Saturday, January 31, 2015

‘Post-secularism’ - Did secularism and the Enlightenment project fail?

In Europe, due to continued religious wars, civil peace and stability could only be ensured by a separation between state and church, which resulted in the end of state-pursued religious goals. The European state system became based on the separation of religion from state affairs, which made secularism modernity’s constitutive feature. Starting from this European experience, scholars and philosophers such as August Comte, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber and Karl Marx prophesied beforehand an inevitable shift from the traditional to the modern; a transformation from religious superstitions to the superiority of rationality; from a deeply hierarchical status-based society to a rights-based and impersonal society, with the inclusion and integration of the people as citizens into political processes of decision-making.

The secularisation thesis however faced a serious crisis with the unforeseen and perplexing development of the so-called „resurgence of religion“, i.e. the rise of political actors wanting to fashion their own political, economic and social systems based on - again, their own - ethico-social heritage and ontological and epistemological foundations.

Momentous historical events in international relations such as the Iranian Revolution, the rise of solidarity and the Polish Revolution, and the tragedy of September 11, 2001 led scholars to rethink the “illusion” of the secularisation project that reduced the world to what can be perceived and controlled through reason, science and technology and excluded the sacred, the religious, the spiritual and the traditional. The new term ‘post-secularism’ entered the fray, challenging the too narrow Eurocentric – or rather absolutist - perspective of the secularisation theory as a universal teleological process of human and societal development, analysing and explaining the genealogy of the secular, and opening up the possibility of multiple paths to secularity. 

The Origins of Secularism in the Enlightenment Period

The term secular, which is derived from the Latin saeculum, implied a marked dual connotation of space and time, referring to ‘this time’ or ‘now, present’ and ‘this world’ or ‘worldly’. The existence of a sacred-profane division in Latin Christendom, the two spheres of ‘this world’ – ‘the religious’ and ‘the secular’ - both claiming to dominate an autonomous sphere, often caused and opened tensions and conflicts between the two realms – the ‘investiture’ conflicts being the unambiguous manifestation of these omnipresent conflicts - so that necessarily ending this dualism by subordinating the one under the other was the imperative for centuries. Additionally to this horizontal and spatial division of ‘this world’ into two autonomous categories, there was also a vertical temporal division between ‘the other world’ (heaven) and ‘this world’, drawing a tripartite division of what we perceive as reality. This division was politically translated into the transcendental City of God (Heavenly Kingdom), its ecclesiastical clerical embodiment on earth (Church, Papal Kingdom) and the City of Man (the Holy Roman Empire). Secularization was the historical process of the breakdown of this dualist horizontal division of ‘this world’; ‘the other world’ was left to the convictional choice of the individual and was therefore repressed into the private sphere.

Having suffered from perpetual religious wars up until the Peace of Westphalia, Europe went through a historical turning point both in philosophical as well as political terms in the 17th century, referred to conventionally as the Age of Enlightenment. Authoritarian religious institutions and rulers were regarded as weakening or at least stagnating scientific research and development. Thus, determined to fight religious bigotry and indoctrination, prominent thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, René Descartes, David Hume and Immanuel Kant were ambitious in creating a philosophical foundation for “secular” moral values. 

During the period of enlightenment, several meanings were added to the term “secular”, so as to refer to a condition or value that was independent from “the religious”, including rationality, individual autonomy and progress. In the 19th century, seminal social thinkers – Friedrich Nietzsche, August Comte, Herbert Spencer, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud – trumpeted the “death of God”, believing that religion would gradually lose significance and the sacred would disappear altogether, since rationalisation, industrialisation and values such as individual sovereignty, democracy, tolerance and economic progress permeated all spheres of life. The institutional and philosophical secularisation and the ultimate demise of religion were strongly assumed to be intrinsically interrelated components of a single universal teleological process of human development.

Concerning the definition of secularism (or we should rather use the term “secularisation, as an analytical conceptualisation of modern world-historical processes”), different types of categories were subordinated to this concept. Having the broad body and multidimensional formation of the concept of secularism in mind, we can disaggregate it into three different constituents as Casanova does. Politically, the term implied the removal of religious domination from the public sphere and political authority and the transferral of political functions and institutions from the church to that of state (de-sacralisation of politics); socially and entrepreneurially it suggested a this-worldly orientation and the supremacy of individual reason and science in constructing society (de-consecration of values); and philosophically, the liberation of man from “religious and metaphysical control over his reason, the breaking of all supernatural myths and sacred symbols” and an intellectual disenchantment from the magical image of the world through the theoretical mastery of nature with rationalisation (disenchantment of nature). 

The resurgence of religion – towards the post-secular

As to the last few decades however, the term “resurgence of religion” has entered the fray of Western academia and international relations theory. Religion, religious beliefs, practices and discourses, religious individuals, NGOs, institutions and political parties have acquired growing significance, visibility, saliency and persuasiveness in personal and public life and appear to have begun to play an increasingly greater role in mobilizing people. A de-privatisation of religion muddled through the modern world; religious traditions rejected the marginal role that secularisation and modernisation theories had imposed on them. The growing trend of globalisation, the subsequently increasing migration flows of peasant societies into urban areas, the urbanisation of rural societies through the rise of media and technology have turned traditions – that seemed to be doomed to extinction – into a significant component of the modern secular age as opposed to the historical conjuncture in which the secularisation model was built. These traditions have now made their own claims on man’s status in this world and its political implications, demanded appreciation as equal active participants of democracy and challenged the teleological, ontological and philosophical presumptions of secularism. Separating the secularisation theory from its ideological roots in its critique of religion in the Enlightenment period became possible. Scholars now began to question the causal relationship between the subordination of the spiritual sphere under the worldly sphere - i.e. the secularisation theory as functional differentiation of the secular and religious spheres - and the on-going indispensable decline and eventual disappearance of religious beliefs and practices. The US presents an extraordinary example: While being one of the world’s most developed and modernised countries and one of the countries to be separating state and church, it also embodies a high proportion of practicing Christians. 

The resurgence of religion is since considered to be almost factual. However the question remains unclear and controversial, whether this resurgence has entered as a result of social, cultural and political transformations with a new significance, or whether religion is a phenomenon that had existed all along but just became visible over time. Dirlik argues that religion, being forced to invisibility for decades, has been there all along and merely became visible. For him, religious movements complemented or even replaced “struggles against colonialism, the search for national identity and cultural coherence, and demands for social justice and equality that cut across national and civilizational boundaries.” This question still needs to be examined empirically and discussed theoretically.
From the Iranian revolution to the post-socialist Buddhist revival, from religious extremism or the politics of the headscarf to the fruitless “Arab spring”, considerable trends and developments in the last few decades make it easy to understand why religion has regained its central place in scholarly discourse in the recent past. 

But what exactly is meant by ‘post’ in post-secularism? I argue that the term neither implies a rejection (or refusal) of nor a replacement for the secular, it does not indicate a teleological failure of secularism either. It helps religion to negotiate intimately with the secular. In Saba Mahmood’s terms, it frees itself from the manacles of “certainty” and pledges itself to the precarious “space of risk”, showing the eagerness to re-evaluate its own presumptions in the light of the others´. Post-secularism is concerned with the question whether secular states can defend their commitment to non-religious and neutral principles, without falling into the trap of ideological and coercive authoritarianism by excluding religious actors from the public sphere of which they initially intended to free themselves from. It recognizes the limitations of its positions, criticizes the presumptuous overreach of its claims of truth, while still articulating unshakable conviction. It tries to raise awareness that justifying or attacking any pole of the religious-secular dichotomy has the potential of polarisation and fragmentation. It is rather a modification, revision, adaptation, re-conceptualisation of both the secular and the religious. 

This attempt of re-conceptualisation is evident from José Casanova`s emphasis, that secularisation consists of three independent hypotheses: (1) the decline of individual religiosity and religious belief, (2) the functional differentiation of religious and secular sub-systems and (3) the privatization of religion. He rejects the decline and privatisation theses by questioning their empirical and normative validity and confirms the differentiation thesis. Thus, new concepts of religion such as ‘lived religion’, ‘believing without belonging’ and ‘invisible religion’ emerged vice versa in this context. As Talal Asad points out correctly, the terms “religious” and “secular” can only be understood in relation to each other; each new definition of the secular accompanies and requires a new definition of the religious.
Due to its characteristic historical and philosophical exceptionality, recent scholars have criticised the secularisation theory for its blindness to non-European contextual frameworks. For them, secularism was formed within the European context of conflict between Catholics and Protestants and worked fairly well in their respective regions and societies. Thus, the decline of religious beliefs in the last three centuries is claimed to be a European exception with the American trend being the norm. They argue that secularism was dominated by the problems arising from the aforementioned internal inconsistency of its epistemological disorder and institutional disorganization and that it prevents us from understanding the demands and claims of other traditions that are currently muddling through the integration process into the European environment. Taylor rightly points out that there is an interpenetration and dynamism between “the secular” (state, economy, art, entertainment, science, welfare) and “the religious” (ecclesiastical institution and churches) within the Islamic imago mundi and – in contrast to Latin Christendom – ‘the secular’ realm cannot be understood without reference to the transcendent. Inasmuch as secularism is deeply embedded in the imagination of post-secularism which maintains the polarization between religion and reason and the illegitimacy of the authority of the sacred by expecting religions to develop a hermeneutical self-renewing, post-secularism still cannot claim to be implementable on different contexts or to overcome its Eurocentric presumptions.

Habermas on the ‘post-secular’

Habermas has undoubtedly played a pivotal role in post-secularism theory. As many sociologists have paid attention to the limitations of the traditional secularisation thesis, he particularly, among others, has rethought the place of religious contributions in the public sphere and the idea of a post-secular world. For solving the tension between radical multiculturalism, which interprets secularism as freedom of religion, and radical secularism, which is often associated with the French model of Laïcité and upholds the idea of freedom from religion, he proposes a dialogic interaction based on an inclusion of foreign minority cultures into civil society. He questions the legitimacy for the secular state to expect its religious citizens to use a secular language in the public sphere and to act as if they were devoid of religious beliefs. Such a demand would make it impossible for religious citizens to “undertake such an artificial division within their own minds without jeopardizing their existence as pious persons.” He thinks that secular citizens can learn from religious contributions, since religions have the notable power of articulating moral truths. To make this contribution possible, he splits the public sphere into an ‘informal public sphere’, in which religious language and reason can be used, and the ‘institutional public sphere’, where only secular reason counts and into which religious contributions have to be translated. Participants in the informal public sphere, whether secular or religious, should show ‘cooperative cognitive effort’ based on reciprocity and mutual respect, each side willing to accept the possible truth of his counterpart’s arguments.

Habermas uses the term post-secular to identify the challenge secular societies face where religions remain a significant public and cognitive substance. Imposing a democratic order on Muslim communities, he argues, will not lead to a responsible internalised acceptance of the secular legitimation of constitutional principles. Thus, they will have to go through a ‘learning process’. He agrees with the necessity of a reformed historical-hermeneutical approach to the Quranic doctrine, which is exactly what Mahmood criticizes and argues to signal a fundamental misunderstanding of contemporary Islamic resurgence and accuses of marking a “normative secularity”. Habermas proposes a reform in epistemic attitudes equivalent or at least similar to the theological transformation of the Western Reformation period for the long run, while discouraging from governmental intervention (laissez-faire). Habermas further presupposes an implicit link between religious extremism and piety, which shows that the secularist epistemic framework remains still anchored in his imagination of post-secularism.


I have tried to outline the theory of post-secularism by first examining the historical and philosophical framework in which secularism initially emerged and asserted its claims. We have seen that the philosophical, political and societal constituents of the secularism thesis were perceived as intrinsically interrelated components of a single universal epistemological process of human development. This holistic imagination has been subject to a serious review and reconsideration in the last few decades. However, the idea of post-secular neither implies a rejection of the secular, nor a teleological failure of secularism per se. It rather tries to include religious voices, terminologies into the hitherto secular public sphere, and it re-conceptualises, modifies both the secular and the religious, re-evaluates and abstracts its own presumptions and finally recognises its own limitations, while still sticking insistently to its inevitable secular epistemic framework, by recognising ‘the religious’ and encouraging and facilitating its way to gaining a secular episteme. Post-secularism is the process from a polemical, thoroughly ideological distaste for religion, to a more including, embracing, self-critical and respectful attitude towards religion.


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