Defining Postsecularism: A Response

JC10by Donovan Schaefer

In response to a question from a colleague, I asked a small group of scholars working on issues of secularism and secularity how they would define postsecularismpostsecular, or the postsecular (hereafter just “postsecularism”). Their responses are posted at these links (Part 1 and Part 2).

Postsecularism as, these short reflections show, can be approached from a range of perspectives. In the introduction to their 2008 anthology SecularismsJanet R. Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini define secularism in terms of what they call the “secularization narrative”–the hypothesis that reason, politics, and morality are advancing steadily and in tandem while something called religion remains paralyzed and locked into a trajectory of irreversible decline. They identify eight features of the secularization narrative: rationalization, enlightenment, social-structural differentiation (“With the evolution of knowledge comes the possibility of differentiating specific tasks into different sections of society, so that, for example, the functions of the church can be separated from those of the state.” “Introduction,” 5), freedom, privatization, universalism, and modernization/progress. Although Jakobsen and Pellegrini do not use the term, postsecularism can be seen as a critical frame that skeptically engages elements of the secularization narrative.  If the secularization narrative proposes that as reason and science advance, religion will gradually be erased, postsecularism is, in a nutshell, any perspective that says It’s not that simple.

The archives drawn on by postsecularism are heterogeneous and complex. They include the “return of religion” in the late 20th century, increasingly politicized global religious movements that identify themselves as explicitly religious rather than democratic or populist, complications in the integrity of the public/private divide, deconstructions of the category “religion” itself that either expand its borders to enfold traditionally non-religious formations of power or contract its borders to render it unintelligible, and the emergence of new global epistemological and political challenges to liberal democracy and neoliberal capitalism.

Postsecularism, in other words, is interlaced with other critical projects that push back on the overconfidence in universal rationality represented by the European Enlightenment–specifically as that overconfidence is applied to religion. As Grace Jantzen writes, “both secularism and religion need to be radically rethought as mutually imbricated in some of the most objectionable aspects of the project of modernity.” (Becoming Divine, 8)

By these lights, “postsecularism” in no way means that the secularization narrative has evaporated, in the same way that postcolonial theorists do not presume that colonialism is extinct. It may be best to think of the post in postsecularism as indicating that the secularization narrative has been placed under erasure, in Derrida’s sense: it has been theoretically disrupted–deconstructed, situated in a genealogy that locates it within a particular European imperial-intellectual context–but it continues to shape systems of power-knowledge-affect. These interactions with power are often complex–even unpredictable–such as the imperative, among anti-evolutionists, to claim the mantle of scientific authority by repudiating evolution as “just a theory,” or the way that my students at a liberal arts college in the northeastern United States are entirely comfortable reciting the limitations of the secularization narrative, yet are still deeply reluctant to abandon the normative value of Jefferson’s “wall of separation between church and state.” The “post” in postsecularism means “we are grappling with the legacy of the secularization narrative,” not “Secularism is over and done with.”

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Religion Snapshots: Defining Postsecularism, Part 2


Religion Snapshots is a feature with the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog, where a number of contributors are asked to briefly comment on popular news items or pressing theoretical issues in the field, especially those topics relating to definitions, classification and method and theory in the study of religion more generally. For previous posts in this series, see hereherehereherehere and here.

Editor’s note: The idea for this topic was spurred by Donovan Schaefer’s recent post, “Partisan Science: Evolution and Creation in Postsecular American Politics.” For part one in this series, see here.

Question: How do you define postsecularism, postsecular, or the postsecular?

Matt Sheedy: In his essay “The Secular, Secularizations, Secularisms,” (2011) José Casanova proposes an interesting way of slicing up these conceptual pies. For example, he defines the secular as a modern “theological-philosophical, legal-political, and cultural-anthropological” category that is positioned in relation to “the religious,” while secularization signals an attempt to understand patterns of differentiation between ecclesiastical and state institutions, economy, art, health, etc. Lastly, secularism is likened more broadly to a worldview or ideology that is taken for granted and, as he puts it, “unthought.” (54-55) When considering the “post” varieties of these terms, it is worth asking whether or not they can be neatly grafted upon these iterations.

While the term “post-secularization” is not all that common it would no doubt signify something different depending on whether it was used to refer to a paradigm shift in sociology or, say, an epistemic or ontological idea. That there has been a paradigm shift in secularization theory is clear enough, though some still hold onto its central tenants, (e.g., Bruce 2002) such as the idea that trends in religious belief and affiliation decline as nation-states gain more “existential security.” (e.g., Norris and Inglehart 2011)

As for the other two iterations—“the post-secular” and “post-secularism”—I would argue that they are more and less controversial depending on whether they are used:

1) as normative descriptions of an existing reality (e.g., we are now “post-secular”); or

2) to describe the claims of certain groups (i.e., scholars) who take them up, as well as those who deploy them in order to test their validity. (e.g, asking how or why or who is post-secular?)

Here I’d like to briefly consider a few of these iterations with reference to a 2008 essay by Jürgen Habermas, who helped to popularize the term post-secular in his essay “Faith and Knowledge,” (2003) which was first presented as a speech in October 2001, one month after 9/11.

Habermas asks whether the term post-secular can be used to describe a significant change in the “behavior and convictions of the local populations” in Western Europe? He is not convinced that it can and argues for a revised version of the secularization thesis, where the “differentiation of functional social systems” (e.g., church, state, entertainment, economy, etc.) are better understood as processes that continue at an uneven pace and in non-linear directions.

When turning to “the post-secular,” Habermas argues that it could effectively describe “public consciousness” in Europe “to the extent that at present it still has to ‘adjust itself to the continued existence of religious communities in an increasingly secularized environment.’” In this sense, he is making the claim that while the substance of the old secularization model is more or less valid in West European societies, the future role of ‘religion’ (his scare quotes) within public and political life remains uncertain.

Habermas lists 3 reasons for this uncertainty:

1) Global conflicts that are framed around “religious strife”;

2) An increased presence and influence of “churches and religious organisations” in the public sphere of “secular societies”;

3) Increased immigration, “guest-workers” and refuges from “countries with traditional cultural backgrounds,” which has sparked a so-called Kulturkampf between “radical multiculturalists” and “militant secularists,” especially in relation to “Islam” (my scare quotes).

Given the apparent resurgence of “religious communities” in the Euro-West, Habermas wants to marshal the term “post-secular” as a sort of regulative idea in the hope that relativist and secularist camps will address their “religious” fellow citizens in a manner that is  not grounded upon apathy or antipathy, but is, rather, adjusted to deal with the constitutive social realities that they face.

While there are many more angles to Habermas’ conceptualization of this idea (see 2006; 2009; 2010a; 2010b) his interest in developing a norm-oriented political theory, as I have briefly touched on here, reveals a tension between his use of these concepts to describe certain constitutive ideas (i.e., hypotheses on the differentiation of social systems and demographic trends) versus his use of (the) “post-secular” as a regulative idea, which he has, at times, suggested is an actual, existing reality. The latter use of this concept is by far the most contested since it makes the leap from a recently constructed idea(l) to a social fact in a single bound. If only we were Superman.

Consider the following book title, Political Theologies: Public Religions in a Postsecular World. (2006) This takes a cue from Casanova’s, Public Religions in the Modern World, (1994) and suggests that the challenges that he posed to classical secularization theory have proven correct, in a manner of speaking.

This idea has a corollary in the shift toward talk of “secularisms,” which was the title of a 2008 book edited by Ann Pelligrini and Janet Jakobsen, and was preceded by the idea of “multiple modernities,” made popular by the work of Schmuel Eisenstadt. (for a fusion of these concepts, see Multiple Modernities and Postsecular Societies [2012])

On another level, this concept has been of interest to certain philosophers, critical theorists (e.g., some post-structuralists [Blond: 1999] and especially those influenced by the Frankfurt School [Gorski]) and political theologians, including some non-theologians with an interest in theological ideas, along with certain trends in feminist thought. In these cases, the “post” seems to mark a shift toward articulating a normative conceptual reality of the “modern” or “postmodern” condition.

Needless to say, much of these debates appear to be caught up in the familiar tension between the “is” and the “ought”—that is, the scholarly task of describing and explaining how things are versus the more political or theological aim of suggesting how they should or ought to be understood. I would suggest that at least part of this tension can be resolved by scholars rigorously clarifying and distinguishing their theories and methods from their aims and interests so that all can be laid bare and held to account rather than having certain agendas snuck in the back door.

Furthermore, I would argue that the use-value of these concepts and their various iterations hinges in no small measure upon the aims and interests of different fields and sub-fields, both within and outside of “religious studies” proper. (incidentally, I am yet to overhear a conversation in line at the grocery where someone casually refers to our post-secular condition) For some scholars, terms like “secular,” “post-secular” and “religion” are fraught with problems that are deemed to be either in need of clarification or rejected altogether in favor of more accurate descriptions of the phenomena that they attempt to describe.

For others, such as political scientist Elizabeth Shakman-Hurd, grappling with a more nuanced understanding of the religion/secular binary is caught up in both critical theoretical issues (e.g., she acknowledges these terms are social constructions) as well as practical and pragmatic concerns that relate directly to matters of public and foreign policy, international legal regulations, etc. (see The Politics of Secularism in International Relations [2008]) In this sub-field of political theory, problematizing the discursive ground upon which scholars talk about these terms (e.g., what defines a “secular” state) has a direct relation to policies and practices in the messy world of realpolitik and thus requires a more immanent engagement with ideas already in circulation–ideas that require answers in the here and now.

And so while narratives about religion in this sub-field are, as Shakman Hurd argues, socially constructed in relation to dominant ideologies and interests and thus constitute objects of study in and of themselves (and she is a voice in the wilderness in her sub-field), they are also constituted by a practical intention that aims towards more nuanced and inclusive ways of addressing these problems in international relations. In this sense, these concepts are measured by how useful they are, for example, in creating representative legal frameworks or as regulative ideas that aim to orient citizens and policy makers in modern societies toward adopting a different or “enlarged mentality,” to borrow a line from Hannah Arendt.

Whether or not religious studies scholars (as opposed to, say, scholars in international relations) should be engaged in advocating for certain expressions of “religion” as better or worse, I leave to the side, though it should be clear that confusing the “is” and the “ought” leads to serious problems, as seen when the leap is made from describing or testing concepts such as “post-secular” to asserting them as a fait accompli. In this sense, (the) post-secular(-ism) provides a useful comparative example for how we define religion.

Mike Graziano: I think the term “post-secular” is fraught with many of the same problems as the rest of our disciplinary vocabulary. When the term is used in an American context (with which I’m most familiar), it seems to me it is often used uncritically to describe a situation in which it’s cool to say “I’m spiritual but not religious.” 

I’m not particularly attached to the term but I will consider how it might be analytically useful in certain situations. “Post-secular” might be used productively to describe a state of affairs in which those in power recognize some of the problems of a religion/secular dichotomy while, at the same time, drawing their power and authority from a system that is premised on just such a dichotomy. In this situation, those in power recognize an area of social existence called “the secular” (in which there is ostensibly no religion) and have to apply that neat framework to a messy reality. For better or worse, the most powerful theorists of the post-secular in American life are the nine members of the Supreme Court who have possessed, since at least 1947, the power to determine the particular religiosity/secularity of public spaces and acts under review. 

Consider Chief Justice John Roberts’ comment in _Hosanna-Tabor_ (2012) in which he compares the ingestion of peyote by Native Americans (ruled Constitutionally unprotected in _Smith_) to a Protestant church’s power to fire any employee it deems a “minister” (unanimously protected in _Hosanna-Tabor_):

_Smith_ involved government regulation of only outward physical acts. The present case, in contrast, concerns government interference with an internal church decision that affects the faith and mission of the church itself.

It is as if the justices haves some sort of theological geiger counter with which to take readings: how religious is the act in Case XYZ? Fully religious? Only 80%? Where’s the tipping point? This might seem absurd (it is), but it is also one practical response to the “post-secular” situation described above. Many of the benefits (i.e., exceptions to generally applicable laws) of the First Amendment are premised on an individual or institution being religious or secular. While the justices may not always see a hard edge between religion and secular, it turns out that there’s no such thing as “a little bit tax-exempt.” As Charles McCrary rightly points out in part one of this series, this is why the question of “Is it religious?”—a question which many of us are tired of hearing—remains an incredibly important and powerful question in the realms of law and policy. And I wonder whether a term like “post-secular” might help to describe these competing paradigms.

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Religion Snapshots: Defining Postsecularism, Part 1


Religion Snapshots is a feature with the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog, where a number of contributors are asked to briefly comment on popular news items or pressing theoretical issues in the field, especially those topics relating to definitions, classification and method and theory in the study of religion more generally. For previous posts in this series, see hereherehereherehere and here.

Editor’s note: The idea for this topic was spurred by Donovan Schaefer’s recent post, “Partisan Science: Evolution and Creation in Postsecular American Politics.”

Question: How do you define postsecularism, postsecular, or the postsecular?

Karen de Vries: I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. My work could easily be considered “postsecular” and I’m a fan of some of the work that happens under this sign, BUT I don’t use the term to describe my position or my intellectual work. I think about postsecularism the way I think about many “posts” (e.g. postmodernism, posthumanism, postfeminism), which is to say that I have a slight allergy to the temporal register of “getting past” or “getting beyond” because it connotes an overcoming of all these allegedly erroneous ways of thinking because we post-x’s have figured out a new way of thinking. Yes, we have figured out a new way of talking about knowledge and I’m on board with much of it, but the temporal register of “post” tilts toward the future and disavows past complexities that I think need to be taken up with thicker nuance than the postsecular frequently grants.

An example. One of the features of work described as “postsecular” I appreciate is the critique of secular rationality and its legacies of oppression, but do we really have to call ourselves “post” to engage in these critiques? Feminists have been critiquing racist masculinist objectivity for several decades now with terms like “situated knowledges.” In theorizing desire, feminists and queer theorists have also been doing what could be called “affect theory” for some time. I’ve always appreciated the feminist t-shirt that says, “I’ll be post-feminist in the post-patriarchy.” Perhaps the correlate for this topic is, “I’ll be post-secular when we’re post-religion.” 

Of course, definitions and understandings of differences between “religion” and “secular” are all over the map. My frame of reference for thinking about these terms revolves around authority. Just as one might say that feminism developed out of a critique of patriarchal authority structures, one could also say that secularism developed out of a critique of religious (i.e. Christian) authority structures. I want to hold onto that critique of “the god trick” and also be vigilant of the many places it is deployed in, to use Talal Asad’s term, secular formations. Additionally, I want to hold onto a perspective that recognizes difference in the kinds of subjectivities and governmentalities that religious and secular formations entail (e.g. the authority mechanisms undergirding a young earth creationist perspective are significantly different than those undergirding an evolutionist perspective).

While I appreciate the epistemological nuance (i.e. the critique of objectivity, the attention to affect, and the understanding of “secularism” as a particular kind of episteme and political project) promoted under the banner of “postsecular,” it’s simply not a name I readily identify with. Finding myself in the borderlands of the religious and secular, I think of these conversations as building emergent knowledge practices that aim to undo the religious/secular binary in queer ways with yet to be determined effects. To inherit the differential and constitutive relations of the contemporary episteme, I’ve begun to describe them as “religio-secular” conversations instead of as postsecular. 

Perhaps this distinction boils down to “potato, potahto,” but for those of us invested in language, the difference is key. It points to different mentalities and emphases regarding how we inherit the terms, theorists, and knowledge formations that are our conditions of possibility. So while I’m pleased that a larger-scale discussion complicating understandings of secular and religious knowledge formations is taking place, the nomenclature of the “postsecular” connotes a bit more disavowal than I am comfortable with.

Charles McCrary: A clean secular/religious binary imagined by some scholars and commentators has in recent years broken down. This is true in scholarship but also, I think, in institutions like law and government, and in American culture more broadly. However, questions like “Is that practice really religious?” or “Is that idea of religious or secular origin?”–questions that many scholars now find unhelpful–have relevance due to religion’s special place in law. So, these questions, odd as they are, must be answered. In the last, say, 70 years, but especially the last decade or two, in American law the individual has been the beneficiary of more rights, especially “religious” ones, as legal understandings of religion expanded. As Winnifred Sullivan and others have pointed out, these developments have helped lead to a conception of the individual human as in some way inherently “religious.”

The postsecular, then, seems to me a way to signal recognition of this situation. If “religion” is no longer clearly confined to institutions and official doctrines, if it’s something personal, “spiritual,” private, and protected–and this is the way a significant percentage of Americans, including legal thinkers and judges, understand it–then there is less left for the realm of “secular.” When applied to legal and cultural conceptions of human nature, I like the term “postsecular” because it indicates a historical change.

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Aronofsky’s Noah and Ours’


by Matt Sheedy

Not since Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ has a biblical-themed film garnered so much attention, spurring a wave of commentary from supporters and detractors on one or the other (or the other) side of the fence. Such is the ability of popular media to construct dominant narratives, where, in this instance, interest in biblical accuracy and of winning over more traditional Christian audiences in order to make up for the $125 million dollar price tag have tended to lead the charge. While most scholars of religion purport to sit atop the fence and observe what is happening on either side, they frequently fall off their perch, to the left or to the right, and even get pilloried from time to time.

This post is an attempt to step back from political and theological commitments and look at a few examples of how narrative and ideology function to shape discourses about religion and religious identities amidst this deluge of (mostly) Christian-themed films in 2014.

In his well-known essay “The Death of the Author,” (1967) Roland Barthes argues that writing does not represent some one-to-one connection between the author and her text, where meaning is discovered through a correct interpretation of her intentions or how they relate to her life story, but instead places authority upon the reader who provides the text with an ever expanding range of meanings, a “multiplicity” as Barthes would have it.

We know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash.

In his lesser-known essay “What Is an Author” (1969), Michel Foucault looks to expand Barthes thesis by asking what role or function does an author’s name serve? For example, he asks us to consider how our impressions of Shakespeare might change if we discovered that he was also the author of Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum? For Foucault, an author’s name is always linked to certain types of discourse, which carry particular ideas and discursive frames of reference within different cultures and societies.

Pulling these ideas together:

1)    It is the reader and not the author that gives the text its’ meanings;

2)    The text is an un-original production that is derived from multiple sites of culture;

3)    The author’s name influences how it is received within a given culture/society.

Darren Aronofsky’s feature films include Pi (1998), Requiem for a Dream (2000), Below (2002), The Fountain (2006), The Wrestler (2008), Black Swan (2010) and Noah (2014). In all of these works, flawed characters grapple with personal and moral dilemmas amidst difficult circumstances. According to Aronofsky, The Fountain is a prequel to Noah, just as The Wrestler and Black Swan represent similar themes in ‘low’ and ‘high’ performance art (wrestling and ballet). The “author” in Aronofsky’s case has a professed artistic intention, which he repeats, defends and modifies in interviews about his various productions. For example, he has called Noahthe least biblical biblical film ever made,” while describing his interest in this particular narrative as one that he has had since the age of 13.

More instructive than the author’s stated intentions, however, and recalling Foucault’s point about the cultural reception of an author’s name, is what “Aronofsky” signifies. Both prior to and after its’ creation, Aronofsky’s Noah was already symbolically linked to to a variety signifiers such as “Hollywood,” “liberal” and “atheist,” all of which are attached to other chains of signification, deemed good, bad or somewhere in between, depending on the reader.

Likewise, the story of Noah has its own culturally normative and contested meanings and reflects differently depending on whether it is discussed in relation to cultural/political (e.g., race and gender), Christian, Jewish, Muslim, atheist or religious studies discursive frames of reference.

In short, Aronofsky the author lives, but only, to quote Barthes, as “a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.”

Aronofsky has also noted that his interest in the story of Noah stems less from his Jewish upbringing (which he describes as more “cultural” than anything else, while also likening it to a Midrash on another occasion), and more from a desire to retell a “great fable,” which he refers to as the “first cautionary tale.” Apart from the ambiguous question of Aronofsky’s own “spirituality,” which he claims is distilled in his film The Fountain, he is clearly attempting to re-imagine a biblical narrative by highlighting such topics as ecology (e.g., dominion vs. stewardship and the value of vegetarianism), good vs. evil (e.g., as the balance between justice and mercy) and the idea of second chances or new beginnings.

For conservative commentator Glenn Beck, Aronofsky’s Noah is “hostile to God” and teaches “planet over man,” which is why he has urged his radio audience not to see the film, concerned that such “dangerous disinformation” will influence children and “come alive in their imagination.” In this sense, Aronofsky’s Noah has become one of many sites of “Biblicism,” as discussed in a recent post by Dan Mathewson.

For many, of course, the author doesn’t matter at all, as Bill Maher’s recent invective nicely illustrates, where the very mention of Noah (signifying religion/irrational, etc.) serves only to confirm the ill-logic of “the Bible,” despite Aronofsky’s professions to the contrary.

While these and other narratives about Aronofsky’s Noah have often relied on the claims of the author as a site of affinity or estrangement with certain theological and/or political preferences, and thus represent forms of ideological persuasion, to borrow from Bruce Lincoln, when we consider Barthes’ point about the death of the author and the role of the reader, the range of narratives and ideological representations multiplies from “innumerable centres of culture” and will no doubt continue to “increase in number; fill the earth and [attempt to] subdue it” … in the readers’ own image, that is, especially as Aronofsky’s ability to influence its’ reception fades along with the spotlight on his Noah.

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Call for Proposals: Ecological Resistance Movements in the 21st Century: The Continuing Global Struggle for Biocultural Survival and Multispecies Justice


We are currently seeking paper proposals for Ecological Resistance Movements in the 21st Century: The Continuing Global Struggle for Biocultural Survival and Multispecies Justice.  We envision both an edited volume by this title and are also planning a special issue of the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, which will be composed of the contributions that pay the greatest attention to the religious, spiritual, and affective dimensions of the analyzed movements.

A wide variety of environmental movements emerged globally after the first Earth Day in 1970. Increasingly, they have been joined by anti-colonial, poor people’s, indigenous, feminist and social justice movements that were seeking to integrate environmental concerns. Over the years, a number of works analyzed the influences and prospects of these movements, including, in 1995, Ecological Resistance Movements: The Global Emergence of Radical and Popular EnvironmentalismIn recent years there appears to be an upsurge in direct action and other forms of environmental resistance, including resistance at Gezi Park in Turkey, the Belo Monte Dam in Brazil, to the gates of the White House in Washington DC. We seek to focus scholarly attention on this resurgence and seek proposals analyzing them.

The deadline for the submission of proposal abstracts is 15 May 2014.  Interested scholars should consult the detailed Call for Proposals.

Enquiries and proposals should be directed to Joseph Witt (

By early June editors will respond and encourage contributions from those whose proposed articles they consider the most fitting and promising. Papers will be due by 31 December 2014.

The editors are Bron Taylor (Professor of Religion and Environmental Ethics at the University of Florida), Ursula Münster (Postdoctoral Researcher at the Rachel Carson Center and the Department of Anthropology, LMU Munich), and Joseph Witt (Assistant Professor of Religion at Mississippi State University).

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Dead Religions


by Tenzan Eaghll

Did you catch the 2008 interview with J.Z. Smith that was recently making the rounds on Facebook? In it, Smith suggests that the benefit of studying dead ancient religions is that they can’t talk back to you. When you study dead religions, no one can pipe up and say, ‘hey, that is not how I practice my religion!’ As Smith states:

I specialized in religions that are dead, which has the great advantage that nobody talks back. No one says, ‘That’s not what I heard last Sunday!’ Everybody’s dead. And I like that

Now, everyone who studies contemporary cultural movements will no doubt sympathize with this point, as having to constantly be aware of how ‘practitioners’ interpret your writing is always a concern—especially given the recent Doniger controversy—but Smith’s comment got me thinking about the deeper theoretical implications of our work. What his statement made me wonder was the following: aren’t all religions dead religions?

After all, none of us study the ‘living present’ but only its dead counterpart. As Russell McCutcheon has aptly noted in numerous Culture on the Edge posts, historical rationalization always comes after the fact. We never actually encounter things in their ‘present’ state, but only in a strange, foreign, and unknown past. Sometimes our ‘data’ is from 2000 years ago, and sometimes it is from yesterday, but it is always dead because even events from today are already yesterday. As McCutcheon writes, “After all, we’re all living in someone else’s “good old days” right now.

A similar point is also made by Derrida in “Violence and Metaphysics,” when he argues that the question of historical origins—precisely our “jewgreek” origins—should not be understood as “a chronological, but a pre-logical progression.” That is, all decisions about history, whether ancient or modern, are decisions that are made before we turn to our ‘data.’ We don’t study the chronological progression of history, but the difference that presents itself as history. In this way, every ‘religion’ that we study is dead because by the time it comes under our gaze it belongs to a prior set of decisions, incisions, and cuts.

Or, to go even further back than Derrida, Hegel argues for this exact point in The Philosophy of Right when he famously quipped that “the owl of minerva flies at dusk.” By this, Hegel is implying that philosophy comes to understand history only after it passes away. Philosophy cannot be prescriptive because the view it offers is always one of hindsight:


One more word about giving instruction as to what the world ought to be. Philosophy in any case always comes on the scene too late to give it… When philosophy paints its gloomy picture then a form of life has grown old. It cannot be rejuvenated by the gloomy picture, but only understood. Only when the dusk starts to fall does the owl of Minerva spread its wings and fly.

The basic point: historical rationalization is always post hoc. We never encounter the living thing, but only its dead counterpart. So, whether we study the ancient civilization of Babylon or contemporary Hinduism, we all study dead religions.

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Partisan Science: Evolution and Creation in Postsecular American Politics

1920SunSchTimesOct16by Donovan Schaefer

recent Pew Research Center poll explored correlations between political party identification and beliefs about the origins of species in the U.S. The poll found that self-identified Republicans are the most likely to reject evolutionary accounts of human origins–whether Darwinian or theistic–with 48 percent asserting that humans “existed in their present form since the beginning of time,” a view shared by only 27 percent of Democrats.

More interesting still, however, is the Pew Center’s analysis comparing the 2013 poll with the results for the same question asked in 2009. This comparison shows that the number of Republicans who reject evolutionary accounts has increased by 9 points (from 39 percent), and the number of Republicans who accept evolutionary accounts has decreased by 11 points (from 54 percent to 43 percent) over the last four years. During the same period, acceptance of evolutionary accounts increased by 3 points among Democrats and decreased by 2 points among Independents.


Let’s take this data at face value. What changes during the 4 years between 2009 and 2013 that could generate a massive swing among Republicans away from acceptance of evolutionary accounts of human origins–while during the same period we see only drift within other demographics? I would argue that the shift reflects the Republican retrenchment that is taking place during the presidency of Barack Obama. During this period, American conservatives did not simply stand against Obama’s policy proposals: they also underlined their dissatisfaction with the direction of the country’s politics by consolidating certain identity markers that indicated their separateness from what they perceive as the enemy–a liberal, secularist political syndicate. Affirming their opposition to evolutionary accounts (even theistic evolution) is a way of deploying an epistemic regime as an element in an identity program motivated by defiance and rage.

This illustrates two features of what I would call postsecularism. First, knowledge and science are not neutral, but are charged with affect, connected to identitarian programs, and easily absorbed into political regimes. Where secularism understands science as an outgrowth of a neutral exercise of rationality, the postsecular lens sees all forms of knowledge and rationality as embedded within fields of power and desire–though this need not be reduced to a simple scientific anti-realism.

Second, where the secularization hypothesis proposes that religion will steadily recede from the public sphere, postsecularism predicts a more complex trajectory, in which what gets called religion alternately enters and exits the public sphere in response to different historical circumstances and configurations of power.

Posted in Donovan Schaefer, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Theory and Method, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments