The Chronicle Review

The Crisis in Secular Studies

Chronicle Review photographs by Scott Seymour

September 08, 2014

"Largely secular" is not the descriptor that leaps to mind when thinking about Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. But that’s what James Clapper, U.S. director of national intelligence, called the group while testifying to Congress in 2011. Outrage ensued, and within hours his office, to use the Washington adage, "walked it back." The news release read as follows: "To clarify Director Clapper’s point, in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood makes efforts to work through a political system that has been, under Mubarak’s rule, one that is largely secular in its orientation. He is well aware that the Muslim Brotherhood is not a secular organization."

Now it was—why not?—the Mubarak regime’s turn to be acclaimed as "largely secular." If by "secularism" we mean not protecting religious minorities and not respecting freedom of speech, then I guess the DNI was on to something. Though perhaps we should cut Clapper some slack. He wouldn’t be the first or last public figure to utter preposterous and contradictory things about secularism.

Consider the case of the former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum. During a 2012 Republican presidential debate, he criticized President Obama’s "secular ideology" as being "against the traditions of our country." Oddly, this came a few minutes after he spoke of the necessity of a secular Pakistan. Secularism, Santorum implied, was bad for us but good for them. President Obama employs his own (double) standard when using the S-word. He scoffed at the knee-jerk, amoral secularism of his own party in The Audacity of Hope. Yet when he rolled out his Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, in 2009, he emphasized its inclusion of "secular" citizens and organizations.

Talking imprecisely about secularism is now an American rhetorical tradition. Politicians, policy makers, and journalists routinely deploy the term without really knowing—or caring—what it connotes. This is bad for us and for them, since secularism is germane to so many domestic- and foreign-policy problems. Is it appropriate for an elected official to invoke God in public? Can censorship be justified in deference to the feelings of the faithful? How can nonbelievers be accorded equal rights under the law? Does one country have a moral obligation to assure that there is "religious freedom" in another? What is "religious freedom," anyway?

As we speak, these concerns are being demagogued into senselessness by our leadership class. This is where we, the Scholars, have a civic contribution to make. We could bring clarity, accuracy, nuance, and, most crucially, balance to the dialogue. That is not because we’re paragons of objectivity (we’re not). Rather, normal scholarly practices and conventions—things like footnotes, mastery of the bibliography, addressing opinions we don’t agree with—usually keep our passions in check.

But something is adrift in the burgeoning field of secular studies. Where there should be clarity, there is obscurantism. Where a modicum of professorial disinterest should prevail, political and religious passions run amok. Where there should be engagement across schools of thought, there are academic tribalism and its attendant rituals of clan idolatry. As a result, scholarly thought on secularism is sometimes even more confused than its political counterpart is.

When I started studying the subject of secularism, I paid attention solely to scholarly perspectives on the matter. Somewhere along the way, I took an (amateurish) ethnographic turn and began querying nonspecialists. Americans, I learned, tend to define "secularism" in two distinct senses. For some it is synonymous with separation of church and state. For others it is akin to atheism. I find both popular conceptions, especially the latter, to be problematic. Yet they are closer to the mark than what many academic specialists are conjuring up.

A significant quantity of scholarly knowledge on secularism today emanates from a school of thought that works from postmodern, post-Foucauldian, and postcolonial assumptions (or Pomofoco). Here is Talal Asad, the leading exponent of this approach, in Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity:

Secularism is not simply an intellectual answer to a question about enduring social peace and toleration. It is an enactment by which a political medium (representation of citizenship) redefines and transcends particular and differentiating practices of the self that are articulated through class, gender, and religion.

If that passage flummoxes, it does so proudly and by design. One of the axioms of Pomofoco research is that "secularism" defies normal scholarly explication. "It is impossible to define secularism; rather one must track the diverse ways the insistent claims to being secular are made," observe Linell Cady and Elizabeth Shakman Hurd. Musing on the consequences of indefinability, and the singularity of Asad’s contribution, Jon Wilson goes the full Foucault: "Secularism is not a ‘subject’ that itself has ‘agentive power’ but an effect of an interaction between heterogeneous power relations." Wendy Brown, exemplifying the school’s penchant for up-voting its own idiosyncrasies, praises Asad for "long-resist[ing] attempts to define the secular."

Does this resistance merit praise? Numerous political scientists, sociologists, and theologians, among others, have labored to define secularism. Their contributions are available in peer-reviewed scholarly monographs, articles, and encyclopedias. Practitioners of Pomofoco rarely, if ever, cite that work.

These Citation Index Crimes consist not only of neglecting available research but also of misrepresenting what that neglected research says. In an article on the Danish-cartoon controversy, the Berkeley anthropologist Saba Mahmood frets about a polarized discourse that reduces the religious and the secular to "immutable essences or opposed ideologies." Subtler readings of their interaction, she alleges, "are often challenged by scholars who fear this manner of thinking forestalls effective action against the threat of ‘religious extremism.’ "

This false-binary critique pervades Pomofoco thought. It alleges that construing "secularism" and "religion" as opposites is a grievous and widespread error. It may be (see below), but who are these boorish profs who posit these concepts as contrary and immutable essences? Mahmood names three culprits. One is a journalist. One is an artist. And one is the New York Times columnist and nonexpert in secularism Stanley Fish. She does not cite any others. I think I know why: Few scholars treat secularism and religion as mutually exclusive, immutable essences.

In the Pomofoco worldview, a "secularist" is typically a proponent of the "clash of civilizations" hypothesis or a right-wing critic of radical Islam. All other secularists remain anonymous. Talal Asad’s chapter "What Might an Anthropology of Secularism Look Like?" is singularly instructive in this regard. His anthropology employs the unique ethnographic expedient of never letting a single secular voice express itself. Although Asad chides the "secular theory of state toleration" and "secular redemptive politics," he does not divulge who advocates those positions or what their rationale might be. Can the secular speak?

Which brings us to another hallmark of this school: its conspicuous aversion to secularism. And liberalism. And democracy. And the Enlightenment. And American foreign policy. And Israel. And Western civilization. And those who criticize political Islam or Islamic extremism via invidious comparison with any of these. It appears to be Pomofoco’s objective to everywhere draw the following conclusion: As troubling as radical Islamism might be, secular liberal democracies are just as bad—no, worse!

Asad conducted this operation in his 2007 On Suicide Bombing. "I am simply impressed," he remarks, "by the fact that modern states are able to destroy and disrupt life more easily and on a much grander scale than ever before and that terrorists cannot reach this capability." In reflecting on the Danish cartoons, Mahmood questions assumptions about "religious extremism and secular freedom wherein the former is judged to be uncritical, violent, and tyrannical, and the latter tolerant, satirical, and democratic."

Pomofoco’s ideological investments, coupled with its inexplicable allergy to conducting routine reviews of the scholarly literature, lead it to some dubious conclusions. Take its tendency to situate the rise of secularism in modernity. In placing it there, critics can conveniently round up and enfilade their usual suspects (e.g., the Enlightenment, liberalism, the nation-state). Yet here they’d be wise to follow Foucault and conduct a proper "genealogy." The germ of the secular idea was most likely born in late antiquity—a possibility explored by scholars such as T.N. Madan and Emmet Kennedy. From there it morphed and mutated throughout Occidental history.

Why is this relevant? Because many of the things that are confounding about secularism can be traced to its premodern heritage. In medieval Latin Christendom, there existed two theoretically symbiotic—but often mutually antagonistic—sources of legitimate power. One was the ecclesiastical authority, which was deemed godly. The other was the secular ruling authority, and it was deemed godly as well. This is why an early-modern figure such as Martin Luther could describe the secular powers as having "a Christian and salutary use."

It is misleading to treat the secular as if it sprouted, fully formed, in the Enlightenment. It is misleading to rail against "binaries," if only because the individuals we study sometimes thought in binary terms. For centuries political philosophers understood the civil and ecclesiastical authorities to be antagonistically opposed and constituted by the same divine sanction. Their thinking was simultaneously binary and nonbinary.

It is also misleading to assume that secularism is just one thing—and a despicable thing at that. In 2006, the political scientist Rajeev Bhargava cautioned Pomofoco critics that "amoral or mindlessly antireligious secular states" are not the norm. Permit me to expand upon that insight. There exists a staggering multiplicity of secularisms. Some are liberal, some are conservative; some brutish, some benevolent; some reactionary, some progressive; some friendly to religion, some hostile; some dead, some still being born. Some are committed to separation of church and state. Yet others advocate different policies such as "accommodationism" (e.g., where the state accommodates all religious groups equally). Secularism is not reducible to Stalinism; scholars need to stop acting as if they are synonyms.

Not every conclusion reached by Pomofoco scholars is erroneous. Their bibliographical agoraphobia, however, screens them from findings that corroborate their own. The school keeps making the same (damning) discoveries about secularism, each time with its finger pointed higher in the air.

It has demonstrated, for example, that secular states are never "neutral," even though they insist that they are. That is a credible insight. The United States government has always been awash in presuppositions congenial to white, male Protestants. French laïcité was nurtured in an environment of aggressive anti-Catholicism yet remains saturated, ironically, with Roman Catholic assumptions. Taha Parla and Andrew Davison, assessing the Turkish secularism of Mustafa Atatürk (laiklik), argue that its champions were "ideologues of a certain form of [Muslim] religious belief."

A broad scholarly consensus exists: Secular states are, to varying degrees, tinctured by provincial religious biases. Only Pomofoco, however, deduces from this that such states are incorrigible, illegitimate, and must be replaced. But replaced by what?

Over the past quarter-century, Pomofoco has achieved near dominant status in elite religious-studies programs and divinity schools. Along the way, it has forged intellectual alliances with conservative theologians of every stripe, who have wholly different reasons for loathing secularism. Together they prophesy the advent of the "post-secular" Kingdom. And together they form an institutional left-right pincer around scholarly perspectives less antagonistic to secularism. Critics of higher education can bray all they want about "liberal bias." When it comes to the academic study of religion, those who hold liberal assumptions are besieged.

Its salience on campus notwithstanding, Pomofoco is virtually unknown in journalistic or policy circles. This is not the case with Charles Taylor, author of the serenely megalomaniacal A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007). Few academic offerings in recent memory have been accorded a comparable reception. A Secular Age has received dozens of ebullient evaluations. The deluge of praise crested to the windows of The New York Times, where David Brooks, Ross Douthat, and the Sunday Book Review extolled its virtues.

Numerous conferences have interrogated its themes, and four books have already emerged in its wake. The Social Science Research Council has assiduously promoted A Secular Age. In fact, the council has a big old crush on this 874-page treatise. In addition to sponsoring some of the panels and publications, it has created a website (The Immanent Frame) where Taylorians and Pomofocoians talk shop. Elsewhere on the council’s platform, it has teamed up with—am I the only one to find this strange?—the exceedingly religion-and-miracle friendly Templeton Foundation. The latter garlanded A Secular Age with its coveted prize in 2007. In the words of John Templeton Jr., the work provided "a fresh understanding of the many problems of the world and, potentially, how we might together resolve them."

I have a somewhat different take. A Secular Age is an endless fugue about an interminable dirge, a pumpkin grown to the size of a cathedral. Reading it is like being led on a safari through Taylor’s mind—if the giraffes, hyenas, and wildebeests were a hundred of his favorite articles and monographs. The text lurches inexplicably from one grandiloquent, unsubstantiated sidebar to another. Sociologists of religion—who don’t get out much—might find his vinegary reflections on modern aesthetics edgy. I’d take them more seriously if Taylor engaged more than one novel, movie, or poem created in the past half-century.

Unlike Pomofoco, Taylor does define "secularism"—in three ways. His third definition (i.e., "secularity") detains him for well over a quarter-million words. The philosopher wishes to chart a shift from "a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others." "Secularity" is our shared predicament, the cross we (do not) bear. It refers to an existential condition in which faith in God is but an option. We all live within this "immanent frame"—a domain where "our experience of and search for fullness occurs; and this is something we all share, believers and unbelievers alike."

Taylor is fascinated—even obsessed—by atheism, but not fascinated enough to read widely about the subject. A specialist in this area peruses A Secular Age in a state of frustration. This is not because Taylor quietly treats the rise of atheism as if it were original sin. The problem is that most of his claims about this phenomenon are unsourced. On what empirical basis does he conclude that atheists search for "fullness"? Why is he unaware that the first visible social movements that dabbled with nonbelief were working-class, not elite? Is it plausible to base one’s conception of atheism almost solely on the writings of Camus and Nietzsche? How can Taylor speak (contemptuously) of "secular humanism" without once consulting the immense oeuvre of its leading light, the late philosopher Paul Kurtz?

A Secular Age is equally uninterested in the developments that generated political secularism. The crucial reflections of the Baptist dissenter Roger Williams or a central treatise like John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration do not much concern Charles Taylor. The stunning innovations in statecraft of the Madison-Jefferson axis are completely ignored. Landmark figures, such as George Jacob Holyoake, who coined the term "secularism" in the mid-19th century and wrote extensively about its precepts, are never mentioned.

This is odd and unfortunate. It’s odd because Taylor has elsewhere written about political secularism. While he tends to incorrectly equate secularism with separationism, his work on this issue has been quite thoughtful. It is unfortunate because secularism, when it works, offers livable solutions to the eternal dilemma of how government and religion(s) should interact. If you can believe or not believe in God as you see fit, if you are not subjected to an establishment of religion, if the professional and personal choices available to women continually widen, then raise your stein to secularism. Extract the political accomplishment from the latter, as does Taylor with his harpoon-sized lobster pick, and you are left with a hollow shell.

A hollow shell is what "secularity" looks like after the author’s deceptive, curmudgeonly exenteration. A Secular Age has very little to do with secularism and atheism but everything to do with Taylor’s preternaturally odd nostalgia trip. "Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society," he queries, "while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?" A value-neutral assessment does not follow.

For Taylor, this God-optional age is the locus of a crippling spiritual malaise. Our forebears half a millennium ago possessed "porous" souls, capable of being suffused by the transcendent. We modern goofuses, by contrast, are "buffered," or fenced off from such numinous encounters. We denizens of secularity are "disengaged," "disenchanted," constrained within "Closed World Structures," all of which render us impervious to God. "Life" is thus "empty, flat, devoid of higher purpose"—a dividend of "our lack of contact with spiritual reality." Not sounding like the liberal Catholic intellectual he is everywhere presumed to be, Taylor bemoans the secular age as "a victory for darkness."

Most people are nostalgic about events occurring within their own lifetimes. I am nostalgic about the Brooklyn of my youth, especially how the sunlight blanched the chill on Monday mornings in February. Philip Roth often reminisced in his fiction about the playgrounds of Newark. Charles Mingus composed a blues called "Nostalgia in Times Square." I hum it every day. Charles Taylor is forlorn about the epistemological presumptions that obtained in the era of the Spanish Inquisition.

Let’s leave aside if (and how) Taylor, or anyone, can divine how the soul sang, strutted, and clacked its castanets 500 years ago. The more concrete shortcoming is this: Who’s to say that one’s faith was so unmolested in, let’s say, 1431, as Joan of Arc was immolated in Rouen? Faith in premodern Latin Christendom was continually challenged. This is not because of atheism, but heresy—a crucial civilizational dynamic that Taylor barely discusses. Even before 1500, your belief in God was troubled by the presence of others who did not believe in him the way you did. Were not the martyred Cathars and Waldensians uniquely unsettling to Christians? Was every self in the era of Dante, Boccaccio, and Chaucer immune to doubt? Were there never prophets of Baal in Christendom’s magic forest?

As for the present day: Who exactly is subjectively experiencing the secular age? Does a devout Catholic, to riff on Macbeth’s Macduff, feel it like Charles Taylor? Is she haunted and blinded by the eclipse of transcendence? Does the mere existence of atheism rock her to her foundations? Does an agnostic feel as despairingly un-"full" as Taylor believes she must? Maybe we really are groaning together in this secular age, but no one discerns the howl, save Taylor and his academic admirers.

James K.A. Smith, author of How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014),is among those admirers. The Calvin College professor describes himself as "an unabashed and unapologetic advocate" for Taylor’s study. I took more than a passing interest in How (Not) to Be Secular, having written a book myself called How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom. I was disappointed that Smith did not engage any of my arguments, but not surprised. That’s how we roll in secular studies!

Smith describes his work as an "homage" to A Secular Age. Note to Pomofocoians and Taylorians: Enough with the hymns of praise and the homages. Save it for a Festschrift, or better yet a eulogy. We’re supposed to be critical, for the love of God! That said, How (Not) to Be Secular is sort of fun. Unlike the scholars mentioned earlier, Smith has figured out that the English language need not be a delivery mechanism for joylessness. His philosopher-badass-riding-in-on-a-Razor-scooter-to-the-accompaniment-of-Arcade-Fire’s-"Wake Up" persona is kind of charming. It permits him to analyze Taylor in ways that are clever.

Smith, who refers to himself as "a Reformed charismatic, a Pentecostal Calvinist," grasps that A Secular Age is a theological tract. Reviewers have overlooked this, neglecting to note, for example, the un-social-science-y sermon that possesses its final pages. Smith gets it, remarking that his guide is meant to help "pastors and church planters understand better the contexts in which they proclaim the gospel." In so doing, he parades into light Taylor’s shadowy conceit that, ideally, we’d be better off not being secular.

"Pour rêver, il ne faut pas fermer les yeux, il faut lire," said Foucault. ("In order to dream, one mustn’t close one’s eyes. One must read.") Pomofoco and A Secular Age share a reluctance to read what Max Weber called "inconvenient facts." But if we scholars actually do possess souls, then porous those souls must be. Our peculiar heroism (and pathos) is to willfully seek out ideas that crumple our enthusiasms, douse our inspirations, and generally muck up our day. If we engage only with our ideological affinity groups, then academe is as parochial and pointless as our critics everywhere say it is.

There are many students of secularism—both for and against—who respect the footnote and its moral injunction to absorb opinions one does not share. I think, for example, of Philip Hamburger’s Separation of Church and State (Harvard University Press, 2002)—a controversial critique of the Jeffersonian tradition of walling off religion from politics. Also mucking up my day are assaults on the "secular" character of our Constitution, often launched by conservative Christian researchers. These studies enrich our incomplete conception of American church-state relations, as do those of leading thinkers such as Noah Feldman and Martha Nussbaum, who are more sympathetic to secular ideals.

I have been alluding throughout this essay to a certain disregard for subjectivities in secular studies. For that reason, we should focus on the perceptions of nonscholars. Phil Zuckerman, who in 2011 established the first secular-studies program, at Pitzer College, does precisely this. His fieldwork with subjects worldwide is fascinating and compellingly written. Zuckerman equates the adjective "secular" (but not necessarily the noun "secularism") with atheism. Yet so do many of his subjects, and that is why the term’s meaning must be investigated. Also scrutinizing subjective perceptions is the Canadian scholar Pascale Fournier. Her meticulous ethnography explores how devout Jewish and Muslim women dexterously navigate religious and secular law, neither of which simplifies their struggles.

Zuckerman’s and Fournier’s works crack open a new frontier in secular studies: understanding what laypeople make of secularism. In truth, we need to do this across sociological time and space. Little is known about those who, in earlier periods, consciously embraced secular ideas and what they believed those ideas entailed. Now and then, us and them—let the secular speak. And let scholars listen to secularists, and to one another.

Jacques Berlinerblau is a professor of Jewish civilization in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His books include The Secular Bible: Why Non-Believers Must Take Religion Seriously (Cambridge University Press, 2005) and How to be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom (Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt, 2012). He is also co-editor with Sarah Fainberg and Aurora Nou of Secularism on the Edge: Church-State Relations in the United States, France and Israel (Palgrave MacMillan, 2014).