Defining Postsecularism: A Response

JC10by Donovan Schaefer

In response to a question from a colleague, I asked a small group of scholars working on issues of secularism and secularity how they would define postsecularismpostsecular, or the postsecular (hereafter just “postsecularism”). Their responses are posted at these links (Part 1 and Part 2).

Postsecularism as, these short reflections show, can be approached from a range of perspectives. In the introduction to their 2008 anthology SecularismsJanet R. Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini define secularism in terms of what they call the “secularization narrative”–the hypothesis that reason, politics, and morality are advancing steadily and in tandem while something called religion remains paralyzed and locked into a trajectory of irreversible decline. They identify eight features of the secularization narrative: rationalization, enlightenment, social-structural differentiation (“With the evolution of knowledge comes the possibility of differentiating specific tasks into different sections of society, so that, for example, the functions of the church can be separated from those of the state.” “Introduction,” 5), freedom, privatization, universalism, and modernization/progress. Although Jakobsen and Pellegrini do not use the term, postsecularism can be seen as a critical frame that skeptically engages elements of the secularization narrative.  If the secularization narrative proposes that as reason and science advance, religion will gradually be erased, postsecularism is, in a nutshell, any perspective that says It’s not that simple.

The archives drawn on by postsecularism are heterogeneous and complex. They include the “return of religion” in the late 20th century, increasingly politicized global religious movements that identify themselves as explicitly religious rather than democratic or populist, complications in the integrity of the public/private divide, deconstructions of the category “religion” itself that either expand its borders to enfold traditionally non-religious formations of power or contract its borders to render it unintelligible, and the emergence of new global epistemological and political challenges to liberal democracy and neoliberal capitalism.

Postsecularism, in other words, is interlaced with other critical projects that push back on the overconfidence in universal rationality represented by the European Enlightenment–specifically as that overconfidence is applied to religion. As Grace Jantzen writes, “both secularism and religion need to be radically rethought as mutually imbricated in some of the most objectionable aspects of the project of modernity.” (Becoming Divine, 8)

By these lights, “postsecularism” in no way means that the secularization narrative has evaporated, in the same way that postcolonial theorists do not presume that colonialism is extinct. It may be best to think of the post in postsecularism as indicating that the secularization narrative has been placed under erasure, in Derrida’s sense: it has been theoretically disrupted–deconstructed, situated in a genealogy that locates it within a particular European imperial-intellectual context–but it continues to shape systems of power-knowledge-affect. These interactions with power are often complex–even unpredictable–such as the imperative, among anti-evolutionists, to claim the mantle of scientific authority by repudiating evolution as “just a theory,” or the way that my students at a liberal arts college in the northeastern United States are entirely comfortable reciting the limitations of the secularization narrative, yet are still deeply reluctant to abandon the normative value of Jefferson’s “wall of separation between church and state.” The “post” in postsecularism means “we are grappling with the legacy of the secularization narrative,” not “Secularism is over and done with.”

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