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Religion and the New Cosmopolitanism in a Postsecular Age

The following paper was presented at the Seventh Annual Telos Conference, held on February 15–17, 2013, in New York City.

Flush with optimism following the end of the Cold War, many American and European scholars openly speculated about the possibilities of a Kantian perpetual peace, returning with renewed vigor to theories of cosmopolitanism. As Amanda Anderson has put it, such cosmopolitanism “endorses reflective distance from one’s cultural affiliations, a broad understanding of other cultures and customs, and a belief in universal humanity.” Indeed, recent developments in communication technology, combined with a proliferation of transnational migrations, have made it possible to truly imagine and experience “navigating beyond one’s state.”

Complicating this picture of the new cosmopolitanisms is the absence of any sustained discourse on religion. As Peter van der Veer has strikingly noted, recent discussions of cosmopolitanism have often neglected to address religion in any systematic way, suggesting that “perhaps the enlightened assumption is that a cosmopolitan person has to transcend religious tradition and thus be secular.” Craig Calhoun contends that this reluctance or ambivalence on the part of contemporary cosmopolitanism is inherited from a liberal rationalist tradition suspicious of “religion and rooted traditions.” Indeed, as Bruce Robbins points out, religion, in addition to being “certainly considered worth dying for by many” is “at least as cosmopolitan as it is national.” Thus, Robbins underscores a call for a more critical cosmopolitanism, yet, as Calhoun and van der Veer point out, even this more critical model is often not sympathetic to religion.

To be sure, some fundamentalisms have been both cosmopolitan in aspiration and intolerant in practice, flummoxing the liberal democratic picture that the new cosmopolitanisms imagine. Indeed, Kwame Anthony Appiah has recently categorized neofundamentalists like Al Qaeda as “counter-cosmopolitans” and as “toxic cosmopolitans.” Such characterizations seem to cast doubt on whether religion can indeed be squared with cosmopolitanism. Must religion continue to be bracketed from the public sphere in an effort to domesticate and manage the competing claims of various faiths? I suggest that the answer to this question can be found in the insights of a pluralism specifically inflected by a commitment to the postsecular.

Over the past two decades, scholars have wrestled over the meaning of the term. In one sense, it has been used to indicate the perceived return of religion to modern life in contrast to the supposedly dominant secularism of Western history since the eighteenth century. In this account the resurgence of religion implies that the narrative of secularization has simply been outgrown. But in a more nuanced sense—that I take up here—the term postsecular registers the awareness that religious decline and marginalization never actually took place, despite the gradual differentiation of the state, economy, and science from religious institutions and norms. On this view, religion and the secular are not polar opposites but, rather, aspects of modernity that fluctuate between antagonism and collaboration. This persuasive account registers the awareness that so-called secular modernity and religion have all along been mutually constitutive, and insists that, to paraphrase one scholar, that “the universalistic claims associated with secularization can no longer be sustained without demurral.”

In the first place, as Talal Asad argues in his recent Formations of the Secular (2003), secularists overestimate the degree to which Christianity has been privatized successfully. While it is true that the differentiation of social spheres has led to the separation of church and state, postsecularists like William Connolly and Asad emphasize the porousness of the boundary between private belief and public reason. As Connolly has argued, postsecularism encourages secularists to negotiate in good faith “until they establish the positive capacity to fix their own moral practice as necessary and universal.” As such, postsecularists argue that neither secular nor religious “instruments” have yet demonstrated their position definitively enough to convince all others, and thus to enjoin normativity. In response, rather than demarcating the line between irrational religion and secular reason, postsecularists like Connolly encourage us to expand our thinking about the kind of pluralism which has come to mark our twenty-first century experience. Embracing this “new pluralism” means transforming our drive to a consensus on justice above contending faiths into a “positive ethos of engagement between multiple constituencies who bring chunks and pieces of their faiths with them into the public realm.”

What, then, does this postsecular perspective contribute to discussions of the new cosmopolitanism? First, by complicating the secularist picture, postsecularism helps to relax the cosmopolitan suspicion of religion noted by Calhoun. This is by no means a given; one can imagine an individual’s awareness of the mutual constitutivity of the secular and the religious resulting not in detente but recoil. There is perhaps something like this in Habermas’s recent calls for an alternative source of secular flourishing to the Christian traditions informing our current one. But the acknowledgement of such mutuality can lead to the recognition that secularity does not represent the transcendence of faith, but rather another iteration thereof, as Connolly suggests above. This recognition holds the possibility of transforming the relationship between the sacred and the secular from one of antagonism between enemies to agonism, a potentially positive struggle, between adversaries who acknowledge the respective value of their opponent’s positions, even as they seek to advance their own.

Here, Mouffe’s articulation of the democratic paradox is useful. For Mouffe, democracy depends upon the irreconcilability of opposing positions, as the regulative ideal of a rational consensus bears within it the implicit desire for a society where pluralism itself would have been superseded. As she puts in an essay entitled simply “Deliberative Democracy or Agonistic Pluralism,”

Contrary to the model of “deliberative democracy,” the model of “agonistic pluralism” that I am advocating asserts that the prime task of democratic politics is not to eliminate passions nor to relegate them to the private sphere in order to render rational consensus possible, but to mobilize those passions towards the promotion of democratic designs. Far from jeopardizing democracy, agonistic confrontation is in fact its very condition of existence.

The agonistically pluralist position thus acknowledges difference as something not to be overcome, but to be continually contended with. This is a distinct departure from the bitter antagonism between “faith” and “reason” and is rendered less improbable by the postsecular recognition of mutual constitutivity. Such a recognition implies that we recognize religious faith as a valid mode of critique and engagement, and one which bears meaningfully on people’s lives, different though it might be from our own.

In addition to complicating secularism, a postsecular understanding could also help to expand participation in the cosmopolitan project by removing the restriction of secularism from the list of tacit requirements. This is not to downplay the negative effects of religious fundamentalisms, historically, and their intolerant versions of cosmopolitanism, nor is it to accede to a relativism which has often plagued the pluralist project. At the same time, Peter Berger has expressed reservations about the blanket use of the term “fundamentalism” when applied to Islam, pointing out its historical origins in American Protestantism. Further, he seeks to define the term more sharply as “any project to restore taken-for-grantedness in the individual’s consciousness and therefore, necessarily, in his or her social and/or political environment.” This is particularly germane to our discussion here, as such projects can have (and indeed have had) both religious and secular formations. Berger’s important point is that the same sense of loss or nostalgia animating religious fundamentalisms animates secular formations as well—a reality that should chasten both secular critiques of religion and religious critics of secularism alike, in addition to awakening postsecularists to the stakes of the contest.

Last, a postsecular perspective helps contribute to the broader understanding of cultures and customs which, as Amanda Anderson has suggested, form a critical part of the cosmopolitan endeavor. As postsecularists like Peter Berger have argued, our modern world is far more religious than has been traditionally imagined in the West (and, indeed, including the West itself). A postsecular cosmopolitanism takes seriously the fact that religion maintains a significant role in the lives of many with whom we would form communities; a role that many are unwilling (or, indeed, unable) to relegate to the private sphere. To ignore such a reality would only impoverish any potential dialogue that would attend such cosmopolitan encounters.

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