Monthly Archives: July 2010

for and against secularism

I find myself in a strange sort of ambivalence when confronted with the word “secular.” On the one hand, there’s a variety of respectable criticisms that can be and have been made of the ways in which the concepts of the secular, of secularization, and particularly of secularism – being constructions of modern Europe – are limited in scope and efficacy and are actually of diminishing value even in the societies from which they were born… not to mention those to which they have been imported. The main source I would point to here is the work of Talal Asad, though I recently read a particularly forceful argument by Ashis Nandy (in his Time Warps), who has been an ardent critic of secularism for at least a quarter of a century.

On the other hand, any time I come across a use of the word “secular” by, usually, some form of reactionary conservative (think Pat Robertson, or perhaps this gentleman) as a descriptor of the evil against which “everyday Americans,” “good Christians,” etc. must be vigilant, I bristle with the urge to defend the merits of a secular and secularized society. I don’t think that it’s a matter of these particular detractors using the word in a different sense than that of secularism’s more erudite critics. I also don’t think that it’s a matter of finding a middle point between the kind of ideological secularism denounced by Asad and Nandy, in which religion has no place, and the intolerant (I hesitate to use the word theocratic) aspirations of ostensibly religious reactionaries – though of course neither extreme is acceptable.

Although Nandy relies on a concept of “tolerance” as the preferable alternative to “secularism” – I find neither bit of terminology very acceptable, but Nandy does qualify and explain his use of “tolerance,” acknowledging that many will disagree with it – he puts this opposition to use together with another that I found very helpful in thinking through my different reactions to different uses of “secular”: religion-as-faith (understood not as belief but as way of life) vs. religion-as-ideology. Both of these are intrinsic to the present state of religious life as he sees it in India and across South Asia, such that one does not represent the “essence” or “truth” of religion while the other is foreign to it. In addition, the two are rarely if ever found in pure forms, instead being “two axes along which the state of contemporary religions can be plotted.” Nandy goes on to identify both contemporary secularizing politics and anti-secular reactions in terms of religion-as-ideology, the latter concept having come to increasing prominence both inside and outside of contemporary religions at the expense of religion-as-faith. It is in the latter that what he sees as the promise of (a recovery of) “religious tolerance” resides, insofar as religion-as-faith is “definitionally non-monolithic and operationally plural.”

It seems to me that both the secularism defended by those Nandy or Asad criticizes and the anti-secularism of the religio-political right offer examples of religion-as-ideology – to be shunned in the first case and to be embraced in the second. But this naturally underplays the plurality and vitality of religion-as-faith that remains a possibility and in many cases an actuality for religious ways of life. So, I suppose it’s the attempt to shut out these other ways of thinking about religion and its relationship to politics and to society that irks me in both cases.