used, and what they think you want them to hear. To say, as Morris Augustine does, that “the Japanese people love their Constitution, including its separation of the government from religion and its guarantee of freedom from religion” is not untrue but is a big generalization and begs many questions about what is being asserted and loved, and what is being separated from what. Many Japanese, like many British and US citizens, would probably be prepared to die for their ancestors and their nation. Is patriotism a religious or a non-religious emotion? Is the wonderful attention to detail in the giving and receiving of gifts in Japan a religious ritual or a secular, economic exchange? One could extend the examples in many directions, for Japan, UK, USA, India and many other collective representations, including, for example, the elaborate rituals performed within the “secular” Houses of Parliament in London, or the extended rituals surrounding the election of a new President of the USA.

What I have tried to do here is suggest the inherently parasitic relationship between whatever is deemed to be called religion and what is deemed to stand outside religion, and which is imagined to come into some kind of external, contingent relation with religion. As Masuzawa rightly suggests, both parts of this “single beast” need to be handled at the same time, so that its complete shape comes into view. Only then can we understand the power of “religion” as a rhetorical construction to mystify us, and its ideological structure and uses.

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2 Responses to “Religion is not a standalone category”

  1. Thank you for your thoughtful comments on my own comments on Tomoko Masuzawa’s notions of “religion” and the secular in Japan. The fact is that I largely agree with what Timothy says, and his description of what his Japanese students said about not being religious correspond rather closely with my own students’ responses to the same question. I think our differences stem from rather starkly different notions of the academic (not the typical Japanese student or professor’s) definition of what what religion actually is. I see religion as being more or less what anthropologists like Clifford Geertz or sociologists like Robert N. Bellah see it to be. Of course religion and the secular and the scientific merge together in every culture. But the above authorities make a very clear distinction between a cultural system of religion (an element that by definition reaches beyond the natural and the rational and is by definition a TRANSCENDENT element which depends on religious faith as its ground. In this sense religion is but one of many separate cultural systems; others are the political, the financial, the literary, the military and many others. Some of these are by their very nature based on a system of symbols—such as poetry, painting and religion.

    Of course, all of these elements blend together in every culture, so that whether an oath or putting up a Buddhist or Shinto altar to honor one’s ancestors is religious or simply a family or Japanese custom must depend on what the person who does such things thinks he or she is doing. But there is no question in Geertz or Bellah’s or my own mind that they are religious acts because they aim at the transcendent belief or lack of belief that the spirits of one’s ancestors really do still exist in a transcendent dimension. It is not surprising to me that Japanese students and/or professors never really think about what they are doing when they (almost everyone in one way or another) give some sort of honor to the spirits of their deceased grandfathers. The Japanese word for “religion,” “shukyo” may be and usually is considered to refer to religious systems other than their own; this is a typical example of the “nihonjinron” or conscious or unconscious feeling that their own race and culture is in a class by itself and cannot simply be compared to others. So their transcendent beliefs may not be called “religious,” but in fact they are. In spite of their protests to the contrary I find Japanese people to be very religious people. I have never found a Japanese who does not think that their deceased immediate relatives do not transcendentally continue to exist—and that is only one example of their religiosity.

    Contemporary religiosity is different all over the world and is changing rapidly, as Charles Taylor in his Templeton Prize and Kyoto Prize winning book A Secular Age demonstrates in great detail. We know our cosmos and all of our natural reality in a vastly different manner that people in the time of Christ of Mohamed saw it. We know about galaxies and sub-atomic mysteries that explain things like lightning, thunder, death, and fecundity in vastly different ways. That simply means that our religious faith has to keep pace with our natural knowledge. It does not mean that either Japanese or others do not still belief in a transcendent Ultimate Ground or Principle that is worthy of our profound reverence.

  2. avatar Avery Morrow says:

    The word “transcendent” is not a sufficient apology for the study of religion as a category. In fact, if you think about it a little you’ll realize that transcendence is theologically defined. What you consider transcendent is based on your personal beliefs, not on an objective standard.

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