(I) Where is the Secular Age?

Charles Taylor’s remarkable account of developments within Latin Christendom situates contemporary religious or non-religious commitments within what he calls the “immanent frame,” the key to which is the secular condition (his third meaning of secularity), in which belief is an option, and religion a distinct domain. Early in his study, he remarks that such is not the case everywhere: in Muslim societies generally, and for people in religious moments in the West: pilgrims at Czestochowa or Guadalupe, for example. We could add: and for people growing up in believing Baptist communities in Nebraska or Mennonite ones in Manitoba or Hindu ones in Gujarat or Bali.

We might also, in a pursuit which is not his, differentiate within a category such as “Muslim societies” and ask: what are the modes of relating to the transcendent that are possible within this tradition? For some, God is everywhere and the self porous, whether one is at work, at home, or in the mosque. “Muslim” is a self-identification rarely invoked in everyday life because Islam is the background condition for everyone, all the time. Such were the contours of life where I have lived in Sumatra, for example.

For other Muslims, in other places, “Islam” does become an object of study as a system of knowledge and practice rather than just a background condition, and it is for these people, in these places, that part of the “secular age,” with Taylor’s sense of embattlement, shapes life. As many scholars have noted, it is mass education, migration to cities (and a fortiori to Europe and North America), and global communications that develop this orientation to the world. This objectifying of the tradition and continual consciousness of religious pluralism may or may not, however, be accompanied by the other features of the package, such as the buffered self. Spirit possession lives on in urban Muslim environments.

If, then, we take this orientation to one’s tradition as one among many to be the key feature of the secular age, we then may ask about (a) the social features that develop or encourage it, and (b) the degree to which other features of Taylor’s secular package may or may not follow along. (I have mentioned the variability of notions of the self.)

But this approach threatens to reactivate the West/East divide that Taylor carefully acknowledges is not his intent. We then must ask: to what extent does Taylor’s package of elements of the secular condition apply to the pilgrims to Czestochowa or Guadalupe, or, to ensure that West/East is not fractally applied within Europe and the Americas, the pilgrims to Lourdes or the worshippers at a North American megachurch? Can, for example, the awareness that one’s faith is one among many, that one is embattled as a believer, not coexist with a temporary or even permanent sense of transcendence, a porous self, and a strong intra-community sense of religion-as-background? It may be that we need a stronger sense of scope, one that includes various types of communities, as more than the individual (Taylor’s quest seems to fall back on individual faith even as it acknowledges the power of “post Durkheimian” moments of enthusiasm for renewing that faith) and as less than the entire world.

(II) What is the post-religious dimension of secularity?

One of the more important insights in the book, I think, is the argument that you can only be post-religion if you continue to remember religion. This idea opens up analysis to specific forms of memory, but then requires that we think of secularity as an element in contemporary discourse as much as a label for a condition, and one that can be used to create new histories.

France is one of Taylor’s primary cases, and the French secularist sense of being post-religious highlights the memory of having pushed the Catholic Church out of its once-regnant role, and the need to remain vigilant lest that role be reassumed by it or by other, similarly noxious actors (read: Islamists). But part of that continued vigilance is a reading back into history a “victory of laïcité” story, wherein laïcité grows and develops and conquers over two centuries.

Of course there is no historical actor called “laïcité.” The word has only very recently been a key component of Republican rhetoric, even if one finds it in earlier dictionaries, whatever that tells us about rhetorical force. Nor has it ever had an agreed-on meaning: for some it is a legal framework (one that includes massive support for religious institutions, as when the state pays the salaries of the Catholic school teachers); for others it is a philosophy, a replacement for religion. But above all, it is an effective way of shutting down your opponent: being non-laïc is a bit like not supporting our troops or honoring the Queen—something no one would think of doing, so needlessly politically self-wounding it would be.

Secularity remains then, in W.B. Gallie’s phrase, an “essentially contested concept” that cannot easily become an analytical concept for investigating current political debates and arrangements. We cannot easily say that “the United States separated church and state” without taking into account the very different notions of what Thomas Jefferson intended to do, anymore than we can say that France “is a secular state” without charting the series of historically contingent interventions of the state into religious affairs. Studying the politics of secularism in the Secular Age thus needs to take “secularism,” “laïcité,” “separation” and so forth as objects of study rather than analytical tools.