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  • What is Postsecularism?
  • Clayton Crockett (bio)

Amid the debates about the nature and role of the secular and the question whether we have moved into a post-secular society due to the resurgence of religion, I argue for a specific understanding of postsecularism. In many ways, postsecularism is an analogue to postmodernism. Both terms indicate the limits of Western culture and what can be called liberalism. The concept of postsecularism refers to a breakdown of modern liberalism because modern liberalism relegates "religion" to a specific sphere of private belief.

Secularism is an ideology of European modernity. It relegates religion to a private sphere while reserving the public realm for a non-religious civil discourse. An absolute secularism is impossible in practice, but it was imagined that religion could be restricted to private belief so that civic and political discourse could be deemed rational and universal. In John Locke's A Letter Concerning Toleration, we can see a paradigmatic example of this separation. Locke says, "I regard it as necessary above all to distinguish between the business of civil government and that of religion, and to mark the true bounds between the church and the commonwealth." The business of government is the state, whereas the business of religion is the church. The church is the private sphere of voluntary association and activity within the context of a liberal state. In secularism, religion takes the form of private belief, and it is subtracted from public political activity.

In recent decades, scholars have examined the resurgence of non-liberal forms of religion, often under the name of fundamentalism. What is sometimes called the "return of religion" is what José Casanova calls a "deprivatization" of religion. Religion abandons the mask of privacy and emerges on the political scene in non-liberal ways. What philosophers such as Jacques Derrida demonstrate is that the strict opposition between public and private religion, as well as the opposition between the religious and the secular, is untenable—it deconstructs. I call this inability to fully separate religion from secular politics postsecularism. Postsecularism indicates an epistemological distance from the premises of secularism, but its not a rejection of the secular or the triumphalist claim that we are postsecular in the sense of returning to some fully religious sphere without or beyond the secular.

The secular is not a foundation, but neither is religion. There is no grounding foundation, which does not mean that there are no grounds for anything, including our thinking and our being. We can undertake a genealogy of the secular, which Talal Asad provides in his important book Formations of the Secular. The secular is of course also a theological term in medieval Christianity, from the Latin saeculum, but it ultimately has a less religious origin. The word secular originally comes from the Etruscan language, where it meant a span of years encompassing the lives of everyone who witnessed a particular significant event. This was about 90-100 years, and it informed the Latin conception of a century. For the later Christian theologian Augustine, the saeculum refers to the time period in which we live, where the "City of God" is entangled with the earthly city of human beings. In later medieval theology, however, secularization comes to refer to "a legal transition from monastic life," as Asad explains.

Although Asad does not use the term in this way, the saeculum as period and as transition from monastic to non-monastic life can also be thought in terms of the theology of Joachim of Fiore. In Fiore's eschatological framework, the secular comes to be associated with the third age, the age of the Holy Spirit, which is to follow the age of the Father and the age of the Son. Here the secular is a time of eschatological realization, the hope and the promise of a better, utopian world. Later, however, after the Protestant Reformation, secularization came to refer to "the transfer of ecclesiastical real property to laypersons."

Asad shows the continuity between Protestant conceptions of the secular and Enlightenment ones. In modern secularism, the idea of the secular comes to distinguish between true and false religion. True religion is tolerant and able to conform to the...


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