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2000-2001 Seminar: Secularism

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What is secularism? Conflicts over the nature of secularism rage within many nations--the United States, India, Turkey, and Russia, to name only a few prominent examples--as well as in the international order. The CCACC’s aim is not to resolve the conflicts of modern secularism as they have been posed in a policy framework, but to understand better the sources, presuppositions, unrecognized dimensions, different trajectories, and contexts of secularism and its conflicts.

Secularism has often been equated with the idea of secularization as a developmental process, separating tradition from modern society, and marked by arise in scientific thinking or a decline in religious institutions. This teleological view of secularization has deep roots in the self-understanding of modernity. It is relatively acultural; it postulates a kind of secularization that any culture could undergo, or any religion. It understands secular culture not as a culture in its own right, differing from religious ones in the way that Dutch culture differs from Inuit, but as a developmental state within cultures, having regular features across cultural contexts.


It is now widely argued that this once dominant narrative has turned out to be, in many particulars, mistaken. Education, industrialization, the growth of science and technology, and international communication have turned out to foster new religions just as easily as new secularisms. It is far from clear the secularism is on the rise, or that its fortunes can be pegged to any developmental process. It is also far from clear that the processes lumped under the label”globalization” can be understood as the developmental convergence of cultures into a common order. Some critics of secularism describe this as “failure.” others argue that secularization has never gone far enough.


 The actual conception of secularization is closely tied to an essentially negative understanding of secularism, given articulacy in Kant, in which the secular is understood as the nonreligious, and is identified with he higher-level coordinating functions of the state. Religion is conceived as local, and as marked. Secularism is seen as the rationality that allows religions to persist, even multiply, but as marked ideologies against the unmarked background of a society integrated through the neutral public order. Secularism may be defined vaguely as worldliness(and hence tied to capital and modern political or social thought), but the emphasis is on negative criteria such as the ability to bracket religion in public contexts, or the decline of tradition beliefs over time. Histories of secularism rooted in this understanding generally emphasize the religious wars of Europe and the emergence of the nation-state system in reaction to them. And because secularism is equated with unmarked or acultural dimensions of the social, it can be tied to the other features of modernity that are usually understood in the same way: rationality, science, the state form. Very often, histories of secularization told in this way carry a negative charge, as in Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” but they can just as easily be utopian, as Carl Becker showed long ago in The Heavenly City of Eighteenth Century Philosophy. Either way, the view of secularism presupposes the marking relationships of modernity, and it implies that the paths of different civilizations are likely to converge.


 A cultural understanding of secularism would have to open up different question. It may be, for example, that although secularism emerged of highly Christianized contexts, it will necessarily take very different forms in relation to Islam, or Hinduism. In that case, the Western colonial model could not be taken as paradigmatic, even if we could agree on its features. Thus an understanding of varieties of secularism might be an important part of a larger question about the possibility of multiple modernities.


Not all secularisms, however, are modern. It may be that some versions of secular culture, both historical and present, are capable of being understood not just in the marked/unmarked relation to religion that Kant described, but as cultural systems in their own right. This possibility is difficult to conceptualize clearly. It often finds expression in the ides that secularism is “like” religion; that it implies a kind of faith, a kind of utopianism analogous to otherworldliness, a socially integrating mythology, etc. But in assuming that secularism, in order to be seen as culture--that is, as marked--would have to be seen as “like religion,” does not this line of thinking demonstrate the very force of the unmarked conception of secularism? Is it possible to describe secularism culturally without assuming that the result would be exactly analogous to religion?

By the same token, is it possible to describe the conflicted scene of secularism without subscribing to the antinomy of the secular and religious? Christian theology has often given an important role to the secular, with a deep suspicion of established religion (this was true in Puritan New England, for example), while the forms of religion most engaged in conflict with secularism may sometimes be those that have been transformed by the terms of secular engagement (as with the politicized, worldly, and temporal development of religious identity politics in the contemporary U.S.). What are the frameworks, or the modes of governmentality, that have created the problematic of secularism as a political issue? That modes of secular culture might lie outside this problematic?

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