Has secularism been a felt thing all along? Are all the contrivances and contraptions of modernity not just new arrangements of belief and unbelief, but also structures of feeling, figures of affect, “thing[s] of the senses,” in Kathleen Stewart’s phrase?
When Peter Berger announced that religious believers were on the cusp of becoming “cognitive minorities” in a 1968 lunchtime talk at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan, he wasn’t exactly saying anything new. The secularization thesis had been considered—in many forms and by many names—for over a hundred years. Karl Marx and Auguste Comte had proposed in the middle of the nineteenth century that religion marked a stage of history on the cusp of radical collapse. To later nineteenth-century historians of science like John William Draper (who had observed the famous debate between Thomas Henry Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce at the Oxford Museum of Natural History in 1860) and A. D. White, it was only a matter of time before conflict with science’s vanguard led to religion’s obliteration. This was the position advanced by Sigmund Freud and Bertrand Russell in the first half of the twentieth century.
But Berger’s guiding lights for thinking about religion’s extinction were different. Although he moonlighted as a Lutheran theologian, his day job was as a professor of sociology. He was particularly influenced by the synthesis of the works of the early twentieth-century sociologists Max Weber and Emile Durkheim that had become commonplace in the United States through the work of Harvard academic Talcott Parson. In particular, he was shaped by Weber’s conviction that society was transforming through tectonic processes that were not exactly under anyone’s control. Rather than change driven by reason (we got smarter) or class conflict (the psychological compensation of religion was no longer needed as economic contradictions were progressively smoothed out), Weber mapped a jagged, inexorable interplay of concepts, practices, and affects. The Protestant Reformation’s new theological emphasis on the opacity and uncertainty of our own salvation, he suggested, led to a state of anxiety that played out in a fixation with labor for its own sake, which in turn led to an accumulation of capital (shifting the center of balance of global economic systems), and then, finally, a stage of hyperactive rationalization driven by the economic machine we’re all chained to—the “iron cage of modernity.” (Later, Weber would add the term disenchantment to this complex of concepts, though Jason Josephson-Storm helpfully suggests we exercise caution in assuming this offers a hand-in-glove fit with rationalization.)
But Weber’s story was also a story about emotion—the amplification of anxiety leading to new practices, new material conditions, new systems. (“In its extreme inhumanity,” Weber wrote, Calvin’s doctrine of God’s total control over human salvation “must above all have had one consequence for the life of a generation which surrendered to its magnificent consistency. That was a feeling of unprecedented inner loneliness of the single individual.”) Berger, too, told the story of secularization as a story of changing feeling. “I think people will become so bored with what religious groups have to offer that they will look elsewhere,” the Times reporter quoted him as saying. In his book The Sacred Canopy, published the previous year, Berger offered a parallel analysis—though with a curiously different emphasis. There he attributed the disenchanting trajectory of secularization to seeds sown in Protestantism (and even further back in the cosmology of the Hebrew Bible), which “divested itself as much as possible from the three most ancient and most powerful concomitants of the sacred—mystery, miracle, and magic.” This disintegration of the sacred tinge left the world dry and desiccated and susceptible to “rational penetration.”
It’s clear that Berger’s understanding of secularization was conflicted. He wrestled with a set of concepts about the relationships linking religion, feeling, and modernity. At the heart of this conceptual dynamic is a question: How can we understand secularization not just as a reorganized set of symbols and propositions, but as an ensemble of affects? Or, in Ann Pellegrini and Janet Jakobsen’s words: How does secularism feel? The question is one that has been asked, in a range of permutations, by scholars like Jane Bennett, William Connolly, Saba Mahmood, William Mazzarella, John Modern, Ann Pellegrini and Janet Jakobsen, and, most recently, by Monique Scheer, Nadia Fadil, and Birgitte Schepelern Johansen.
But the question of feeling sends us around a hairpin turn. Because, as Scheer and her collaborators point out, to talk about feeling secularismsquares a circle. Isn’t the story told about secularism, by friend and enemy alike, that it has overcome feeling? Isn’t secularism the triumph of mind over body, thought over emotion, order over meaning? Isn’t this exactly what Charles Taylor means to isolate and pin down with his term the buffered self, the new modern equipment by which we effectively wall off our passions in the service of a disciplined, inert, ice-cube subject? Taylor writes,
“the clearest sign of this transformation in our world is that many people today look back to the world of the porous self with nostalgia, as though the creation of a thick emotional boundary between us and the cosmos were now lived as a loss. The aim is to try to recover some measure of this lost feeling. So people go to movies about the uncanny in order to experience a frisson. Our peasant ancestors would have thought us insane. You can’t get a frisson from what is really terrifying you.”
But this claim that a cultivated sensibility for horror was alien to “premodern” Europeans would, in turn, surprise anyone who had seen the grotesques fringing Gothic churches, or the painted depictions of Hell on their interiors, or perused fire and brimstone sermons. Taylor’s story of the rise of the buffered self is structured by a one-dimensional account of how feeling works, in which emotion is no more than an irrelevant organ that can be surgically excised with no consequence.
What we need is a much more subtle intellectual history that considers feeling as an inalienable dimension of belief and disbelief. As Marek Sullivan has shown, for instance, the European Enlightenment Taylor spotlights was far from the united front presented in A Secular Age. French Enlightenment thinkers, far from seeing the secular subject as bloodless, actively contrived a relationship between self, state, and belief that made the passions central—an indispensable element of statecraft.
The new thought of the philosophes was organized around accelerating and guiding the passions, rather than defeating them. Secularism, then, has always been an affective project. (And even when the mood of modernity inclines toward stillness, restraint, and disciplined observation, I would argue that this, too, is best understood as a configuration of affects.)
The human drama has often been told as a dynamic of thoughts and reasons driving history forward. But this misses the material, the bodily, and the affective dimensions of our worlds—including our frames of belief and disbelief. What moves us is not and has never been merely a grid of thoughts and words, reasons and numbers. We always think and act along the tectonic plates of feeling, sometimes rumbling below the surface of awareness, other times erupting above it. Everything that gets called reason, thought, language, and the secular unfurls upwards from these vibrations. Formations of the secular are always also formations of affect.