Vincent Pecora—co-director, with Jonathan Sheehan, of “After Secularization: New Approaches to Religion and Modernity,” one of the five research fields of the 2010 SSRC Dissertation Proposal Development Fellowship—responds here to posts by graduate fellows Justin Reynolds and Alex Hernandez who, along with their cohorts, will be blogging regularly at The Immanent Frame throughout the summer. Follow their ongoing efforts here.—ed.
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I wondered how long it would take DPDF participants to undo what I thought I had carefully assembled in my opening post on “Secularism, secularization, and why the difference matters.” Not very long at all, it seems. And so, I will try a response here to Justin Reynolds and Alex Hernandez, both of whom have questioned what I actually mean by saying that “secularization” is a conceptual improvement over “secularism.” Hernandez is suspicious about my invocation of Blumenberg, who seems to him to have in the end a very thin concept of “secularization,” one that relegates the tradition that comes out of Carl Schmitt (or Carl Löwith) to a sort of category error (the religious and secular answer positions may look the same, but the answers are really very different). But his best insight is to see the desire for the fulfillment of the standard “secularization thesis” as a kind of eschatology in its own right. (He suggests this is perhaps not a form of teleology, though I will avoid worrying the distinction for the moment.) I agree with Hernandez completely on these points, and have argued as much elsewhere: Blumenberg’s approach does not finally allow him to respond adequately to people like Schmitt and Löwith; and the standard “secularization thesis” did indeed harbor a telos within it, as my example of Habermas’s lament over the “unfinished project of modernity” indicates. This is why so many today are reexamining the assumptions behind the standard thesis, and why I was suggesting a notion of “secularization” at odds with that thesis.
Reynolds’s complaint is a bit trickier. On the one hand, he wonders whether my own use of the term “secularization” remains necessarily eschatological, despite my protests to the contrary, and suggests that I have simply adopted the “delay of the day of salvation” idea from the theologians—salvation here being a fully secular world, rather than the Kingdom of God. On the other hand, he suggests that I fall into such a form of reasoning because, in fact, there is no getting around the idea of transcendence (as Voegelin, Jaspers, Niebuhr, and Tillich might claim). That is, even scientific thought relies on notions of “truth” that are, if not divine, at least sufficiently universal and unchanging to suggest something beyond the mere singularities of disordered perception (or poetry). Plato argued, to great effect, that this was indeed the case; and Nietzsche, to equally great effect, argued that Plato’s argument—along with its Jewish and Christian re-statements—was the error that more or less ruined Western civilization.
I will save for a subsequent post a more elaborate account of what I am trying to say with the term “secularization.” But I do fully agree with Reynolds that religious thought is often capable of openness and contingency—I just think religions need to be reminded every so often that certain defined ends do not always justify the means—and historically, the secularizing tendencies within religion have served that purpose. Reynolds is also right that I do not buy Asad’s argument (derived in part from Foucault) that equates secularism at the level of the state with the pursuit of “governmentality.” I don’t buy it because it seems obvious to me that all religions that have achieved some measure of political power—whether in classical Rome, Islamic Spain, Christian Spain, the Ottoman Empire, the Puritan states of colonial America, or Saudi Arabia, to name just a few—have been equally interested in issues of governmentality; of what use would conversion be otherwise? Some nominally secular, capitalist regimes, as Foucault (like Max Weber before him) argued, have achieved hegemony on the basis of modes of self-regulation that, it is true, would have made earlier religious tyrants and monarchs green with envy. But many have not, and it would seem to me that Turkey today might turn out to be an interesting test case: Turkey’s greater openness toward Islam may well mean less recourse to brute force (as under the old secular military regimes) and a more modern approach to “governmentality.” But this would be achieved—contra Asad—with the re-assertion of religion’s public role, not its eradication or greater compartmentalization.
However, in response to Reynolds’s claims that my use of the term “secularization” must be secretly eschatological and that I cannot escape from transcendence in any case, I must disagree on both points. On the first point, I simply don’t see how a fully secular world is necessarily better—that it is something to be aimed at, or to be treated as any sort of fulfillment. Actually, I don’t even know what the phrase “fully secular world” means. For example, if it means leading one’s life rigorously according to scientific principles—at least the ones we know today—then I would say that the fully secular life is actually impossible to imagine: one would be in the predicament of a character in one of Samuel Beckett’s novels (which is certainly not to say that such predicaments never occur in real life—they do). Another way to say this is: I am not a believer in any religious faith, but I recognize full well that I live my life in a world saturated with vestiges of religious faith and ritual from the past, and routine re-assertions of such faith and ritual in the present (as Sarah Shortall’s recent post also observed). I cannot imagine that my life, even as an unbeliever, would necessarily be emotionally richer or happier if all of this, including all the historical and cultural consequences of it, were suddenly wiped away. (In fact, I can’t even understand what that would mean, though I do recognize that it has been tried, generally with unhappy results.) It is not necessarily that I think we must have religion to survive—we may not need it at all. It is simply that I see no redemptive achievement—no telos worth pursuing—in its eradication. There are people who have thought in such terms—both Edward Said and Christopher Hitchens claimed at different times that religion is the source of all evil in the world. But I just don’t find enough evidence for such claims.
As to Reynolds’s second point about the unavoidability of transcendence—well, this is finally a semantic issue. If, as I said above, this means we can’t avoid thinking in terms of universals and unchanging properties that have a more or less fuzzy relationship to actual things—my words “sex” and “wife” might conjure up an act and person that are quite different from the ones conjured in Reynolds’s head (at least, I hope so)—then I agree, but really, all that “transcendence” means here is what Durkheim meant by “collective consciousness”—that is, language itself, with all its formal coherence and sloppy substance. But if transcendence means I can’t think, even scientifically or analytically, without invoking another world, so to speak, where all the ideas expressed in my words have an existence quite distinct from the one I inhabit, then I would say we avoid such transcendence well enough every time we use the word mind. For me, a Kantian or Blumenbergian regulatory principle need be no more transcendent than a surgeon’s check-list. And I hope we can all agree that, whatever they may think, surgeons have no special link to the divine.