No, Secularism is not a World Religion

No, secularism is not a world religion. That is my response to the question posed to Donovan Schaefer concerning the relationship between secularism and religion. In this podcast, Schaefer suggested that incorporating secularism as an “object of study” within the world religion paradigm could be a useful pedagogical tool to challenge it from within, but I think this is the wrong approach. The reason for my rejection of  Schaefer’s solution is not because I think incorporating secularism in the world religion paradigm would muddy the sanctity of the category, nor because Schaefer’s proposal fails some more critical definition of religion, but simply because it would only end up reifying religion even more. In my view, incorporating secularism in the world religions paradigm doesn’t challenge this paradigm from within, as Schaefer suggests, but merely gives it more life by expanding its scope and reach. Committing this error would be the same as trying to fix the eurocentrism implicit in the world religion paradigm by expanding the various cultures and histories that fall under its domain, which is exactly the same error that thinkers made in the middle of the twentieth century. In contrast to Schaefer, I would suggest that the way to challenge the world religions paradigm is not by incorporating more diverse―and possibly anti-religious―phenomenon into its structure, but by simply historicizing the category and showing how it operates at an ideological level.

To begin, let me assert that I recognize and respect the general scholarly position from which Schaefer  is coming. At the beginning of the podcast he notes that a lot of recent scholarship has challenged the idea that secularism stands in contrast to religion, and on this point he is certainly correct. In the past century, prominent theorist like Karl Löwith, Hans Blumenberg, Charles Taylor, and Marcel Gauchet have all challenged the traditional narrative that pits modernity against religion and frames Western history as an increasing process of secularization that is liberated from religion. For instance, Blumenberg tries to expose the unique legitimacy of the modern age that recognizes but does not reduce it to its Christian legacy, and Taylor takes the extreme position of suggesting that the modern secular age was brought about by developments latent in the Jewish and Christian traditions. Indeed, for Taylor, the generative seeds of modernity don’t begin with modern developments in science and philosophy but with various Judeo-Christian influences that we can trace back to the wider Mediterranean civilization from which they emerged. This implies that secularism is not some anti-religious movement in the West but is deeply intertwined with the rise and fall of the civilization that once called itself “Christendom.”

Indeed, as both Schaefer and Cotter acknowledge during the course of the pod cast, both “religion” and the “secular” are categories that emerge out of a certain “Christian”―or more broadly stated, “Western”―provenance. In regard to religion, thinkers such as Talal Asad, Timothy Fitzgerald, and Tomoko Masuzawa have all noted that it was only after the Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century that the word “religion” began to take on the connotation of personal belief in a subjective sense, and to denote a universal human sense or capacity for religion. In Roman and early Christian Latin literature the nouns religio, religiones, the adjective religiosus, and the adverb religios were mainly used to describe the performance of ritual obligations. This early use has more in common with the Latin Pietas than with our modern notion of the word “religion,” which has acquired the sense of inner belief or faith. The invention of religion in this modern sense took place because various thinkers―from Jean Bodin to G. W. F. Hegel―argued that true religion is a matter of proper belief, not just cultic participation. Moreover, it occurred when this idea was carried around the world by the forces of colonization and globalization, which eventually led to the normative divisions of the subject that make up world religion textbooks (i.e. the division between Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.)

Similarly, the secular was also invented in the context of Christians―or Christian critics―struggling to make sense of the post-reformation world. In fact, the first modern use of the word “secular” can be traced to the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), which brought an end to the wars of religion. The treaty uses the term “secularity” to describe “the conversion of an ecclesiastical or religious institution or its property to sovereigns, princes or lay people.” In this manner, the secular emerged as a space of worldly authority that was distinct from, yet deeply interconnected with, Western religious institutions. From this perspective, as Schaefer notes, secularism can be viewed as “an offshoot of Christianity… as something that Christianity does.” When we view the history of the West from a broad lens it is possible to see the great schisms between the various Christian orthodoxies and the “secular” forms of thought that took inspiration from them as “part of the story of Christianity.”

Where I disagree with Schaefer is in his attempt to see these intertwined genealogies through the cross-hairs of the world religion paradigm. Once we acknowledge that the invention of religion as a universal category and its subsequent critique by the forces of secularism took place under a certain Western provenance, why would we continue expanding the scope and reach of the world religion paradigm? I agree with Schaefer that this paradigm is not “evil,” as he puts it, but it is incorrect; it does not adequately describe the phenomena, so why would we continue to expand its application? From my perspective, to do what Schaefer is suggesting would be tantamount to the same error made by Ernst Troeltsch or Ninian Smart in the twentieth century, as it would try to correct the study of religion by expanding its scope. Smart, for instance, always tried to instruct students in a “broad religious outlook” by showing how religion is constituted by cultural difference,  and I think what Schaefer has suggested would end up being very similar. Recall that Smart’s classification of world religions included not just Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, but various indigenous traditions and even Maoist communism. In this light, incorporating secularism within the world religion paradigm is no different than attempting to challenge the paradigm by incorporating non-traditional or atheist forms of religion within the classroom.

For instance, Schaefer cites the work of Janet Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini, and suggests that one way to critically challenge religion from within is by showing how there is not just one type of secularism, but multiple secularisms. Like Talal Asad and Charles Taylor, he suggests that there are different formations of the secular that emerge out of different cultures and contexts, and that they expose the diversity at the heart of our models of religious classification. In this light, Christian, Islamic, and Hindu cultures (etc.) give rise to different types of secularism, and there is even a difference between Hindu forms of secularism in India and Hindu forms of secularism in America. Now, to be fair, I do think this is a good way to understand different cultural forms in light of globalization, but why try to incorporate these secularisms within the world religion paradigm? In contrast to Schaefer, I am worried that including non-religious or atheist forms of culture within the paradigm doesn’t challenge it from within, but merely revitalizes it by incorporating more data within its fold.

To put the matter plainly, I think we need to push the genealogy and historical situatedness of religion and secularism further than Schaefer proposes. Schaefer suggests that he wants to deconstruct the world religion paradigm by destabilizing it from within, yet I don’t think he goes far enough in this regard. He is right that deconstruction always takes place within the very thing under analysis, but this doesn’t mean that we should proceed by expanding the same old reified categories at a wider level. I follow Jacques Derrida in thinking that we need to question both our students and ourselves (as scholars) whether religion and secularism exist at all outside of their Western contexts, and thereby attempt to limit their further application. In Above All No Journalists! Derrida states this bluntly when he asks what a non-Christian is doing when they say “Islam, or Judaism, or Buddhism is my religion.” Is there even a word for “religion” in Arabic, he questions? Certainly not an adequate translation of the Latin. Moreover, what really characterizes Judaism as a religion, or Buddhism? What we know for certain, Derrida suggests, is that the history of the concept religion is wrapped up with a “political and ideological space dominated by Christianity,” and that “to engage in the obscure and equivocal strug­gle in which the putatively “universal” value of the concept of religion, even of religious tolerance,” is to engage in a semantic space appropriated by Christianity.  According to this approach, deconstruction occurs by exposing the limits of traditional modes of classification and retreating from their normative application, not applying these norms to even more phenomena.

For these reasons, I would suggest that the best way to challenge the world religions paradigm is simply by historicizing the category and showing how it functions at an ideological level. I am all in favor of deconstructing something from within “in order to destabilize it,” as Schaefer suggests, but we can do this without expanding the scope of the same old categories along the way. Hence, rather than merely incorporating more diverse―and possibly anti-religious―phenomenon into the world religions paradigm, I think we need to expose the ideological forces at play and thereby challenge their application on a global scale. Schaefer is correct that there is “only so much we can do to destabilize the way that students think,” but if that is the case then let’s expose the limits of the normative forces at play by properly situating them within their ideological contexts.





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