In discussions of secularism such as the one emerging here, I think it is important to begin with some basic analytical distinctions between “the secular” as a central modern epistemic category, “secularization” as an analytical conceptualization of modern world-historical processes, and “secularism” as a world-view.

All three concepts, “the secular,” “secularization,” and “secularism,” are obviously related but are used very differently in various academic-disciplinary and socio-political and cultural contexts. One may differentiate between the three concepts simply as a way of distinguishing analytically in an exploratory manner between three different phenomena, without any attempt to reify them as separate realities:

A) “The secular” as a central modern category—theologico-philosophical, legal-political, and cultural-anthropological—to construct, codify, grasp and experience a realm or reality differentiated from “the religious.” Here we may recapitulate all the debates over the “legitimacy” and “autonomy” of this modern reality, from the Loewith/Blumenberg debate to more contemporary debates between Taylor, Asad and Milbank. Phenomenologically one can explore the different types of “secularities” as they are codified, institutionalized, and experienced in various modern contexts and the parallel and correlated transformations of modern “religiosities” and “spiritualities.”

B) “Secularization” refers usually to supposedly actual empirical-historical patterns of transformation and differentiation of “the religious” (ecclesiastical institutions and churches) and “the secular” (state, economy, science, art, entertainment, health and welfare, etc.) institutional spheres from early modern to contemporary societies. Within the social sciences, and particularly within sociology, a general theory of secularization was developed that conceptualized these at first modern European, later increasingly globalized historical transformations, as part and parcel of a general teleological and progressive human and societal development from the primitive “sacred” to the modern “secular.” The thesis of “the decline” and “the privatization” of religion in the modern world became central components of the theory of secularization. Both the decline and the privatization theses have undergone numerous critiques and revisions in the last fifteen years. But the core of the theory—the understanding of secularization as a single process of differentiation of the various institutional spheres or sub-systems of modern societies, understood as the paradigmatic and defining characteristic of processes of modernization—remains relatively uncontested in the social sciences, particularly within European sociology.

It is important to open the debate to explore and recognize the particular Christian historicity of Western European developments as well as the multiple and very different historical patterns of secularization and differentiation within European and Western societies. This recognition in turn would allow a less Euro-centric comparative analysis of patterns of differentiation and secularization in other civilizations and world religions; and more importantly the further recognition that with the world-historical process of globalization initiated by the European colonial expansion, all these processes everywhere are dynamically interrelated and mutually constituted.

C) “Secularisms” refers more specifically to the kind of secular world-views (or “Weltanschauungen”) which may be either consciously held and explicitly elaborated into historico-philosophical and normative-ideological state projects, projects of modernity and cultural programs or as an epistemic knowledge regime that may be unreflexively held and phenomenologically assumed as the taken for granted normal structure of modern reality, as a modern doxa or as an “unthought.” But modern secularism also comes in multiple historical forms, in terms of different normative models of legal-constitutional separation of the secular state and religion, or in terms of the different types of cognitive differentiation between science, philosophy and theology, or in terms of the different models of practical differentiation between law, morality, and religion, etc.