Rethinking secularism:

Landmarks in the critical study of secularism

posted by Matthew Scherer

In September of 2010, Talal Asad, William E. Connolly, Charles Hirschkind, and I met at the annual American Political Science Association conference to discuss two seminal texts in a recently emerging field of study, which could tentatively be called the critical study of secularism. The texts in question were Connolly’s Why I Am Not a Secularist (1999) and Asad’s Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam and Modernity (2003), each now roughly a decade old.

In preparing for this conversation, we did not set the task of doing justice to the scope and subtlety of these texts but aimed instead to use them as a starting point for taking stock of and thinking about the ground that has been covered in the critical study of secularism since their original publication. What follows here are five questions that emerged for me in re-reading Why I Am Not a Secularist and Formations of the Secular. They aim to draw together common themes, underline divergences, and generally open Asad’s and Connolly’s texts again for discussion.

First question: What is secularism?

It sounds naive, but disagreement about the basic significance of “secularism” is a recurrent problem in today’s discussions. There may, however, be important reasons for the muddle that besets critical literatures on “the secular,” “secularity,” “secularism,” and “secularization,” sending them around this question again and again.

Why I Am Not a Secularist and Formations of the Secular, at any rate, remain two of the most striking, ambitious, and important restatements of the problem of secularism. To be sure, they acknowledge and grapple with the persistence of familiar and, in some sense, indispensable answers: That secularism is simply the separation of church and state. That it is, more specifically, a form of separation that makes religion private while making power and reason public. That secularism is an ideology. That it is an institutional formation that governs the conduct of individuals and communities. Yet they also show how such answers are insufficiently accurate, woefully unhistorical, and incomplete in more fundamental ways.

In reframing the question, Formations argues not about secularism per se but about “the secular,” and, in Asad’s words, “it is a major premise of this study that ‘the secular’ is conceptually prior to the political doctrine of ‘secularism,’ that over time a variety of concepts, practices, and sensibilities have come together to form ‘the secular.’” In Formations, the secular is substantial and concrete. It is a possible object of anthropological analysis. It has a discernible grammar, but it is also historically layered, at times contradictory, quite complex, and best approached indirectly. By way of comparison with “the secular,” secularism is relatively easy to locate as a “concept” and a “doctrine” bound together with, or “centrally located within,” a concept of “modernity” that has recently “become hegemonic as a political goal,” however unequally it is attained in practice around the globe. But “the secular” is not reducible to secularism, and it bears upon rudimentary attitudes toward the human body, contributes to specific ways of training, cultivating, and structuring the senses, and grounds operative conceptions of the human. These formations of the secular enter into complex and at times even contradictory relations with the world’s institutional varieties of secularism, but also with its religious traditions.

In turn, Why I Am Not a Secularist argues neither about secularism per se nor about “the secular,” but instead about the “conceits of secularism” harbored within the intellectual, spiritual, and political configurations of today’s secularists. Secularists prefer to connect secularism to the European experience of toleration among diverse forms of Christianity, “because it paints the picture of a self-sufficient public realm fostering freedom and governance without recourse to a specific religious faith.” And the idea of “secularism” emerges from secularists’ self-presentations as partisans of freedom within the bounds of public reason. Perhaps more precisely, wherever secularism comes from, it can be engaged as a particular political ideal, voiced in a certain way, by an identifiable constituency. As a preliminary definition, secularism is an idealized vision of political life that “strains metaphysics out of politics” and “dredges out of public life as much cultural density and depth as possible” in order to secure the authority of public reason and a rational morality, and the legitimacy of both to govern within the territorial boundaries of the nation-state until such a time as they can govern universally.

Formations and Not a Secularist both approach secularism indirectly by sounding out the oblique tendencies, layered sensibilities, and obscured histories that together incline discourses, communities, and individuals toward or away from certain forms of secularism, which in turn appears as an unstable and mutable formation. To draw questions from this: To what extent is secularism itself an essentially contested concept that is constantly open to reconfiguration? In what ways has the operative significance of secularism shifted in the last ten years? To what extent has it become important to contest or defend new aspects of the secular and new turns of secularism in line with these changes?

Second question: How is secularism related to Christianity?

Charles Taylor, in his recent book A Secular Age, makes a subtle argument about the emergence of a secular age that inherits and perfects the Christian, though Hegel seems to have put a similar thesis in bolder form in his Lectures on the Philosophy of History, which conclude with the following formulations: “the last stage in History, our world, our own time,” is one in which “Secular life is the positive and definite embodiment of the Spiritual Kingdom,” such that “what has happened, and is happening every day, is not only not ‘without God,’ but is essentially His Work.” The roughly two hundred years between Hegel and Taylor have seen an almost endless variety of attempts to capture the connections between Christendom and Europe or Euro-America. In more and less sophisticated registers, and in a number of important contexts, secularism’s relation to Christianity, the West, and modernity remain live questions.

If Not a Secularist brilliantly diagnoses modern secularism as a distinctly Kantian arrangement, marked by a particular kind of emphasis on the authority and self-sufficiency of public reason, I would like to suggest that what could be called a “Hegelian secularism” has been gaining ground recently. Where Kantian secularists emphasize the detachment of secular reason from religious tradition, Hegelian secularists emphasize the work done by a specifically Christian religious tradition in preparing secular reason, and thus the continuity between this tradition and modern secularism. Secularist discourses today tend to flicker between Hegelian and Kantian modes, pitching secularism at times as an extension of Christianity and at times as a rebuke to Christianity, though these two modes do not seem to be mutually exclusive.

When Formations of the Secular approaches the intersection of secularism (conceived as a modern pattern of organizing public life) with religion (conceived as part of an older tradition), it draws attention to the ways in which a historically specific concept of “the secular” places religions in a hierarchical order. It brings to light, in other words, how some kinds of religion are determined to be compatible with liberal, democratic modernity, while others are not. To quote, “when it is proposed that religion can play a positive ethical role in modern society, it is not intended that this apply to any religion whatever, but only to those religions that are able and willing to enter the public sphere for the purpose of rational debate with opponents who are to be persuaded rather than coerced.” The question here is not as much, “How is secularism connected to Christianity?” but more, “How does secularism’s connection with modern Christianity shape its interactions with other religious traditions?”

Not a Secularist broaches the same problem in two key ways: in thinking about a specifically Christian form of nationalism particular to American politics, and through its engagement with Immanuel Kant. To quickly follow this second thread, a significant measure of Kantian moral and political thought inherits the concepts and commitments of the Judaic and Christian traditions, as well as their confusions—problems, in particular, with the fundamental conceptions of freedom, responsibility, and will. To quote, “The priority of the will today points to metaphysical continuity between the old regime of Christendom and the secular modus vivendi fashioned out of that regime.” Not a Secularist identifies parts of the Christian tradition that remain active within the dense philosophical, cultural, and political background of modern secularism. Rather than arguing that a generic Christianity—or, slightly more specifically, Protestant Christianity—set the conditions for modern secularity, it seems to suggest that Kantian secularism and, for example, Augustinian Christianity emerge as responses to the human predicament, each with possibilities and limitations, some of which are shared.

To draw this into a question, in revisiting Formations and Not a Secularist today, it seems important to ask: Are Euro-American secular discourses becoming more Hegelian and less Kantian, meaning that they increasingly tie secularism strongly to Christianity and to a story about western civilization, rather than to the exclusion of metaphysics and the purity of reason? If so, what new problems does such a reorientation present?

Third question: When are pain and suffering a part of the secular?

Meditations on pain and suffering are central to the arguments of Not a Secularist and Formations, and both books characterize secularism in relation to pain and suffering almost independently of secularism’s commonplace foil and complement, namely, religion. Not a Secularist and Formations agree that a key motivation for secularism is the perceived need to manage and potentially eliminate pain and suffering. Not a Secularist argues that secularists often blind themselves to certain forms of pain and suffering, and Formations adds that secular liberal democracies harbor profound contradictions with respect to pain, which appear when they inflict unavowable suffering, for example, through torture. These books differ, however, insofar as Formations attributes the imperative to master and eliminate pain to a highly specific formation of the secular, while Not a Secularist frames the response to suffering as part of the human predicament. To quote the latter, “People suffer. We suffer from illness, disease, unemployment, dead-end jobs, bad marriages, the loss of loved ones, social relocation, tyranny, police brutality, street violence, existential anxiety, guilt, envy, resentment, depression, stigmatization, rapid social change, sexual harassment, child abuse, poverty, medical malpractice, alienation, political defeat, toothaches, the loss of self-esteem, identity-panic, torture, and fuzzy categories.”

As this catalog suggests, the management of pain and suffering is an extraordinary focal point that draws together a wide range of tendencies generally taken to characterize the modern condition. For example: The biopolitical problem of governing populations through the management of bodies depends in significant part on producing, measuring, and medicalizing pain. Utilitarian or economic calculuses take pleasure and pain as the basis for public policy. After theodicy, modernity faces a new existential problem of interpreting and justifying life’s painful experiences in the perceived absence of transcendent explanations. More examples are possible.

This leads me to ask: In what sense are the responses to pain (and certain failures to respond to pain) “secular” or “secularist,” rather than, say, modern, liberal, American, capitalist, technological, medical, or simply Kantian? In other words, can something like “the secular” be reliably identified in the absence of a precise relation to “religion,” such as in the case of secular attitudes toward pain? It may be that “the secular” is approximately coextensive with “the modern” as the site and condition of almost everything in the world today, but something seems to be lost in extending the category in this way, in much the same way that something is lost through the inflation and over-extension of once precise categories of analysis, such as “Capitalism” and “Neo-liberalism,” or through the scholarly deployment of the concept of “religion,” which, as Talal Asad’s work has done so much to show, was never as accurate as it should have been. A more general way of putting this is to ask: are there identifiable conceptual and practical limits to the secular?

Fourth question: If it is not secularism, is a deep multidimensional pluralism still secular?

Not a Secularist responds to a contemporary crisis of secularism, but its argument is presented as a “cautious reconfiguration,” rather than a wholesale rejection. It suggests that authoritative images of public reason be downgraded, along with the fiction of a “post-metaphysical” political discourse and the paradigm of secularism as the strict separation of politics from religion. But to what extent is the openness to engagement with others that characterizes critical responsiveness related to “the secular,” and what connections might therefore be made between a possible deep pluralism and a non-Kantian secularism? Formations argues that “what modernity [. . .] bring[s] in is a new kind of subjectivity, one that is appropriate to ethical autonomy and aesthetic self-invention—a concept of ‘the subject’ that has a new grammar.” One can imagine that the new grammar of the subject is in important ways a secular grammar.

To put this more directly, if we’re not secularists, are we still secular? If one declines to participate in Kantian secularism—which would chiefly mean that one resists the inclination to project one’s own conceptions of public reason and morality as the sole authoritative and universally binding possibilities—and if one promotes instead a project of deep multidimensional pluralism and critical responsiveness, to what extent and in what ways does one remain secular, if not a secularist? Leaving Kantian secularists aside for the moment, is pluralism nonetheless connected to “the secular” in the sense given to this term in Formations of the Secular? Is it one distinctive possibility opened by and for the secular? And if secularism is being reconstituted today as a more explicitly and self-consciously Euro-American-Christian formation (in the Hegelian, rather than the Kantian, fashion), can this formation still be pressed toward a deep multi-dimensional pluralism?

My fifth and final question goes like this: Nation, State, Capital, Secularism?

Not a Secularist is in many ways a book about nationalism as much as it is about secularism, and it holds in focus the constant political danger that a single constituency will claim to embody and represent the nation. It argues that secularist discourse is insufficient to hold such constituencies in check, and it suggests that an ethos of multi-dimensional pluralism and egalitarianism might fare better against the dangers of nationalism. Formations analyzes similar dynamics in the context of recent European politics. Citing Jean Le Pen rather than Bill Bennett, its analysis of “Muslims as a ‘religious minority’ in Europe” discloses the ways in which European political discourses project universalism (through human rights for example) while they more quietly populate the universal with particular types of people (frenchmen, for example). In line with Bill Connolly’s longstanding project of re-articulating political pluralism, both books focus on the possibility of fostering a democratic ethos that is not premised  on a homogenous nation, nor dependent on securing the state as the key site of citizens’ allegiance, nor committed to a renewed secularization of the world. And while both texts remain guarded about the likelihood of establishing such an ethos, they strongly argue for its political necessity.

One of the points at which they differ is in their assessment of the power and durability of modern secularism. In short, Formations attributes enormous power to secularism, while Not a Secularist suggests that it is faltering. To return to my first question, part of this variance may be definitional, but part of it is related to the different connections traced between secularism, nationalism, capitalism, and the state. Both texts do extraordinary work in mapping these connections; rather than rehearsing their arguments, however, I’d like to conclude with the following questions: What are the most salient connections between secularism, global capital, nationalism and the state today? Is it any more or less possible now to articulate the relations between secularism and these other key world shaping forces than it was when these books were written? Is it important to trace them differently today? In order to contest the forms of violence and injustice particular to modern secularism, is it necessary to place secularism in connection with these other formations? How are we to think about the challenges and possibilities of doing so?

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