After Secularism?

I like to keep religious interference in my life to a minimum. I count myself lucky that I Iive in a social and work environment where there’s no expectation that I should attend any kind of religious service. And in politics as well, one of my leading concerns is to preserve church-state separation and to promote an environment where public matters are debated without reference to faith-based commitments.

As far as I can tell, most nonbelievers also have similar attitudes toward religion and public life: let religion be a private matter, let it not intrude upon the common public space we all must share. Fortunately, many religious people share such attitudes, as liberal and individualistic forms of spirituality can also flourish in a secular environment. More communally-oriented faiths, however, such as conservative Catholicism and most varieties of Islam, are genuinely disadvantaged in a secular public realm, and so they tend to resist secularism as an anti-religious imposition rather than a stance of enforced religious neutrality.

Fine — so this means nonbelievers such as myself will probably remain staunch defenders of political secularism, regardless of sharp political disagreements that we may otherwise have among ourselves. Our activists focus on church-state separation; our political thinkers argue for the virtues of a secularized public realm. But I don’t see much discussion of other possibilities. In particular, a question that bothers me is what, as nonbelievers, we can do if social circumstances change in a way that overtakes secularism.

Predicting the social future is very difficult, but I don’t think this is an idle worry. In many parts of the world, such as Islamic cultures, attempts at secularism have been failures; secularism is now irremediably associated with authoritarian government, elitist impositions, and inauthentic westernizing tendencies. In other parts of the world, existing secularism is constantly under strain, such as in India, or even the United States. So it is at least possible to think of a future where the fortunes of secularism have declined significantly, and a more conservative religious populism dominates the public sphere of many more countries. In that case, what can we hope for? What is our Plan B?

Now, I don’t quite know. I teach physics, not political science; I wouldn’t call myself an especially astute political thinker. But I think I am familiar enough with the subculture of religious skepticism in the United States to have a decent impression of what we are preoccupied with. And other than the common worries about “encroaching theocracy,” I don’t see much discussion of what might happen after secularism. Furthermore, I’m not sure that our worries about theocracy are all that well-founded; by spinning scenarios of clerical rule, we miss the democratic, populist nature of much anti-secular politics today. If we continue moving toward a post-secular world, this is more likely a world where religious symbols have much more prominent roles in public tasks of legitimation, but not some crazy extremist fantasy where a holy text serves as a national constitution.

So, what would happen — for example, if religiously defined communities were to become more prominent political units and rights-holders as opposed to individuals? How much of what is precious to nonbelievers could we preserve and keep flourishing? Would it be possible (though much against the grain) to define ourselves as one among many communities? Would it then be possible to have art and literature that might be considered blasphemous still circulating freely as long as they are confined to the “skeptical community” and subject to more restrictions when made available more generally? How would science be affected by a loss of its privileged position in public education in matters such as evolution?

I’d like to see more answers to such questions that are more subtle than “back to the Dark Ages” fears. Anti-secular populism and religious fundamentalism are thoroughly modern social phenomena: they are not atavisms, they are not echoes of theocratic political visions our Enlightement forebears struggled against. And if they end up more successful than our rather tired-looking secularism, I expect we will have to respond in new ways. So, here’s a call to secular people better equipped for original political thought than myself. If you know of work that fits what I’m interested in, please point me to it. (I’m aware of a lot that goes on but not everything; it’s quite possible that I’m woefully ignorant of a lot of good work.) I’ll buy the recommended books, and I’ll do my best to publicize them. And if my impression is correct, that we nonbelievers have not paid as much attention to possibilities after secularism as we should, well, I hope someone does this work. I’m sure I’m not the only person who’d be intensely interested in what comes out.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06394155516712665665 CyberKitten

    TE said: If we continue moving toward a post-secular world..

    I’m interested in why you think we *are* moving towards such a world?

    Sure we have a resurgent Islam (apparently) and Christians have a great deal of clout (ATM) in the US… But so what? I don’t think that Secularism is in any great danger – sure it has lots of enemies but I see no great evidence that it has failed or is even in danger of failing. Maybe religion is having a last futile attempt to put itself back centre stage? Certainly in Europe the state sponsored religions are effectively dead – they just don’t realise it yet.

    Though possibly we might see post-secular societies (The US maybe – though rather unlikely I feel) I doubt very much indeed that we’ll see a post-secular world.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Cyberkitten: “I’m interested in why you think we *are* moving towards such a world?

    That’s another post for another day, plus I’ve written some on this in the past. For now, it’s the “what if” that interests me most.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06394155516712665665 CyberKitten

    TE said: For now, it’s the “what if” that interests me most.

    Sure… it’s fun to speculate on lots of things. I like to speculate on a Post-Theist world… but such a thing will never happen in my life time. Nice to imagine but that’s about all.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00057664899770421426 John B

    Secularism is less about religion, and more about how a society deals with difference.

    I don’t think the growing diversity of our communities, at least here in Canada, could be maintained in a post-secular world. The mechanical solidarity of the 17th and 18th centuries is gone, replaced by social and economic models that promote the more organic, interdependent solidarity that, in turn, depends on secularism.

    The original formulation of the separation of public and private spheres arose from a need to accomodate diversity. I’m sure there are other models we could look at, but none that i can think of that have the democratic element your post describes. Most require some form of religious syncretism that absorbs diversity into a patchwork hierarchy (imperial cult style) or the promotion of a kind of rough compartmentalization along the lines of social function (ie. Shinto, Buddhism, Confucianism in Japan). All of these deal with diversity, but have tended to be imposed from the top down.

    A return to mechanical solidarity would mean a forced segregation, along more than religious lines. I’m not sure that will happen, even if the urbanizing trend is reversed. I just can’t see society returning to a model of communities organized according to economic, political and religious likeness.

    I think the most likely future would be one where, although secularism as a atheist movement could be easily rejected, religious moderates would be forced to pick up the banner to defend their own religious liberty, once the imposition of state sanctioned religion became a threat equal to that of the relativism promoted by nonreligious models of social organization. Secularism can only retreat so far before the spectre of ‘modernity’ is replaced with a much older spectre of oppression and violence.

    The other issue that would limit the decline of secularism would be the forces of globalization. Even if a particular society managed to reject secularism, they would have no control over the growing organic relationships between nations, again promoting interdependence and the need for some mechanism to deal with difference.


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