Rethinking Secularism consists in 13 essays (plus an introduction), doing exactly what the title says, rethinking secularism. Almost every one of the essays points out that the concepts of religion and secularism arose virtually simultaneously, the one, (heavy-handed Christian)religion calling forth its antithesis, secularism, and heavy-handed secularism calling forth its opponent, ascendent, renewed, traditional religion. The also were conceived in the same cultural bed, western Europe and the United States; very few non North Atlantic civilizations have a similar dualism, though many do now since being colonized, either militarily or by the media and technology, by the west. Most of the authors point to the 'positive neutrality' of the government of India as a model to be imitated.
It is a truism to say that not all the essays in a collective work have the same value, so i will concentrate on a few. Oddly, i was most disappointed by the article "Western Secularity" by Charles Taylor, whose works i generally enjoy. On p. 43, he uses the word "enchantment," yes, a commonplace in the literature, to comment on the world bereft of religion, but does not recognize that this is a sly, pejorative way of introducing the secularist idea that religions are just fantasy, enchantment, as realistic as the 7 year old girl playing Cinderella. Throughout his essay, Taylor repeatedly uses the word "we," as in we in this secular world, but who is we? Is it Taylor and a friend? Is it everyone in the world? Is it the secularist true believers? I and billions of others don't belong to this we.
My favorite essay was that of Elizabeth Shakman Hurd. She showed how most of the supposedly neutral terms used by and to describe secularism are actually pre-believed, the conceptual deck is stacked, the ideological table is tilted, toward the left. She, along with Coleridge, calls for a "suspension of disbelief," the irreligious dropping their weapons as it always insists the religious do. Her only gaffe is the content of footnote 9, which contains a diatribe against Pope Benedict XVI, that he is reasserting the spiritual supremacy of the Vatican. First of all, this is an improper use of the word "Vatican," which is a place within the city of Rome. She must mean the spiritual supremacy of the Holy See, or the Catholic magisterium, both of which live in Vatican City, Rome. More importantly, Benedict, who along with his predecessor John Paul II, are more cultured and well read than any two consecutive world leaders since at least Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, is not trying to reassert Catholicism's supremacy, except perhaps for Catholics. Does BenXVI think that Catholic Christianity is the embodiment of the truth of Jesus Christ? Of course, and he should be fired if he did not. Through his voracious thinking and writing, the pope knows the contents of other Christian denominations' teachings and other world religions than virtually anyone. He applauds those which he thinks support Catholicism, and he has the audacity to point out those which he thinks are not salvific for humans, on earth or for eternal salvation.
This is similar to the academic blood slur on p. 234 by R. Scott Appleby, where he states that fundamentalists are "modern [cultural] warriors," which can be stipulated for the sake of argument, but that "they are happy to select and retrieve organizational features from modern ideological movements that they admire, (e.g.,) fascism. . ." You know you are intellectually bankrupt when you reach for the Hitler comparison. How unprofessional.
The book's final essay, by Talal Asad, "Freedom of Speech and Religious Limitations," is clever, but ultimately not cogent. The main point of this essay is to justify Muslim anger, boycotts, and even downplay the evil of violence, over the admittedly deplorable cartoons of Muhammed in a Danish newspaper. A major theme is that blasphemy means 2 different things in the secular west and Muslim countries, which is pretty obvious. But Asad wonders why the secular countries forbid certain forms of otherwise free speech, as by copyright, which upholds commerce, but does not enforce Muslims right to not be offended by ugly speech in Denmark. The reason is simple: the last time I checked, the writ of Sharia does not go to Denmark, western Europe, nor the USA. These formerly Christian countries do not enforce blasphemy against the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus either,for the good reason that they are secular nations, not Christian. Places where Sharia is the law of the land are more than welcome to enforce those laws there. I am offended by those cartoons, as I am by so-called art which desecrates Christ or the Virgin Mary, i try to elect candidates who would not give federal tax money to those alleged artists, i might even conspire to boycott those corporations which sponsor the nausea, but i would not slit anyone's throat or fly a plain into the gallery containing the art. Asad consistently fails to make a distinction between violence against soldiers, which is allowed by all parties to a war, from intentional violence against innocent victims, like the folks in the twin towers on 9/11/01, or the slitting of throats of journalists, from the regrettable but purposedly unintended killing of the innocent in Iraq and Afghanistan by secularist soldiers--world of difference.
However, over all this was a stimulating, refreshing, and well written book.