Rethinking secularism

May 30th, 2014

The specific order of difficulty of religion

posted by

In a recent essay on equality and citizenship in a multi-religious Sudan, Noah Salomon describes a commitment among development experts to equality before the law as a “non-ideological” solution to the problems of post-conflict societies. Salomon disagrees with the consensus, suggesting rather that “law, the institutions which promote it, and our relationship to them enfold deep ideological and political commitments which require a whole host of presumptions about justice and how best to achieve it.” While the rule of law is assumed to govern from a neutral public space that has transcended ideological and political particularities, the hegemony of rule of law discourse should not be taken as a mark of neutrality. It would be a mistake to remove the rule of law from conversations about power, history, difference, and governance.

The same may be said of secularism.

March 7th, 2014

“After the Shipwreck”: Interpreting religion in international relations

posted by

Having been invited to reflect upon the themes of this forum, first raised during the European University Institute (EUI) workshop “Beyond Critique,” I hope the reader will not mind if I begin my essay with a story about shipwrecks.

In a now-famous talk, the Columbia University historian Carol Gluck suggestively argued that history finds itself, temporally and conceptually, “after the shipwreck.” The “shipwreck,” for Gluck, stands as a metaphor for the destruction of the major metanarratives (scientific objectivism, progress, modernity, chronological linearity, historical materialism, the nation) and paradigms (Marxism, Liberalism, Nationalism) that have underpinned much of modern historiography. The deconstruction of such metanarratives is inseparable from the scholarly turn to critical theory, post-structuralism, and post-colonial approaches to the study of history starting in the late 1980s.

March 4th, 2014

Beyond religious nationalism

posted by

When Pope John Paul II visited Poland in 1979, he used his addresses and homilies to speak of faith and the moral renewal of the country, and of human dignity and religious freedom. Millions of Poles responded to his words with hymns and prayers. But aside from carrying crosses, they also waved Polish flags. For them, the pope’s appeals to the dignity of the human person did not resonate in an abstract theological sense, but within concrete historical experience: their opposition to Marxist atheism and Russian control, and their commitment to preserving the Catholic identity of the Polish nation.

February 25th, 2014

Beyond religio-secularism: Toward a political critique

posted by

On July 24, 2013, a “Letter to the Prime Minister of Turkey” was published as an ad in the British newspaper The Times. It was signed by an illustrious group that included showbiz celebrities, such as Sean Penn, Ben Kingsley, and David Lynch; popular academic writers, such as Andrew Mango, known for his Ataturk biography; and notorious secularists, such as the Turkish composer Fazıl Say. The letter was part of the international contestation over the correct interpretation of the Gezi protests, which began in the last days of May 2013. After likening a government-organized rally against the Gezi protests and in support of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to the Nazis’ Nuremberg rally, even calling Erdoğan’s rule “dictatorial”, the letter continues as follows: “[Y]ou described these protesters as tramps, looters and hooligans, even alleging they were foreign-led terrorists. Whereas, in reality, they were nothing but youngsters wanting Turkey to remain a Secular Republic as designed by its founder Kemal Ataturk.” As exemplified in this letter, public reactions in the West tended to emphasize the purportedly secularist motivation behind the protests in opposition to a government whose authoritarianism was supposedly connected to its religious views.

February 18th, 2014

Religion in European migration studies

posted by

In recent years, religion has come back to the research agenda of the European social sciences with full strength. Important authors such as José Casanova, Timothy A. Byrnes, and Peter J. Katzenstein have identified this renewed interest in the topic, both in politics and in academia, as a “return of religion” to European public spheres. One of the chief reasons for the return of religion in the view of these sociologists is the large influx of non-secularized populations to Europe through immigration. In particular, conflicts surrounding Islam and the practices of Muslim immigrants have attracted enormous attention both in the media and in academia.

February 13th, 2014

The theology blind spot

posted by

I have always been puzzled by the fact that Charles Taylor starts his book A Secular Age with a long quote from Bede Griffith in order to describe a religious type of experience. It is the description of a scene experienced by the author as a school-boy: trees are blossoming, birds are singing, the author has the sensation that angels are present and that God is looking down on him. My question is: Why this quote? Why choose an image and a language of sunset, trees and birds in order to describe something for which the different languages of theology have worked out precise and elaborate codifications? I understand, of course, that in the context of the introduction to A Secular Age, Taylor uses this quote in order to make a soft claim to the human openness to experiences of transcendental nature. He uses the rest of the eight-hundred pages of the book to explore why it has become increasingly rare and difficult in our secular age to live these kinds of experiences, let alone to look for them in the context of an organized religious tradition. Most of us, he says, live our lives in an “immanent frame” and religious belief “has become one option among many.”

February 11th, 2014

The secular in non-Western societies

posted by

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the wider Islamist movement of which it is an instance, are in many ways a secular phenomenon. If we define “secularity” not only as the weakening of religious belief, but also as the idea that faith becomes one option among others; and “secularization” as the process of institutional and functional differentiation of modern state structures and the resultant marginalization of religious authority, then the Brotherhood, similarly to other Islamist entities, can be seen as a product of modernity and the “secular age.” This transpires in two ways. First, for the Brotherhood, “Islam” is an identifiable set of beliefs that can be actively implemented and used as guidelines to reform society. Second, the parameters of the political order it proposes are defined by the context of the secular, modern nation-state.

February 5th, 2014

Three approaches to the study of religion

posted by

Is religion a valid category of scholarly inquiry? In this post, I briefly set out three distinct approaches to the study of religion: criticizing religion, upholding religion and disaggregating religion. Although I cannot make the full case here, I sketch a preliminary defense of the third approach, in the context of recent debates in political theory.

By “criticizing religion,” I mean not the critique of the beliefs or practices of self-described religious individuals or groups but rather the critique of the concept of religion as a scholarly category. According to a number of scholars (often influenced by Foucauldian or post-colonial thought), the category of religion is deeply implicated in the history and practice of western statism and imperialism. The only appropriate scholarly stance towards this object is one that is critical and skeptical.

December 20th, 2013

Modernity, enchantment, and Fictionalism

posted by

The stern visage of Max Weber looms over discussions of modernity and enchantment, as does the sunnier countenance of Charles Taylor. Perhaps they should be joined by the open faced, bluntly spoken, and allegedly poker wielding Ludwig Wittgenstein. This choice might seem counter-intuitive. Wittgenstein did not write much about enchantment, and is more often considered a disenchanter who used the tools of philosophy to dispel illusions brought about by linguistic misuse. As he wrote, “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.”

July 1st, 2013

Is absolute secularity conceivable?

posted by

Is absolute secularity conceivable? The question arises from the paradoxical intuition that the secularization thesis is simultaneously both right and muddled. Perhaps the most fundamental problem with the broader secularization thesis (which I take to claim that, over the past half-millennium or so, Western society has undergone a systemic diminution of religious practice) is that it isn’t clear what the non-secular is. After all, it can be extended from those beliefs and practices that avowedly depend on religious revelation to those that affirm some form of transcendentalism, though they may make no room for God as such. But for a long time both radical atheists and Christian apologists have argued that what looks as if it is secular through and through may not, in fact, be secular at all.

June 10th, 2013

Occupy Gezi, beyond the religious-secular cleavage

posted by

Photo by Deniz DemirThe protests in Turkey started on May 27 with a modest resistance movement against the destruction of Istanbul’s Gezi Park and the planned construction, in its place, of a replica of the Ottoman artillery barracks that formerly stood there (which, however, was also to include a shopping mall). The Occupy Gezi movement has since grown exponentially and spread to other Turkish cities, largely in response to police brutality and to the inflammatory speeches of Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The unprecedented scope and duration of the protests—and, even more importantly, the emergent movement’s pluralistic composition and inclusive political style—make it a genuinely new phenomenon in the ninety-year history of the Republic.

June 10th, 2013

An excursion through the partitions of Taksim Square

posted by

TaksimTaksim Meydanı. Partition Square. Although it has taken on potent new resonances in recent days, the name of Istanbul’s throbbing central plaza commemorates a now-forgotten history, the function of the site during the Ottoman period as a point of distribution and “partition” of water lines from the north of the city to other districts. Already long the favored site of demonstrations in Istanbul, Taksim is now the scene of the largest anti-government protests in Turkish Republican history. And the name of the square speaks volumes—what better word than “partition” to describe the increasingly politicized cleavages that have defined Turkish public life over the past decade, finally achieving international reverberation with the current protests?

March 4th, 2013

Confused parchments, infinite socialities

posted by

Ambivalence, avoidance, hedging, delay—these are but some of my responses to Michael Warner’s richly rendered provocation and response to my book Secularism in Antebellum America.

Indeed, was antebellum America secular?

To answer his title question definitively, yes or no, is to commit oneself to a vision of the present in which religion recedes into oblivion, or flowers, or does battle with its secular other. Definitive answers, moreover, serve a politics of normativity for they help determine the ideas, objects, and persons to be jettisoned, not to mention what views of the world become authoritative, which moral feelings count, and which ones become unaccounted for and forgotten.

Warner engages crucial work on secularity even as he considers the dissolution of the entrenched differential of the religious and the secular. Consequently, Warner’s essay is also incitement for a renewed interrogation of the history of the difference between the religious and the secular and how that difference makes a difference in the lives of individuals—no less for historical actors than for the scholars who study them.

October 25th, 2012

Secularization and disenchantment

posted by

Over the past decade, scholarly inquiry into contemporary religion has moved from an understanding of religion as waning in the face of ongoing secularization toward a focus on the mutual constitution and interaction of religious and secular that underpins both the ideology of secularism and modern religiosity. This has produced pathbreaking research into the dynamics of religious transformation and generated deeper insights into the relation between religion and modernity. Importantly, these insights yield a new theoretical standpoint that transcends secularist ideologies according to which religion is bound to disappear—or at least to retreat into the private sphere—yet at the same time makes these ideologies subject to investigation. The fact that public debates about the so-called resurgence of religion often affirm the fault lines between “religious” and “secular” positions testifies to the fruitfulness of this new standpoint.

October 2nd, 2012

Was antebellum America secular?

posted by

The question “Was Antebellum America Secular?” obviously depends on what one means by secular. Because the term is dialectical by nature and immanent to the struggles of the age, we cannot expect it to be a neutral analytic framework; like secularism or religion, it requires constant qualification to be of any analytic use. As Gauri Viswanathan has noted, in many polemical contexts “words like ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ have lost their descriptive value and function instead as signposts to given attitudes.” It is almost impossible to see the question of my title without anticipating that a question of validity will be at stake.

September 18th, 2012

Pussy Riot’s punk prayer

posted by

On February 21, 2012, five members of a Russian punk collective called Pussy Riot entered the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. Singing “Mother of God, Chase Putin Out!,” and clad in brightly colored dresses, leggings, and balaclavas, the women danced, kneeled, and crossed themselves in front of the Cathedral’s high altar. Within less than a minute they were apprehended by security guards and removed from the sanctuary. On March 3rd, the day before the controversial re-election of Vladimir Putin, three members of the band were arrested. They were charged with “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” And in August they were convicted and sentenced to two years in prison.

September 13th, 2012

Gandhian fraternity

posted by

In expounding his misgiving about the humanism I proposed, Uday Mehta seeks—I think with some strain—to find an incompatibility between my ideal of fraternity and what I say in another essay of mine on Mahatma Gandhi in which I point out that, for Gandhi, one overcame relativism by presenting the moral truth (as one sees it, though, to repeat, that goes without saying) to others through exemplary living up to it in one’s actions and not by subsuming it under a universalized principle and generating an imperative. I don’t see any such incompatibility and I think that he only finds it because of the misreading of what I mean by fraternity that I have been trying to expose in this reply.

September 7th, 2012

A different notion of fraternity

posted by

In his interesting and engaging essay, Uday Mehta addresses, with some genuine feeling of qualm, a large, concluding theme in my paper: the specific and non-standard form of humanism that I had proposed and the notion of fraternity on which it is based. But he gets wrong what I mean by both terms, “humanism” and “fraternity,” so I am glad to have this chance to repeat and amplify some points that I feel are important to make clear.

August 28th, 2012

Genealogy and plurality

posted by

Simon During’s essay begins with a taxonomy that is harmlessly at odds with my own classification. He uses the term “secularization” as overarching and he calls what I describe as secularism or (S), “state secularization.” He also describes (S) as a “negative” (as contrasted with Charles Taylor’s “positive”) form of “neutralism” regarding the state’s relation to religions. I am less happy with having (S) described as any form of neutrality. But since his intentions here are no more than verbal, it would be fussy to say why, so I will simply ignore my differences on the matter as mere amicable disputation in the word.

On more substantial issues, his instinct is exactly right (and mine) when he says that Taylor wants a neutralism that is not necessarily secular. I wrote a fair number of words in my essay to try and make that instinct into a sound bit of criticism in political theory. I am sure that I have not persuaded Taylor, but it is gratifying to see that During and I share an understanding of Taylor. If he and I are right, Taylor’s honorable and interesting effort to redefine secularism as his form of “neutralism” fails. Or at any rate—if one takes the view that definitions, being stipulative and conventional, cannot exactly fail—it is not theoretically well motivated. During doesn’t mention his grounds for thinking Taylor to be wrong, but does gesture at broad agreement with the grounds I had presented.

August 20th, 2012

Religion and modern communication

posted by

There has been considerable amount of research on how commodification and the Internet are transforming the religious lives of young people. For young Muslims, Internet use is an important means of building a consensus about, for example, whether the use of henna for cosmetic purposes is com­patible with Muslim tradition or whether dating and premarital intimacies are compatible with the life of a “good Muslim.” Whereas the religious sys­tem of communication in an age of revelation was hierarchical, unitary, and authoritative, the system of communicative acts in a new media environment are typically horizontal rather than vertical, diverse and fragmented rather than unitary, devolved rather than centralized. Furthermore, the authority of any message is constantly negotiable and negotiated. The growth of these diverse centers of interpretation in a global communication system has pro­duced considerable instability in the formal system of religious belief and practice.

August 16th, 2012

Enter the Post-Secular

posted by

It was, then, a stirring sight to see Habermas sit down with Cardinal Ratzinger in 2004 for a philosophical dialogue. It is hard not to miss a breath at the image of both men in conversation, one the arch-defender of reason and rationality, described by Habermasian scholar Thomas McCarthy as the “last great rationalist,” and the other, renowned as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (and subsequently as Pope Benedict XVI), for his steadfast theological defense of Catholic tradition and moral teaching. At the same time, the twinning of the two Germans made for a fitting tableau: through their long careers, both have shown little interest in sociological realities and have remained intellectually aloof from lived experience.

August 15th, 2012

The possibilities of history

posted by

Colin Jager projects the virtues of his own reading of me onto my essay when he describes it as possessed of “care, patience, and generosity.” I feel distinctly ungenerous, therefore, in focusing (as, alas, I must in replying to a relatively large number of commentators) on the very few points where I think he gets me wrong.

If and when there are contexts in which one judges secularism—as understood by my characterization of it in (S)—to be a normative necessity, questions arise, as I have said above, of how best to justify (and implement) it to those who are recalcitrant. I had argued that, if in these contexts, there was real resistance to (S) among sections of a society, the ideal in justification and implementation must be a) to seek internal reasons, reasons that appeal to some of the moral and political commitments of the very people who are resisting (S), in order to persuade them of (S) and bring them around to accepting its implementation; and b) if such reasons could not at a particular point in time be found among their moral and political commitments, then one should take the position that history might inject internal conflict into their thinking and this may, in turn, help to provide the necessary internal reasons to persuade them.

August 14th, 2012

Secularism: Some concepts and distinctions

posted by

I am very grateful to the many commentators on my essay “Secularism: It’s Content and Context” for their instructive and challenging responses and I am glad of this chance, in what follows, to try and make my essay clearer and better. It is a measure of the vibrancy of The Immanent Frame that it fetches such a high quality (not to mention, quantity) of commentary, and I hope I will be able to at least approximate some of this quality in my responses.

I’ll begin with some preliminary points which I will exploit in my responses, and then speak to each comment in turn, posting the responses one at a time over the next many days.

June 22nd, 2012

Truth and fraternity?

posted by

Akeel Bilgrami’s essay is important and ambitious. Its importance lies in part in making clear what secularism is and should be—its philosophical foundation one might say; its ambition, in its ability to link these foundations with a wide range of issues that include the implications of giving priority to political ideals; a subtle understanding of the grounds of Islamic fundamentalism; the way in which context might deflate the all too often overextended reach and significance of secularism; the role of reason in history and its link with the moral and epistemological psychology by which even deep convictions are subject to change; the challenge of a relativistic conception of truth; and an understanding of humanism that permits a firm commitment to one’s own view of the truth, while nevertheless embracing a fraternal attitude towards those who deeply disagree with it.

June 5th, 2012

Blurring the boundaries

posted by

Four guided missiles packed with explosive material hurtled into the morning sky. Though the day was brilliant blue and cloudless, no one saw them coming. They were aimed at a nation that did not see itself at war. Moreover, it was a nation convinced that missiles fired in anger no longer posed a serious threat to its security. The weapons were conventional in the strict sense: they did not carry nuclear warheads.

March 20th, 2012

Hope, tragedy, and prophecy

posted by

It is hard not to be convinced by Akeel Bilgrami’s careful, patient, and generous exposition in “Secularism: Its Content and Context.” And indeed there is much with which I agree, especially the balance that Bilgrami strikes between a care for truth, on the one hand, and the idea of internal reasons, on the other. My remarks below are offered by way of exposition and clarification, but they are motivated by a spirit of interpretation: it seems to me that the paper operates in distinct tonal registers: a primary register of hope, a secondary register of tragedy, and an unacknowledged third register, which I will call prophetic.

March 13th, 2012


Cultural models and Rethinking Secularism

posted by

Rethinking Secularism is the title of a striking new collection of essays, edited by Craig Calhoun, Mark Juergensmeyer, and Jonathan VanAntwerpen that is rich with shrewd, and often detailed and intricate, discussions of the way the political and the social, the public and the personal, are threaded with, and frequently created out of, the interpretive, the symbolic, and the imaginary. It is also a book with whose central claim I could not be in fuller agreement: the religious and the secular do not designate different ends of a historical timeline, much less a simple binary, so much as different inflections of a process beginning, at least in the West, with the slow disintegration of Latin Christendom in the Late Middle Ages, and that we have come to recognize as the longue durée of the modern.

February 14th, 2012

There is no such thing as a monoculture

posted by

“We develop in multi-cultural and multi-religious societies. To say this is to state the obvious. There is no religiously homogeneous society.” Akeel Bilgrami has invited commentary on his recent working paper about the nature and relevance of secularism in which he advances a central thesis that begins with the conditional phrase, “Should we be living in a religiously plural society.” In this post, I offer a response to his thesis convinced, like Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, author of the quotation with which I began, that there is no such thing as a modern religious monoculture.

February 7th, 2012

Secularism, lexical ordering, and resistance to dialogue

posted by

Akeel Bilgrami’s paper is very rich; I cannot speak to all its arguments. I focus on his principal concern: his desire to amend Charles Taylor’s definition of secularism so that the rights to free exercise of religion and evenhanded treatment are qualified by “the ideals that a polity seeks to achieve (ideals, often, though not always, enshrined in stated fundamental rights and other constitutional commitments).” When religions are inconsistent with these ideals, “there is a lexical ordering in which the political ideals are placed first.”  These ideals can, apparently, be anything, as long as they “do not get articulated in terms that mention religion or the opposition to religion.” What is important is that they exist and that they come first.

February 2nd, 2012

Religion and state secularization

posted by

In discussing secularization, it has become conventional to note that the concept refers to various processes, of which three are particularly prominent. First, the gradual delegitimation of natural and revealed religion’s truth-claims in the face of rational critique. We can call this intellectual secularization. Second, the process by which some states have constitutionally disengaged from their citizens’ religious beliefs and institutions. We can call this state secularization. Third, the increase across society of knowledge, activities, values, tastes, and activities which lack religious content, as well as the extent to which, increasingly, people involve themselves with these non-religious forms. We can call this social secularization.

January 31st, 2012

“The Church”

posted by

The last sentence of the Court’s opinion in Hosanna-Tabor announces the dogma that binds the majority opinion. Affirming for the first time the constitutional status of the ministerial exception, the Chief Justice declares that “(t)he church must be free to choose those who will guide it on its way.” Not “persons” must be free to choose their own ministers, but “the church” must be free. What is “the church?”

January 26th, 2012

The context of religious pluralism

posted by

Akeel Bilgrami’s article, “Secularism: Its Content and Context,” is an important and welcome contribution on a topic that has acquired momentum with the renaissance of the public role of religions, in democratic and non-democratic societies alike. Bilgrami clarifies in a penetrating and lucid way, three fundamental ideas on secularism: first, that it is “a stance to be taken about religion”; second, that it is not an indication of the form of government or the liberal nature of a regime; and third, that the context is a crucial factor in issues concerning the relationship between politics and religion.

January 19th, 2012

Religious freedom defeats secular law

posted by

Secular law lost unanimously in the Supreme Court of the United States last week. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal antidiscrimination statute that bars discrimination against employees on the basis of a disability. The ADA also contains an antiretaliation provision that prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who file charges under the statute. The statute itself does not exempt religious employers from liability. Nonetheless, the Court dismissed schoolteacher Cheryl Perich’s ADA retaliation lawsuit against Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School on the grounds that Perich was a minister.

January 9th, 2012

Normative or empirical comparisons?

posted by

Monika Wohlrab-Sahr confesses that she is not an expert with regard to “the value of normative theory for legal and constitutional concerns, and for political theory.” She rightly thinks that “for empirically grounded comprehension and explanation of societal and political processes, institutions, and practices” the use of normative theory “is limited,” but wrongly attacks normative theorizing as such and also misunderstands my proposal to “replace secularism.” In this brief response, I focus on three issues: first, her criticism of “normative theory” and “value judgments”; second, her krypto-normative remarks on learning from empirical comparisons; and third, her construction of “four types of secularity.”

December 13th, 2011

Multiple secularities and their normativity as an empirical subject

posted by

It is difficult to come to an agreement when normative issues are concerned. Are the “moderate” forms of European secularisms flexible enough to include the Muslim population as well, as Tariq Modood suggests? Or are they “irretrievably flawed,” as Rajeev Bhargava has argued, because they emerged from a context in which Christian confessions dominated and were not set up to include non-Christian minorities? Or should we get rid of the language of secularism altogether and instead refer to liberal-democratic constitutionalism as a meta-language, as Veit Bader has proposed?

November 29th, 2011

The resurgence of the civic

posted by

Occupy Wall Street and cognate groups around the world are part of a protest movement that is both global and local. It is global in terms of geographic scope, thematic range, and social composition. It is local in terms of the specific objects of protest and the protesters’ goals. The organic blending of the global with the local is reflected in the very unfolding of this worldwide wave. As the Egyptian activist Asmaa Mahfouz has remarked, the various groups “work in symbiosis, learning from and imitating each others’ strategies . . . the call for Occupy protests came from Canada, the General Assembly structures came from Spain, and the outcry of ‘We are the 99%’ came from Italy. Many occupiers took inspiration from our Tahrir Square; now the Occupy movement across the United States is inspiring us in Egypt.”

October 31st, 2011

Taking a stance

posted by

Akeel Bilgrami’s “Secularism: It’s Content and Context” is both fascinating and wide-ranging… Whether or not one agrees with the notion of an internally cohesive concept of secularism—and whether or not one agrees that this concept is more limited than we have come to think it is—one might still ask if secularism should assert itself through a lexical ordering like the one envisioned by Bilgrami. Will a prioritization of political ideals seem fair to members of a secular society, and, perhaps more importantly, does it capture the challenges that face the kind of democracies we currently characterize as governed by secularism?

October 27th, 2011

What’s the supreme question in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC?

posted by

From its beginnings as an assemblage of mid-nineteenth century immigrants from Germany, formally organized in 1847, the LCMS has affirmed that both pastors and those teachers who are formally certified for service in the church’s schools may be “called” as ministers of the Gospel. The entanglement of the LCMS’s understanding of minister with governmental definitions first became a serious matter at the outset of the Second World War, when Synodical officials had to exert considerable effort to have called teachers granted ministerial deferments from the draft.

October 27th, 2011

Secularism, belief, and truth

posted by

I want to argue that one of the deep reasons for the commonality between religion and the secular is not only historical—that the values that prevailed in a dominantly religious world were not lost during the secularization processes—but philosophical: whether the beliefs that people hold are religious or secular, they are beliefs. As Steve Bruce wrote, “Although it is possible to conceptualize it in other ways, secularization primarily refers to the beliefs of people.” At the extreme edges of secular and religious thought, people deny that they hold beliefs—propositions that they embrace about what is true—and say instead that they have truth.

October 26th, 2011

Religion-making

posted by and

Broadly conceived the term religion-making refers to the ways in which religion(s) is conceptualized and institutionalized within the matrix of a globalized world-religions discourse in which ideas, social formations, and social/cultural practices are discursively reified as “religious” ones. Religion-making works, sometimes more and sometimes less explicitly, by means of normalizing and often functionalist discourses centered around certain taken-for-granted notions, such as the religion/secular binary, as well as binaries subordinated to it (such as sacred/profane, this-worldly/otherworldly, etc.).

October 25th, 2011

Are religious institutions entitled to disobey the law?

posted by

One recurring justification for the ministerial exception has been the “problem” of women priests. The specter of the Roman Catholic Church being forced to ordain women priests has repeatedly haunted discussions of the ministerial exception. Catholic women priests are wrongly used as a justification for the exception. It was unfortunate that the women priests issue became part of the oral argument in Hosanna-Tabor, as it distracts attention from the more important issues at stake in the exception.

October 20th, 2011

Secularism: Its content and context

posted by

I begin with three fundamental features of the idea of ‘secularism.’ I will want to make something of them at different stages of the passage of my argument in this paper for the conclusion—among others—that the relevance of secularism is contextual in very specific ways. If secularism has its relevance only in context, then it is natural and right to think that it will appear in different forms and guises in different contexts. But I write down these opening features of secularism at the outset because they seem to me to be invariant among the different forms that secularism may take in different contexts. It is hard to imagine that one hasn’t changed the subject from secularism to something else, something that deserves another name, if one finds oneself denying any of the features that I initially list below.

October 13th, 2011

Going to law

posted by

Last week, in the first week of its October 2011 term, the U.S. Supreme Court heard argument in a suit brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charging the local branch of the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church with illegal retaliatory firing of a Michigan parochial schoolteacher under the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA mandates an end to discrimination against persons with disabilities across a wide range of contexts and is considered a high-water mark of American civil rights legislation. The Church, supported by a wide array of other interested religious organizations, claims immunity from such legislation.

October 11th, 2011

Beyond secularisms of all sorts

posted by

Is there a crisis of secularism in Western Europe? Is Tariq Modood’s “moderate secularism” the solution, or should we go “beyond moderate secularism” and embrace the “alternative conception of secularism,” that of “principled distance,” proposed by Rajeev Bhargava? In this piece I hope to show that, for the purposes of normative thinking—in the realms of political and legal theory, constitutional law, and jurisprudence in particular—we had better drop the language of secularism altogether and reframe the contested issues in terms of the language of liberal-democratic constitutionalism and its respective principles, rights, and institutional arrangements.

September 16th, 2011

Beyond moderate secularism

posted by

For Modood, moderate secularism can and should go on more or less as it is, but, in order to accommodate Muslims, must undergo some institutional adjustments. How then can we speak of—that horrible term—a crisis of secularism in Europe? Surely, this is hyperbolic, a gross exaggeration! Here is where we profoundly disagree. Moderate secularism, for me, is irretrievably flawed.

September 9th, 2011

9/11 chronomania

posted by

Under its congressional mandate to “examine and report upon the facts and causes relating to the terrorist attacks…[and] make a full and complete accounting of the[ir] circumstances,” the Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, better known as the 9/11 Commission Report, begins with a narrative timeline. In the simple past, in a voice devoid of interiority but rich in temporal data, the Report tracks movement in time and space.

September 8th, 2011

The paradoxes of the re-Islamization of Muslim societies

posted by

The 9/11 debate was centered on a single issue: Islam. Osama Bin Laden was taken at his own words by the West: Al-Qaeda, even if its methods were supposedly not approved by most Muslims, was seen as the vanguard or at least a symptom of “Muslim wrath” against the West… Then came, just ten years after 9/11, the Arab Spring, in which Islam did not play a role, and the killing of Osama Bin Laden, whose death went almost unnoticed among Muslim public opinion. What about the “Muslim wrath”? Suddenly, the issue of Islam and jihad being at the core of the political mobilization in Muslim societies seemed to become, at least for a time, irrelevant. So what went wrong with the perception of the Western media, leaders, and public opinion? Was the West wrong about the role of Islam in shaping political mobilization in Muslim societies? Yes. The essentialist and culturalist approach, common to both the clash of and dialogue of civilizations theories, missed three elements: society, politics, and more astonishingly . . . religion.

September 2nd, 2011

A suspension of (dis)belief

posted by

Most academic discussions in political science and international relations presuppose a fixed definition of the secular and the religious and proceed from there. Most realist, liberal, English school, feminist, and historical-materialist approaches treat religion as either private by prior assumption or a cultural relic to be handled by anthropologists. Even constructivists, known for their attention to historical contingency and social identity, have paid scant attention to the politics of secularism and religion, focusing instead on the interaction of preexisting state units to explain how international norms influence state interests and identity or looking at the social construction of states and the state system with religion left out of the picture.

August 24th, 2011

Is there a crisis of secularism in Western Europe?

posted by

Even quite sober academics speak of “a contemporary crisis of secularism,” claiming that “today, political secularisms are in crisis in almost every corner of the globe.” Olivier Roy, in an analysis focused on France, writes of “The Crisis of the Secular State,” and Rajeev Bhargava of the “crisis of secular states in Europe.” Yet this is quite a misleading view of what is happening in Western Europe.

August 10th, 2011

Western secularity

posted by

We live in a world in which ideas, institutions, artistic styles, and formulas for production and living circulate among societies and civilizations that are very different in their historical roots and traditional forms. Parliamentary democracy spread outward from England, among other countries, to India; likewise, the practice of nonviolent civil disobedience spread from its origins in the struggle for Indian independence to many other places, including the United States with Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, Manila in 1983, and the Velvet and Orange Revolutions of our time.

But these ideas and forms of practice don’t just change place as solid blocks; they are modified, reinterpreted, given new meanings, in each transfer. This can lead to tremendous confusion when we try to follow these shifts and understand them. One such confusion comes from taking a word itself too seriously; the name may be the same, but the reality will often be different.

This is evident in the case of the word “secular.”