On October 19th I hosted, along with Saba Mahmood and Judith Butler, a one-day conference at UC Berkeley entitled “Is Critique Secular?

The title was meant to be provocative, and I think it was, and not only because some of the people to whom the question was addressed deeply felt they had a definitive answer to it. One Berkeley colleague, when told the event was going to be called “Is Critique Secular?” said, “Well I should hope so!” Scholars who work on religious history tended to respond with puzzlement that anyone would think that religious activity, at least as it imagines other and different worlds, could be understood as anything other than “critical.” If nothing else, I think our day’s event made it harder to have a single definitive answer to the question we posed, and I am grateful to the participants for the opening-up of the field such uncertainty enables.

The Conference circulated papers by Talal Asad (Anthropology, CUNY), Amy Hollywood (Divinity, Harvard) and Colin Jager (English, Rutgers). We invited Asad because he is virtually the founder of a contemporary anthropology of secularism. Hollywood’s work on “uncritical” medieval reading practices was of interest to us because it points to the historical specificity of contemporary equation of close reading with critical thinking. And Jager’s work on Romanticism and the secular appealed to us because he is especially sharp about the transfer of religious ideas to non-religious contexts.

Asad’s paper,“Blasphemy and Secular Criticism,” addressed the character of the 2006 controversy over the Danish cartoons featuring satirical depictions of Mohammed. He argued that European outrage at Muslim outrage over the cartoons suggests a troubling contradiction in contemporary European political life, in which the open-ended prerogatives of a “limitless self” need to test themselves against the potential outrage of others whose presumably primitive taboos are in need of breaking. Why, Asad asked, is there so much discourse about “blasphemy” in an avowedly “secular” public that identifies itself as beyond concern for blasphemy?

Hollywood’s paper, “Acute Melancholia,” offered a historical and theoretical reflection on the self-mortifying religious practices of 13th-century female Christian mystics. Investigating the overlap between the productive effects of these women’s intense devotions and the Freudian account of melancholy, Hollywood argues that in both the medieval and the modern cases, intense practices of ideational internalization act to keep alive intersubjective forms of “immanent transcendence.” Hollywood’s paper made clear that there is an ongoing history of women’s devotional practice that functions as a non-secular form of “critique” in the sense that these practices refuse to accept loss without rigorously altering the conditions of how it is received into the world.

Jager, finally, offered both a brisk synopsis of current accounts of secularism in the academy, which he compared to the dynamics of “Enchantment and Reflexivity” at work in one of Byron’s “Turkish Tales.” In Jager’s reading of Byron’s poem, “enchantment” is not so much a state of affairs forever lost in an encroaching modernity so much as a reaction to modernity itself, a form of grieving refusal to accept it. And “reflexivity,” often understood as enchantment’s opposite, Jager reads less as a modern accomplishment of being able to put oneself in another’s shoes than as a kind of ideal condition, mediated by different practices of storytelling, that presents its own problems for grounded knowledge.

I couldn’t possibly recount all the interesting twists of conversation that followed each of these excellent papers, but I would like to mention an issue that emerged for me as an organizer and participant in the day’s events.

All three papers hinged importantly on the question of religious belief in the broadest sense and had comparatively little to say about particular theologies, religious institutions, or religious practices (Hollywood addressed her medieval subjects’ practice at length, but her frame-narrative was about belief – about how she loved her family’s fantastical stories exactly because she didn’t believe in them). This angle of vision seems broadly true of the current secular academic conversation on religion and the secular, and I always wonder, in the presence of this conversation, how it would look different if practice, for instance, were at the fore of the discussion, rather than belief, or some general notion of the “theological.”

A consequence of hinging our conversation on belief is that it tends to project “belief” in the abstract onto some believer, elsewhere. I often experience the dialog in the secular academy about religion as involving a kind of division of believing labor, if you will, in which avowed non-believers puzzle over the intricacies of religious belief, its loss, its renewal, its existentially contradictory character, without much investigation into the lived experiences and practices of the “religious.” In print, of course, there are many major exceptions to this, from Saba Mahmood’s Politics of Piety to Dawne Moon’s God, Sex, and Politics, which coins the useful term “everyday theology” to account for something like a religious habitus. But our conversations are different than the books we read, and I think we have some catching up to do.

One reason I experience the generality of our academic vernacular for the “religious and “the secular” as a kind of lagging-behind is frankly personal. My partner is a Unitarian minister, and I have learned a lot from moving into the faith-based intellectual and political environment that is his vocational home. One example: from the vantage of a liberal religious tradition like Unitarianism, it becomes possible to see the erasure of the US history of religious liberalism in both the language of the religious right and of the secular left. Both prefer to think of “religion” as creed and orthodoxy, rather than, say, as experience and seeking – a rhetorical move that makes it possible to ignore the history of liberal religious political activism in the US, not least the history of Civil Rights as a movement always dependent on the organizing capacities of churches.

Another thing that spending time in progressive religious settings has made possible for me: I have begun to sense the outline of what I think of as a left-secularist structure of feeling, a half-articulate complex of intuitions that depends at least in part on earlier, forgotten struggles. In my developing sense of this structure of feeling, left-secularist affect is a late form of existentialism that leans, knowingly or not, on Sartre’s leftism and his valorization of “commitment” as a form of political authenticity. This left-secularist existentialism looks condescendingly on its religious allies, misunderstanding them as “believers” in some static sense, and interpreting their “belief” as a kind of crutch, not necessary for those who have looked into the void, but helpful for those on the left who are a bit existentially weak.

These things – the reduction of “religion” to theology, to orthodoxy, and to conservative politics; the resulting erasure of the history of the religious left in “secular” political life; and the unreflecting existentialist condescension of the secularist left toward what it imagines “religion” to be – these form the basis of my interest in our getting better educated about religious histories, institutions, practices, and experiences. My hope is that getting educated about these things will make us better practitioners of our own methods, not least the one we sometimes self-congratulatingly think of as definitively modern and definitively secular: critique.