here & there:

The post-secular: A different account

posted by Vincent P. Pecora

John Boy, in a post on March 15th, titled “What we talk about when we talk about the postsecular,” provides a brisk empirical overview of his key word’s appearance in recent discourse. But it is not at all what I talk about when I talk about the post-secular, and in many ways I think Boy’s account is potentially misleading.

Boy takes his cue from a lecture delivered by Jürgen Habermas in 2001, where Habermas proposes to bridge the gap posited by Ernst Bloch’s notion of non-synchronicity—which is simply an uncritical early version of Johannes Fabian’s “denial of coevalness,” in his Time and the Other—through “democratically enlightened common sense.” However, what this “common sense” means for Habermas—“a translation of religious positions” into (for example) “Kant’s postmetaphysical ethics”—is in no sense post-secular! It is in fact the essence of the secularization thesis itself, in one of its most prominent historical guises, as I have tried to demonstrate at length in Secularization and Cultural Criticism: Religion, Nation, and Modernity.

Over his career, Habermas has had the uncanny ability to say the same thing, in different guises, though in ways that make those who follow him think that he is saying something rather new. In fact, Habermas’s idea of gradually translating (via communicative action) the truths of religion into secular (Kantian) ethics is almost as old as his main philosophical project itself, and it is basic to his version of the secularization thesis. As Habermas writes in Nachmetaphysiches Denken (1988), in phrases that he would repeat numerous times elsewhere, “As long as religious language bears with itself inspiring, indeed, unrelinquishable semantic contents which elude (for the moment?) the expressive power of a philosophical language and still await translation into a discourse that gives reasons for its positions, philosophy, even in its postmetaphysical form, will neither be able to replace nor to repress religion.” Habermas voiced similar sentiments in his earlier critical essay “Walter Benjamin: Consciousness Raising or Rescuing Critique?” (1972), and he has repeated them almost every time since, whenever he has been asked to speak about religion and reason. But, as I said, this is the essence of the secularization thesis in one formulation, and it derives directly from Hegel: secularization as the translation, without residue, of earlier metaphysical truths into post-metaphysical language. It is the core of what Hegel meant by dialectical Aufhebung, which is to say that for Hegel and for many who followed him, especially in European philosophy, it is what we came to understand by secularization. Hans Blumenberg lays it out in more sophisticated terms (as does Jean-Claude Monod), and Habermas develops his own account of the process, but it is, without doubt, one version of what we talk about when we talk about secularization. There is nothing “post-secular” about it. The other primary version of secularization, as seen, for example, in Jonathan Israel’s Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750, assumes that the scientific revolution marked a fundamental rupture with the past that bequeathed to modernity a new, rational, and materialist mode of understanding that owed nothing to prior religious thought. Blumenberg tries to negotiate a bit between these two versions of secularization, though he finally comes to rest with the “fundamental rupture” version. Indeed, most historians tend to switch back and forth between the two versions without warning—Edward Said used to do so at the drop of a hat. But make no mistake: there is nothing “post-secular” here. It is what we have always done, at least since Hegel (on one side), and figures such as Spencer and Huxley (on the other).

To find something that is worthy of the name “post-secular”—though I have my doubts about the utility of the term precisely because of its terrible ambiguities—one would have to reject not only the all-at-once break with the religious past demanded by the materialists (Hitchens, Dawkins, et al.) but also the Hegelian model (still embraced by Habermas) by which the rationally or ethically “unrelinquishable” core of the religious past is gradually translated, in good democratic fashion, into rational discourse that “gives reasons” for its positions. But then, if we rejected both versions of secularization, what would remain? It seems unlikely that the scholarly community would ever accept a wholesale return to belief, as John Milbank proposes. Does the term “post-secular” then have no meaning, as Jonathan Sheehan has suggested?

I propose that the only real philosophical alternative at this point to both the scientific, materialist break with the past and the Hegelian overcoming of it is the one promoted by Heidegger—the refusal of, or the “step back” away from, the entire history of Being in the Platonic-Christian-Enlightenment model of progressive reason. This Heideggerian notion of Verwindung—the distortion that also opens up a space for a new approach to Being—is the very opposite of Hegel’s Aufhebung. But it also, and in ways unintended by Heidegger, may open up new ways for thinking about secularization—that is, secularization less as an inevitable, one-way street to either sudden materialist transformation or slow Hegelian translation (however “non-synchronous” either of these may be geographically), but rather as a process in which “strong religion,” if I can borrow the term, will always and inevitably recur, as a form of resistance to the seemingly inexorable (even mythical) imperatives of rationality (think Frankfurt School); as an escape from certain forms of perverse political expediency (recall Max Weber’s need for a charismatic balance against bureaucracy); and, perhaps most of all, as the imagination’s spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion that we once naively thought could be safely contained by “the aesthetic.” Though on one level I share Habermas’s desire (fond hope?) for a truly thorough-going, democratic, dialogic, and universal post-metaphysical secular ethics and politics, I don’t finally think it is possible to get there from here, or that we would like it much when we did. And that, for me, is what we are really talking about when we talk about the post-secular.

Tags: , , , , ,

Printer-Friendly Version

13 Responses to “The post-secular: A different account”

  1. avatar danny says:

    In terms of religious discourse and the public sphere, plenty of theorists reject the translation motif of Habermas and Rawls, and instead argue for an unmediated conception of discourse whereby one can appeal to their religious convictions without translation (Jeffrey Stout and Nicholas Wolterstorff immediately come to mind). Might one describe this as a post-secular conception of the religious sphere? Furthermore, if someone grants the possibility of the idea of secularized political concepts a la Schmitt, is not the process of translation itself empowering an inherently theological-political form? In this sense Habermas was post-secular all along.

  2. Danny raises good questions, but I think we are just talking about the same phenomenon at different levels of analysis. Of course, people may indeed feel freer to invoke religious sentiments in public or political discourse these days, and this is part of what people mean by a “post-secular” condition. The question many of us are asking is, “what does this mean?” That is, is it simply a blip in the larger secularization story of the West (and the rest)—a sort of “ruse” within that story—that will soon disappear? Is it evidence that secularization, as once theorized, has never existed at all? Or is it the beginning of a wholesale return to religion, as Milbank might support? All of these conclusions have been drawn. My own take is in the post to which Danny is responding. The issue is not the increased interest in religion, though some would even dispute this. The issue is, “why?”—that is, “what does it mean, historically, sociologically, religiously?” Schmitt, on the other hand, is a red herring here: his notion of “political theology” is, in essence, just one more version of the secularization thesis, different from, but related to, the versions of secularization worked out by Loewith, Kantorowicz, et al. Hope this helps.

  3. Maybe it would be fair to say that that which we approximately call secularization describes an attempt at the reinscription of life (an attempt that’s never as successful as Hegel imagines, because what about all the remainders and surpluses!), a process in which Habermas and Blumenberg both play a part—a process also buttressed by a discourse of “science” (see how this is employed by Dawkins, et al.) and by other tactics of those empires that have asserted the primacy and power of their states over local cultures/religions (Anidjar pursues this via Said and others). Weberian specialization is a symptom of this reinscription, though of course things were plenty complex before the rise of the modern nation-state and industrial capitalism, but they just weren’t organized in quite the same way. This is the reinscription part—not sure we’ve got totally new things going on, but some things are new, and more importantly, we’re shifting our taxonomies, ignoring certain remainders and surpluses and incorporating others, and congratulating ourselves for better methods. Then we might say that the desire to declare secularization-as-inevitable was a kind of premature declaration of victory, the waving of a “Mission Accomplished” sign by the self-satisfied academics seated at the hearts of empires. Some of these theorists would argue that the seeds of religion’s demise were planted much earlier, in religion itself (Gauchet, Berger), and others, especially sociologists and political scientists, would seek metrics to support the inevitability of secularization, at the very same time (the 1960s) that development economics was finding ways to measure how much better the West was than the rest, so that the IMF could start pulling poor countries out of poverty (yet China seems to have done OK on its own somehow). I bring all this up because it seems like all these discourses are vitally inter-related, both through concrete historical events and isomorphically, in their structures. The story of secularization is a Western myth that places its own people at the center of a progress narrative by using certain normative definitions of concepts. It seems to me that for a long time, religion was the category used for the detritus of the enlightenment—where we stuck “faith” and “irrationality”—i.e., we stuck it at the periphery as much as we could. But like the war on drugs, the war on terror, and the tacit war on cancer, secularism’s way of marginalizing religion was doomed to futility because despite every step forward, the problem could never be done away with completely. I’m arguing for a kind of surplus that arises from every complex system and master narrative, be it piracy to the British navy, cell-based terrorism to the accelerated financial markets and the states and legal codes that make them possible, cancer to aging cells, or religion to secularism. In the very act of cordoning off the domain of the secular, we delay the inevitable encounter with the religious, since despite its claims, science and rational discourse more generally hardly seem up to the task of naming, counting, and theorizing literally everything. For me, the post-secular could only be an acknowledgment of the failure of these totalizing attempts and an admission that despite the appearance of all this aufhebung, we might actually just be coming up with more and better simulacra of totalization. The latter’s sort of like the Wizard of Oz deciding that he needs to hide behind a thicker curtain instead of just admitting there’s a Wizard who’s making this stuff up. (If only there were a Wizard!) In this sense, the post-secular would also be an admission by the new power-elite that the old narratives are broken and new ones are needed. That we’re in a moment like this seems very much the case since religion hardly seems like a barrier to capitalism/progress. The new power, the new global elite, the new governors of the new global bureaucracy, don’t seem to need the secularization narrative much anymore; it doesn’t do very much work for them outside of providing a term (“fundamentalists”) for people whose natural resources they want to take. It’s no surprise we’re leaving it behind, though slowly. The academy is mostly reactionary on this point, I think. Vincent, I believe I’ve borrowed a lot of my basic thinking on secularization from you, though I’ll gladly take responsibility for my highly speculative additions.

  4. Oh, I think you have grabbed the old bull fairly by the horns, Joseph. I would say “Amen,” even if I’d have to put it in scare quotes. But certainly, that’ll do.

  5. avatar Michael Bennett says:

    Vincent — I want to add a few thoughts to the issues you raise at the end of your last paragraph—the desire/hope for a secular ethics and politics. You are right, getting ‘there’ from where Habermas left it is not very feasible. Nevertheless, I think there are three different routes that are worth exploring. The first involves going back to Habermas with a kind of ‘rational reconstruction’ and the other two take us away from Habermas:

    a. Validity Claims: if we review Habermas’s theory of communicative rationality and take seriously and specifically what he means by the immanent transcendence of the validity claims of truth, justice and authenticity I suggest that we are dealing with reflexive universals of communication that not only comply with the demands of secularism, but can (i) provide the basis for a secular sense of a sacred, and (ii) by this fact, and by their universality, provide a weak level of moral motivation.

    b. Reflexive Mythological Narrative: as you say—we wouldn’t like it when we got to the new order—it would be flat. The first step beyond Habermas is the risky one of re-interpreting the strong motivational power of myths in the ‘as if’ position of people like Vaihinger, Hogget and Hillman. It is a bit like racing with the Devil whereby we use rhetorical devices to create symbolic structures that help motivate us to moral and ethical action whilst simultaneously using our cognitive and emotional reflexivity to hold at bay their spellbinding power. Re-enchantment through the back door.

    c. Psychological Competence: Habermas doesn’t address the question of what kind of people are going to be able to perform successfully in this post-metaphysical universe? We need to develop a notion of which kind of psychological competences and capacities will be required by the participants in this new state of affairs. What self-concept will be successful and, in addition to Habermas’s primarily cognitive approach, what psychological and emotional competences will enable actors to simultaneously reflexively identify with both the immanently transcendent validity claims and the associated narratives that endow them with meaning? I believe that certain types of selfhood can hold this kind of paradox.

  6. Michael, I think your catalogue of the possible alternatives to Habermas is persuasive—these are indeed pretty much what seems to be available at the moment, though we may disagree about what is worth exploring, really.

    Let’s start with B—which I take to be the Nietzsche/Vaihinger path of “as-if” re-mythologization. This seems to me, and perhaps to you too, as a non-starter. Kant would have demolished it in a few sentences. How you draw enduring social “motivation” from something everyone admits is just a fantasy is hard to imagine—you could compare it to Romain Rolland’s response to Bataille: if everyone knows the sacred is a game, the game is up. So, I see no reason to explore B.

    Now to C, which is at heart the problem with so much of Habermas. If all the hard work goes into deciding who gets admitted into the process of communicative action, then we have an insurmountable difficulty. Habermas in fact gives only the barest of criteria for admission to the dialogue, and over and over again, the real obstacle to political negotiation (for example) is obvious: if Israel will not accept Hamas as a negotiating partner (and I am not necessarily saying they should), then poof, there goes communicative action. So, in my view, C is a non-starter as well.

    Ok, so now we come to A. In my view, A is pretty much what we have already. That is, religion is admitted into the conversation to the extent that it meets certain validity claims that are based, not on religion, but on our current understanding of science. And this takes us back to Kant’s “Religion within the Limits of Reason.” Now, even Kant in this text admitted that, while religion is and should be a human or natural impulse above all else, it helps immensely from a socio-political point of view if the religion in question has a “book” or scripture to provide it with authority. So, you can promote A, and the weak motivation it provides, but it would help if you told me what “book” you were going to use. . . .

  7. avatar Michael Bennett says:


    You raise important issues. For the moment let us just address ‘B’—re-mythologisation.

    Not having met Kant I cannot vouch for my next suggestion. I think you are probably right in that Kant might well have demolished the ‘as-if’ approach to re-mythologisation. Poor Kant, so it is said, on his clockwork trips to work and back and no intimate relationships to speak of. Indeed a cognitive giant but hardly a model of reasoning that is emotionally and physically embodied. From my perspective the point about the possibility of re-mythologisation is not that it is primarily cognitive, rather that it is a process of reflexive erotic identification which would need psychological capacities which only become possible with currently available forms of selfhood.

    An approach of re-mythologising already concedes that myths can no longer make truth claims about reality (validity claim of truth). Instead they operate purely on the symbolic level and provide newly created (or a re-interpretation of old) narratives that provide moral motivation with regard to universal principles (validity claim of justice) and ethical motivation about the authentic way to live (validity claim of truthfulness). So a cognitive ‘seeing through’ is only relevant in so far as it protects us (through discourse) from any false or ‘ideological’ reality claims. Such myths are not arguments to be dis/agreed with but stories we can identify with. So the key qualities required by the public are less intellectual than psychological/emotional. Is it possible for people to identify with the moral and ethical content of a myth or story (and be morally motivated by it) whilst having the reflexive capacity to refrain from making reality claims? I think so. Such paradoxes are the stuff of therapeutic processes and outlooks which generate increasing numbers of people with an emotional intelligence that matches their cognitive skills.

  8. Michael,

    Indeed, since B is an interesting proposition, and was once much ballyhooed by certain Nietzschean post-structuralists, we will stick to it here. And leave Kant out. Your major claim is the following: that people can still productively identify along psychological and emotional lines with myths that they know intellectually to be mere myths—to be untrue stories. You also make a secondary claim: that since this is how the psychotherapeutic process works for the individual, it would work equally well for the collective. I could not disagree more, on both counts.

    First, there is no historical evidence that I am aware of that a collective has ever been able to identify for any length of time (more than, say, a day) with a story they knew to be untrue. Let’s take the idea of the nation as an example, and let’s assume that Renan, for all his idealism, was right: that national identity really is a daily plebiscite, not an enduring essence. Even so, it has proven almost impossible to convince the larger body of any nation’s citizens that the “exceptionalism” of their nation is simply a figment of their imaginations. The Poles and Serbs, no matter how beleaguered they have been historically, believe this. Even the Armenians, most of whom now live outside Armenia, believe this, if only in the sense that they have been exceptionally unlucky. And “Newt Inc.” is revving up to remind America during the next election that it too is exceptional. The students who partied in front of the White House have, I would assume, never read Renan. And there they were, on the day Osama bin Laden was killed, with a belief in their national essence that was far greater than their belief in a football team. Durkheim alone puts the lie to this hypothesis. Belief follows the ritual if the ritual is actually working. The ritual without the belief—well, that is, after all, what Nietzsche spent his life condemning.

    About the psychotherapeutic benefits of believing in myths that are known to be false—hogwash. Only the therapist knows—he or she is paid to know this—that the story may be untrue. If the patient does too, than no therapy has occurred. (Later on, of course, the patient may realize it was just a good story, but by then, perhaps, and with luck, he or she is no longer troubled.) We have many examples of national leaders who felt that only they were capable of handling the truth—which was, that the national story was all a lie. Leo Strauss built his political philosophy around this basic idea. Mussolini, who believed that the state created the nation, not vice-versa, was anachronistically Strauss’s greatest student. To me, it is indeed the case that the nation, as Newt Inc. imagines it, is a lie. But I can’t stop thinking about the lie, and therefore am unlikely to vote for Newt. Actually, I doubt many others will either. Most people want collective lies they can believe in.

    So, let’s go to either A or C. B is interesting, but only for a day or so.

  9. avatar Michael Bennett says:


    Forgive me if I do not pick up on all the nuances of your references to US domestic politics—I am a UK resident who can barely understand our own political arena with its depressing interest in royal weddings!

    I’ll have one more go at B—starting with your second issue—psychotherapy. We may just be at cross-purposes and less far apart than you suggest. If we take relationship therapy for instance. At one level the client couple presents with a problem to be solved (communication difficulties, infidelities, etc.) and the therapist will offer practical remedies. At another level the therapist will look for semi- or unconscious processes of transference and projection and so on—processes invisible (neither true nor false) to the client. In my experience there is a limit to the degree that couples can practically change their behaviour and/or gain insight. But there is another path to change. They can re-write the script of their relationship and accommodate each other by tapping into a different or deeper level of meaning. They can re-interpret their history and reframe (rational reconstruction?) their future through the creation of a new narrative for themselves. The purpose of which is not to establish truth or falsity but relates to the rationality linked to authenticity and is an attempt to create a ‘truer,’ more connected relationship through a mutual identification with a frame of meaning. At a basic level they have re-mythologised their lives through identification with a narrative. At another level they might assist themselves in this process by drawing on culturally provided stories or myths which make no claims to truth but are reflexively moral tales connected to authenticity and truthfulness. Neumann’s reworking of Apuleius’s Amor and Psyche would be a case in point.

    I guess that my approach is less directly practical than yours—I am exploring theoretical possibilities. You are correct in observing that there cannot be a direct parallel between a therapeutic process and a large-scale socio-political one. But, returning to Habermas and the postsecular, as you know in recent years he has addressed the lack of moral motivation and has turned to the existential semantic potentials in religion. This is theoretically the same issue. That is, is it possible to translate religious concepts (e.g. redemption, anamnesis, consolation, etc.) into a secular frame of meaning and maintain their motivational value whilst renouncing their transcendental claim to truth? This ability to hold the ‘as if’ is a psychological competence and, for me, is theoretically and practically achievable.

    ‘Most people want collective lies they can believe in.’ Maybe. Certainly the rise in various fundamentalisms lends credence to this assertion. However, the corresponding increase in secularism in the public sphere is a counter-weight to this. The US and UK experiences seem to be quite different here.

    Regarding Durkheim/ritual/belief: In the UK we have humanist celebrants who provide secular ritual ceremonies for births, deaths and marriages. They seem to work just at the level of metaphor without the need for any literal belief in the truth of an external referent.

  10. This is all certainly cogent, and quite valuable, Michael—I think I have a better sense of where our disagreement may lie. I do indeed agree that “re-writing” the script of a relationship, whatever the truth-value of the enterprise, can be at times useful—this is, indeed, a kind of re-mythologizing. And I suppose, to an extent, societies can try to do so too. Perhaps South Africa would be a good example here. But again, I doubt this would really take hold on either the interpersonal or social level without a considerable sense that the new myth was in fact far truer than the old one (wherever the reality of the situation may lie). Couples therapy is notoriously controversial—the odds of producing real change are perhaps even smaller for couples than for an individual. One good crisis, and all the hard work is down the drain. I think this is even more the case for societies. South Africa will not make it through the various crises that are bound to come its way unless there is an underlying sense for the vast majority of its people that ending apartheid and racial oppression was worth the pain of re-writing the national story. Simply “pretending” that this is the case because the old model was not working is clearly not enough, and the pretense would crumble with the first good crisis. I think humanist marriages and burials are, in the end, more like this than we might imagine. I know plenty of people who have not married in the church. But almost inevitably, unless they treat it all as a sort of lark and simply go to Las Vegas, they end up coming up with symbolic practices that are deeply meaningful to the two people involved and that, in many, many ways, they believe to have truth value—a set of extended promises; a reflection on the nature of love; a statement of belief in (and commitment to) the inner worth of one another. This is not at all “as if” stuff, in my view. And “as if” practice is not at all what Habermas means by the “semantic potentials” of earlier religious traditions. Rather, he means, as he often says, the ability of rational discourse to translate—for example, as did Feuerbach—an inherited religious ideal (such as love of God) into discursively supportable reasons for a humanist one (love of one another). Again, this has nothing to do with the “as if” of Vaihinger. It is for Habermas as real as things get, just encoded previously in religious forms demanding sorts of “beliefs” he can no longer support. My claim at the start of all this was that I did not believe such translation could ever be fully accomplished—that is, I did not believe that rational philosophy could ever fully translate all the truth-values that people find in religion into humanist truth values once and for all. And I still don’t—I think the human imagination is too “needy,” if I can put it that way, ever to be fully satisifed with well-composed statements of what is important to it, even if these statements often take the form of great art. I believe that many people, perhaps in a recurrent fashion, will always want more, and that all efforts to finish off such desires (as in the USSR once, or Turkey more recently) will be counterproductive, or worse. None of this has anything to do with re-mythologization, which I really do think is a non-starter. It has to do with the human capacity (or incapacity) to put its deepest desires into adequately convincing and endurable forms. And to me, that is often serious, even at times deadly serious, business indeed. The will to truth is perhaps far stronger than Nietzsche ever imagined.

  11. avatar Michael Bennett says:


    Just back from holiday. Perhaps the rest has addled my mind but we may be in danger of agreeing on some issues! Taking up your example of South Africa. Any cultural change (re-mythologisation, changing the narrative, etc.) cannot operate in isolation from real economic, social and political change—otherwise, as you say, it would collapse under the first crisis. I am no expert on S. Africa but I wonder if the truth and reconciliation process represents a reasonably successful process of changing the moral narrative. I have to disagree with you on relationship therapy. I run a charity providing this service and the evidence is quite clear that, in the main, it works and the enhanced psychological resilience of the clients enables them to endure subsequent crises.

    But here I think is an agreement between us. You indicate that humanist ceremonies (e.g. marriage) are somehow ‘not enough’ and that the people involved come back for deeper symbolic practices. You may recall that my interest is in investigating the possibility of taking Habermas’s concern of the inability of reason to provide sufficient moral motivation and seeing if we can develop this. Re-mythologising was only one aspect of how we might do this (and is directly related to enhancing motivation). But, sticking with this for the moment, I raised the issue of humanist ceremonies because they are an example of how any re-worked narrative (be it individual or social) needs ritualistic and institutional support. I am not aware that humanist ceremonies over here are ‘failing’ as such—but, nevertheless, I do agree with you that they need deepening not just in terms of psychological/emotional identification but also in terms of truth value. This is where I am interested in your notion of ‘pretending’—which, I assume, is a sense of a re-worked narrative or myth that is unsupported in any way. You raise an important point. Let’s put Vaihinger to one side because the sense I use ‘as if’ is different. This comes back to my point (a). The myths that I am interested in are reflexive—the producers and ‘consumers’ of such know that they cannot make truth claims (that would make them ideological) in the sense of ontological claims about reality (but they can make claims to truthfulness/authenticity)—but/and for me, the guardian against such false claims are the rules of communicative rationality or discourse or Habermas’s ideal speech situation. Thus the ‘as if’ status removes or prevents any ultimate truth claims (about the thing-in-itself) but we are not left rudderless because, returning to Habermas’s sense of the immanent transcendence in the validity claims of truth, justice and authenticity, we are dealing with reflexive universals of communication. Any re-mythologisation sits on or within this framework.

    So I agree with you in that I also don’t believe that ‘rational philosophy could ever fully translate all the truth values that people find in religion’. I also agree that this is deeply worrying. I guess I am a little more optimistic (foolish). In one sense we both seem to agree that the fundamental problem is psychological—as you say ‘the human imagination is too “needy”’. Where we differ is I think: (1) I think that people’s psychological make-up is more plastic and that it is theoretically and, in the long term, practically possible for them to create and identify with deep sources of meaning that do not require transcendental guarantees and (2) I think that this can be sufficiently philosophically anchored by the validity claims (etc.) outlined by Habermas.

    My question is—do you see any route forward?

  12. Ah, Michael, now you ask the hard question—“What is to be done?” Actually, I do not think there is much to be done, nor do I think much needs to be done, at least as far as religion is concerned. I believe people have gotten very exercised over this question, but to no avail. And in this respect, I think Talal Asad, for his faults (in my view), may be on to something when he talks about secularism as an exercise of power (religion too, of course, but I think we can all agree that religions have nowhere near the arsenals of secular states at this point). I am inclined toward a more laissez-faire approach to religion. Indeed, I am drawn to Max Weber’s sense that religion as a counterweight to administered capitalism is not finally a bad thing. I certainly dislike the idea—you can find writ large in Terry Eagleton, poor man—that we should find ways of harnessing humanity’s “needy” impulse toward religion for utopian ends. This is a terrible idea, and would be obviously so even if the anti-Semitism of the pre-Reformation Church, and Cromwell’s Taliban-esque reaction to the pre-Reformation Church, did not already prove the point for us. I have been reading J. M. Coetzee’s “Elizabeth Costello,” and though I have not always liked Coetzee, I really do like this one, and it is all about the “needy” human imagination. In a way, he says, this is all we’ve got, and I think he is right. And so, though I agree with you that our “psychological make-up” is indeed plastic, even without transcendental guarantees, I completely disagree that we should do anything “constructive” about that plasticity. Gayatri Spivak, on a panel at which I also spoke, once said that her goal in teaching was “the non-coercive re-structuring of desire.” I disagreed—I no longer thought (even back then, about a decade ago) that I could tell anyone what they should want (non-coercively, of course!). The best I could do was show them the possible consequences of what they wanted, and nothing more. And I think the “secular” academy’s response to religion should be the same: not “this is where (as you say) the ‘deep sources of meaning’ may lie outside transcendental belief,” but rather, “here is where certain beliefs may take you, and is that where you want to go?”

  13. avatar Michael Bennett says:


    Strange. From a not too dissimilar direction to yourself I also have come to the conclusion (which would have been impossible for me 10 years ago) that non-fundamentalist religion can indeed be an ally against the iron cage. The latter in some senses being more of a problem than religion.

    I suspect that we shall have to agree to disagree about the plasticity of our psychological make-up. I probably shade too much to the positive here and your antidote is a sound reminder. But if we consider the issue over generations rather than just a life-span, then our consciousness can (and does) change significantly. Thus, although I like your Cromwell/Taliban association, for me it illustrates a different point—which is that the Taliban represent a 17th century consciousness such that neither the Taliban nor Cromwell would gain any significant traction in 21st-century England because our consciousness has changed dramatically since then.

    I do understand your direction of travel with your concluding comments and can see that it is a thoroughly respectable position. I just think that we haven’t got sufficient time and that non-coercive interventions are necessary.

    I wonder if we have reached a conclusion to this dialogue? If so I have thoroughly enjoyed our conversation and feel that I have learned from it. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Please note: All comments will be approved by an administrator before they appear on this page.