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  • The Secular, the Postsecular, and the Literary
  • Vincent P. Pecora (bio)

Over the last decade, the terms "postsecular" and "postsecularism" have entered the critical lexicon in the humanities. What is perhaps deceptive about such terms is that they tend not to signify that secularism has been abandoned or that there is some wholesale return to religiosity in the academy. As far as I can tell, neither of these propositions is even close to being true.

I would say instead that postsecularism is on the whole an echo of earlier post-isms. Like postmodernism, postsecularism maintains no unified claims or fixed doctrines. Rather, the neologism represents analytical work that questions the assumptions of a prior historical moment. Just as the petit récits of the postmodern were designed to undermine the grand narratives of modernism, including those magisterial accounts of progressive demystification and eventual liberation (as in Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud), the postsecular is skeptical about the coherence of the "secularization thesis" of the mid-twentieth century, whereby the decay of religion amid social, cultural, and political modernization was thought to be inexorable.

Like post-colonialism, postsecularism poses a distinct critique of the old imperial project, so that the current opposition between secular society and religious society, which largely replaced the prior opposition between societies built on revealed religion and those based on mere superstition, appears to be no more than the latest version of the opposition between "developed" (that is, Western) and "developing" (non-Western) economies. The hierarchy that places the West above the rest is again being questioned, but it still lacks a clear program for rectifying the imbalance.

Like posthumanism, post-secularism revises the standard history by which the Enlightenment marks an irreversible transition from a theocentric to an anthropocentric universe. Compared to the post-humanist's critique of the Enlightenment, by which the realm of the human is threatened on one side by the cyborg and on the other by the animal, the postsecularist's revisionism often includes (as in Heidegger) a questioning of an even older distinction between human being and some sense of Being that is not simply reducible to the human realm. As in Heidegger, however, what this irreducibility of Being to human being amounts to remains terribly vague.

The post-secular is thus a form of historical revisionism in pursuit of all that might have been misguided or overlooked in earlier accounts of the decay of religion and the process of secularization. Yet there is little agreement on what this revisionism finally means.

Moreover, there are just as many intellectual beginnings and traditions for the post-secular as there are versions of it. These include Nietzsche and the "eternal return," designed to disrupt the progress of Hegelian history and its "cunning of reason" theodicy; Max Weber and his resurrection of religious (and unintentional) causality in understanding social change; Émile Durkheim and the equation of the religious with "collective consciousness" and ultimately shared language; Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, whose speculative notion of a "dialectic of enlightenment" often meant their books were found in the religious studies shelves of bookstores (as was the case in Los Angeles in the 1980s); Carl Schmitt, Walter Benjamin, Karl Löwith, and Ernst Kantorowicz, all committed to the significance of political theology; and Hans Blumenberg, whose Kantian critique of political theology had almost the same effect as Kant's critique of metaphysics—that is, simultaneously destruction and preservation.

Postsecular revisionism is also, to be sure, a response to real-world events: the failure of communist materialism, the religious revival that swept the Islamic world, the persistence of religious politics in much of the West, and so on. But it is just as clearly the fruit of substantial intellectual currents [End Page 4] in the West since the mid-nineteenth century.

Hence, in my view, the more popular understanding of the postsecular as a return to religion is rather unfortunate. This is because, no matter how much I agree with current efforts to re-think how we understand religion in disciplines such as literary criticism, I have no desire to abandon the power of secular reason; that is, to throw out the baby of evidence-based, logically plausible, and...


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