With this essay by Vincent Pecora—co-director, with Jonathan Sheehan, of “After Secularization,” an SSRC summer research fellowship on new approaches to the study of religion and modernity—we introduce “Notes from the field.” Over the course of the next three months, a small group of SSRC graduate student fellows associated with the project will be blogging regularly at The Immanent Frame, sharing notes and reflections on their emerging research, as well as other insights and questions, ruminations and observations. Follow their ongoing efforts here.—ed.

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Several decades ago, well before there had been any concerted effort among historians and sociologists of religion to trash the standard model of the “secularization thesis,” Jürgen Habermas famously pronounced modernity an “unfinished project,” and then proceeded to outline both the conditions needed to complete the project and the barriers that the twentieth century had thrown up in its way. This is obviously not the place to rehearse Habermas’s ideas, especially since so many others have done it well. (I am especially fond, still, of Anthony Giddens’s quick and reductive, yet incisive, overview of Habermas in Social Theory and Modern Sociology.) But, for the present purposes, I think we can usefully boil the conditions down to two. First, there is the completion of the process of the differentiation—or rationalization—of social spheres that had been emphasized (though not entirely happily) by Max Weber: the distinction of “state” from “society,” or the public from the private, that has become the hallmark of the liberal capitalist nation-state, and with it, the concomitant distinctions between the economic, the legal, and the political, along with the separation of science, morality, and aesthetics that is the legacy of the Enlightenment. Second, in order to prevent the undeniable effectiveness of “steering mechanisms”—essentially, the purposive, means-ends rationality that has proven so successful in the areas of science and economics, and even, to a large extent, in utilitarian reformations of the law—from becoming “reified,” and thus overpowering all other potential social aims, the “life-world,” that is, the everyday world of lived traditions and customs, including the “semantic potentials” of religious beliefs and their ethical systems, would need to be preserved through a process of “communicative action” that based such beliefs on rational argumentation alone.

Nevertheless, Habermas posited that the major barrier to this happy (and still devoutly Weberian) synthesis, or balancing, of disenchanted managerial technocracy and charismatic life-world was the same one that had bedeviled the Enlightenment: myth. Again, this is not the place for detail, but it would be fair to say that Habermas is very much in the mainstream of Western thought in making a sharp distinction between religion (which is, in this view, rational in its own way) and myth (which is not), and then in assuming that the sorts of “semantic potentials” that could usefully be provided by religious tradition in the life-world of modernity were those that were already largely “rationalized” (that is, reformed), Protestant (or Judaic, in Hermann Cohen’s sense), private, individual, and directed toward ethical action in this world, rather than salvation in another—essentially, Judaic “justice” and Pauline “love.” In this sense, myth, from the dogmas and totalitarianism of the Right and the Left to what Habermas has called “idle postmodern talk,” is the primary enemy of the unfinished project of modernity.

It is obvious, from the vantage point of the present, that Habermas’s quite influential theory is in many ways a theory of secularization, and in the classical sense of that term. Those social spheres already emancipated by purposive rationality—by self-interest, that is—were the leading edge of a secular modern world. But they needed to be countered by residues of ethical tradition—in particular, it turns out, the belief set that came to be defined in the twentieth century as the “Judeo-Christian tradition”—until such time as such vestiges could be translated into the language of secular philosophy. In Habermas’s words, “As long as religious language bears within itself inspiring, indeed, unrelinquishable semantic contents which elude (for the moment?) the expressive power of a philosophical language and still await translation into a discourse that gives reasons for its positions, philosophy, even in its postmetaphysical form, will neither be able to replace nor to repress religion.” Bracketing off the circularity of this statement—for example, are the contents of religion “inspiring” because they are “unrelinquishable” (that is, perhaps, innate), or “unrelinquishable” merely because they are “inspiring,” if obviously contingent?—Habermas’s Hegelian faith in the power of philosophical reason eventually to “translate” religious ethical contents into language with a firm (materialist and scientific?) basis is clear. That would, presumably, finish the project of modernity once and for all. Not incidentally, it would mean the end of all processes of “secularization,” and the full instauration of “secularism” as a lived, quotidian experience.

There is no way, I think, that Habermas, in his earlier work, could have predicted the return of religion in its more public forms in recent decades, any more than he could have foreseen the re-opening of the question of secularization within social theory since 1990. But these are empirical questions, and there has been a fair amount of debate about the factual reality of the oft-cited resurgence of religion, or “desecularization,” and about how to measure it. I am more interested here in the theoretical questions that Habermas’s work raises: What would a fully secularized world mean? What would the “project of modernity” look like if it were, finally, finished? What philosophy could achieve the thorough extirpation of all religious, or mythical, or irrational elements, and how would we respond to it?

Such questions remind me of a smart comment made by Barbara Johnson years ago—I now forget where—in reference to the voluminous amount of criticism leveled at the way the realist novel encoded and sustained gender inequities. Could the novel as a genre even exist, she asked, without the inequities? Johnson’s question is a properly deconstructive one, and I have no desire to re-open here the question of the utility of Derrida’s work. But even on historical grounds, she is right: the ongoing conversation that we call the novel in fact depends on certain kinds of irrationality, and gender is one of them (there are many others). But the same could be said about “philosophy”—indeed, I think that is, finally, what Habermas is getting at once you subtract the Hegelian teleology (itself attenuated by a question mark) from his work—or about “ethics” or “justice” or any of the other big ideas that are inevitably raised by social theory. Considerations of this sort have traditionally led people back to a kind of neo-Kantianism, that is, a sense that what matters most is the method by which we approach such questions, not whether we are able to posit a fixed endpoint to the discussion. Hans Blumenberg, for my money, has it about right when he insists, in a neo-Kantian vein, that the idea of progress—ethical, legal, and political, and not just scientific or technological—can be treated as an infinite project without positing any sort of “finish”: “If there were an immanent final goal of history, then those who believe they know it and claim to promote its attainment would be legitimized in using all the others who do not know it and cannot promote it as mere means. Infinite progress does make each present relative to its future, but at the same time it renders every absolute claim untenable. This idea of progress corresponds more than anything else to the only regulative principle that can make history humanly bearable, which is that all dealings must be so constituted that through them people do not become mere means.”

I hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth already: Blumenberg leaves us with a Kantian “regulative principle” and nothing more. Worse, he hardly sets the bar very high. A history that is merely “humanly bearable” is a long way, in my book, from the one that would hold out the promesse du bonheur that Stendhal attributed to art, and that legions of Marxist thinkers in later decades demanded from society. (Indeed, even the reference to the “pursuit of Happiness” in the American Declaration of Independence would be, for most people, a substantial improvement over Blumenberg, I think.) Still, regulative principles can be extraordinarily useful—think of them as procedural “checklists” of the sort that Atul Gawande has recently promoted in medicine. In effect, Blumenberg’s regulative principle has two consequences. It not only demands that we eschew the willingness to tailor all means to predetermined ends promoted by dogmatism, from the religious to the scientific to the professional—a refusal of dogma that is the essence of what Edward Said once meant by “secular criticism,” and that is in many ways an echo of what Matthew Arnold meant by “Hellenism.” It also insists that the pathway to the ideal of “secular criticism” (or “Hellenism”)—that is, the pathway to secularism, in the terms I have set out in this post—is itself without end. No one, as far as I can tell, has yet been able to describe what a fully achieved secularism would mean. Were lives today to be lived only according to the latest scientific evidence, devoid of allegiances to that hodgepodge of ideas we call custom, tradition, religion, and (even) myth, we would need a new Jonathan Swift to capture the likely result; the eighteenth century was already fertile ground for his satire. And those “projectors” who subsequently tried to implement such a world—from Fourier with his phalanstery to J. B. Watson with his scientific child rearing—hardly inspire any more confidence. (Swift’s religion was, at its core, a stinging rebuke of mortal hubris.) My point here is not to resurrect Habermas’s “semantic potentials” under another guise, for these emotive elements of the life-world are “potentials” precisely in the sense that they would eventually be “translated” by rational actors who could then provide good reasons, based on sound evidence, for what they believe and do. Rather, I want to insist that “secularization,” in all its polymorphous perversity, is all that we have ever had, going all the way back to the ancient Greeks, and that this is, strictly speaking, an unending process, even if it is one that, for many reasons (such as the “regulative principle” against dogma), is worth pursuing. In this sense, as I have argued elsewhere, contra Habermas, the only modernity that any rational person should want is one that will remain both historically unnecessary and never complete. Finishing the project of modernity is precisely the oxymoron we want to avoid.

Finally, I believe that the proposals submitted for this year’s Dissertation Proposal Development Fellowship in the “After Secularization” field suggest approaches to secular modernity that are quite congruent with what I have outlined so far.

First, there is a very clear interest, shared by about half the group, in empirical questions—that is, questions that have to do less with theoretical issues of, say, the meaning of secularization, or religion, or what (if anything) one might imagine “after secularization,” than with how a specifiable collectivity of persons responds to such questions in practice, in everyday life, and in the kinds of moral or political decisions they make. In one sense, this is not surprising: much of the work in the first wave of revisionist scholarship on the secularization thesis, from 1990 to the present, was theoretical in nature. When empirical considerations were taken into account, this was done largely through superficial surveys of population samples in given societies that could then be used for comparative purposes. What was evident in many proposals was a desire to dig deeper, to work especially via interviews and ethnographic investigation toward a more thorough and complex understanding of how and why secularization in particular societies occurred, and to elaborate more fully the kinds of resistance, or the types of return to religion, that might accompany this process. In particular, it seems that many younger scholars are concerned to view the boundaries of the secular and the religious as being far more porous than surveys might suggest, even in those instances when there are measurable claims to either strong belief or strong skepticism.

Second, it is clear that the wide range of problems that have been discovered in the “secularization thesis” over the past two decades equally unsettle the term secularism. The difficulty of defining “religion” in any comprehensive way, or with any pretension to universality, is a long-standing one. Indeed, one might say that the entire history and sociology of religion in the modern period, since their emergence in the late eighteenth century, have been built in large part around this difficulty. But it is now impossible to avoid the conclusion that secularism itself is not simply a word that defines a negative condition—the absence of religious belief, whatever that might be taken to mean—but rather a term that occasions almost as much ambiguity and difficulty as “religion.” Whether we consider the work of figures like Ashis Nandy, for whom secularism represents a particular imposition of Western values in non-Western religious communities, or that of Talal Asad, for whom secularism is the agenda of a specific regime of what Michel Foucault called “governmentality,” we no longer have the luxury of seeing the secular in some neutral, non-historical, non-political, and purely rational light. Many proposals demonstrated a fairly sophisticated awareness that, whatever “secularism” might mean, it was not going to be easily reduced to the sheer invisibility of religion, and that this was true, not only for some putative era “after secularization,” but also for the entire history of secularization itself.

Third, there was a manifest interest in the ongoing, yet also quite newly inflected, interrogation of the underlying theories of religion and secularization. This is particularly salient in the degree to which the broader set of questions once posed on the peripheries of mainstream secularization scholarship by “political theology” has now become far more central, whether in the work of early figures such as Carl Schmitt or in that of contemporary philosophers such as Giorgio Agamben. But even here, there is a real desire to push the boundaries of, say, what “political theology”—a term with an essentially Christian frame of reference—might mean. Most significant is the widespread desire to re-situate theorizing about religion and the secular in global terms. No matter how limited by geography or confession individual projects may be, there appeared to be a fairly consistent sense that, even on theoretical grounds, new revisionist work on secularization and its history could not be done on Christian terms alone, no matter how one regards fairly entrenched claims—claims made with equal force from Max Weber to Peter Berger to Bernard Lewis to Talal Asad—about the overwhelmingly Christian origins of secularization in history.