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Telos 167 (Summer 2014): Are We Postsecular?

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Critical theory inherited classical accounts of social change that linked modernization processes to secularization: in order for societies to overcome traditionalist structures and pursue the accelerated development of modernity, they would have to escape the grip of religion. This is perhaps most famously the case for Marx, who, in the introduction to his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, declared religion “the opium of the people,” blocking the way of progress: “The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.” To surmount a social condition that produces unhappiness requires renouncing the systematic concealing of that condition which is, so Marx, the genuine function of religion, the ultimate paradigm of ideology as false consciousness.

With less partisanship and élan but with a strong shot of melancholy, Weber recounts a similar narrative, no matter that his Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism had a specifically anti-Marxist intent in its assertion of the priority of ideas over the material conditions of production. What Marx demanded, Weber describes as the way of the world: an antecedent prophecy that spread through the community of believers loses its fervor through a process of routinization, leaving senseless habits and automatic patterns in its wake, a culture (if that word does not already say too much) of frenetic productivity and empty souls.

For both Marx and Weber, secularization is the precondition for modernization, and this expectation that religion should wither away has become a commonplace assumption of vernacular liberalism. Yet the secularization thesis has also come under pressure for various reasons: the recognition of the plurality of types of modernity; a postmodern skepticism regarding the project of modernity as such; and the evident durability or even resurgence of forms of religious beliefs and practices despite predictions by social theory of their imminent demise. Furthermore, the classical accounts of secularizing modernity have typically referred primarily to developmental processes only in Western societies. Globalization calls that limited perspective into question. This issue of Telos asks about the end of the secularization thesis—”Are we postsecular?”—not only by examining contemporary philosophical accounts of religion but also by broadening the framework to include analyses of aspects of religion and politics in India. Because religion can play a very different role in political communities outside the West, inquiries into postsecularity have a lot to learn from postcolonial perspectives.

Alex Cistelecan opens with a systematic overview of contemporary considerations of the postsecular, an attempt to close “the politico-theological circle” and to unearth “the political effect brought about by the theological turn in contemporary theory.” The essay distinguishes among three alternative engagements with religion. Liberal postsecularists, most notably Habermas and Rawls, concede some significance to religion as a source of values, but they ultimately aspire to keep religion and democracy separate from each other because of the presumed threat religion may pose to the liberal order. Of considerably greater interest for Cistelecan are the representatives of a post-metaphysical theology, including authors as diverse as Derrida, Nancy, Caputo, Critchley, and the Radical Orthodoxy group (some of whose work has appeared frequently in Telos): “. . . for the post-metaphysical theorists the solution is exactly the perceived threat: a certain idea of religion, a certain theological dispositive—the messianic apparatus—can recall our contemporary democracies to their initial and forgotten promise of justice. Confronted with the resurgence of the religious phenomenon, our democratic societies should recognize in this threat their own forgotten original promise.” Finally, Cistelecan identifies a third group whom he dubs the “Leninist messianists,” including Badiou and Žižek, who attempt to ground a radical politics in their reading of Paul, the “Lenin of Christ.” For this group, “there is a modern, revolutionary, and universal nucleus in the messianic event, which should be opposed to the obscurantist and reactionary wave of fundamentalism, new age spirituality, and cultural relativism,” including the postsecular liberals and the proponents of a post-metaphysical theology. In the end, the article sharpens our view of the altercation between reformist and revolutionary modalities of postsecularism, between Derrida and Žižek: “Such is, then, the sad and happy fate of our times: to reenact the good old political opposition between bourgeois reformism and the revolutionary left as not even a battle of ideas, but as a genuine battle of fantasies, between a mystical anarchism of the pure democracy to come (completely accommodating and even legitimizing the liberal status quo) and a no less mystical Leninism of the revolution-as-already-there (ultimately, no less accommodating in its political effects).”

Yet this discussion of postsecular theories remains, as Aakash Singh persuasively argues, parochially limited to a North Atlantic traffic in ideas. Interestingly he levels this accusation initially on immanent terms: Western theory today appears to be even less aware of global developments than was the case for Hegel (and, one could certainly add, Marx and Weber as well). “There were of course eras past in trans-Atlantic thought—such as the crescendo of modern European rationalism of the nineteenth century—when a comprehensivist political theory could quite confidently weigh out, apportion, determine, codify, and systematize such variegated events. Just think of Hegel’s system. Table, for a moment, the immediate charges of Eurocentrism and racism that are so frequently lodged against Hegel, and consider instead both the profundity and vastness of his knowledge of the non-European world (political, aesthetic, historiographic, religious, etc.) in comparison with the most influential political theorists of our times—say, John Rawls, Jürgen Habermas, or Slavoj Žižek, just to name some who in particular have themselves attempted to grasp the basic problems of secularity and globalization, and who have each referenced contemporary pluralism as a basic ‘fact’ to be reckoned with. Even so, there is virtually no research on, and indeed no widespread familiarity with the most rudimentary concepts of, the contemporary political thought of non-trans-Atlantic cultures.” Outside of Western Europe and North America the interplay of religion and politics can take on very different forms that evade the standard narrative of secularization—on which even the claims of postsecularity depend—and therefore the discussion requires a turn to alternative traditions and scholarly developments. Singh references in particular a contemporary generation of Indian theorists that “takes its starting point in a program of deconceptualization; that is, the project not of modifying but of abandoning the dominant vocabulary altogether. Its overriding concern is that of authenticity. In place of the current lexicon of political theory, the current generation seeks to retrieve and uncover the indigenous conceptualizations, terms, and categories of Indian political thought, to find and follow its logic, and eventually to apply it normatively to theorizations of contemporary India’s political realities.” An adequate discussion of postsecularism, Singh demonstrates, cannot do without postcolonial knowledge.

Vidhu Verma takes up that challenge through a comparison of Gandhi and Habermas. In recent decades, Habermas has had to grapple with questions of religion, due in part (but surely not exclusively) to the phenomenon of immigrant religion, i.e., a feature of globalization. Verma juxtaposes this development within Western critical theory to Gandhi’s writings on religion and politics. Indeed for Verma, Gandhi anticipated the critique of secularism that Habermas has belatedly discovered: “Habermas attempts to refigure democracy away from strictly procedural accounts of communication in order to provide the answer to the question of the meaning and motivation in modernity through intersubjectivity as a potential bond for democratic legitimacy. . . . Gandhi also sets aside political ideologies when he attempts to translate the likeness of human beings to the image of the divine into the equal dignity of all human beings, which then offers a way of reorienting society’s values toward social transformation.” This gets to the core of the postsecular in its various modalities: a sense that certain political processes have lost their substance and that democracy has become at best merely procedural, at worst a matter of manipulation, and that therefore religious traditions become attractive as a source of renewed values. In this sense, Verma quotes Gandhi’s powerful indictment of statism: “I look upon an increase in the power of the State with the greatest fear, because although while apparently doing good by minimizing exploitation, it does the greatest harm to mankind by destroying individuality which lies at the root of all progress.”

Similarly concerned with a potential dialogue between religion and politics, Péter Losonczi provides an illuminating account of Akeel Bilgrami’s “negotiated emergent secularism.” In contrast to classical liberalism, which lays claim to an absolute exterior position, a so-called Archimedian point, from which to address the religious believer on the superiority of secularism, Bilgrami posits a model according to which believers can be addressed on the basis of the tenets of the faith itself, i.e., internal grounds. Yet while such internalist argumentation might seem to be less authoritarian than the invocation of external principles, Losonczi nonetheless notes a fundamental asymmetry in Bilgrami’s account. The strategies of persuasion take place on a one-way street. “This model seems to exclude a priori the possibility that the religious illiberal moderate participates in the deliberation as an equal partner. . . . Insofar as the emergent secularist model turns into a political frame, it generates a rather controversial position. The role of the moderate religious illiberal is relegated to that of a passive receiver of the internalist reasons, and we do not see what would happen if she were to make any kind of counterargument.” Despite claims to the contrary, liberalism appears unwilling to hear the illiberal interlocutor but only to find potentially common grounds on which it is always the other side that is expected to compromise.

Two articles follow examining aspects of the Western liberal tradition: Sebastiano Maffettone argues that secularism is less important a desideratum than is liberalism, understood as respect for other opinions and faiths. David Rasmussen reads Rawls in relationship to Hobbes and Huntington, claiming that even in his Theory of Justice a certain element of the “clash of civilizations” continues to reverberate. Meanwhile Ranabir Samaddar details the persistence of religious elements within Indian democracy, i.e., how religious commitments and references inform various aspects of political life, both high and low, even within the presumably secular state.

Finally, if there is one country best known for the claim to separate religion from politics, it is France with the notion of laïcité. Yet Theo W. A. de Wit shows how the very notion of French secularism has evolved historically, while Graham Ward interrogates the internal incoherence of laïcité: from the vantage point of postsecularism, the paradigm of French secularism is, to say the least, implausible.

The issue of Telos closes with a review essay by Ulrich Plass of Secret Reports on Nazi Germany: The Frankfurt School Contribution to the War Effort, edited by Raffaele Laudani.

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