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  • Secularism:A Genealogical Analysis
  • Akeel Bilgrami (bio)

To come to grips with the concept of secularism, the first thing we need to do is to distinguish between secularization and secularism. Secularization is the name of a process of social and ideational transformation. The process was first studied under that name by Max Weber. Weber used such terms as disenchantment to further elaborate the nature of the process of secularization. This transformation was characterized in two different rhetorics—the death of God and the decline of magic. These different ways of characterizing it were respectively tracking a decrease in belief or doctrine on the one hand and religious practice and rituals on the other. Loss of belief in God or in the myths (of creation, etc.) was one aspect the doctrinal aspect, of secularization. Decrease in church-going and in religious dietary habits or pious habits (of dress, etc.) was the other aspect, the practical aspect of secularization.

Secularism, by contrast, is not the name for a general process of social and ideational transformation of this sort but the name of a much more specific thing, a political doctrine. It's not concerned with loss of religious belief and practice but rather an attempt to steer the polity and its institutions and its laws away from the direct influence of religion. (Indirect influence is another matter. Where there is not much secularization, there is bound to be some indirect influence of religion on the polity, but secularism seeks to prevent any direct bearing of religion on the polity.)

This distinction is obvious because it is possible for a person to be secularist without being secularized. A highly devout (therefore not secularized) person can be completely secularist. Also, some places can be completely secularist without being much secularized at all—such as the heartland of the US.

Both secularization and secularism originated in Europe. I will focus entirely on secularism in the rest of this short essay. In coming to understand the concept (as with all concepts of that sort) one has two tasks. One is the historical task of tracing genealogically its sources and rationale—when and why it emerged, what function it served, etc. The second task is to give an analysis of the concept: To define it or, if not define it, at least to characterize it in analytic terms. And we have to balance the historical and the analytical sides of our understanding. If one's analysis or definition completely ignored the historical rationale of the concept, it would be just an arbitrary stipulation. One has to keep some faith with the genealogical sources in history and intellectual history as one applies the term at a later time and in different places. So, it's a complex business.

Let's ask what prompted the rise of secularism as a concept and a doctrine about politics and the law. Here is a narrative, which abstracts from a lot of detail but nevertheless tries to capture a broad and minimal historical truth and a truth of conceptual history.

In seventeanth century Europe, with the scientific revolutions that came to establish what we call modern science, older ways of justifying the state and the exercise of state power—by appealing to the divine right of the kings and queens who personified the state—came to be viewed as outdated. As a result, at first, high philosophy was mobilized in what is called social contract theory to justify state power, and this was done in different interpretations of the contractualist ground for the state by Hobbes and Locke. But these philosophical theories did not really resonate with ordinary people. Legitimacy for state power with a wider appeal had to be forged. So, a new form of justification of state power was sought, neither in theology nor in high philosophy but in human psychology.

What do I mean by that? Before I say what I mean, let me also point out another development just at that time, the spawning of a new kind of entity after the Westphalian peace—the nation, something for which a more centralized kind of state power was needed, integrating hitherto much more scattered locations of power. Slowly, this...


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