This post will serve as a belated bridge between my experiences during the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen (IWM) Summer School in Cortona, Italy—about which I blogged on July 9th and August 9th, 2010—and my trip to the Philippines, where I have just arrived to conduct research on state secularism.

One of the most fruitful tensions from the IWM Cortona course with Charles Taylor, Dipesh Chakrabarty, and Sudipta Kaviraj was the challenge of analyzing secularism outside of the Western cases. Taylor has, of course, acknowledged that his argument in A Secular Age is driven by a historical conjunction that took place in the West, and should not be exported beyond those bounds without careful attention to local histories and the possibility of difference across time and space. Chakrabarty and Kaviraj took turns articulating an account of Indian secularism that attempted to meet this standard. Blending indigenous and colonial, economic and normative, elite and mass-based analysis, a clearer picture of the origins and development of Indian secularism emerged.

However, something remained—and continues to remain—daunting to me: where does this kind of methodology for the study of secularism leave comparative analysis? Taylor argues that (internal variation aside) meaningful patterns emerged among the states now comprising the West that allow us to analyze a secular age in that geopolitical context. This leaves me to further question: what other clusters of empirical cases are reasonably compared, and perhaps more importantly, how is one to decide on the grounds of comparability?

Samuel Huntington’s civilizational approach offers one plausible option; a second being rational-choice attention to religious competition, and historical institutionalism serving as a third. It seems to me that scholars like Chakrabarty and Kaviraj would be quite skeptical of the uncontextualized assumptions that undergird both civilizational and rational-choice approaches. Perhaps historical institutionalism avoids such criticism, although it seems to me that even the assumption of path dependency that tends to root such arguments has a certain uncontextualized universalism to it.

I have been mulling over these debates as I kick off the second stage of my SSRC-sponsored summer research in the Philippines. When I describe my broader project on comparative secularism to interested individuals in Manila or Dakar, I can tell they are often wondering—like good methodologists—“how can you compare those places?” My answers tend to be historical rather than either civilizational or rational-choice: the presence of a colonial legacy of secularism, the post-World War II democratization and urbanization, the important role of religion in nation-building. As I write more concretely on the Philippines in the coming weeks, I will do my best to keep at least some attention on these important methodological debates.