Jonathan Sheehan—co-director, with Vincent Pecora, of “After Secularization,” an SSRC summer research fellowship on new approaches to the study of religion and modernity—responds here to an opening post by Pecora, which introduced “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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In the spirit of a blog, I don’t want to provide anything like a definitive statement about our workshop or its results, but rather offer an opening for questions that, it seems to me, are outstanding.

In his earlier post, Vincent Pecora suggests an “unfinished project” approach to secularization. He also hints that the difference between secularization and secularism may well lie in a certain openness to a contingent future. Precisely as an ideal—whether a good one or a bad one does not matter—secularism seems to foreclose on this contingency. In fact, its normative claims demand just this closure. Things should be like this (and not like that) in some future moment, which allows us to decide in the present between right and wrong. A courthouse lawn in Georgia should not have a statue of the Ten Commandments on it, even if every person who now goes to court is a believing Christian, presumably because (in part) some future litigant could well find their liberties infringed.

Secularization, as a theory, need not make these normative claims, although often, in practice, it does make them or at least it has. That is, it is a rare version of secularization that actually opens itself to future contingency. If secularization were simply a descriptive project whose sole charge were neutrally to determine the various functions that religion plays in modern social, cultural, and political life, that would be one thing. But secularization, again as theory, has historically been tied to specific beliefs about trend lines in the reorganization of religious functions in the shadow of modernity. It has stipulated a direction of development that is, shall we say, less than contingent.

Three things stand out for me, as a historian. First, classical secularization theory seems to carry a set of claims, implicit and explicit, about what religion was like before modernity. In fact, it is exactly these claims that make secularization into a problem at all. If, for example, we believe that the first generation of colonists came to America out of religious idealism—John Winthrop’s “city on a hill,” for example—then it becomes a problem to explain why, in subsequent generations, religious goals appear to drastically lose their potency. Whole generations of scholars cut their teeth on this now classic dilemma. But, the question should be asked, were those Puritans so pure after all? The city on the hill may well have been as much about commerce as anything else, and if that’s true, then the issue of “decline” is as much a figment of the model, as of real social, political, religious factors.

Second, models tend to generate the need for more models.  The question of a possible religious “resurgence” has leapt into prominence in the past 15-20 years, and apparently demands new heroic efforts in model building to figure out why society in the age of globalization suddenly seems more religious than ever before. New theories are developed—(“desecularization”?)—to address phenomena that look problematic in light of previous orthodoxies.  But what if “resurgence” appears only as a kind of spandrel in a sociological and historical picture of how things ought to have been? What exactly needs to be explained, in other words? The return of religion? Its decline? Its persistence? Its metamorphosis?

Third, the efforts of the past twenty years to address these issues of secularism and secularization in terms theoretical have mostly run out of steam. The study of religion and modernity has traced the same arc as so many other humanistic disciplines, ending in a kind of genealogical or deconstructive cul-de-sac, where we can see the problems (secularism as governance, say) without being able to imagine any alternative. Are scholars really willing to give up on secular norms of truth seeking? At this moment, I doubt it—not least because the alternatives seem so impossible to inhabit intellectually or ethically. Struggles to force ourselves beyond either tie the knots tighter or become so frantic as to seem altogether irresponsible. What results is a version of Dipesh Chakarabarty’s “politics of despair,” where our conceptual armature seems too crude and yet impossible to abandon.

It seems to me that it is precisely at this moment that empirical study—of past and present—might play a creative role in generating possibilities “after secularization.”

All of our fellows are, I think, working toward just these ends. On the one hand, all of them know the critiques, whether of secularization as sociological norm or of secularism as political one. They are alert, in other words, to the ways that these normative projects have shaped, not just scholarly work, but also the world that we inhabit. On the other, all of them are just as alert to the empirical contingencies of things. People are creative makers of their environments, religious and secular, and their makings cycle between local needs and ideal commitments.

Laws enforcing secularism, for example, reveal only part of the actual working mechanisms of state-religion relations. This was true in early modern Europe, where local communities routinely violated apparently strict cuius regio, eius religio principles in order to reach workable, if often unstable, accommodations to religious pluralism (here see the excellent new book by Benjamin Kaplan, Divided by Faith). And it is true now, in places as various as the US, Turkey, and Egypt. When Winnifred Sullivan writes about Salazar v. Buono, the most recent Supreme Court religious-establishment case, in this blog, she asks:

Why do crosses continue to present themselves publicly and to present such a difficulty for the modern, secular nation-state?… Haven’t the myths and symbols of religions been supplanted by the myths and symbols of nationalism? Has secularization failed? Or, has the cross been secularized?

It is too easy, her article implies, to simply insist that the cross is, in fact, an essentially Christian symbol (Justice Steven’s position). It is equally too easy to insist that it is universal—that is, that it can be a symbol for all faiths—even when what one means by that seems to be a version of a Christian universal (Justice Alito’s position).

It is too easy, not because these positions are unsophisticated, but because they are effectively ideological. Neither Stevens, the secular apologist, nor Alito, the religious apologist, has, in fact, the least idea of how this symbol functions, how it is read, how it has changed and is changing. Has the cross become more Christian in the past 50 years? Or less? Hard to say without actual research. How facts have changed would seem crucial to understanding how norms should be understood and applied, now and in the future.

Scholars like Sullivan and our SSRC fellows are doing just this research. They are working in the past and present. They are working with various media and various methods. Their actors are diverse, from religious organizations to local healers, from television programmers to television audiences, and more. Most importantly, all are open to the exigencies of explanation. It seems to me that we may not know, yet, precisely what comes “after secularization” for a very good reason: we are still figuring out what things we need to explain. Discovering what these things are, even in tentative terms, is the first order of business for a group like this. At the very least, it will set directions for future research open to Pecora’s ideals of contingency.