Bibliographic quarantine is blurring our understanding of secularism

Inhaling one another’s insights could help scholars assuage public confusion about this crucial but confusing concept, says Jacques Berlinerblau

二月 6, 2022
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To study “secularism” in the US is to be mired in complexity, controversy and, above all, confusion.

The S-word figures in today’s debates about everything from booming new voting blocs to the 6 January 2021 insurrection. Yet the journalists, clerics, politicians and, yes, professors who talk about secularism often aren’t talking about the same thing. Therein lies the confusion. 

In non-scholarly discourse, I notice three overlapping uses of the term. The first equates secularism with atheism. Some nonbelievers nowadays refer to themselves – and are referred to – as “secular”. A second, related usage is common among religious conservatives. It links “secularism” with that rare variant of extreme atheism which mocks people of faith and plots their liquidation. 

A third approach builds on the second. It looks to the Soviet Union, where Communist militants indeed mocked and liquidated people of faith. Secularism becomes Bolshevism; its remit is to nationalise church lands, forcibly convert citizens to godlessness, haul believers into dungeons and grind every steeple, minaret and torah scroll to fine dust. 

Perhaps the reader now sees why secularisms are so controversial, especially among the religious right. As long ago as 2005, one Russian cleric gravely warned of the “onslaught of militant secularism on what remains of European Christian civilization, along with the desire to obliterate it once and for all”. Fundamentalist Muslim, Jewish and Hindu leaders have rung the same bells of apocalypse. 

There is another, very different, concept of secularism that sometimes surfaces in popular discussions: “separation of church and state”. And somehow, all four definitions operate simultaneously and without much elaboration. 

Ideally, this is where professors heroically enter the narrative, their learned interventions suffusing this dimly lit discourse with clarity. This has not come to pass. One reason is that scholars too have strong feelings for and (mostly) against their particular conceptions of secularism. More significantly, researchers tend to bibliographically quarantine themselves, avoiding engagement with different approaches.

In one silo are demographers and political scientists who study the “nones”, that fast-growing cohort that professes no religious affiliation in surveys. These scholars describe the nones as secular, prompting journalists to post headlines such as “US becoming less Christian, more secular”. But on a popular understanding of secular as atheistic, this is misleading; the majority of nones are neither atheist nor agnostic but religiously unaligned. 

In another silo, we find postmodern, post-Foucauldian and post-colonial theorists: what I call the POMOFOCO approach. Foucault himself wrote very little about secularism per se. However, his thinking was applied to secularism by the anthropologist Talal Asad and his disciples: specifically, his analyses of the post-Enlightenment West’s sophisticated mechanisms of governmental domination, its maniacal ordering of every aspect of human existence, and its extreme makeover of the pre-modern mind, body and soul.

Although I have been critical of POMOFOCO, the school has much to recommend it. Crucially, these scholars do not link secularism with atheism or religious disaffiliation. Secularism for them is, among other things, a project of governance. In my own work, I refer to this as “political secularism”. I define it as legally binding actions of the secular state that seek to regulate the relationship between itself and religious citizens, and between religious citizens themselves.

POMOFOCO theorists skilfully identify political secularism’s failures. Whereas secular governments insist they are “neutral”, or “separate church from state”, or lack an “establishment” of religion, these critics demur. They demonstrate how these states impose their religious (usually majoritarian Christian) worldview on “others”, be they citizens or colonised subjects. Laïque (secular) France, for example, claims neutrality, yet its policies result in unequal treatment for Muslims on matters concerning religious attire and free speech. 

Still, the POMOFOCO school underestimates what secularisms are up against. And what they are up against are determined, disciplined national and transnational formations of religious conservatives who want to control the state themselves. Their prescriptions for religious minorities, women, LGBTQ people, heretics and nonbelievers are well known. How POMOFOCO theorists imagine that fundamentalists would be contained during a “post-secular” dispensation is unclear.

As opposed to seeing all political secularisms as tyrannical, I place them on a spectrum ranging from benign to beastly. Secular Uruguay, with its progressive policies towards sexual minorities, is not secular Ba’athist Syria. India’s own beleaguered, Gandhified secularism is far preferable to what we encounter in China. For all its shortcomings, French laïcité never subjects its religious citizens to Soviet indignities. 

Whatever secularisms are, they sure are newsworthy. The “nones” are growing globally. Political secularism in the US is on the brink of collapse. Meanwhile, the political power of anti-secularists surges, be they Islamists, Christian conservatives, Hindu nationalists or ultra-Orthodox Jews.

What, then, are the next steps for “secular studies”? The isolation of research communities must end. The POMOFOCO school, the “nones” researchers and students of political secularism should all emerge from their self-imposed bibliographical lockdowns and inhale one another’s insights. Intellectual community spread will reduce confusion.

Next, we need more curiosity. Countless questions about this -ism have yet to be answered – or even asked. How come nearly two dozen constitutions of African nations are, by definition, secular? Is “separation of church and state” a definition of secularism, or just one (underperforming) variant? How did secularism and atheism become synonyms in popular discourse?

Finally, we need to ponder the stakes. What happens to nones, to secularists (however defined) and even to professors if political secularisms are vanquished by their fundamentalist adversaries?

Jacques Berlinerblau is a professor of Jewish civilisation at Georgetown University. He is the author of numerous books and scholarly articles on secularism, his most recent being Secularism: The Basics (Routledge, 2021). He wishes to thank Alexander Lin and Ria Pradhan for their assistance in researching this article.



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