Religion Snapshots: Defining Postsecularism, Part 1


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.”

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

Karen de Vries: I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. My work could easily be considered “postsecular” and I’m a fan of some of the work that happens under this sign, BUT I don’t use the term to describe my position or my intellectual work. I think about postsecularism the way I think about many “posts” (e.g. postmodernism, posthumanism, postfeminism), which is to say that I have a slight allergy to the temporal register of “getting past” or “getting beyond” because it connotes an overcoming of all these allegedly erroneous ways of thinking because we post-x’s have figured out a new way of thinking. Yes, we have figured out a new way of talking about knowledge and I’m on board with much of it, but the temporal register of “post” tilts toward the future and disavows past complexities that I think need to be taken up with thicker nuance than the postsecular frequently grants.

An example. One of the features of work described as “postsecular” I appreciate is the critique of secular rationality and its legacies of oppression, but do we really have to call ourselves “post” to engage in these critiques? Feminists have been critiquing racist masculinist objectivity for several decades now with terms like “situated knowledges.” In theorizing desire, feminists and queer theorists have also been doing what could be called “affect theory” for some time. I’ve always appreciated the feminist t-shirt that says, “I’ll be post-feminist in the post-patriarchy.” Perhaps the correlate for this topic is, “I’ll be post-secular when we’re post-religion.” 

Of course, definitions and understandings of differences between “religion” and “secular” are all over the map. My frame of reference for thinking about these terms revolves around authority. Just as one might say that feminism developed out of a critique of patriarchal authority structures, one could also say that secularism developed out of a critique of religious (i.e. Christian) authority structures. I want to hold onto that critique of “the god trick” and also be vigilant of the many places it is deployed in, to use Talal Asad’s term, secular formations. Additionally, I want to hold onto a perspective that recognizes difference in the kinds of subjectivities and governmentalities that religious and secular formations entail (e.g. the authority mechanisms undergirding a young earth creationist perspective are significantly different than those undergirding an evolutionist perspective).

While I appreciate the epistemological nuance (i.e. the critique of objectivity, the attention to affect, and the understanding of “secularism” as a particular kind of episteme and political project) promoted under the banner of “postsecular,” it’s simply not a name I readily identify with. Finding myself in the borderlands of the religious and secular, I think of these conversations as building emergent knowledge practices that aim to undo the religious/secular binary in queer ways with yet to be determined effects. To inherit the differential and constitutive relations of the contemporary episteme, I’ve begun to describe them as “religio-secular” conversations instead of as postsecular. 

Perhaps this distinction boils down to “potato, potahto,” but for those of us invested in language, the difference is key. It points to different mentalities and emphases regarding how we inherit the terms, theorists, and knowledge formations that are our conditions of possibility. So while I’m pleased that a larger-scale discussion complicating understandings of secular and religious knowledge formations is taking place, the nomenclature of the “postsecular” connotes a bit more disavowal than I am comfortable with.

Charles McCrary: A clean secular/religious binary imagined by some scholars and commentators has in recent years broken down. This is true in scholarship but also, I think, in institutions like law and government, and in American culture more broadly. However, questions like “Is that practice really religious?” or “Is that idea of religious or secular origin?”–questions that many scholars now find unhelpful–have relevance due to religion’s special place in law. So, these questions, odd as they are, must be answered. In the last, say, 70 years, but especially the last decade or two, in American law the individual has been the beneficiary of more rights, especially “religious” ones, as legal understandings of religion expanded. As Winnifred Sullivan and others have pointed out, these developments have helped lead to a conception of the individual human as in some way inherently “religious.”

The postsecular, then, seems to me a way to signal recognition of this situation. If “religion” is no longer clearly confined to institutions and official doctrines, if it’s something personal, “spiritual,” private, and protected–and this is the way a significant percentage of Americans, including legal thinkers and judges, understand it–then there is less left for the realm of “secular.” When applied to legal and cultural conceptions of human nature, I like the term “postsecular” because it indicates a historical change.

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2 Responses to Religion Snapshots: Defining Postsecularism, Part 1

  1. To me, the secular over-identifies with what has occurred in the European political space. A movement to the post-secular therefore allows a European geographic imagination to (once again) set itself apart from transformations and differentiations seen elsewhere (after Mignolo). Lily Kong is cautious when implying the arrival of a post-secular analysis: a positing of the post-secular is problematic. The over-generalisation of the European model of the secular denies the compositional specificities of sites. It recreates a static sense of some places being ‘tamed’. Instead, I think we need to cast off a Eurocentric understanding of secular space set in opposition to a defined-from-outside religion. Secular space is not freely disputed across scales and times. Asad’s genealogy of secularism (2003) shows that notions of the religious as a universal are the result of specific configurations of power. This is because the secular is already a discursive practice that arises in relation to other places. And so with the post-secular: a desire to move ahead of other places with which We stand in relation.

  2. Pingback: Cross-Post: Defining “Post-Secular” | Michael Graziano

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