For some DPDF fellows, having conversations about religion and secularism is fieldwork. For me, it’s something that mostly happens over dinner with the friends and gracious strangers whose hospitality I’m enjoying as I archive-hop this summer. These conversations are less formal than the interviews anthropologists and political scientists conduct, but they’re important, since they make me justify my work and let me test ways of making it interesting to people. This challenge, in turn, has reminded me that, when it comes to one of the central problems of the topic we’re addressing, my approach is not always as neutral as a scholar’s should be.
What is secularization? This question raises the issue of what exactly religion and “the secular” are—terms that, as our discussions in San Diego and the blog posts so far have shown, defy simple description. Still, in purely formal terms, secularization might mean—and has meant—two different things. For some—Max Weber (in some of his writings) and modernization theorists—secularization means the demise of religious belief and practice, whatever they are, and the rise of “secularism.” For others, like Karl Löwith—a central figure in my own research on transatlantic debates over theological origins of historical consciousness in the early Cold War—it means the transfer of theological ideas or religious yearnings into secular forms and contexts. Thus the puzzle: is secularization the survival of religion in a different guise, or its demise?
When I’m asked this question directly, I punt. I have no general answer. As a historian, I can say that my job is to discriminate between particular cases. Ideally, I deal with theory to problematize it, not practice it. But in casual conversation—and here’s my confession—I often opt to describe secularization in terms of continuity, simply because it’s a more rhetorically explosive, attention-grabbing way to speak about a topic of great interest to me. Most of my layperson acquaintances and hosts on the road are atheists or agnostics; at the very least, they like the idea of religion staying put in the private realm. To them, news of the persistent, possibly pervasive influence of theology on our intellectual, political, and moral life is unsettling. It demands response. And that’s, in part, what I want from them (good water pressure in the shower is nice, too).
One thing history does is reveal the raw difference of the past and the contingency of the here and now. It can show us how recently we came to embrace truths that seem self-evident. But on the point of secularization, it’s showing continuity that achieves this dislocating effect. This is why, I think, I have a tendency to play the Löwithian, even while another part of me keeps a distance from the debate. But this may change. I head to Switzerland, then Germany, then England, in July. There’ll be many more conversations to (try to) start.