[UPDATE: the proposal below has been accepted, and the new group’s first call for proposals has now been issued.–eds.]

Our proposal for the creation of a new program unit on “Secularism and Secularity” within the American Academy of Religion (AAR) seeks to promote and enable more sustained interdisciplinary engagement among scholars of secularism and secularity and those researchers whose work has focused on variously conceived forms of “non-religion.”

The proposal builds upon an exploratory session held earlier this month at the AAR’s annual meeting in Chicago, as well as on increasing thematic attention to the secular throughout the American Academy of Religion. The AAR requires indications of support from AAR members who are interested in, and support the work of, the proposed unit. Emails of support should be sent (no later than Friday, November 30) to: secularisms.secularities@gmail.com.


Secularism and Secularity
Proposal for a new program unit of the American Academy of Religion

Per Smith (Boston University)
Jonathan VanAntwerpen (Social Science Research Council)

Steering Committee Members:
Joseph Blankholm (Columbia University)
Mayanthi Fernando (University of California, Santa Cruz)
Jonathon Kahn (Vassar College)
Kathryn Lofton (Yale University)
Robert Yelle (University of Memphis)

The shifting boundaries of religion in late modernity have increasingly pointed up the problematic relationship between “the religious” and “the secular.”  In the wake of a contested and frequently maligned “secularization thesis,” a new set of questions have appeared that draw our scholarly attention to secularism, secularity, and the secular—questions around the changing role of religion in law, politics, and public life, around the metamorphosis of personal identities, practices, and affiliations (figured as religious, spiritual, secular, or otherwise), and around a broader set of historical transformations that have conditioned and been imbricated in these and other changes.

In the course of pursuing answers to such questions contemporary scholars are confronted with, and challenged by, the ways in which diverse modes of secularism and multiple forms of secular practice are entangled with—and variously seek to disentangle themselves from—religion and the religious. These entanglements can take shape as contestations or conversions, appropriations or accommodations, while also pointing toward the different ways in which the religious and the secular depend upon and indeed constitute one another. Exploring the interplay of “religious” and “secular” identities, communities, and institutions, for example, is an important part of more fully understanding a widely noted rise in religious disaffiliation within the United States. Yet that very interplay also operates within social fields shaped by forces not immediately within our control. “Whenever we seem to confront a choice between religion and secularism,” as Michael Warner recently put it, “we may be sure that the form of the choice is not ours.” Thus, histories and genealogies of the secular are as important to our understanding of secularism and secularity as empirical studies of contemporary secular movements, organizations, and individuals.

The proposed AAR group on “Secularism and Secularity” would build on and extend a growing academic attention to the secular across multiple fields and disciplines. Robustly interdisciplinary in its conception, the group would draw on—and make an effort to draw in—anthropologists, historians, sociologists, philosophers, political theorists, theologians, literary scholars, and others. At the same time, it would aim to provide a space within which existing program units might encounter and engage with emerging research on the secular, actively seeking to co-sponsor sessions with other program units and to build other sorts of bridges within the Academy. At the 2012 annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, fifty-one different panels included papers or themes on the secular, including presentations under the auspices of units as diverse as Contemporary Pagan Studies Group, Sikh Studies, Mormon Studies, Christian Systematic Theology Section, Religion in South Asia Section, and the Ricoeur Group. This thematic consistency across sections suggests it would be productive to organize a specific space for such discussion, and that there would be ample opportunity for connections among every tradition and topical cohort represented in the Academy.