Religion Snapshots: Defining Postsecularism, Part 2


Religion Snapshots is a feature with the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog, where a number of contributors are asked to briefly comment on popular news items or pressing theoretical issues in the field, especially those topics relating to definitions, classification and method and theory in the study of religion more generally. For previous posts in this series, see hereherehereherehere and here.

Editor’s note: The idea for this topic was spurred by Donovan Schaefer’s recent post, “Partisan Science: Evolution and Creation in Postsecular American Politics.” For part one in this series, see here.

Question: How do you define postsecularism, postsecular, or the postsecular?

Matt Sheedy: In his essay “The Secular, Secularizations, Secularisms,” (2011) José Casanova proposes an interesting way of slicing up these conceptual pies. For example, he defines the secular as a modern “theological-philosophical, legal-political, and cultural-anthropological” category that is positioned in relation to “the religious,” while secularization signals an attempt to understand patterns of differentiation between ecclesiastical and state institutions, economy, art, health, etc. Lastly, secularism is likened more broadly to a worldview or ideology that is taken for granted and, as he puts it, “unthought.” (54-55) When considering the “post” varieties of these terms, it is worth asking whether or not they can be neatly grafted upon these iterations.

While the term “post-secularization” is not all that common it would no doubt signify something different depending on whether it was used to refer to a paradigm shift in sociology or, say, an epistemic or ontological idea. That there has been a paradigm shift in secularization theory is clear enough, though some still hold onto its central tenants, (e.g., Bruce 2002) such as the idea that trends in religious belief and affiliation decline as nation-states gain more “existential security.” (e.g., Norris and Inglehart 2011)

As for the other two iterations—“the post-secular” and “post-secularism”—I would argue that they are more and less controversial depending on whether they are used:

1) as normative descriptions of an existing reality (e.g., we are now “post-secular”); or

2) to describe the claims of certain groups (i.e., scholars) who take them up, as well as those who deploy them in order to test their validity. (e.g, asking how or why or who is post-secular?)

Here I’d like to briefly consider a few of these iterations with reference to a 2008 essay by Jürgen Habermas, who helped to popularize the term post-secular in his essay “Faith and Knowledge,” (2003) which was first presented as a speech in October 2001, one month after 9/11.

Habermas asks whether the term post-secular can be used to describe a significant change in the “behavior and convictions of the local populations” in Western Europe? He is not convinced that it can and argues for a revised version of the secularization thesis, where the “differentiation of functional social systems” (e.g., church, state, entertainment, economy, etc.) are better understood as processes that continue at an uneven pace and in non-linear directions.

When turning to “the post-secular,” Habermas argues that it could effectively describe “public consciousness” in Europe “to the extent that at present it still has to ‘adjust itself to the continued existence of religious communities in an increasingly secularized environment.’” In this sense, he is making the claim that while the substance of the old secularization model is more or less valid in West European societies, the future role of ‘religion’ (his scare quotes) within public and political life remains uncertain.

Habermas lists 3 reasons for this uncertainty:

1) Global conflicts that are framed around “religious strife”;

2) An increased presence and influence of “churches and religious organisations” in the public sphere of “secular societies”;

3) Increased immigration, “guest-workers” and refuges from “countries with traditional cultural backgrounds,” which has sparked a so-called Kulturkampf between “radical multiculturalists” and “militant secularists,” especially in relation to “Islam” (my scare quotes).

Given the apparent resurgence of “religious communities” in the Euro-West, Habermas wants to marshal the term “post-secular” as a sort of regulative idea in the hope that relativist and secularist camps will address their “religious” fellow citizens in a manner that is  not grounded upon apathy or antipathy, but is, rather, adjusted to deal with the constitutive social realities that they face.

While there are many more angles to Habermas’ conceptualization of this idea (see 2006; 2009; 2010a; 2010b) his interest in developing a norm-oriented political theory, as I have briefly touched on here, reveals a tension between his use of these concepts to describe certain constitutive ideas (i.e., hypotheses on the differentiation of social systems and demographic trends) versus his use of (the) “post-secular” as a regulative idea, which he has, at times, suggested is an actual, existing reality. The latter use of this concept is by far the most contested since it makes the leap from a recently constructed idea(l) to a social fact in a single bound. If only we were Superman.

Consider the following book title, Political Theologies: Public Religions in a Postsecular World. (2006) This takes a cue from Casanova’s, Public Religions in the Modern World, (1994) and suggests that the challenges that he posed to classical secularization theory have proven correct, in a manner of speaking.

This idea has a corollary in the shift toward talk of “secularisms,” which was the title of a 2008 book edited by Ann Pelligrini and Janet Jakobsen, and was preceded by the idea of “multiple modernities,” made popular by the work of Schmuel Eisenstadt. (for a fusion of these concepts, see Multiple Modernities and Postsecular Societies [2012])

On another level, this concept has been of interest to certain philosophers, critical theorists (e.g., some post-structuralists [Blond: 1999] and especially those influenced by the Frankfurt School [Gorski]) and political theologians, including some non-theologians with an interest in theological ideas, along with certain trends in feminist thought. In these cases, the “post” seems to mark a shift toward articulating a normative conceptual reality of the “modern” or “postmodern” condition.

Needless to say, much of these debates appear to be caught up in the familiar tension between the “is” and the “ought”—that is, the scholarly task of describing and explaining how things are versus the more political or theological aim of suggesting how they should or ought to be understood. I would suggest that at least part of this tension can be resolved by scholars rigorously clarifying and distinguishing their theories and methods from their aims and interests so that all can be laid bare and held to account rather than having certain agendas snuck in the back door.

Furthermore, I would argue that the use-value of these concepts and their various iterations hinges in no small measure upon the aims and interests of different fields and sub-fields, both within and outside of “religious studies” proper. (incidentally, I am yet to overhear a conversation in line at the grocery where someone casually refers to our post-secular condition) For some scholars, terms like “secular,” “post-secular” and “religion” are fraught with problems that are deemed to be either in need of clarification or rejected altogether in favor of more accurate descriptions of the phenomena that they attempt to describe.

For others, such as political scientist Elizabeth Shakman-Hurd, grappling with a more nuanced understanding of the religion/secular binary is caught up in both critical theoretical issues (e.g., she acknowledges these terms are social constructions) as well as practical and pragmatic concerns that relate directly to matters of public and foreign policy, international legal regulations, etc. (see The Politics of Secularism in International Relations [2008]) In this sub-field of political theory, problematizing the discursive ground upon which scholars talk about these terms (e.g., what defines a “secular” state) has a direct relation to policies and practices in the messy world of realpolitik and thus requires a more immanent engagement with ideas already in circulation–ideas that require answers in the here and now.

And so while narratives about religion in this sub-field are, as Shakman Hurd argues, socially constructed in relation to dominant ideologies and interests and thus constitute objects of study in and of themselves (and she is a voice in the wilderness in her sub-field), they are also constituted by a practical intention that aims towards more nuanced and inclusive ways of addressing these problems in international relations. In this sense, these concepts are measured by how useful they are, for example, in creating representative legal frameworks or as regulative ideas that aim to orient citizens and policy makers in modern societies toward adopting a different or “enlarged mentality,” to borrow a line from Hannah Arendt.

Whether or not religious studies scholars (as opposed to, say, scholars in international relations) should be engaged in advocating for certain expressions of “religion” as better or worse, I leave to the side, though it should be clear that confusing the “is” and the “ought” leads to serious problems, as seen when the leap is made from describing or testing concepts such as “post-secular” to asserting them as a fait accompli. In this sense, (the) post-secular(-ism) provides a useful comparative example for how we define religion.

Mike Graziano: I think the term “post-secular” is fraught with many of the same problems as the rest of our disciplinary vocabulary. When the term is used in an American context (with which I’m most familiar), it seems to me it is often used uncritically to describe a situation in which it’s cool to say “I’m spiritual but not religious.” 

I’m not particularly attached to the term but I will consider how it might be analytically useful in certain situations. “Post-secular” might be used productively to describe a state of affairs in which those in power recognize some of the problems of a religion/secular dichotomy while, at the same time, drawing their power and authority from a system that is premised on just such a dichotomy. In this situation, those in power recognize an area of social existence called “the secular” (in which there is ostensibly no religion) and have to apply that neat framework to a messy reality. For better or worse, the most powerful theorists of the post-secular in American life are the nine members of the Supreme Court who have possessed, since at least 1947, the power to determine the particular religiosity/secularity of public spaces and acts under review. 

Consider Chief Justice John Roberts’ comment in _Hosanna-Tabor_ (2012) in which he compares the ingestion of peyote by Native Americans (ruled Constitutionally unprotected in _Smith_) to a Protestant church’s power to fire any employee it deems a “minister” (unanimously protected in _Hosanna-Tabor_):

_Smith_ involved government regulation of only outward physical acts. The present case, in contrast, concerns government interference with an internal church decision that affects the faith and mission of the church itself.

It is as if the justices haves some sort of theological geiger counter with which to take readings: how religious is the act in Case XYZ? Fully religious? Only 80%? Where’s the tipping point? This might seem absurd (it is), but it is also one practical response to the “post-secular” situation described above. Many of the benefits (i.e., exceptions to generally applicable laws) of the First Amendment are premised on an individual or institution being religious or secular. While the justices may not always see a hard edge between religion and secular, it turns out that there’s no such thing as “a little bit tax-exempt.” As Charles McCrary rightly points out in part one of this series, this is why the question of “Is it religious?”—a question which many of us are tired of hearing—remains an incredibly important and powerful question in the realms of law and policy. And I wonder whether a term like “post-secular” might help to describe these competing paradigms.

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