The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 12, No. 3 (Fall 2010)

Secularism: A Bibliographic Essay

Slavica Jakelić

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 12.3 (Fall 2010). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Fall 2010

(Volume 12 | Issue 3)

Secularism has origins in the West but has long ceased to be its property. It is a global phenomenon with an equally global crisis. For theoretical and empirical purposes, therefore, secularism should be thought of in the plural rather than in the singular. Similarly, while secularism has been a source of marginalization and sometimes even a hostile negation of religions, it cannot be reduced to antireligiousness. It is also a moral orientation toward the world and in the world, often guided by a vision of a just society for all or developed as a strategy that should mitigate the challenges of religious pluralism. Secularism may indicate a worldview, an ideology, a political doctrine, a form of political governance, a type of moral philosophy, or a belief that the scientific method is sufficient to understanding the world in which we live.

Defining “secularism” is additionally complicated because of its proximity to the notion of “secularization.” While these terms have distinct analytic meanings and purposes, they are also closely related. “Secularization” refers to processes that accompany modernization—the gradual decline of religious contents and institutions or their sudden (and sometimes state-imposed) removal from the political, educational, or economic realms. Secularization is therefore not some neutral, natural, and unavoidable progression toward less religious societies. It involves the intellectual and social history that brings together variables and actors as diverse as the unintended consequences of the Medieval religious reforms and the Protestant Reformation, the birth of the modern nation-state, Enlightenment philosophy, and agents whose goal was to institutionalize secularity and the ideas of secularism in law, education, politics, and economics.

The Origins of (Western) Secularism

According to a view that has long dominated academic and popular discourse, the history of secularism in the West is a battle of reason, progress, and modernity against religion, conservatism, and tradition. The real story is, as usual, much more complex. The increased focus on life here and now did not result from the victory of, for example, science over religion. Its origins can be traced back to what Charles Taylor identifies as the “drive to Reform” in the late Middle Ages—the democratization of the virtuous life that intended to draw the laity closer to the life of religious elites but inaugurated a vision of human agency as able to construct and reconstruct their societies. In The Theological Origins of Modernity, Michael Gillespie proposes that modernity’s goal was to redefine, not to abolish, the place of religion in the context of a novel but still theologically shaped understanding of the world.

While George Jacob Holyoake introduced the term “secularism” only in 1851, the structural reality of secularism has a longer history. It has always embraced a spectrum of ideas wherein the historical and the teleological, the analytic and the normative, merge: the emphasis on what is moral as opposed to what is miraculous in religion (Immanuel Kant); the view that the church is the caretaker of souls and ought to be separated from the state that is concerned with worldly matters (John Locke); the anticipation (often inseparable from advocacy) of a radical transformation of religions with progress (Thomas Jefferson); the call for replacing traditional religions with the new religion of humanity (Auguste Comte); the critique or rejection of traditional religions, especially Christianity, as obstacles to human freedom and power (Friedrich Nietzsche); the predictions as well as concerns about the disenchantment of modern societies (Émile Durkheim and Max Weber); and the prophecies about the disappearance of religion at the end of history (Karl Marx).

  • Chadwick, Owen. The Secularization of the European Mind in the 19th Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975.
  • Comte, Auguste. The Positive Philosophy. Trans. Harriet Martineau. New York: Calvin Blanchard, 1858.
  • Durkheim, Émile. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life: A Study in Religious Sociology. New York: Macmillan, 1915.
  • Freud, Sigmund. The Future of an Illusion. 1927. New York: Norton, 1961.
  • Gillespie, Michael Allen. The Theological Origins of Modernity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.
  • Kant, Immanuel. Religion Within the Bounds of Pure Reason. 1793. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  • Lilla, Mark. The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West. New York: Vintage, 2007.
  • Locke, John. Locke on Politics, Religion and Education. Ed. Maurice Cranston. New York: Collier, 1965.
  • Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. On Religion. 1957. New York: Schocken, 1964.
  • Mathewes, Charles, and Christopher McKnight Nichols, eds. Prophesies of Godlessness: Predictions of America’s Imminent Secularization from the Puritans to the Present Day. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra, A Book for All and None. Trans. Adrian Del Caro. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  • Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007.
  • Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. 1905. Trans. Stephen Kalberg. Los Angeles: Roxbury, 2002.

Modes of Secularism

Depending on the questions they ask, scholars offer various classifications of secularism. For the purposes of this essay, we distinguish between secularisms that employ science as their foundation and those whose central purpose is the ordering of political life. They embody an interesting contradiction: while the former types of secularism seem to be gaining new adherents, the latter have been acquiring new critics.

Sciences, Rationalism, and Secularism

From the 1633 trial of Galileo Galilei to the 1925 Scopes Trial, history appears to suggest that opposition and clashes are the main modes of interaction between the sciences and religions. As a number of studies show, however, there is no straightforward or easy way to appreciate the past or the contemporary encounters of religions and sciences. And while such nuanced accounts require us to move beyond the narrow focus on conflict, some important questions remain: Have the sciences become a default mode for many who hold secularist views, particularly those that are antireligious in character, and if so, why? What are the ethical and political repercussions of “scientific secularism,” to use Alvin Plantinga’s term from The Religion and Science Debate, which affirms the idea that objectifying inquiry without reference to human subjectivity is sufficient for both practice and understanding? Aside from the matters of politics, what are the similarities and what are the differences between old atheisms (represented by, for example, Bertrand Russell) and the “New Atheists” (represented, for example, by Christoper Hitchens)? Most importantly, perhaps, what is the relationship between Western rationalism and secularism?

  • Attridge, Harold W., ed. The Religion and Science Debate: Why Does It Continue? New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.
  • Brooke, John Hedley. Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives. The Cambridge History of Science Series. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
  • Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. New York: Bantam, 2006.
  • Dennett, Daniel. Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. New York: Penguin, 2006.
  • Eagleton, Terry. Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.
  • van Fraassen, Bas C., The Empirical Stance. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.
  • Harrison, Peter. The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  • Hitchens, Christopher. God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. New York: Twelve, 2007.
  • Russell, Bertrand. Why I Am Not a Christian, and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957.

Secularism, the State, and Democracies

When “secularism” serves as an organizational principle of a political community, it refers to the separation between politics and religion, and, most specifically, the separation between the state and religious institutions. One important impulse of this political secularism has been a democratic one: the creation of a public sphere open to all individuals as equal citizens, regardless of their particular identities. But the meanings, goals, and forms of the institutionalization of secularism—from the societies of Western Europe, to the U.S., India, Syria, and Turkey—indicate much less democratic features as well, such as the importance of secularism for the creation of homogenous and powerful nation-states, for example, or the marginalization and attempts at control of religions and religious institutions.

Today, political secularisms are in crisis in almost every corner of the globe. Their most immediate challenges are empirical—the rise of public religions, the strength of religious fundamentalisms, and the religious pluralization that accompanies new waves of immigration. Important questions about the relationship between secularism and democracies are being raised: Is some type of secularism a necessary precondition for democratic pluralistic societies? If political secularism is not a universal paradigm but a fragile doctrine that needs constant re-negotiation, how are we to institutionalize the porous and changing boundaries between the religious and the secular? Nowhere is the immediacy of such questions felt more than in the area of national and international law, as shown, among others, in the work of Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, Silvio Ferrari, and Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im.

  • An-Na’im, Abdullahi Ahmed, and Mashood A. Baderin. Islam and Human Rights, Collected Essays in Law. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2010.
  • Berger, Peter L., ed. The Descularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics. Washington: Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1999.
  • Bowen, John R. Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves: Islam, the State, and Public Space. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.
  • Cesari, Jocelyne, and Sean McLoughlin, eds. European Muslims and the Secular State. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005.
  • Ferrari, Silvio, and W. Cole Durham, Jr., eds. Law and Religion in Post-Communist Europe. Leuven: Peeters, 2003.
  • Habermas, Jürgen. An Awareness of What Is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age. Cambridge: Polity, 2010.
  • Janis, Mark W., and Carolyn Evans, eds. Religion and International Law. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1999.
  • Juergensmeyer, Mark. New Cold War? Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.
  • Kuru, Ahmet T. Secularism and State Policies toward Religion: The United States, France, and Turkey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
  • Marty, Martin E., and R. Scott Appleby, eds. Fundamentalisms and the State: Remaking Polities, Economies, and Militance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
  • Rawls, John. Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.
  • Roy, Olivier. Secularism Confronts Islam. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.
  • Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers. The Impossibility of Religious Freedom. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Contesting Secularisms

Some of the deepest challenges to contemporary secularisms arrive from anthropologists, philosophers, theologians, and social theorists. In his contribution to Rajeev Bhargava’s Secularism and Its Critics, Michael Sandel describes secularism as a principle that claims neutrality while in fact affirming the very particular, liberal notions of the good. Similarly, Saba Mahmood points to the impoverished understanding of human subjectivity and the parochial ideas of agency and authority that underlie liberal secular worldviews. For Talal Asad, secularism is a doctrine that claims to solve the problem of conflict while only replacing one type of violence (religious) with another—that of the nation-state and imperial wars.

In many ways, the critique of secularism is an extended critique of modernity. It is also an invitation for a greater reflexivity about the politics of secularism that shapes not just the field of international relations, as Elizabeth Shakman Hurd convincingly argues, but also the very foundation of the social scientific understanding of religion in the contemporary world.

  • Asad, Talal. Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003.
  • Bhargava, Rajeev, ed. Secularism and Its Critics. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • Casanova, José. Public Religions in the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.
  • Connolly, William E. Why I Am Not a Secularist. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.
  • Hurd, Elizabeth Shakman. The Politics of Secularism in International Relations. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007.
  • Madan, T. N. Modern Myths, Locked Minds: Secularism and Fundamentalism in India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Mahmood, Saba. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.
  • Milbank, John. Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason. Oxford: Blackwell, 1990.
  • Srinivasan, T. N., ed. The Future of Secularism. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • de Vries, Hent, and Lawrence E. Sullivan, eds. Political Theologies: Public Religions in a Post-Secular World. New York: Fordham University Press, 2006.

Secularisms in the Late Modern Age: Between Religious and Enlightenment Fundamentalisms

Should we, as some scholars propose, reject the secular-religious framework altogether? Or, should we work to develop a more dialogical and constructive approach to it? The very conversation about such questions is an indication that we are moving beyond the mere critique of secularism and beyond the dominant focus on its clashes with religions. Barbara Herrnstein Smith considers the sciences and religions with equal attention, respecting the integrity of each while appreciating their connections. Janet Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini write about the “hoped-for secularism” that is pluralistic and open in disposition. Scholars continue to rethink the multiple faces of secularism in the context of a global world while being attentive to both its interconnectedness and its heterogeneity.

  • Berlinerblau, Jacques. The Secular Bible: Why Nonbelievers Must Take Religion Seriously. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  • Cady, Linell E., and Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, eds. Comparative Secularisms in a Global Age. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
  • Jakobsen, Janet R., and Ann Pellegrini, eds. Secularisms. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008.
  • Smith, Barbara Herrnstein. Natural Reflections: Human Cognition at the Nexus of Science and Religion. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.
  • Warner, Michael, Jonathan VanAntwerpen, and Craig Calhoun, eds. Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.

Slavica Jakelić is a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and Director of the “Secularism in the Late Modern Age: Between New Atheisms and Religious Fundamentalisms” Project. She is the author of Collectivistic Religions: Religion, Choice, and Identity in Late Modernity and is currently writing a book about the practice of religious and secular humanisms.

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