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  • Introduction to Focus:What Secular?
  • Ranjan Ghosh (bio)

The dominance of Kantian reason and the authoritative equations of the public sphere built "good fences" between religion and the secularism. Religion growing on the one side of the wall chose "practicing privacy," and secularism built its own reason, objectivity and rationality toward the functioning of a liberal democracy. But "something is there that does not love a wall": The autonomy of their existence has come to be challenged, both genealogically and performatively. Erin Wilson is right to note that "secularism's limited definition of religion must recognize that religion's institutional, ideational, individual, communal, irrational and rational elements do not exist in fixed relationships based on an exclusionary dualism, whereby one element is subordinated to the other. Rather these elements operate in fluid, dynamic relationships, their significance changing and shifting depending on the contexts in which they are present and active." Wilson calls this "relational dialogism."

Both religion and naturalism (or secular reason) in discursive and reflective manifestations need a rethink. Even the post-metaphysical for Jürgen Habermas grounds itself in communicative rationality where faith and desire, considered as controversial and distracting, are carefully excluded to ontologize a certain form of operative reason. Reason has its restrictive dialogue within certain reifications of social and historical reality and certain mentalities and positions, which are assumed to be uniform and consistent across cultures and religious traditions and practices. Reason, thus, peripheralises emotion, spirituality, individual enchantments, everyday eschatology, aesthetic imagination, and the semiotic power of existence.

On that note, the "immanent frame," as characterized by Charles Taylor, is constrictive too. As distinguished from religion and secularism, the praxis and notion of the "secular," for me, stands out in its eroticism, saturation (as Brad Onishi argues in this volume), excess, and ontopolitical incarnations. The secular does not necessarily become the consequence of "subtraction stories" (in the words of Taylor). Referring to the Latin root of the term religion, which is "binding," Craig Calhoun notes that "it is not the experience of being bound together with others or with God that gives us the category so much as the recognition of multiple different ways of being bound and organizing the ritual practices, moral understandings, and beliefs that follow from this."

The secular is not always an explanatory category, reductionist, assumptive and constitutional. It builds a "desire" for itself beyond the material, the hard reality, and categoric socialization. Calhoun observes that it is

harder to recognize and appreciate the ways in which some 'values,' or what Taylor calls 'hypergoods,' give order to human life and action. If we reduce 'value' to 'desire,' for example, we can effectively work within the limits of reductionist explanations. Desires are as immediate as projected outcomes; they can be understood in purely material terms. But a value is something different insofar as it suggests a determination to make certain preference orderings in the future. Even desire is more complicated than often imagined. The model of desiring, say, food or even specific foods doesn't exhaust what we mean by the word. Desire for a life with my wife and family, for example, extends beyond possession and beyond the experience of current pleasures. It places a value not only on what I might acquire but also on what I might be and what I might create.

Following up on that understanding, I value secularism and desire the secular. One is a systematic whole, a comprehensiveness with a law, plan and value; the other is a reflection in fragmentation, the thrill of incompletion, the desire that is both incommensurable and connective. Secularism is institutional and reason; The secular is transformative, questioning the reasonability of reason. One is communal, the other is commonality and critique.

The secular, as I have argued elsewhere, becomes sacred in allowing itself to be invaded upon by dissenting forces, non-hegemonic discourses and certain non-sovereign modes of value formation. Religion that preaches closures on conversation and pontificates about building enclosures of communal values cannot be sacred; the secular, in rewriting and revising our continual advancement and adjustment in life, becomes the procreative sacred. Within the Verwindung of the secular then there is the promise of a vivacious democracy...


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