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.

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Posted on July 22, 2010, in religion and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. “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.”

    Well, what then? If it’s not one of the poles, nor a happy medium between the poles, then where should we look for a solution? Matters like the differences between religion-as-faith and religion-as-ideology are important, but that is a much finer distinction than the differences between religion and secularism. If the solution does not lie in finding a middle ground between secularism and religion, then perhaps it is a matter of finding the proper roles for each. Our society today (it seems to me) is too secularized, but secularism does have its place.

    The separation of church and state makes a good example. “Empires wax and wane, states cleave asunder and coalesce,” somebody once wrote. Political entities, being wholly of the material world, are necessarily transient things, and their fortunes rise and fall. When the church is tied too closely to the government, its fortunes rise and fall with the politics of the times, and its spiritual authority suffers. It’s better to keep the two separate. Let the government be a basically secular institution, so that the church can be a very religious one– that way one is transient and the other one closer to eternal, exactly as they ought to be.

    We need both the secular and the religious because man is a spiritual creature with a physical body. To deny either half of this duality leads to error, which is why too much secularism is just as undesireable as too much religiosity. The world is a complex, multi-dimensional place, though, which is why a fixed balance of the two won’t always be appropriate. Governments need to be mostly secular and churches mostly religious, for exmple. A place of work can admit more religion than a government, and families need more religion still.

    All that to say, I think the balance between the secular and the religious requires a technocratic approach.

  2. “… that is a much finer distinction than the differences between religion and secularism.”

    This goes straight to one of the important points here, though; viz., that religion and secularism aren’t quite opposites. For one, there are (at least) two main ways to define secularism. The first involves the purgation of any and all religious elements from the public sphere (which itself is a product of secularization); the second is, more modestly, the construction of a public sphere in which religion and especially religious differences can play a role without any one set of religious commitments taking a privileged place.

    The separation of church and state, as it is traditionally understood in the US, is on the one hand a broad enough concept that it can be construed along the lines of either understanding of secularism. In practice, it would be hard to deny that religious discourse takes place in the public sphere in America, even if in principle the religious beliefs and commitments of public individuals are ideally to be kept separate from their political commitments. On the other hand, the way in which the concept of separation of church and state is often thought, together with its Enlightenment provenance, lends it somewhat easily to a more ideological interpretation – meaning that both “church” (i.e., religious traditions and their associated beliefs and practices) and “state” are conceived as distinct spheres of life with more or less rigid boundaries, which then have to be kept “separate” by legal as well as practical means so as not to contaminate each other. The pragmatic benefits of this arrangement are undeniable, but one shouldn’t therefore let the arrangement become so inflexible as to fool us that it is in any way “natural” – that religion is and always has been simply a private affair that has no place in public institutions, and that politics is simply a public affair etc. etc.

    I’m not sure why, as long as religion is allowed (by its adherents as well as opponents, and those indifferent) to be “non-monolithic” and to involve difference and plurality, it would be less (or more) welcome in government than in a workplace, or in a family for that matter. Why would a family NEED religion, [while] the government in which that family [participates, or under whose authority a family lives] via some political apparatus or another does not?

    Lastly, I want to make it clear that I think there is no argument to be made for the imposition of religion of any kind on individuals or groups by governments or other institutions, public or private. I suppose what I want to point out is only that, if we are used to thinking of politics or government as a public arena that includes a wide variety of positions about which those who participate (or are allowed to participate) agree and disagree, there is no a priori reason that religion not be thought similarly. To assume that religion is less amenable either to publicity or to difference and reasonable disagreement is to continue to define primarily in ideological terms while ignoring or minimizing its other aspects.

  3. “I’m not sure why, as long as religion is allowed (by its adherents as well as opponents, and those indifferent) to be “non-monolithic” and to involve difference and plurality, it would be less (or more) welcome in government than in a workplace, or in a family for that matter. Why would a family NEED religion, if the government in which that family via some political apparatus or another does not?”

    Your question isn’t worded clearly. I think you meant to ask why a family needs religion while a government doesn’t. That’s easy– families raise children, children are human beings, human beings have spiritual needs, spiritual needs are the reason for religion. Also, virtually everything in the human experience can touch on family in some way; family is almost universal in its domain. Government is far more limited; it is involved with some aspects of human life, but not all. Because of this, something intensely personal like religion comes into unavoidable contact with the family more often than it will with government. Government usually can be kept at arm’s length, family can’t.

    Given that government is made up of human beings, it gets interesting. Politicians are all people, and as you noted, they are going to have their own religious views. I don’t think it would be reasonable to expect them to somehow set aside those views while acting in their capacity as politicians– may as well ask them to set aside their knowledge of arithmetic; it is simply part of who they are. On the other hand, we can expect them to avoid making laws that, directly or indirectly, favor one particular church above the others. So long as government’s role is limited, politicians can be individually religious without passing laws that violate either separation of church and state or their own spiritual convictions.

    “Lastly, I want to make it clear that I think there is no argument to be made for the imposition of religion of any kind on individuals or groups by governments or other institutions, public or private.”

    Strictly speaking, wouldn’t that mean that families must not teach religion to their children? Also, since you’ve brought this up, what is your take the Islamic countries of the world, many of which in their constitutions mandate Islam as the state religion, and punish those who transgress from it?

    • You’re right, I accidentally left out a word in the first sentence you quote; it’s corrected and expanded. Regarding your reply, I would just reiterate that the division between the private sphere that is the locus of both family and religion and the public sphere that is the locus of government and that can ostensibly be kept “at arm’s length” is a modern, Western conceptual invention – one which, I would argue, doesn’t even always (if ever) occur in practice. I would take similar issue with the contention that there are “spiritual needs” that belong to being human universally. This would imply (1) that lack of religion is necessarily constitutes a state of deprivation on the part of the irreligious; (2) that there is a common and (at least potentially) identifiable “source”, “core”, or “essence” that all religions share despite their differences. I disagree, for various reasons, with both of these claims. To be clear, I’m not saying that what you would call spiritual needs don’t exist for anyone; I’m only questioning the universality that you seem to want to ascribe to them.

      I don’t think that the other statement you quoted implies that families mustn’t teach religion to their children. I would distinguish between raising children according to personal, familial, communal, political, etc. values and forcefully imposing values and norms on individuals or groups (both children and adult); my comment concerned the latter.

      Another distinction to make concerns your last question. There are many countries in the world – Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, etc. – whose governments explicitly recognize one official state religion. So the issue is more specifically about mandating religious adherence, and punishing those who deviate from it. Irrespective of the religion in question (and Islam is not the only tradition in which this occurs), I think it’s evident that religious coercion of any kind is unacceptable.

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