The series of posts at The Immanent Frame that have responded to the question “Is critique secular?” were initially inspired by an event that I, along with Judith Butler and Chris Nealon, organized last year at The Townsend Center for the Humanities at UC Berkeley. Given the SSRC’s current focus on religion and secularism, Jonathan VanAntwerpen invited the conference organizers and participants, and a range of others, to post their reflections on this event and the question that framed it (see posts by Talal Asad, Chris Nealon, and Colin Jager—all of whom participated in the symposium). Here I would like to give a sense of the ongoing stakes some of us have in this conversation and why I think it is important to think about secularism in relation to critique given the political bent of our times.
The symposium “Is Critique Secular?” was the inaugural event for a new teaching and research unit in critical theory at UC Berkeley, plans for which had been in gestation for over a year. While the motivations for the establishment of this program were diverse, there is a group of us who are interested in opening up traditional ways of thinking about critique to recent problematizations of notions of the secular, secularity, and secularism. While it is clear that the genealogy of critique is complicated, the thread we wanted to pull involved rethinking some of the underlying assumptions about history, temporality, causality, and ethics as they have become enshrined in regnant conceptions of critique. Insomuch as the tradition of critical theory is infused with a suspicion, if not dismissal, of religion’s metaphysical and epistemological commitments, we wanted to think “critically” about this dismissal: how are epistemology and critique related within this tradition? Do distinct traditions of critique require a particular epistemology and ontological presuppositions of the subject? How might we rethink the dominant conception of time—as empty, homogenous and unbounded, one so germane to our conception of history—in light of other ways of relating to and experiencing time that also suffuse modern life? How do these other ways of inhabiting time complicate the rigid opposition between secular and sacred time so common to everyday practices of modern life? A final set of questions revolve around various disciplines of subjectivity through which a particular subject of critique is secured. What are some of the practices of self-cultivation—including practices of reading, contemplation, engagement, and sociality—internal to secular conceptions of critique? What is the morphology of these practices and how do these sit with (or differ from) other practices of ethical self-cultivation that might uphold contrastive notions of critique and criticism?
Given the nature of these questions, it must be clear that we were not looking for a “yes” or a “no” answer to our question “Is Critique Secular?” To do so would be to foreclose thought and to fail to engage a rich set of questions, answers to which remain unclear, not because of some intellectual confusion or incomplete evidence, but because these questions require a comparative dialogue across the putative divide between “Western” and “non-Western” traditions of critique and practice. Furthermore, such an engagement requires putting our most closely held assumptions to critical scrutiny, a task most suited, we thought, to a symposium devoted to critique itself. After all, one of the most cherished definitions of critique is the incessant subjection of all norms to unyielding critique. Or is it?
The conversation that has unfolded on this blog and other places following our symposium suggests that the task is more difficult. It has to do with the shrill polemic that attends current discussions about religion, and by implication secularism, today. The events of the past decade (including 9/11, the subsequent war on terror, the rise of religious politics globally) have intensified what was at one point only a latent schism between religious and secular world views. It is quite common to hear voices from all sides of the political spectrum posit an incommensurable divide between strong religious belief and a secular worldview. Despite this intense polarization, more reflective participants in this debate have tried to direct our attention to how the religious and the secular are not so much immutable essences or opposed ideologies as they are concepts that gain a particular salience with the emergence of the modern state and attendant politics-concepts that are, furthermore, interdependent and necessarily linked in their mutual transformation and historical emergence. Viewed from this perspective, as a secular rationality has come to define law, state craft, knowledge production, and economic relations in the modern world, it has also simultaneously transformed the conceptions, ideals, practices and institutions of religious life. Secularism in this scholarship is understood not simply as the doctrinal separation of church from state, but the rearticulation of religion in a manner that is commensurate with modern sensibilities and modes of governance. To rethink the religious is to also rethink the secular and its truth claims, its promise of internal and external goods.
While these analytical reflections have complicated an otherwise shrill debate about the religious and the secular, they are often challenged by those who fear that this manner of thinking forestalls effective action against the threat of “religious extremism” that haunts our world today. By historicizing the truth of secular reason and questioning its normative claims, one paves the way for religious fanaticism to take hold of our institutions and society. One enters a slippery slope of the ever present dangers of “relativism.” Our temporal frame of action requires certainty and judgment rather than critical rethinking of secular goods. This line of thought urges you to choose: either one is against secular values or one is for them. If “we” do not defend secular values and lifestyles, it is argued, “they” (often Islamic extremists) will take over our liberal freedoms and institutions. What we need is a robust defense of secularism and its goods.
This manner of conceptualizing the conflict between secular necessity and religious threat is not only intellectually problematic, I want to suggest, but poses a grave impediment to coming to terms with the religious turn in politics in a range of societies. Intellectually speaking, this dichotomous characterization depends upon a certain definition of religious extremism, often amassing together a series of practices and images that are said to threaten the secular liberal worldview: from suicide bombers, to veiled women, to angry mobs burning books, to preachers pushing “intelligent design” in schools. Needless to say, these diverse set of images and practices neither emanate from a singular religious logic nor belong sociologically to a unified political formation. Far more importantly, the point I want to stress here is that these supposed descriptions of “religious extremism” enfold a set of judgments and evaluations such that to abide by a certain description is also to uphold these judgments. Descriptions of events deemed “extremist” or “politically dangerous” are often not only reductive of the conditions they purport to describe, but more importantly, they are premised on normative conceptions of the subject, law, and language that that need to be urgently rethought if one is to get beyond the current secular-religious impasse. Any serious intellectual and political discussion today must therefore cleave apart description from judgment so as to lay bare the epistemological and ontological assumptions whose status is far more fraught in the academy than meets the eye in these polemical accounts. Such a task of course has bearing upon how one thinks about the project of critique and its various forms of practice.
But for some academics, to inquire into normative assumptions about history, temporality, or regnant language ideologies endemic to secular discourse is to commit a grave intellectual and political error, one easily dismissed as “conservative.” Consider for example Stathis Gourgouris’s post to the The Immanent Frame as part of the thread on “Is critique secular?” He answers the question categorically and unequivocally: “Yes, critique is secular,” he writes. And he goes on to declare, “If the secular imagination ceases to seek and to enact critique, it ceases to be secular.” Note how distinct this emphatic certainty is from the spirit of the symposium I described earlier and how it forestalls the set of inquiries and questions I allude to above. The substantive and rhetorical thrust of Gourgouris’s circular argument turns, not surprisingly, upon: (a) a dichotomous representation of religion and secularism (religion bad, secularism good); and (b) moral platitudes about the goods secularism offers to humanity that religion clearly does not. What I think should be noted is the way an argument about critique’s ability to overcome its own context of iteration draws its rhetorical force from the invocation of a most conventional (and problematic) conceptual repertoire. He states, for example, secularization “makes possible the emancipatory realization of the tragic finitude of every one life (mortality) against the redemptive total finitude of all (rapture). Or, if you will, it underscores the infinite possibility of the human imagination to create out of chaos against the restricted condition of creation by the totality of the All-Signifying-God. This is what makes the difference between a worldly and an otherworldly reality of life, a different whose significance, again, is not critical or philosophical, but political.” The trenchant dichotomies operative here are reminiscent of the likes of Mircea Eliade who, ironically, sought to defend religion’s (rather than secularism’s) ultimate value and truth.
An argument that starts with calls for historical specificity devolves into moves common to other triumphalist accounts of secularism wherein religion is ascribed an essence: it is “other worldly,” “transcendental,” “totalizing,” and ultimately an immature way of dealing with death and mortality. The secular, on the other hand, is essential in its own way because it is “worldly,” “emancipatory,” and reflective of the “human imagination to create” a space of complete freedom. The claim to an historical understanding of secularism is quickly abandoned for the moral superiority of secularism through recourse to the familiar Enlightenment rhetoric of freedom, human creativity, and autonomy as well as an impoverished materialist conception of history. Not only has the universalism of these notions been challenged, of course, their singularity and eminence put to scrutiny within the academy, but the vacuous notion of religion offered here (for Gourgouris, religion is a product of history that misrecongizes its own historicity) hardly captures the complexity of secular modernity itself. While these sorts of valuations might make one feel good about the superiority of “a secular worldview,” they hardly constitute a tenable analysis in light of all the recent work on the modern emergence of the categories of secularism and religion.
But I think the “feeling good” part of the secular story cannot be belittled. It should in fact be studied in all seriousness so as to apprehend the visceral force secular discourses and practices command in our world today. While it is common to ascribe passion to religion, it would behoove us to pay attention to the thick texture of affinities, prejudices, and attachments that tie us (cosmopolitan intellectuals and critics) to what is loosely described as a secular worldview. This visceral attachment is evident in Gourgouris’s argument in several places. Most emphatically, we see this attachment in the way his rhetorical defense of secularism devolves upon a kind of liberal romantic imaginary through which we are routinely asked to recognize our most profound commitments (to autonomy, creativity, imagination, and freedom). This attachment is also evident in his reactive dismissal of the arguments I put forward—in an article initially published in Public Culture and later discussed at an SSRC colloquium on secularism—as “anti-secular,” “conservative,” and guilty of “facile identity politics.” Insomuch as these are charges rather than arguments they depend on a structure of affect in which the mere suggestion that there might be a “normative impetus internal to secularism” is to be blindly “pro-religion” and “anti-secular.” No other position is imaginable in this structure of affect, and arguments that are rather common in a variety of fields (about subject, language, law, and politics) elicit ominous warnings about their dangers when it comes to the study of religion. Moreover, the conceptual acrobatics by which Gourgouris comes to gloss my argument as facile identity politics are stunning in so much as my article builds on a body of work that has challenged the notion of identity as adequate to the analysis of a wide array of Islamic politics. The great analytical cost of Gourgouris’s “pro” versus “against” approach is apparent to anyone interested in interrogating the pious truths of secularism (and not religion alone).
This manner of thinking, I believe, has less to do with individual failures, however, and is more symptomatic of an understanding of critical reason that abjures its ethical and substantive commitments for its procedural merits. Insomuch as critique is often imagined as a constant subjection of all norms to further criticism, it is viewed as what Michael Warner calls a “negative potential,” incapable of recognizing itself as a peculiar (and parochial?) cultural form. The full force of this ideal of critical reason comes to the fore when it is juxtaposed against religious critique, imagined to be saturated with ethical and moral prejudices, and therefore not critique at all. What such a notion of critical reason remains blind to is its own disciplinary formation, its moral and structural unconsciousness. For critique, so understood, if it were to recognize this, would by its own definition have to relinquish its claims on truth and reason. But perhaps a time has come when this circularity of reason can turn the tables on itself and start by acknowledging its normative commitments and ethical presuppositions, as well as the analytical risks entailed in its rhetorical and theoretical gestures. This would certainly constitute a starting point for a dialogue with what critical reason declares to be its ultimate enemy, namely religion and religious criticism. As cosmopolitan secular academics never tire of pointing out, religionists are incapable of such self-critique. What prevents us from engaging in it? The answers may not be so pious after all.
For years (since reading “Rehearsed Spontaneity and the Conventionality of Ritual” as a freshman in college) I have been grateful for your efforts to push past fictional categories, tempting as they may be for making bold assertions like Gourgouris’s.
I think you are right with the direction you point to at the end, the “feeling good” of secularism, the experience of the people involved in it. This kind of attention is also what makes Asad’s Formations of the Secular so powerful: its willingness to see the phenomenon beyond social-structural conditions to a more precise cultural anthropology: How does secular culture feel?
Secularists rejoice in the experience of liberation in secularism, and it is true, this liberation comes from a critique. It can be emotionally exhilarating, filled with the thrill of unsettling old dogmas and seeing the world with fresh eyes. I give it that.
But this is not lost on so-called religion either. Much the same exhilaration, built also on a kind of critique, is part of the experience of cradle-secularists who “find religion.” I myself was one; when I was 18 years old, I converted to Catholicism from my secular upbringing. It was a thrilling experience, a liberating one, built on a critique of how secularism had fallen short. Since, I have undergone a number of pendulum-swings back and forth between secular and religious thinking. Each move has been infused with its own form of critique and its own sense of exhilarated liberation.
As you say, it is not the category of “critique” that identifies secularity. Rather, the differences are more specific. Critique, with its attendant emotional drives and payoffs, are possessed by neither imaginary civitate, that of the religious or the secular. If anything, it depends on the possibility of moving among them, of mobility among cultures.
I find intriguing your efforts to consider what, beyond argument or analysis, draws people to “the secular story.” I’m thinking specifically of what you call “the thick texture of affinities, prejudices, and attachments that tie us (cosmopolitan intellectuals and critics) to what is loosely described as a secular worldview.” I wonder how such a “texture” might be analyzed: do you suspect that there are common or overlapping aspects of this texture among “cosmopolitan intellectuals and critics”? Or, given the number and diversity of such individuals, do you mean for this “texture” to be less an object of analysis than of self-reflection? I wonder, too, about the relation of present-day intellectuals’ outlooks to the “new moral outlook” among post-Darwinian Victorians and their successors that Charles Taylor sketches in A Secular Age: “a view of our ethical predicament, namely, that we are strongly tempted, the more so, the less mature we are, to deviate from this austere principle [of believing only what is clearly demonstrated by evidence], and give assent to comforting untruths” (563). While the epistemological framework may have changed, perhaps part of that “moral outlook”—that the desire for belief is a kind of (immature) temptation—has carried over into current academic culture. Do you think that Taylor is on a parallel track here, or is your sense of a “texture” to be distinguished from a “moral outlook”?
Both you and Taylor also seem to suggest a more institutional aspect to the draw of “the secular story.” What you frame as critical reason’s “disciplinary formation, its moral and structural unconsciousness” to my mind resembles Taylor’s concept of the “unthought” of much secularization theory, a set of assumptions that considers the decline of religion inevitable because it is (assumed to be) false, irrelevant, &/or authority-based (c. 427-29). While you invoke secular “self-critique” as the necessary next step, Taylor turns to “a continuing open exchange with those of different standpoints” as the best correction for the blindspots produced by his own (religiously committed) “unthought” (428). I would be curious to know whether you see his approach as promising or not for your own project.
While I am not so sure that I have ever encountered a group of “cosmopolitan secular academics” as ideologically monolithic as Mahmood seems to suggest I am somewhat sympathetic with her overall deconstruction of the scientistic materialist mythology that has infected our critical discourse. That is, many advocates of a binary struggle between “secular” and “religious” geopolitical forces actively deny (or perhaps have forgotten) the very ontological/epistemological assumptions that ground their own “secular worldview”. The rhetorical mantra of thinkers such as Dennet or Dawkins is precisely to proclaim metaphysics a dead conversation subsumed into the reductionist materialist constellation of advanced neuroscience and quantum physics. It is precisely this radical reduction of the ontological space to one where must be a materialist in order to have a seat at the table that I can enthusiastically join Mahmood in resisting.
While Mahmood is completely justified in bringing the metaphysical, epistemological, and ontological presuppositions of secular critique back into the forefront of our understanding of its various implications, I am not sure that this undermines its uniqueness in precisely the way she was searching for. If I can embrace my own “secular cosmopolitan academic” assumptions, in a way, do I not in fact engender an even more distinct binary between “religious” and “secular” than before?
The uniqueness of the secular humanist ontological/metaphysical position, conceiving of the human as the Kantian “end in himself”, is unique in its precisely epistemological, ontological, and metaphysical framework when subjected to a comparative analysis with other such religious frameworks. Any dialog between the “secular” theoretical position and its inverse religious critique (s), will over time, only make the peculiarity of secular critique as a historical phenomena more apparent. Whether that uniqueness is emancipating or threatening is a subjective matter, but to attempt to take away its unique standing as a historical event by means of over-contextualizing it as a merely “Western” or “secular academic” phenomena is intellectually disconcerting.
A secular person saying that a religious person cannot self-critique is just as absurd as a religious person saying that a secular person will not (not that they could not) critique themselves with God’s commandments with any true conviction and intention to conform; to abide by them (especially the first commandment). These things are obvious and each type holds their own morality, master or slave, as higher than the other seeing the opposition as evil.
Secularism seeks to consume all aspects of life into its sphere: language, arts, science, etc., everything but that which is sacred. For the secular person, who has a master morality, the only thing sacred is self. Being motivated by a “will to power” the secular person’s necessary and constant self-affirmation goes against any idea that a secular person could truly critique themselves. For any flaw found would divert their attention to build up the ego in another area to remain independent and dominant; to remain sacred. Since that which is sacred, to be exact: the secular self, is outside the sphere of what is secular, how could critique be secular?
Being that the secular person cannot self critique, nor can the religious person, we find that the only One that can truly critique a person is the Sovereign Lord, God Almighty, to be exact: Christ Jesus.
As Ann Pellegrini and Janet Jakobsen state in their book Secularisms, for many people secularity is something that “liberates humanity” by freeing “itself from the bonds of religion.” Those who fear the “defense” or discussion of religion as legitimate and relevant to the modern world are certainly thinking along these lines, especially when it comes to recent events of “religious extremism.” Secularism creates a plane on which all people of the world can relate to one another and where pronounced differences in worldview (religion) don’t interfere or create physical conflict. Mahmood is concerned that this way of conceptualizing the world, however, is “intellectually problematic” because it “poses a grave impediment to coming to terms with the religious turn in politics in a range of societies.”
Those who fear that a discussion about secularity as perhaps not as important or widespread as they would like to think, may be reacting in fear to the past decade’s pronounced form of religious “extremism,” like that of September 11th. Perhaps those who are powerfully religious in the modern world are dangerous in a way that those of the “enchanted” world of long ago were not. Technological advances have given rise to more developed ways of violently expressing religious fervor. When a person understands that the September 11th attacks are based in some form of religious ideology, however distorted, it is difficult to let go of a certain normative commitment to secularity.
Mahmood wants to give a sense of the “stakes that some of us have” in answering the question “is critique secular?” Doesn’t every person, not just “some” of those who participate in this conversation, have some kind of “stakes” or normative assumptions? Mahmood explains that Stathis Gourgouris is incorporating his own “normative assumptions” into his response to the question “is critique secular.” Is it ever possible to be completely void of normative assumptions? Aren’t they always in the background somewhere? Acknowledging this “normative commitment” is useful, but in and of itself includes some level of normativity.
To play the critic is to take on a role, a stance, a critical eye—it is done with the aim of passing judgment, which usually implies that there exists (or should and will exist) a formal delineation between one side of things and an other. Making a judgment is difficult to do without casting one side aside as lesser than or inferior to its opponent. Therefore, making a judgment seems to have an inherently violent objective in mind, an objective to cut apart and categorize. When it comes to impassioned secular railings against the prohibitive and impeding constraints of an “anti-secular” (presumed religious) point of view, it does indeed seem true that this so called “critique” ironically mirrors what its secular critical eye sees as the immoral, biased, and unduly influenced symptoms resident in prevailing religious discourse.
“Classical Latin religiōn- , religiō –a supernatural feeling of constraint, usually having the force of a prohibition or impediment; that which is prohibited, taboo; [an] impediment to action proceeding from religious awe or conscience [OED Online (entry/161944)]”
Could one not say that a “purely secular” critique of religion might consider this religious “feeling of constraint” and its imposed awareness and fear of that which is “prohibited” and “taboo” as a feeling that is ultimately an “impediment to [human] action” in the world and of the world?
Such a critique seems to implicitly express its own secular “feeling of constraint” which seems to accompany living in a world with those who actively choose to be constrained by their religion.
If a secular mindset can be burdened in this way by the constraints of living in a world where religious constraints still exist, the constraints are in a sense shared because the world is shared.
This point does not aim to equate secularism with religiosity, or to posit that the secular is and always will be a slave to the religious, but only to underscore that secular and religious perspectives share the world as their home and their stage. The world is a somewhat contained and constraining space in which dialogue and exchange about all which is in, out, and of the world can occur. The world instills and inspires a variety of worldly constraints on the secular and religious mind, but neither the secular nor religious mind lacks the capacity or curiosity to think outside the realm of the sphere which is the planet.
I was interested in your section concerning the need of the secularist to expound the platitudes of secularism versus critiquing it, so as to avoid creating religious extremists.
I recently read Bruce Lincoln’s book Holy Terrors Thinking about Religion after September 11 and I believe Lincoln effectively addresses how historicizing and questioning the normative claims of secularism doesn’t open the door for religious fanaticism, but instead sheds light on the underpinnings of what secularist would call religious extremism. By culturally situating “extremists” Lincoln reveals that the emergence of each are different and nuanced resulting in a variety of political expressions.
Academics’ exploration and critique of their own secular norms may allow them to understand and therefore begin to bridge the gap between the secularists and religious extremists. Furthermore, by taking your suggestion of providing a descriptive account without necessitating judgment would allow for more understanding of both one’s own and others’ grounding in the religious and the secular.
Since this approach seems so easy to apply, why are we still hesitant to question the “normative impetus internal to secularism?” Your suggestion that this is partially aided by a visceral attachment to secularism is entirely correct. When I began to seriously study why humans have religion I came to the conclusion that we have religion because people want certainty. And I don’t believe this desire has vanished today, therefore it takes a brave soul to continuously question and deconstruct their world-view whether this is religious or secular. How would you suggest that someone still maintain a sense of congruency to their own world-view, while also maintaining a high degree of skepticism and/or awareness?
You raise a good point about how people see secularism in the public political sphere as keeping religious extremism at bay, and the point that what is considered religiously extreme is constituted by what secularists find most threatening. This view places religion and the secular in direct conflict in the political sphere and make no room for allowing religion to find a place in modern political discourse. By excluding religion from politics in this way, based on an opposition to “religious extremism”, other forms of religious belief are effectively silenced. Not only is the public political discourse framed as opposed to “religious extremism”, it does this by excluding all forms of religious discourse, painting religion as a monolithic homogenous threat. More “moderate” religious people may feel equally as threatened by the positions of “religious extremists”, but are not given an equal voice in the political arena to voice their positions and justifications. The majority of religious people are silenced in this sphere by the fear of a minority.
You also point out that “religious extremism” is not a homogenous category and takes many different forms and stems from varied ideologies. Given that they have been painted as a singular threat to secularism, interesting questions arise about what would happen if they were allowed a place in political discourse. Would there be a fracturing of these positions in the public imagination? Would these positions gain power through a legitimized voice, or would they lose strength when no longer seen as such a powerful threat to secularism?
I think this conversation around the question “Is critique secular?” is a very important one, as many misunderstand the relationship between secularism and religion. Rather than being two incommensurable phenomenona, they exist and persist in a sort of symbiotic relationship. Of course, this relationship is not always perfect, which is why critique is so necessary. But there must be a distinction between critique for the mere sake of critique, wherein there is neither self-reflection nor self-cultivation. Rather, critique as virtue requires a sort of vulnerability of the person engaging in the critique, wherein secularism, religion, or another structural condition that be, can be imagined otherwise in a way that might allow for a more viable form of human flourishing to take place. Cornel West has brought his own religious dimensions to the conversation in Democracy Matters wherein he employs a form of critique that resembles the prophetic. Michel Foucault employs critique as virtue in a different type of prophetic rhetoric called parhessia in Fearless Speech. When considering critique, I think Mahmood is right – we need to be critical of ourselves. This involves reflecting on motivations for critique, whether they be a religiously motivated engagement with politics or political motivated religious commitments, often how we understand the other side of the binary involves a reflection on where we ourselves stand in relation to the normative claims that create the binary of “us” versus “them”. Secularism cannot live without religion, and just because separation of church and state exist does not mean religious dimensions are forever excluded from the public sphere. On the contrary, Robert Bellah has written extensively on the possibility of religion existing within our politics, as it has always done in American culture.
I’m interested in the construction that critique could, for some, be religious. My undergraduate exposure to Talmudic studies throws onto the table the option of looking at religion as a driving force behind critique. To question or outright disbelieve the presence of the divine becomes possible, which complicates our understanding of the “supernatural feeling of constraint” the OED informs us religion is to carry. This isn’t an option limited only to the Jewish tradition, either (e.g. consider a believer who sees their own Christian tradition as informed by such practices). Even if this disposition goes assumed across the board for all religionists (which would be grossly unfair), there still remains a need (among other needs) to establish an understanding of what the secular category means in the context of why it exists in the first place. Which, it seems to me, has something to do with the existence of this very forum.
Yet, I’m confused by the prospect that one might affirm secularism(s) out of religious conviction. From where does that individual’s critique originate?
I think that when asking the question, “is critique secular?”, first you have to ask yourself what secularism is. Although secularism is defined as having no religious or spiritual connotations or input, I often find myself having the question, “does secularism really exist?” This article states that the secular and the religious are “concepts that are, furthermore, interdependent and necessarily linked in their mutual transformation and historical emergence.” I think that this is the only way of truly understand secularism. I don’t think that secularism is the complete absence of religion, but rather is the mode in which people try to understand and agree in light of religious differences. I think for many people in the political as well as mainstream world are driven by their morals, which stem from ethics guided by their religious backgrounds or even by their lack thereof. It seems that in order to study secularism, one must look at people’s motivations for acting the way in which they do and saying the things, which they do. The secular and the religious seem to have a sort of ying and yang type dichotomy. They are supposedly separate entities but there is a blurred line between them, with some elements of religion within secularism and some elements of secularism within religion. I think that in order to answer the question, “is critique secular?”, you have to understand the relationship between what is being critiqued and what is truly secular. The answer, in my opinion, is both yes and no. Yes in that critique religious theory and phenomena is trying to separate religion from the political and academic and no because the secular can never be truly and completely removed from the religious.
Like Taylor Anderson, I think that the role of religion and the religious within secularism deserves a closer look before asking the question “Is critique secular?”. Not only should we consider the extent to which secularism is affected by a great degree of permeation on the part of religion, but we must also examine the way in which religion has posed as a critique to the secular (and vice versa) on the path to secularism’s crowning achievement—modernity.
Part of the reason this dichotomy between religious and secular is so strong is the narrative which tends to place history on the side of secularism, ignoring the times where the religiously inspired or influenced individual/group made valuable, at times essential, contributions to modern understandings of things like “ethics” and the concept of “the state.” Ethics are significant in this case because the narrative of the secular has attempted to displace and replace conceptions of right and wrong morality with an impersonal, relativistic spectrum of acceptability. States, so far as we construct them as the epitome of modernity and autonomy, present the secular minded person with a unit of coexistence and mutuality that does not demand a relapse into a supposedly barbaric, irrational community of faith. Both products owe there existence to active refutation or selective cognizance of great philosophers and theorists like St. Augustine. Even larger than life figures that have some pull in the vernacular, such as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, are underscored and transformed to meet the (secular) narrative’s expectations of progress. Equality and logic in particular are explored in ways that discredit their religious sources while they are instead offered up as the pillars of conscientious secularism. Humanity, as it is understood in the West, is a prime example of our willful attempt to remove the religious from the secular while still striving to retain a message grounded in the Christian tradition.
In this sense, I think part of what is holding back the critique Mahmood searches for and is calling upon, is this inability in contemporary education and socialization to call upon and accurately recognize the sources of modernity as it is lived in the “West.” I find the quality of education offered in many of our schools—another of secularism’s necessary and acclaimed constructions—to be damaging when teachers and students alike are introduced to the world in a manner that attempts to disassociate the religious and secular. And this is the part of your post that resonated most with me-the fact that secularism actively discredits or attempts to discredit the religious by historicizing it, while simultaneously refusing to place itself under the microscope.
I have to disagree with the statement that “religionists are incapable of such self-critique.” Without self-critique, religions would not be able to grow and adapt, and thus would not exist as we know them in today’s society or any historical society as it develops. Religions always change and adapt to societal pressures around them, such as modernity, and we must acknowledge that a religion cannot change with just a third party, objective critique; the ability to adapt comes from analysis, reflection, and critique by both religionists and these aforementioned third party critics. It is also important to recognize the relationship between the secular and the religious is not a “latent schism,” there is no line drawn in the sand between secular and religious, rather the division between secularism and religiousness is very blurry, the two are quite intertwined. Since much of our society and world is founded upon religious belief and practice, it is nearly impossible to separate the two. In asking “Is critique secular?”, we must also ask, “What are we critiquing?” and, “Why? If one is critiquing in an effort to draw separation between church and state, for example, then yes, critique is secular; however, if one is critiquing in hopes of growth via self-reflection, then no, critique is not secular. Further, critique is not necessarily criticism in relation to that which is different or opposing. Going along with self-analysis and self-reflection, critique is analysis spurred from questions regarding growth and bettering of that which is being critiqued. If critique were secular, would that mean critique of the religious is an effort to delegitimize religion in favor of that which we call secular?
It seems to me that secularism, as Mahmood discusses it, has come to makeup what Richard White calls the “middle ground”, which exists “between cultures, peoples…empires and the non-state world of villages.” As a space that arises in the meeting of multiple worldviews and yet remains unmoored to an ethnic ideal, the middle ground appeals to liberal democracies which espouse to support liberty and tolerance. Here individuals of diverse backgrounds may converse. However, White also explains that on the middle ground individuals “often misinterpret and distort both the values and the practices of those they deal with”; secular space induces conversations conducted in multiple languages, and we end up with a secular creole which both enables cross cultural conversations and yet covers over the discrete origins from which these ideas arise. Christmas in the public sphere, for instance, must purport to stand for something “secular”—like peace and goodwill towards men—despite the fact that it derives from and smuggles in Christianity. The Christmas available to “nonreligious” families is no longer Christ’s Mass. However, we cannot truly understand the practice without recognizing the ways in which it commits us to a particular religious tradition. It might be useful to think of secularism as less a worldview unto itself, but rather as the dilution of dozens of worldviews so that they might come to occupy a single space.
In this case, the question “Is critique secular?,” would lead to the question, “What is it to be secular?”
Mahmood provides a provoking exposé of scholars uneven treatment of religion versus secularism, revealing some of the shortcomings and tensions such behavior generates. In Mahmood’s attempt to problematize the normative and privilege status of secularism in scholarship, she fails to clearly define religion and secularism. Based on the absence of definitions it is difficult to fully analyze the validity of her exposé. While Mahmood is not trying to undermine the value of a secular critique, she implores the need to recognize its own construction as a way to incur more holistic scholarship. From this essay a resounding question in my mind is whether a more productive tradition/discipline to critique can be developed that acknowledges secularism’s and religion’s mutual dependency. Resonating with her analysis is Gene Gallagher’s essay “What is Religion?!? Who’s Asking?”. “Attention to the multiple cultural sites where religion is being imagined and manufactured, shows, that is, how productive it can be to respond to the query, what is religion, by pointedly questioning in response, who’s asking” (Gallagher 21). Gallagher here powerfully presents the role of subjectivity in defining religion. Based on Mahmood’s depiction of the inter-connectivity of religion and secularism a driving question in religious scholarship should likewise be What is Secularism, Who’s Asking?
Although everyone has stated and repeated the significance in looking at the symbiotic relationship between secularism and religion, I think it is important to consider another trait of secularism. I think it would be beneficial not only to think of the secular and religious as being related and inseparable but to also think of secularism as an inevitable natural aspect of evolution. In this article Mahmood discusses how secularism defines religious life in society today. Secularism is not merely labeling what constitutes a religion but rather re-defining their imagined notion of religion. Without conjured up ideas of the past, “transformed conceptions, idealism practices and institutions of religious life” would not exist today. This culmination of secularism can be seen as an organic process of the development of mankind. Keeping in mind that secularism is not necessarily a man-made notion, we can look at critique with varying levels of secularism. In reading my fellow classmates posts, I see that they have alluded to the importance of considering “what are we critiquing?” when deciphering whether critique is secular. The example of Christmas provides us with a critique that has “secular” intentions yet is rooted in religious tradition. By accepting that secularism is inherently religious we can assume that a critique on Christmas is a weak secular critique due to the obvious historical implications. A foil to this example would be an imagined utopian society void of religion. While it would be possible to trace down the hidden religious propensities in a desire for such a particular community, it would be difficult in justifying such a conviction therefore making it a strong secular critique. In order to receive and understand the complexities of the question I think it would be more beneficial in gaging the motivations of the critique in relation to the degree of secularism.
I agree with these arguments regarding the dangers of secular-as-the-rational discourse on a number of levels. First, there are certainly blatant dangers of violence and bigotry resulting from the incommensurable divide constructed between secularism and religion that intensified after September 11 which often structures religion (particularly Islam) and violent fundamentalism as the monolithic, irrational entity of religious extremism that contrasts progressive, safe secularism.
But this post delves further into the dangerous implications of constructing absolute categories that stand in direct, fundamental opposition to one another. There are consequences for assuming first that “secularism” is a universal construction and second that it is the intellectual choice (as opposed to blind, unquestioned faith in “religion”) that undeniably represents progression and will appropriately govern a modern world. Any ideology – whether “religion/religious”, “secular/secularity/secularism”, or something else – that is being projected as the “obvious” norm or ultimate political goal should be problematized and subjected to scrutiny and critique. When people prioritize their ideology “winning” out over others, they often choose to ignore the argument’s flaws for fear of weakening its position against what has been constructed as the opposing ideology. Thus, as pointed out in this post, people who claim to think and act as secularists fear that self-reflection will leave them vulnerable to take-over by religious extremism. Such positions promote a questionably normative secular/religious dichotomy that limits both categories to reductive uniformity and mutual exclusiveness.
I very much agree that we must question secular truth-claims and promises as well as “secular” as a monolithic entity itself. Some have posited that only “religious” ideology that promotes certain claims about truth and reason requires this scrutiny, as it is rife with ethical and moral biases. But how would this not be true of the secular as well? “Secularism” as an ideology has a historical/cultural/linguistic tradition just as “religion” does and is no less biased as a category. Religious theorists and analysts have no more access to knowledge of the cosmos than the religious adherents they sometimes denigrate as irrational. Religious scholars can learn about peoples’ perceptions of the religious, but they cannot “know” about the true nature of the cosmos; they cannot “know” that secularism, whatever they use it to mean, holds superior authority to make claims about truth, reason, and this reality. And because this authority over truth cannot be known, it must be open to critique, because any ideology that is assumed to be neutral and thus structured as above or beyond critique by its faithful followers has the potential to be dangerous.