Where there should be clarity, there is obscurantism

In a discussion on a philosopher’s Facebook wall yesterday I saw a mention of post-colonial approaches to secularism. I was curious about what those might be, and said something about my curiosity on my Facebook wall, and Meredith Tax gave me some sources. One is this piece in the CHE by Jacques Berlinerblau.

He says there’s a lot of unhelpful imprecision about secularism under foot.

Talking imprecisely about secularism is now an American rhetorical tradition. Politicians, policy makers, and journalists routinely deploy the term without really knowing—or caring—what it connotes. This is bad for us and for them, since secularism is germane to so many domestic- and foreign-policy problems. Is it appropriate for an elected official to invoke God in public? Can censorship be justified in deference to the feelings of the faithful? How can nonbelievers be accorded equal rights under the law? Does one country have a moral obligation to assure that there is “religious freedom” in another? What is “religious freedom,” anyway?

As we speak, these concerns are being demagogued into senselessness by our leadership class. This is where we, the Scholars, have a civic contribution to make. We could bring clarity, accuracy, nuance, and, most crucially, balance to the dialogue. That is not because we’re paragons of objectivity (we’re not). Rather, normal scholarly practices and conventions—things like footnotes, mastery of the bibliography, addressing opinions we don’t agree with—usually keep our passions in check.

I like that idea. It’s both amusing and true. Fiddling around with footnotes and bibliographies does tend to chill the passions.

But something is adrift in the burgeoning field of secular studies. Where there should be clarity, there is obscurantism. Where a modicum of professorial disinterest should prevail, political and religious passions run amok. Where there should be engagement across schools of thought, there are academic tribalism and its attendant rituals of clan idolatry. As a result, scholarly thought on secularism is sometimes even more confused than its political counterpart is.

There again, as with post-colonial approaches to secularism, I’m somewhat adrift. I didn’t know there was a burgeoning field of secular studies. What kind of field is it and where is it to be found? What department houses secular studies?

A significant quantity of scholarly knowledge on secularism today emanates from a school of thought that works from postmodern, post-Foucauldian, and postcolonial assumptions (or Pomofoco).

Ah. That’s what I was wondering. It sounded like that kind of thing – the post-colonial approaches to secularism dud – but I wasn’t sure.

Here is Talal Asad, the leading exponent of this approach, in Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity:

Secularism is not simply an intellectual answer to a question about enduring social peace and toleration. It is an enactment by which a political medium (representation of citizenship) redefines and transcends particular and differentiating practices of the self that are articulated through class, gender, and religion.

If that passage flummoxes, it does so proudly and by design.

As postmodernist scholarship always does, which is why I hate it. One why; there are others.

Musing on the consequences of indefinability, and the singularity of Asad’s contribution, Jon Wilson goes the full Foucault: “Secularism is not a ‘subject’ that itself has ‘agentive power’ but an effect of an interaction between heterogeneous power relations.” Wendy Brown, exemplifying the school’s penchant for up-voting its own idiosyncrasies, praises Asad for “long-resist[ing] attempts to define the secular.”

Does this resistance merit praise? Numerous political scientists, sociologists, and theologians, among others, have labored to define secularism. Their contributions are available in peer-reviewed scholarly monographs, articles, and encyclopedias. Practitioners of Pomofoco rarely, if ever, cite that work.

Why? Because they find indefinability so exciting.

In the Pomofoco worldview, a “secularist” is typically a proponent of the “clash of civilizations” hypothesis or a right-wing critic of radical Islam. All other secularists remain anonymous. Talal Asad’s chapter “What Might an Anthropology of Secularism Look Like?” is singularly instructive in this regard. His anthropology employs the unique ethnographic expedient of never letting a single secular voice express itself. Although Asad chides the “secular theory of state toleration” and “secular redemptive politics,” he does not divulge who advocates those positions or what their rationale might be. Can the secular speak?

See what he did there? It’s a play on “Can the subaltern speak?” – one of the foundational “texts” of Pomofoco.

Which brings us to another hallmark of this school: its conspicuous aversion to secularism. And liberalism. And democracy. And the Enlightenment. And American foreign policy. And Israel. And Western civilization. And those who criticize political Islam or Islamic extremism via invidious comparison with any of these. It appears to be Pomofoco’s objective to everywhere draw the following conclusion: As troubling as radical Islamism might be, secular liberal democracies are just as bad—no, worse!

Yeeeah, that too is what I was wondering, what I suspected, what I was afraid of. I have a horror of privileged First World academics who despise secularism and liberalism and democracy and the Enlightenment.

Pomofoco’s ideological investments, coupled with its inexplicable allergy to conducting routine reviews of the scholarly literature, lead it to some dubious conclusions. Take its tendency to situate the rise of secularism in modernity. In placing it there, critics can conveniently round up and enfilade their usual suspects (e.g., the Enlightenment, liberalism, the nation-state). Yet here they’d be wise to follow Foucault and conduct a proper “genealogy.” The germ of the secular idea was most likely born in late antiquity—a possibility explored by scholars such as T.N. Madan and Emmet Kennedy. From there it morphed and mutated throughout Occidental history.

Why is this relevant? Because many of the things that are confounding about secularism can be traced to its premodern heritage. In medieval Latin Christendom, there existed two theoretically symbiotic—but often mutually antagonistic—sources of legitimate power. One was the ecclesiastical authority, which was deemed godly. The other was the secular ruling authority, and it was deemed godly as well. This is why an early-modern figure such as Martin Luther could describe the secular powers as having “a Christian and salutary use.”

It sounds very much like the old Ford joke – you can have any color as long as it’s black.

Over the past quarter-century, Pomofoco has achieved near dominant status in elite religious-studies programs and divinity schools. Along the way, it has forged intellectual alliances with conservative theologians of every stripe, who have wholly different reasons for loathing secularism. Together they prophesy the advent of the “post-secular” Kingdom. And together they form an institutional left-right pincer around scholarly perspectives less antagonistic to secularism. Critics of higher education can bray all they want about “liberal bias.” When it comes to the academic study of religion, those who hold liberal assumptions are besieged.

Actually liberal – secular, rights-based, universalist.

And then he gets to Charles Taylor.

Its salience on campus notwithstanding, Pomofoco is virtually unknown in journalistic or policy circles. This is not the case with Charles Taylor, author of the serenely megalomaniacal A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007). Few academic offerings in recent memory have been accorded a comparable reception. A Secular Age has received dozens of ebullient evaluations. The deluge of praise crested to the windows of The New York Times, where David Brooks, Ross Douthat, and the Sunday Book Review extolled its virtues.

Numerous conferences have interrogated its themes, and four books have already emerged in its wake. The Social Science Research Council has assiduously promoted A Secular Age. In fact, the council has a big old crush on this 874-page treatise. In addition to sponsoring some of the panels and publications, it has created a website (The Immanent Frame) where Taylorians and Pomofocoians talk shop. Elsewhere on the council’s platform, it has teamed up with—am I the only one to find this strange?—the exceedingly religion-and-miracle friendly Templeton Foundation. The latter garlanded A Secular Age with its coveted prize in 2007.

Nope, he’s not the only one. I have found the pervasive reach of the Templeton Foundation exceedingly strange for several years.

Unlike Pomofoco, Taylor does define “secularism”—in three ways. His third definition (i.e., “secularity”) detains him for well over a quarter-million words. The philosopher wishes to chart a shift from “a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others.” “Secularity” is our shared predicament, the cross we (do not) bear. It refers to an existential condition in which faith in God is but an option. We all live within this “immanent frame”—a domain where “our experience of and search for fullness occurs; and this is something we all share, believers and unbelievers alike.”

Taylor is fascinated—even obsessed—by atheism, but not fascinated enough to read widely about the subject. A specialist in this area peruses A Secular Age in a state of frustration. This is not because Taylor quietly treats the rise of atheism as if it were original sin. The problem is that most of his claims about this phenomenon are unsourced. On what empirical basis does he conclude that atheists search for “fullness”?

*waves hand* – Here’s one black swan right here. I don’t search for “fullness” – except of course when hungry, but Taylor obviously isn’t talking about anything as crude as a full stomach. I don’t search for any kind of metaphysical “fullness” so his “we all” is falsified.

Why is he unaware that the first visible social movements that dabbled with nonbelief were working-class, not elite? Is it plausible to base one’s conception of atheism almost solely on the writings of Camus and Nietzsche? How can Taylor speak (contemptuously) of “secular humanism” without once consulting the immense oeuvre of its leading light, the late philosopher Paul Kurtz?

Because he lives on a higher plane? Where French and German philosophers count but US ones don’t?

But the field isn’t all Pomofoco.

I have been alluding throughout this essay to a certain disregard for subjectivities in secular studies. For that reason, we should focus on the perceptions of nonscholars. Phil Zuckerman, who in 2011 established the first secular-studies program, at Pitzer College, does precisely this. His fieldwork with subjects worldwide is fascinating and compellingly written. Zuckerman equates the adjective “secular” (but not necessarily the noun “secularism”) with atheism. Yet so do many of his subjects, and that is why the term’s meaning must be investigated. Also scrutinizing subjective perceptions is the Canadian scholar Pascale Fournier. Her meticulous ethnography explores how devout Jewish and Muslim women dexterously navigate religious and secular law, neither of which simplifies their struggles.

Zuckerman’s and Fournier’s works crack open a new frontier in secular studies: understanding what laypeople make of secularism. In truth, we need to do this across sociological time and space. Little is known about those who, in earlier periods, consciously embraced secular ideas and what they believed those ideas entailed. Now and then, us and them—let the secular speak. And let scholars listen to secularists, and to one another.

And let’s all do it without any rapturous hymns to indefinability.


  1. Josh, Official SpokesGay says

    So good, Ophelia. I mean, so vexatious, but thanks. Sort of. You know what I mean.

  2. AMM says

    “Secularism is not simply an intellectual answer to a question about enduring social peace and toleration. It is an enactment by which a political medium (representation of citizenship) redefines and transcends particular and differentiating practices of the self that are articulated through class, gender, and religion.?

    I’ll have a go at translating that. Once I convert the $100 words in to $10 words and make it a bit more concrete, I get:

    “Secularism isn’t just a negative — don’t mix religion with public affairs. It’s an attempt to define it in a positive way: an idea of what belonging to your particular political unit means that transcends religious differences.”

    He throws in class and gender, but I think that he’s mixing up the secularism that’s out there in the world with some idea he has of the “true” secularism. Or something like that.

  3. AMM says

    Zuckerman equates the adjective “secular” (but not necessarily the noun “secularism”) with atheism.

    The problem with that definition is that it equates “secular” with a particular — if negative — religious belief. By that definition, a “secular” society is by definition hostile to any sort of belief in any sort of god, and as such cannot “transcend” religious differences, it can only eradicate them.
    That seems to be pretty much the attitude at the FTB blogs, too. I am in agreement with many of the things people here write. Some days, I wish I could hob-nob in person with a lot of the bloggers and commenters here. I would be flattered to be “accused” of being an SJW (though I’m not sure there would be enough evidence to convict 🙂 ) However, the prevailing social norm of hostility and contempt for anyone who doesn’t believe in disbelief in any sort of god or religious idea puts me off. I have occasionally expressed my own attitude — that to me, the question of whether there is a g/God is “not interesting” (as we in the math biz say) — and described myself as neither theist nor atheist, only to be told that my “belief” is a logical contradiction, that I am being irrational, etc. I’ve had enough policing of my religious beliefs that I’m not eager to join a community where I’ll experience more of it.
    I think that trying to get that kind of “secularism” accepted as a basic principle of, say, USAan society is going to have the same problem. There are many, many people out there who would agree with many atheists on many (atheism-neutral) secular principles, goals, etc., but for whom some sort of religious belief is central to their own lives, and, in many cases, is the basis of their support of a secular-based society. A secularism which is defined as atheist is going to exclude them.

  4. says

    I think, though, that secularism defined that way can be indifferentist in the way you describe. Saying the question whether or not there is a god is uninteresting is next door to saying it’s irrelevant. (If it were relevant it would surely be at least somewhat interesting.) Secularism can be defined as a focus on this world as opposed to a sacred Other World. That’s consistent with finding the god question uninteresting, I think. Isn’t it?

    I’ve tended a little more toward indifferentism lately because I’m so fed up with the jackass atheists. Not all of them are jackasses, but the ones who are sure do sour the milk for the rest of us.

  5. John Morales says

    AMM @3:

    Zuckerman equates the adjective “secular” (but not necessarily the noun “secularism”) with atheism.

    The problem with that definition is that it equates “secular” with a particular — if negative — religious belief.

    I too dislike the use of ‘secular’ to refer to ‘atheist’ or to ‘irreligious’, but you are also mistaken: atheism is not necessarily a religious belief; actually, I think it rarely is.

    However, the prevailing [local] social norm of hostility and contempt for anyone who doesn’t believe in disbelief in any sort of god or religious idea puts me off.

    The hostility is due to the enabling effect tolerance towards goddism provides to its social manifestations, and the contempt is mutual — religiosity puts me off.

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