Exploring the Post-Secular

posted by Nathan Schneider

On April 3-4, Yale will be playing host to a conference entitled “Exploring the Post-Secular,” featuring the leading lights of the contemporary discussion about secularism and religion in social theory, including a number of contributors to The Immanent Frame:

When: April 3-4, 2009
Where: Henry R. Luce Hall, 34 Hillhouse Avenue, Yale University

There has been a great deal of talk in recent years suggesting that we have entered a “post-secular” age. Much of this is a response to the resurgence of politicized religion on the world scene. But what, if anything, does the term “post-secular” even mean? Have we really entered into a post-secular age?  And if so, what implications, if any, does this have for the social sciences? Do these developments imply a new approach to the study of religion? A wholesale reconstruction of social science? A shift towards social philosophy?  Is there such a thing as “post-secular social science”?

This conference brings together a number of analysts of religion and its entanglements with the world in an attempt to assess these questions. We will address the possible meanings of religion and of the various terms with roots in the term “secular”: secularism, secularity, secularization. Without some grappling with the question of what religion is, it is very difficult to say what secularity or secularization might entail. We will explore the extent to which the “return of religion” is a product of an actual upsurge of religiosity around the world as opposed to greater scholarly attention to religion. We will also examine the ways in which the global religious situation may compel us to reconsider how we think about both religion and social science.

Click here to download a PDF of the complete schedule.

This event will be co-sponsored by the MacMillan Center Initiative on Religion, Politics, and Society, the Center for Comparative Research at Yale University, the Social Science Research Council, and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

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One Response to “Exploring the Post-Secular

  1. avatar Allie Trionfetti says:

    I would like to use the conference’s inquiry into the “post-secular” as entry into a discussion of my own hesitancy surrounding the essentializing and substantiating effects of the temporal prefixes: pre and post. While the categories such prefixes locate are helpful in their attention to historicity and a broader moment-context, they are problematic at both local and larger, structural levels.

    The local critique of these temporal prefixes is twofold. On the one hand, their presence indicates a stability and universality of the term they are attached to, while on the other, they create rigid (false) boundaries between temporal moments. Thus, Craig Calhoun’s point preceding his account of cosmopolitanism: “Modernity has hardly been an era of simple secularism… The ‘postsecular’ cannot be a reference to moving beyond a historical past so simplistically conceived.” The problem of the embedded “moving beyond” in the post- construction, the invisible end points, starting lines and barricades it constructs, relates to the wider, structural problem of such prefixes.

    This structural critique relates to the cyclic interrelatedness of binary structures that clouds meaning while upholding a seemingly stable framework. Timothy Fitzgerald explains this pattern nicely in his post on the secular: “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.” So just as religious :: secular, pre :: post, future :: past, and spiritual :: scientific have their host of internal problems, they function in a circle of inter-invocation that muddles and yet substantiates these problematic dichotomies.

    None of this, then, is very new. So, in an attempt to work past this preliminary discussion of the vogue prefix-construction “postsecular,” I would like to turn now to our other temporal prefix: pre-. As part of the ongoing exploration of memory and identity taking place in a collegiate seminar I am currently enrolled in, I came across two terms I had never seen, but had little trouble inferring (one of the inherent problems of accessibility of often fuzzy concepts): prelogical and prepolitical. The terms come from Timothy Bogues’ book on black radical political intellectuals: Black Heretics, Black Prophets. In his discussion of the prophetic strain of radical intellectualism, Bogues writes: “What makes the prophet redemptive in this tradition is…a politics of the world upside down, which eschews the standard political forms and language of political modernity. As such, it is outside the pale of political modernity and is mistakenly viewed as ‘prelogical’ or ‘prepolitical’” (19). The problematic politics of the pre- construction here is clear: in an effort to undermine radical thinkers, colonial authority rallied under the Euro-centric cast of “prelogical” or “prepolitical” as synonymous with “pre-civilization” or “of the barbarian.” These constructions act as what Bogues calls “Conradian ‘heart of darkness’ leitmotifs,” (4) that dangerously essentialize time as linearity towards civilization and play into the perpetuation of other problematic dichotomies of East :: West, Settled :: Wilderness, black :: white etc.

    While I think the political implications of the pre- construction as it relates to invalidation and suppression are highly visible because of the sacred sense of civilization and progress in Western culture (civilization being of course something that follows, trumps, betters, annihilates the pre-), we should approach the post- construction with equal hesitance, and not only for the corollary political validation a post- construction might lend.

    So in what respect (beyond those of Calhoun and Fitzgerald) might one have hesitance around the post-secular? If we continue along the politically violent implications of terms like “prelogical,” one might argue a similar, though less direct, fear operating in the popularity of the term post-secular. If the term itself relates to, to quote the post, “ an actual upsurge of religiosity around the world,” could one look at the recent, public reclaiming of religiosity from its secular designation as private and separate as somehow politically motivated? If modernity is often held to be synonymous with globalization and the breakdown of boundaries and intimacies, could the need to establish distance from the secular, relate to the larger need to reaffirm private loyalties and intimacies in a constantly expanding world? To what extent could the language of the post-secular, especially at a time of incredible economic, ecological and military strife, be part of a larger political (and perhaps nationally localized) rhetoric that carries, embedded within it, the sense of a return to more cozy times.

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