Is absolute secularity conceivable? The question arises from the paradoxical intuition that the secularization thesis is simultaneously both right and muddled. Perhaps the most fundamental problem with the broader secularization thesis (which I take to claim that, over the past half-millennium or so, Western society has undergone a systemic diminution of religious practice) is that it isn’t clear what the non-secular is. After all, it can be extended from those beliefs and practices that avowedly depend on religious revelation to those that affirm some form of transcendentalism, though they may make no room for God as such. But for a long time both radical atheists and Christian apologists have argued that what looks as if it is secular through and through may not, in fact, be secular at all. From this point of view, important elements of enlightened secularity in particular can be understood, not as Christianity’s overcoming, but as its displacement. Thus, for instance, in his Scholasticism and Politics (1938), Jacques Maritain, following Nietzsche, speaks of the “Christian leaven fermenting in the bosom of human history” as the source of democratic modernity. Here the secular, political concept of human equality is seen to have a Christian origin and to bear a continuing Christian charge, even though its purposes and contexts have changed.

Numerous applications of the displacement model of secularization are current, but here I will point to just one. It concerns philosophical anthropology. The argument is that certain post-Enlightenment concepts of the human (or of “man”) remain Christian in their deep structures. Of these, the most important is the philosophical anthropology of negation (to use Marcel Gauchet’s term), according to which human nature is not just appetitive but necessarily incomplete, that is to say, inadequate to its various ecologies and conditions, and for that reason beset by fear, uneasiness, anxiety, and so on. For those who accept the displacement model, this anthropology, even in its modern forms, remains dependent on the revealed doctrine that human nature as such is fallen. Philosophical anthropology is important for thinking about secularization because the secularization thesis often becomes a proxy for the argument that secularity places human nature at risk.

The displacement model also makes it difficult for theorists of secularization to suppose that total secularization will ever be achieved. But this argument—the incomplete secularization argument, as we could call it—is of especial significance because it is here that the interests that stand behind and motivate particular articulations of the secularization thesis are most clearly revealed. To show this more clearly, let me present just one version of the incomplete secularization argument—Carl Schmitt’s essay “Das Zeitalter der Neutralisierungen und Entpolitizierungen” (1932).

Schmitt begins by sketching a stadial version of the secularization thesis: “There are four great, simple, secular stages corresponding to the four centuries and proceeding from the theological to the metaphysical domain, from there to the humanitarian-moral, and finally to the economic domain.” This statement puns on the two senses of the word “secular”—of the ages and not religious—and so draws attention to the way in which the secularization thesis combines the two. From the very beginning, this stadial progression can be understood as a “striving for neutralization,” i.e., as an effort to overcome a long procession of violent disputes, originally religious in nature, then cultural-national, and finally (with the Russian Revolution) economic. But now the economic era has ended too, and—so Schmitt—we have entered the age of technology.

Schmitt treats this succession as an intellectual historian. For him, the passage out of theology and into metaphysics occurs with Suarez, Descartes, Newton, and their peers; the passage out of metaphysics and ontology, with Kant; and the passage out of Enlightenment humanism, with Marx and the liberal economists. The passage out of the age of economy and into the age of technology, however, has no intellectual-historical component. Further, it would appear to constitute a new establishment of neutrality, since technique is not as such a form of thought. But the abandonment of intellectual and spiritual projects for merely technical ones is not quite an entryway into substantive secularity or neutrality, since, perhaps surprisingly, it turns out that the dominance of technology, in practice and effect, actually denies neutrality. According to Schmitt, rather, it possesses its own “activist metaphysics—the belief in unlimited power and the domination of man over nature, even over human nature.” A metaphysics without intellectual content, then, but a metaphysics nonetheless. As such, it “can be called fantastic and satanic, but not simply dead, spiritless or mechanized soullessness.”

This is where Schmitt’s politics take wing, just because the struggle against technology, with its siren call of absolute instrumentality, now involves a battle against evil (i.e., if one reads between the lines, against Bolshevism and Anglophone liberal capitalism). So, Schmitt’s image of a wholly secularized society ends up by appealing to the very opposite of the secular—to the figure of the religious warrior. His version of the incomplete secularization thesis is, in effect, a call to Catholic arms. And yet, Schmitt’s essay also implicitly acknowledges that this religious crusade might fail, in which case “dead, spiritless or mechanized soullessness” will indeed reign. So, in Schmitt, absolute secularity is possible—only, ironically, not for human beings, because once it has at last been reached the species will have forsaken its essential human qualities.

Where, against this kind of thinking, might we find a radically secular thought sufficiently rich to take good account of our actual conditions of existence? Given the wide reach of the displacement theory, it is clear that the criteria for discounting different forms of non-secular thought are various. We need to watch out, for instance, for arguments that retain traces of progressive humanism; for arguments that draw upon philosophical anthropology as articulated from within Christianity; for arguments committed to this or that form of transcendentalism, and so forth. All of these alternatives can be considered less than fully secular. Obviously, if we accept that non-secularity reaches into intellectual configurations such as these, then the number of possible candidates for radical secularity shrinks considerably.

But it is not as though there were no candidates whatsoever. Just to list some names: one might think of classical Stoicism as a mode of pristine secularity (as does Karl Löwith); or Spinozism; or Kantianism (which Hans Blumenberg thought to be such); or Nietzsche. Here, however, I will consider the example of Jeremy Bentham, on the grounds that his thought, prima facie, seems measure zero on the barometer of non-secularity.

What, then, was Bentham’s philosophy?

First, he was a psychological atomist in the Epicurean mode, who supposed that consciousness is constituted by experiences. Thus, he avoided metaphysical transcendentalism. He was a hedonist too. For him, all experiences have charges of pleasure or pain, and all human beings are fundamentally interested in maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. So he had a stripped-down anthropology: what is universal to humanity is simply the impulse towards pleasure and away from pain. Thus, for instance, he admitted no moral sense (although he did concede that benevolence is pleasurable in itself, while sympathy’s supposed ameliorative social power came under sustained critique). Indeed, no essentially human qualities divide our species from other animals. Which means that Bentham was no humanist. History will never give way to an apotheosis of humanity’s purported creative and imaginative capacities. In addition, pleasure itself, for Bentham, knows no qualitative differentiation: it is identical across all experiences, and therefore can, in principle, be measured by what he called a “calculus of felicity.”

In the interest of social reform, Bentham deployed his minimalist metaphysics against a suite of targets. He regarded natural law and the contract theory of social origins as expendable fictions. The concept of organic community plays no role in his thought (see his Principles, 6.26, note 2). Since experience is not qualitative, he can have no positive notion of politeness or of civilization. Famously, for him, the pleasure of warming one’s hands over a heater could be equivalent, in principle, to the pleasure of hearing Beethoven’s Fifth. Inherited culture has no particular value for him. For similar reasons, he remained remote from the hallowed concepts of liberty and equality, even if he was led to accept that the principle of utility needed approximately to equalize the distribution of individual happiness in order to achieve the maximum “general” happiness.

As a theorist of the self, Bentham, like Locke, rejects the theory of innate ideas. He places no weight on the Scottish school’s idea of progressive emulation. As is not the case for Hartley, Paley, and the natural theologians, instincts and drives play only a minor role in his thought. As an epistemologist, he is a Humean skeptic, bringing skepticism to bear on inherited classifications of knowledge tout court. He accepts, after Locke, that the relation between words and things is arbitrary, but he also came to believe, like Hobbes, that the words that we have and the web of concepts that they produce are dependent on false analogies, and that the ultimate reason for this is political: in short, our vocabulary serves the interests of inherited power and authority. So, new classifications are to be developed by a method of “exhaustive bifurcation,” that is, by constructing sets of binary oppositions and inventing new names as required for the entities thus differentiated. This method, it will be noted, has no minimal epistemological conditions: it is based on a differential semiotics and not on a reflective relation to the external world. Indeed, Bentham regarded all systems of nomenclature, even his own, as fictions, or, as a Kantian might say, as regulative structures. But, unlike the fictions that dominate received political and religious discourse, his system was designed to maximize utility.

As to religion more particularly, like Hume, Bentham was an atheist, although he often insisted on his neutrality. Like the French philosophes, he was, in addition, a political atheist, in that he believed religious institutions to be deleterious to society. He believed that they supported “asceticism,” the refusal to make happiness and utility the criterion of value. But, more practically, he also believed that, in England, the established Church played an important role in resisting rational reformation in education, law, and the franchise. From the very beginning of his career, he had pointed out the ways in which religion supported arbitrary privilege, corruption, and superstition. In 1818, he anonymously published a pamphlet attacking the Church of England’s attempts to monopolize national education on these terms, arguing that the Church had an interest in sustaining the people’s moral depravity and the continued “prostration of the understanding and the will.” But, unlike the programmatic secularists who later emerged out of Robert Owen’s socialist movement, he did not want to subject religious belief to negative sanctions. He was a thoroughgoing tolerationist: according to him, there should be no legal constraints whatsoever on belief and opinion, at least—and this is ambiguous in his thought—so long as they did not limit others’ happiness.

All this allowed Bentham to bring his principle of utility to bear on wholly new fields. No one else in the period, including more politically radical figures like Paine, Godwin, and Owen, argued, for instance, that homosexual acts should be legal (on the grounds that they cause pleasure and hurt nobody), that contraception should be freely available, and that women should vote.

But is Bentham’s thought completely secular? There are several points at which, drawing on the displacement model of secularization, one still might answer no, of which here I’ll note just one—his conception of happiness.

Bentham’s approach to happiness belongs to the post-Reformation period. It is certainly not consistent with ancient Greek eudemonia (although he applied that word to his own concept), either in its Aristotelian form (as the state that follows the practice of particular virtues as they apply to particular offices or stations) or in its Epicurean/Stoic form (as the tranquility consequent upon overcoming fear). His is rather an abstract happiness, conceived simply as a sum of pleasures. In his later work, happiness acquires a metaphysical force: in Chrestomathia (1816), he goes so far as to declare that “being […] is the instrument of happiness,” and thus that “Outology” (as he here calls ontology) is the science of happiness’s vehicles. This is where religion enters into his thought. As a primary ontological condition, happiness would seem to develop out of the concept of a disembodied felicity that was supposed to be the reward of salvation within the so-called “theological utilitarianism” that had been developed around 1700 by Latitudinarian theologians such as John Tillotson and Joseph Butler in the service of theodicy. Tillotson, for instance, addressed the question of what the “greatest happiness” might be in a sermon on Revelation 14:13: “And I heard a voice from Heaven saying unto me, Write, Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth […].” Tillotson described Heaven as a place

[…] into which nothing that can render men the least unhappy can ever enter; where our souls shall be in perfect rest and contentment, and our bodies after a while shall be restored and reunited to our souls; not to cloud and clog them as they do here, but so happily charged, and refined to such a perfection, that they shall be so far from giving any disturbance to our minds, that they shall mightily add to their pleasure and happiness.

Here, too, pleasure and happiness are seamless; here, too, happiness is an abstract, indeed neo-Platonic concept that is not embedded in conduct. Of course, the theologians’ felicity was not a sum of elemental pleasures on a social scale, but it was similarly abstract and similarly enmeshed in a system of rewards and punishments. Thus, if Bentham’s thought can be construed as secular, in this regard at least it remains within the framework of Latin Christianity. As such, for all its attention to a version of human flourishing, it does not provide us with an outside from which we might interrupt the secular/non-secular entanglement. Its notion of human flourishing is ultimately tinged by soteriology.

So the search for absolute secularity has to look elsewhere. Indeed, my own view is that the only place to find absolute secularity is in the search for it.

In his book On Human Conduct (1975), the British idealist Michael Oakeshott described philosophers as “embarked in adventure of understanding”

[…] in which every achievement of understanding is an invitation to investigate itself and where the reports a theorist makes to himself are interim triumphs of temerity over scruple. And for a theorist not to respond to this invitation cannot be on account of his never having received it. It does not reach him from afar and by special messenger; it is implicit in every engagement to understand and is delivered to him whenever he reflects. The irony of all theorizing is its propensity to generate, not an understanding, but a not-yet-understood.

Oakeshott’s notion of the theoretical practice is useful because it is just such an adventure of understanding that we are embarked on here in attending to the question of whether something like absolute secularity is conceivable. It may well be that this topic can only be treated as belonging to the category “not-yet-understood,” where “not yet” stretches into an endless futurity that is the opposite of eternity. If that is so, then Oakeshott’s idea of philosophy constitutes a position that is pristinely secular, and, by extension we can also find it in all likeminded appeals to limitless and unconditioned enquiry, even to limitless openness to the flow of experience and to future contingencies, including such similar appeals as were later to emerge out of poststructuralism. At the cost, however, of being no position at all, since neither “presuppositionlessness” nor “limitlessness” nor “openness” can, by definition, rest on any fixed principle or identity. If that is the case, then we might accept that the non-secular is only to be secured in flight, in an enquiry that never terminates, with the implication that, even if the secularization thesis is, in some of its guises, at least persuasive, it is nevertheless not quite what it claims to be, since it can never secure its own endpoint.

This post is extracted from a longer essay, itself a contribution to work on secularization being undertaken at the University of Queensland’s Centre for the History of European Discourses. I would like to thank the Australian Research Council and the Historical Society for support.