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Rethinking Secularism Hardcover – Aug 26 2011
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"This volume marks the conclusion of a massive four-year academic research project devoted to the analysis of the realities represented by the terms 'secular,' 'secularism,' and 'secularization.'...This conversation, I believe, remains one of the main tasks confronting those who write on secularism today."--Anglican Theological Review
"Rethinking Secularism is not only a fascinating book for students and scholars, but also for everyone who wants to broaden one's horizons...volumes such as Rethinking Secularism may move us closer to a better understanding of our globalized world."--Religion
About the Author
Craig Calhoun is President of the Social Science Research Council, University Professor of the Social Sciences at New York University, and Founding Director of NYU's Institute for Public Knowledge. Mark Juergensmeyer is Director of the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, Professor of Sociology, and Affiliate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Jonathan VanAntwerpen is Program Officer and Research Fellow at the Social Science Research Council.
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While I agree with the authors that secularism has many forms and that science alone cannot provide people with everything they need, the problem is that this book isn't written for someone like myself who believes in a middle path between religion ruling over us and religion being pushed completely out of our lives, so this book ends up as an extreme argument against an extreme argument. This book ends up as nothing but an academic exercise between scholars who really aren't talking to people like myself. This is something that irritates me about academia. This back and forth between the ivory towers of academia that has no real practical application.
Talal Asad's contribution is a perfect example of this. He discusses the violence that occurred after the publishing of the Danish cartoons. He goes to great lengths to try to justify and equate this supposed religious violence with secular violence. He discusses the enchantment of secular governments and violence, and their need to glorify violence and death for the nation. The problem is that his discussion of the need to romanticise violence doesn't equate to the violence that came after the publication of the cartoons. He goes to some length describing the "killing machine" of secular societies but he completely fails to notice the fact that dissension can and is freely voiced in secular societies against his "killing machine" whereas in places that saw such violent reaction against the free speech of the cartoons has no freedom to dissent publicly or the dissenter understands they are taking enormous risks to do so. Mr. Asad seems to forget protests before the Iraq war, or the secular individuals who went to Iraq to serve as human shield. His attempt to equate violence emanating from "secular" governments like the U.S. with the societies they govern is just false.
The essays on Asia and how some of these countries are dealing with the transition to modernity and how they approach religion and secularism was somewhat interesting the problem is they approach their subject arguing against the idea of a pure secularism that removes religion. I know there are those people out there arguing for removing religion from public sphere completely but if you are not one of those people then these essays will fall a little flat. I expect that every society will approach modernity in a fashion that is unique to its own needs and interests, so it doesn't surprise me that India's approach differs from China's, France's or the U.S.'s. For me this seems like common sense so the discussion seems redundant.
Rajeev Bhargava's essay Rehabilitating Secularism is another essay I felt was redundant. He discusses the different forms of secularism that exist and the different approaches that each one entails. The problem is that all societies are fluid and ever changing so the idea that there is a single approach or some formula that can be applied seems ridiculous on its face. Other than the individual who believes there is a one size fits all solution this essay seems like it is preaching to the choir.
Of course some essays discuss "secular" violence such as WWI and WWII as well as Stalin and the millions who have died due to violence that was void of religious motivation. The problem once again is that unless you are a Richard Dawkin's type of atheist who wants to blame much of what ails societies on religion as apposed to someone like myself who sees human beings as inherently violent and needing very little to motivate or justify violence then once again the essays read like preaching to the choir.
Several of the essays I enjoyed but many simply fell flat because I don't take extreme views of religion or secularism. I believe religion has its place and each society has to work through discovering what is the perfect balance between religion and secularism. Secularism is certainly no panacea, but I didn't think it was before I bought and read this book, and after reading it not much has changed for me. I guess that is biggest criticism of all. If you believe religion has no place in modern society then read this book to challenge yourself, but other than that I see little reason to engage this work. It's not a discussion about secularism but more of an argument against extreme secularism.
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.
The Peace of Westphalia resulted in religion in Western Europe being brought under the control of ‘secular’ princes. From there, religion came increasingly under attack in the enlightenment. Some people of West European stock came to think that they would rather do without religion. ‘You can’t do without it’, a number of our authors in this text exclaim. They say this in the light of a global resurgence of religion. We have had a development-of-secularization thesis. Now we are dismantling the same thesis, the reader is told (270). Secularism is not cutting the mustard.
Secularism is a product of the Western church. The term ‘secular’ originally referred to those servants of the church who worked in the community rather than those bound to more isolated monastic orders. The very category religion as it is known today is in a sense an invention of secularism. Religion can be defined as being that which secularism is not. In the sense we could say, that that if there is no secularism, there can be no religion. The relationship between secularism and religion is far from ‘natural’. It is a relationship that has been constructed, and continues to be constructed, and it is constructed very differently in different parts of the world.
Because secularism varies from place to place, there are actually many secularisms, or types of secularism. There being many secularisms, makes it hard to know just what ‘secularism’ refers to. Asian uses of the term secular are quite different from European ones. What they have in common seems to be their defining themselves as being in some way ‘not religion’. Secularism can be ‘non-religious’, or it can be a means of controlling ‘religions’. For some, it is important that religions tolerate secularism, and that the secular tolerates the religious; yet the two are never entirely distinct. The discipline of International Relations, as well as no doubt many other disciplines, has been built on the foundation of the assumption that something called secularism is hegemonic. A lot of work is needed to re-align these disciplines to today’s world where a role for religion is clearly recognized and central to all that goes on. Even fundamentalist religions are, according to research reported in this text, means of countering what is perceived as over-aggressive attempts at flattening people’s religious sensibilities. Asia might appear to some to be secular. It is not. It is ‘religious’, but it conceals its religiosity to the West, we are told.
In my personal view, one startling feature of the contributors this book is, with a few minor exceptions, their attempts at avoiding theology. Perhaps secularisms have arisen due to a European paranoia about theology and theological difference? Massive 20th Century violence came on the back of ideologies, not religions. Yet an irrational paranoia regarding theology remains, even if less so in the USA than in Europe. Unfortunately, avoiding theology can be like picturing fish swimming in a tank without water. Understanding secularism is important to discerning today’s global political processes. It arose from the church, and it is very hard to pin down just what it is. It is supposedly not ‘religion’, but that cannot be.