Webs without Borders

Brad Onishi asks two main questions in this podcast. First, does it make sense to talk of an enchanted secularity? And, second, is philosophy useful for the academic study of religion/s? He spends little time on the second question, flipping it around to discuss the study of religion/s’ value for philosophy. We want to give some more space here to that second question. Our comment on Onishi’s discussion will illustrate the value of philosophy, by drawing on recent discussions in the philosophy of language about the nature of meaning. There are two main views, each of which has strong common-sense appeal. One – the representationalist view – holds that we understand a term by what it denotes or purports to represent; meaning involves word-world relations. The other – the holistic view – holds that we understand a term by how it relates to other terms; meaning involves word-word relations. We suggest that Onishi assumes the representationalist view when exploring his first question, but that the holistic view is actually the one that gives him what he wants. Philosophical defense of the holistic view will then answer his second question.

Onishi uses “Weber’s binary” to contextualize the possibility of an enchanted secularity. In the Weberian view, there is a sharp divide, an impenetrable “border,” between Enchantment and Secularity. Once this basic binary is set up, these broad categories can be filled in with more specific ones. This sort of description lends itself well to Venn diagrams:

The representationalist view underlies this framework: Weber is committed to ‘the enchanted’ and ‘the secular’ picking out mutually exclusive things, different regions of the world, if you like. Onishi’s strategy is to object to Weber’s denotations, arguing that one or the other in fact picks out something different from what Weber supposes: he redraws the boundaries.

The danger in this move is that runs afoul of a charge of equivocation—i.e., that it is not so much that Onishi is disagreeing with Weber as that he just changes the subject. In other words, why wouldn’t we say that Weber (on this reading) and Onishi just mean different things by “enchanted” and “secular”—i.e. that Weber takes ‘secular’ to denote something which excludes uncertainty whereas Onishi takes it to include it? On. this view, they are just talking past each other. The only way to avoid that conclusion under the representationalist model is to suppose that ‘the secular’ and ‘the enchanted’ do, in actuality, denote things which both include uncertainty in some substantial way, and that we have some means of establishing that. Representationalism has difficulty with this, as it is hard to see how we can access the denotations of the terms without using the very terms in question (or others that are equally problematic). The main terms used in the study of religion, such as invisible, transcendent, and non-empirical, reveal the limitations of the representationalist approach.

For semantic holists, meaning is not a function of what words stand for, represent, or denote, but rather of how they contribute to an interlocking pattern involving other terms. This sort of theory of meaning – whose most well-known philosophical proponents are W.V.O. Quine and Donald Davidson – has become increasingly influential in the study of religion. It is discussed, for example, by Hans Penner, Terry Godlove, Nancy Frankenberry, Kevin Schilbrack, Jeppe Sinding Jenson, Scott Davis, the two of us, and others. Quine in particular used the metaphor of a ‘web of significance,’ where a given term is understood as a node that connects to other nodes, each of which in turn connect to still others. Meaning is not given by correspondence to the world, and so there is ‘fact of the matter’ as what a given term means. There is no need to un-mediatedly access portions of the world to see if two terms have overlapping denotation. Rather, their meanings are revealed in their use. To understand a term on this model is not to be able to point to what it is about, but rather to be able to work one’s way around its portion of the web, drawing the right sorts of inferences supported along the way.

We suggest that filling in the gaps in Onishi’s argument as presented in this short podcast reveals a predilection to holism. To explain why ‘the secular’ can include the uncertain, he points to “quantum mechanics, advances in complex systems, and biology”, but as it stands, this is under-argued. More robustly, Onishi’s claim could be better understood in terms of ‘secular’ and ‘scientific’ being close nodes on a semantic web, ‘biology’ being close to ‘scientific’ on the same web, and similarly with ‘uncertainty’ to ‘biology’. To complete the argument in this vein, he would need to bring ‘uncertainty’ sufficiently close to ‘the enchanted’ in the web to ensure that the latter shares semantic content with ‘the secular’. He doesn’t provide that account in the podcast, but does throw out some other terms that suggests this is his intention, such as ‘mystery’, ‘mystical’, ‘magic’, and ‘wonder’. Although he doesn’t use the term ‘supernatural’ in the podcast, it is not hard to see small steps from ‘mystery’ to ‘religion’ that pass through it.

Representationalism presents us with the challenge of determining, first, what things are in the world and, second, how our words map onto those things. On the one hand, this seems a common-sense view, much as the view that the world is flat is common sense: at a first approximation, that does seem to be how words mean; they point to things, they paint a picture of the world. But, it runs straight into the problem of determining the representationally postulated meanings of the key non-empirical terms central to the study of religion, or of thinking that those denotata can be accessed in a linguistically unmediated way. Holism avoids both of these problems and has the additional advantage of sidestepping the interminable academic debates over the uniquely “right” and “true” meanings of our technical terms. This highlights a sense in which the representationalist view is counter-intuitive. It holds that determining “the” meaning of a word – e.g., ‘enchanted,’ ‘secular’ or ‘religion – is about finding the perfect match, the soul mate, the Higher Semantic Self, the one and only real and ideal fit between word and world. Do we really want to commit ourselves to a view of meaning that frames academic discussions as a search for “the one” or as battle between divergent readings, only one of which can be true? Holism avoids all these problems, and it is equally or more common sense. When we try to get at the meaning of a technical term in a book, don’t we look in the index, at how the author uses the term in their other work, at how authors cited by that author use the same term? Is this a quest for a hidden essence (“the one”), or is it an exploration of a web of connections between words? Haven’t we all discovered, at some point in our life, that the meaning of a word that we learned in childhood, from a parent or teacher, did not quite fit with more common meanings that we encountered as our semantic horizons enlarged? Is it right to say that we had the wrong meaning and then learned the right one (even when the two overlap)? Or would it be better to say that we shifted our network of associations to converge on a more normal one (where “normal” has a descriptive, statistical sense)?

Returning to Onishi’s first question, to say that one thing is describable as ‘enchanted’ and another as ‘secular’ need not be understood as a difference in kind. We can see them at lying at some distance from each other on a semantic web. For analytical purposes, some might configure their semantic web to place them closely while others might distance them—or even arrange things so that there is no path from one to the other. Onishi spends some time critiquing an historically important conception of ‘rationality’ that tied it to Cartesian “discrete subjects”. That was part of his attack on the Weberian conception of ‘the scientific’, arguing that as the idea of a ‘discrete subject’ is now “philosophically outdated”, both ‘the rational’ and ‘the scientific’ must be rethought, and that this will affect whether it is possible to have an enchanted secularity. But, does this show that the Weberian understanding of its meaning was faulty, and similarly for the related concepts? Not at all; Weber was still able utilize that meaning in reconstructing a particular semantic history from which insightful connections can be understood, as for example between the Protestant work ethic and capitalism. To reiterate our central take-home point, the divergence between Weber and Onishi need not be understood as a fight over where to place borders, but rather of adopting different configurations of the semantic web—a difference which, we might note, is only visible against the background of a good deal of overlap elsewhere. For Onishi, ‘enchantment’ lies close to ‘magic’ which lies close to ‘mystery’, which itself connects in one direction to ‘religion’ and in another to ‘uncertainty’. (This is, of course, highly simplistic, but you get the idea. The web becomes very complex very quickly and will occupy three dimensions, if not four.) For Weber, ‘secular’ lies close to a nineteenth-century, largely positivistic, conception of ‘science,’ itself understood in relation to such terms as ‘deterministic’, ‘mechanical’, and ‘law governed.’

For the holist, different semantic webs are judged not on whether they correspond to reality, but rather on the work that they do and whether they better or worse ‘fit’ as many considerations as we think important as possible. In other words, some people will prefer the Weberian binary take on the meaning of ‘enchanted’ and ‘secular’ and some people will prefer Onishi’s. Discussion then turns away from fighting over which reading is the one true champion to a more fruitful direction: which is more useful? or, what purposes are served and who benefits from each of these readings? Darwin noted other sorts of regularities than did Newton, and he saw that the sort of predictions Newton was keen on are a lot more difficult to make where biology is concerned. Did Darwin replace Newton’s wrong concept of ‘science’ with the correct one? Did Darwin see much better what ‘science’ actually denotes, the thing that it picks out in the world? Or did he (minimally) rearrange and extend its web of semantic associations? Onishi can be seen as doing something similar: he is trying to extend a web of associations in order to offer more useful account of the meanings of key terms in our discipline. His vindication is not that he has found the true meanings of “enchantment’ and ‘secularity’ but that his discussion provides a much better—richer, more useful, even more ethical—way of thinking about religion in the modern world.


Steve and Mark are kind of comedians and have suggested the following caption for their photos:

As we hope our response to Bradley Onishi suggests, there is no such thing as what a word or picture just means, in and of itself. Context is required. You can’t “read” our author photos without knowing what to connect it to. You need to situate it in a semantic web of sorts. Who is the woman in the photo with Steve? What religion is that? Is it play, ritual or something else? Is Steve the expert or is she, or neither? If you jump to some specific interpretation that is only because you are presuming, filling in or projecting a semantic network that is not provided.

To satisfy the curious, along with a some colleagues, Steve visited a famous mudang (a healer / diviner who works with a series of spirits) in South Korea. Prof. Chae Young Kim, who invited Steve to be part of his research team on religion and healing, set up the visit. Steve shares:

“Ms. Lee was excited to meet me – not as much as I was to meet her – because I work with spirit healers in Brazil. She showed us her two small temples, with their richly decorated altars, gave us a recreated demonstration of a divination consultation, and then insisted that I wear the robes of this one particular spirit. She was laughing the whole time … thought it was hilarious. I got into the spirit of the playfulness of the moment. That is her putting the robes and hat on me. So it is play, but also an echo of ritual, and she is the expert, but acknowledging my different sort of expertise. And she taught me how to open the fan with a sharp snap, but nothing like the snap that she produces.”

As you, as a reader, engage the images on RSP, we hope you are challenged in new ways to think about how we make meaning from them. –Rebecca Barrett-Fox, features editor.




Narrating Secularism in the Continental Philosophy of Religion: Onishi and the Enduring Consequences of the Secularization Thesis

Building largely from the thesis he developed in his 2018 The Sacrality of the Secular: Postmodern Philosophy of Religion, Bradley Onishi in his interview with David McConeghy outlines the rejection of the secularization thesis in the philosophy of religion, as well as its implications for the study of religion more broadly. For those not familiar, the secularization thesis is the contention emerging from the work of Max Weber, which insists that modernism’s trajectory toward greater rationalism will invariably lead to greater secularization. Along with a chorus of scholars in fields ranging from the philosophy of religion to behavioral economics, Onishi makes a clear case for the heuristic futility of the secularization thesis, primarily because it overstates the modern subject as a rational maximizer.

In this conversation, Onishi’s original contribution emerges not from his critique of the secularization thesis, but rather in his ability to diagnose what the failure of the secularization thesis implies for the delineation of subdisciplines in the study of religion. Put simply, Onishi rightly notes that scholars of religion conceptualized the ideological distinctions between the fields of the continental philosophy of religion and philosophical theology prior to understanding the limitations of the secularization thesis. More than a trivial historical observation, Onishi’s insight cogently explains that several of the now-defunct core premises of the secularization thesis remain present in how scholars of religion justify why it is that philosophers of religion must not learn from the religious traditions they study—at least without falling prey to the common critique of becoming a crypto-theologian.

Though Onishi is himself not guilty of this, his analysis raises one of the most persistent concerns I have held for the narration of religious affiliation: namely, the insistence that many people who are not religious, upon closer examination, hold the same core attitudes that are the hallmark of religious experience. Framed otherwise, though I agree with Onishi’s critique of the secularization thesis, there remains the problem of the precedent that the secularization thesis poses for how the conversation regarding secularization functions in the first place. That is, if one identifies the secularization thesis as the status quo against which contemporary scholars of religion are to rebel, then even the most critical and generative analysis will leave secularism in a default position of hostility against religion. To be clear, this is not to suggest anything about compatibility models for science and religion, such as from Ian Barbour. Rather, what is consequential in this conversation is the how such a point of departure narrates the direction of the ideological hostility itself.

Above, the interior of the Nottingham, England Pitcher & Piano, which is housed in a building that was a Unitarian Church from 1876 to 1982. While Pitcher & Piano has 18 locations in the UK, this is the only one in a former house of worship. Image from the Pitcher & Piano website.

Put simply, Onishi’s analysis of post-secularity leaves me with the lingering suspicion that scholars of religion still retain the understanding of secularity as encroaching upon the territory of religion, and not the other way around. On this point, I must be careful not to overstate my concern. It is not so much that I view Onishi as arguing for a problematic understanding of the religious as prior to secularization; it is abundantly clear that his intention is more accurately to destabilize a facile binary between the sacred and the secular, which includes offering a more generous possibility for secular persons to participate in various forms of enchantment that were previously monopolized by faith traditions.

The problem as I see it is that this method of framing the evolving relation of secularity to religion presumes that enchantment is a primordially religious experience, which religious persons generously share with secularists who were just persecuting them. Allow me to explain.

Though I recognize that such a reference may risk placing me firmly back within a modernist framework where the secularization thesis reigns unchecked, on this matter I am continually haunted by one of the most compelling charges that Freud offers for conceptualizing the relation between religious and scientific Weltanschauungen—a bit of text that I foregrounded a recent volume with. In his New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, Freud interrogates the relation between secular science and the religious worldview in the following way.

The struggle of the scientific spirit against the religious Weltanschauung is, as you know, not at an end: it is still going on to-day under our eyes. […] Religion may not be critically examined because it is the highest, most precious, and most sublime thing that the human spirit has produced, because it gives expression to the deepest feelings and alone makes the world tolerable and life worthy of men [sic]. We need not reply by disputing this estimate of religion but by drawing attention to another matter. What we do is to emphasize the fact that what is in question is not in the least an invasion of the field of religion by the scientific spirit, but on the contrary an invasion by religion of the sphere of scientific thought. Whatever may be the value and importance of religion, it has no right in any way to restrict thought—no right, therefore, to exclude itself from having thought applied to it.[1]

One does not have to accept Freud’s critical vision of religion qua wish fulfillment to be persuaded by his account of the relation between secular science—of which Freud believes psychoanalysis is a part—and religion. More modestly, the historical priority of religion’s dominance should not suggest that any conflict with secularism is always a form of secular aggression as understood by the secularization thesis. Rather, Freud suggests, it is completely possible that science and secular persons are merely asserting their right to have space to breathe and carry out their work without impedance from religion. Any claim that secularism is encroaching upon religion is nothing more than a deluded persecution complex.

I offer the Freudian critique not to concern troll Onishi and McConeghy’s genuinely riveting interview. I broadly agree with Onishi’s conviction that being a secular person does not make one a secularist, that it is possible to hold an enchanted secularity, and that the decolonization of the philosophy of religion will be vital for clarifying these possibilities. My question, more concretely, is how we as philosophers of religion can create space for secular persons to be secular, without the presumption that any claim to meaning and enchantment is somehow co-opting religion. Practically speaking, this has little to do with secular persons feeling they have permission to be enchanted; anecdotally speaking, no secular person in my world feels particularly compelled to get approval from religion before they engage in a ritual practice, for example. Rather, as a philosopher of religion who is also not afraid to learn from faith traditions—some of which I unapologetically participate in—I am more specifically irked by scholars of religion such as Paul Tillich who narrate secular persons as facing a pathetic ultimatum: acquiescence to the meaningful domain of religion, or resignation to nihilism.

This is, naturally, a deplorable framing—one which I know Onishi and McConeghy would also reject. My suspicion, simply, that there is likely a parallel problem between the task of rejecting the secularization thesis, and the tired problem of overcoming metaphysics in the continental philosophy of religion. In other words, once the conversation is framed in those terms, even the most creatively valiant efforts to subvert them will only ever reaffirming their flawed premises. If my suspicion is correct—it may not be—then this is in no way an indictment of Onishi’s project. Rather, it is a worthwhile struggle with which I sympathize. I am grateful for his labor here.

[1] Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, trans. and ed. James Strachey (New York: W. W. Norton, 1965), 209-10.