The program on religion and Late Modernity

The Secularism in the Late Modern Age Project

Between New Atheisms and Religious Fundamentalisms

On January 28–29, 2011, more than twenty scholars in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences gathered at an international conference on “Secularism in the Late Modern Age: Between New Atheisms and Religious Fundamentalism.” The main lecture room at Watson Manor was filled to the brim both days of the conference, as an audience from the University of Virginia and the wider Charlottesville community listened to the exchanges among Manuela Achilles, Rajeev Bhargava, José Casanova, Jocelyne Cesari, Valerie Cooper, Daniel Doneson, Silvio Ferrari, Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Slavica Jakelić, Adam Lipszyc, Antonia LoLordo, Ekaterina Makarova, Charles Mathewes, Murray Milner, Christopher Nichols, Abdulaziz Sachedina, William Schweiker, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, Kevin Shultz, George Thomas, Carl Trindle, Stephen White, and Wesley Wildman, as well as others.

Opening the conference discussion, Slavica Jakelić, director of the “Secularism in the Late Modern Age” project, explained that the idea for this conference emerged from the recognition that two narratives about secularism have come to dominate both academic and nonacademic discourse. One narrative articulates secularism as grounded in science, reason, and rationality and as necessarily opposed to faith, religions, and religious institutions. In its most radical form, this type of “scientific secularism” seems to have gained many new, and often loud, advocates—partly because of the rise of the religious Right in the early years of the twenty-first century but also because of attempts to identify a universal foundation for the secular moral outlook.

But the different forms of scientific secularism have also acquired powerful critics. In the humanities and in the natural sciences, scholars from a range of perspectives have opposed the claim that there is no knowledge outside of science. As Marilyn Robinson writes in one counter to scientific secularisms, the reality of our being human is also in our being moral creatures.

The other dominant narrative about secularism and religion places secularism at the center of the ordering of political life. This “political secularism” has come to refer to the separation between politics and religion, between the state and religious institutions. Driven by the democratic ideal of the equality of all in the public realm, political secularism has frequently been associated with the assertion that secularism is not an ideology, not a political doctrine, but rather a neutral principle of political governance, the institutionalization of what John Rawls called “the veil of ignorance.”

Such models of political secularism have been contested everywhere. First and foremost they face the challenges of cultural and moral pluralism, shaped by a range of religious and nonreligious worldviews. The advocates of these views demand not only the right to speak publicly but oftentimes claim the mantle of “moral majority” and “epistemological superiority.”

The contestations of political secularisms are especially strong in the academy, where scholars oppose the claim that political secularisms are a neutral strategy that mitigates the demands of moral pluralism. Michael Sandel, for example, maintains that, far from being neutral, secularism is founded on and promotes a particular liberal idea of the good. Others, such as social theorist Adam Seligman, see secularism as a very particular moment in the Christian process of negotiating its own tradition. Seligman thus proposes the replacement of the dichotomy of religion/secular with that of tradition of practices/practice of tradition, seeing the latter as more structural, less particularistic, and less historicist.

Jakelić also noted that the secular-religious binary was born out of a particular Western Christian theological and anthropological framework. She also affirmed the problematic character of the processes through which the secularized Western version of this binary has been implemented or imposed in non-Christian contexts, in the name of universal justice and rationality. But, she added, neither secularism nor religion, for analytic or normative purposes, can be identified in the singular, only in the plural. Just like religions, secularisms are embodied and embedded. Thus, while notwithstanding the importance of the critique of secularism, and the necessity for the constant reappraisal of the notions of the secular and the religious, Jakelić asked the conference participants: Is there something to be gained from appreciating the very tension between various religious and secular accounts of the world as ultimately a good thing for public life? Moreover, can we envision religious-secular encounters that are not only conflictual but also constructive and dialogical in nature? And, can our democratic practices benefit from appreciating mutual engagement between religious and secular worldviews?

As a window into the discussion that ensued—and into the forthcoming volume of essays—here are two exchanges that capture particularly well the intellectual energy and insights that characterized the conference gathering:

Working Group:

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