Landmarks in the Critical Study of Secularism

0816633320.big_ Matthew Scherer over at the SSRC's The Immanent Frame:

In September of 2010, Talal Asad, William E. Connolly, Charles Hirschkind, and I met at the annual American Political Science Association conference to discuss two seminal texts in a recently emerging field of study, which could tentatively be called the critical study of secularism. The texts in question were Connolly’s Why I Am Not a Secularist (1999) and Asad’s Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam and Modernity (2003), each now roughly a decade old.

In preparing for this conversation, we did not set the task of doing justice to the scope and subtlety of these texts but aimed instead to use them as a starting point for taking stock of and thinking about the ground that has been covered in the critical study of secularism since their original publication. What follows here are five questions that emerged for me in re-reading Why I Am Not a Secularist and Formations of the Secular. They aim to draw together common themes, underline divergences, and generally open Asad’s and Connolly’s texts again for discussion.

First question: What is secularism?

It sounds naive, but disagreement about the basic significance of “secularism” is a recurrent problem in today’s discussions. There may, however, be important reasons for the muddle that besets critical literatures on “the secular,” “secularity,” “secularism,” and “secularization,” sending them around this question again and again.

Why I Am Not a Secularist and Formations of the Secular, at any rate, remain two of the most striking, ambitious, and important restatements of the problem of secularism. To be sure, they acknowledge and grapple with the persistence of familiar and, in some sense, indispensable answers: That secularism is simply the separation of church and state. That it is, more specifically, a form of separation that makes religion private while making power and reason public. That secularism is an ideology. That it is an institutional formation that governs the conduct of individuals and communities. Yet they also show how such answers are insufficiently accurate, woefully unhistorical, and incomplete in more fundamental ways.

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