Secularization After the Invention of Religion

By Kenneth G. MacKendrick

Supporters of theories of secularization have fallen on hard times. Three criticisms of secularization are commonplace. First, secularization did not occur, with the refutation of theories of secularization relying on empirical observations. Second, the very notion of secularization rests on dubious grounds, as it facetiously assumes a viable distinction between sacred and profane, religious and non-religious. Third, whatever the deal is with secularization, forget it, we’re post-secular now – a challenge from recent developments in political theory. I will not deal with the third challenge as it focuses primarily on political and legal theories concerning pluralism and the good society.

Given these three critical trends the camp supporting secularization certainly seems to be growing small. After all, the three challenges offer multiple reasons to reject the thesis and each provides a solution to the problem – empirical research, theoretical and conceptual critique, and political diplomacy. The empirical challenge would seem to be the most salient. Religion is on the up and up. Everyone knows this. The secularization theorists had it wrong. The world is as enchanted as it ever was and everywhere one looks we see religion, religious tradition, and religious revival writ large.

But in the thick of it, perhaps things are not as religious as they seem. Scholars defending the “secularization paradigm” (such as Steve Bruce) point out that the modality of religion today is more often than not evidence for secularization theses. Conservative religious movements, Bruce argues, present us with evidence for the advance of secularization, its swan song. Wherever one finds an emphasis on the individual, education, health care, relative freedom from violence, and progressive developments in technology one will find a decline in religious thought and practice. Individual interests replace syndromes of collective practice, education shifts contextual thinking to increasingly abstract forms of thought, health care replaces healing ritual, freedom from violence replaces the preponderance of misfortunate, death, grievance and injustice, and developments in technology replace opportunities for religious practices such as prayer, blessing, and sacrifice (e.g., there is less of a motive to pray for rain if you have an irrigation system). In short, there is ample evidence in Bruce’s response to warrant a reconsideration of the empirical data presented against the secularization paradigm if one wants to go that route.

Perhaps of greater importance, a good many critical theories of religion hold that the category “religion” is a political or politicizing category and cannot readily escape a particular conceptual constellation which divides the world up in a way that privileges or sets apart some practices while ignoring or denigrating others. It is argued, at the limits of this approach, that any use of the term “religion” enables this kind of political and cultural elitism. At best the term is a useful heuristic and at worst a self-authenticating and closed authoritarian discourse of selectiveness (for a good resource dealing with this issue, see The Guide to the Study of Religion edited by Braun and McCutcheon).

This is by far the more serious challenge. It questions the fit and appropriateness of the category “religion” and many if not most of its affiliated concepts: sacred and profane, natural and supernatural, enchanted and disenchanted, etc. The critique of the category “religion,” by way of theories of social construction, genealogies of power, or deconstruction, typically leaves scholars who have used or continue to use the term “religion” in a bit of an imposition. Either the term must be abandoned or their discourse must turn inward towards field-specific analysis of concept formation. It is not uncommon for scholars taken to task on this score to throw up their hands and say, “But I don’t care about any of this, I just want to understand why X is doing Y in the name of Z!” I’m as sympathetic to the response as to the critique. Unfortunately, sympathy isn’t a binding scholarly virtue. The critique of the category “religion” remains under-theorized by scholars supporting the secularization paradigm. Until “religion” is seriously reconsidered as a concept, the thesis is dead.

Less morbidly, for the most part a good deal of what goes on in the name of “religious studies” or “the study of religion” could be conducted without reference to the word or most of its supposed subsidiary concepts. To take examples of two stereotypically religious concepts: religious rituals could be dealt with as political rituals, customs, traditions, etiquette, or habits; religious beliefs could be dealt with as ideological assumptions, political prejudices, cognitive wiring, and/or cultural biases. Perhaps much of what goes on under the rubric of religion could be equally well-studied as special cases of imaginative pretense. The temptation not to do so is one of the more troubling aspects of the entire discipline.

Given the challenge of the critique of the concept “religion,” it falls upon the shoulders of secularization theorists to provide evidence for several things simultaneously: the exact nature of the distinctly religious mind (wherein the term “religion” is a heuristic handle that could be replaced by a range of relevant concepts) and the distinctly religious society (with the same caveat about religion as previously mentioned). Distinctiveness here must be defined in relation to the so-called “secular” mind and “secular” society (again, “secular” must also be used with equally reliable substitutes). Further, it must be shown that there are cross-cultural correlations between how people think and organize their institutions and how this constellation forms a syndrome of peculiar discourses and practices that is qualitatively distinct from analogous practices (functionally equivalent) that lack the undifferentiated qualities of the compared patterning. In other words, the secularization theorist must show that “religious” behaviour is unique while at the same time ensuring that the unique characteristics are generated and accounted for without strong affinity with the sui generis discourses of religion.

To draw on a very generalized example, let us consider the handling of corpses. It is fairly common across cultures to view a corpse as the source of a contagion with a negative valence (or, the reverse, the contact with a corpse may offer blessings, although this is less frequent). For those affected by the death, mortuary contagion is discussed and related to in essentialized or essentializing terms. Both popular opinion and professional doctrine usually explain such contagion in terms that invoke supernatural powers (agencies or forces that are extra-ordinary, that exist in radical contradiction with established norms or as impossible entities). One might say with all the required cautions that this view of the corpse is “religious,” “magical,” “spiritual,” “nominalistic,” or “essentializing.” While views about the exact nature of the contagion vary widely, the perception and structuring of contagion is remarkably consistent (as Mary Douglas well-observed). When such practices cease to be interpreted in this way (within the realm of supernatural purity and impurity) or when aspects of mortuary custom or ritual are modified in a systematic way (especially as pertaining to the “essentializing” characteristics of the practice or account), some sort of explanation is warranted. When the rituals are performed “as is tradition” but the attitude and practices evinced by this attitude toward contagion or impurity are replaced by a more scientific-minded explanation (“the corpse isn’t really all that dangerous . . . in fact, the people attending the funeral are potentially more contagious than the corpse!”) how might we characterize this change? Is the shift from a spiritualized understanding of pollution to a more benign notion of corpse-object simply a shift in rhetoric or can we use “secularization” to describe a qualitative cross-cultural transformation in perception as well as cognitive and social organization? Is “secularization” of the corpse a helpful way of characterizing this modification of thought and practice or not? Does such an account participate in the privileging of a particular class of scholarship or scholarly conduct? How might this kind of account distort collected research or discourage competing insights? Does the very attempt to explain such transitions reify or reduce complex social phenomena in a problematic way? Are the findings subject to multiple theoretical interventions and can the research on a particular set of social relations be subject to concepts from several fields simultaneously without reasonable incongruence?

Each step of the way the scholar pursuing the secularization thesis must provide multiple conceptual frameworks so that “religion” becomes an innocuous concept in light of its compatriots. “Secularization” must also face a similar disintegration in the cacophony of overlapping discourses. The point here is a critical one. Critique should not be viewed as a strategy of limitation, reducing our conceptual lexicon by deleting or removing the offending terms. On the contrary, criticism should enrich our vocabulary by establishing pragmatic relations between concepts: to explain and explain differently. Today, theoretical explication cannot retreat behind disciplinary walls. If theorists of secularization are to continue to pursue their goal of explaining cultural change in terms of cognitive and institutional shifts away from supernatural imaginings toward more naturalistic imaginings, then it is of paramount importance for such explanations to provide equally persuasive and equally accurate conceptual vocabularies beyond the terms associated with ”religion” that are currently, and with good reason, contested.

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