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Reviewed by:
  • A Secular Age beyond the West: Religion, Law and the State in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa ed. by Mirjam Künkler, John Madeley, and Shylashri Shankar
  • Grace Davie
A Secular Age beyond the West: Religion, Law and the State in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa
By Mirjam Künkler, John Madeley, and Shylashri Shankar (eds)
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2108; pp. xviii, 422, ISBN 978-1-108-41771-6 hardback,

In 2007 Charles Taylor published A Secular Age—a book that marked a step change in the understanding of secularization in modern societies (Taylor 2007). The focus of Taylor's study was the long-term development of new (i.e., secular) ways of thinking in what he calls the "North Atlantic world." The purpose of the volume reviewed here is to examine the implications of Taylor's thinking in other parts of the globe. What, in other words, is the place of religion and non-religion in countries that lie beyond Latin Christendom?

To do this, the editors have assembled an impressive team of experts to cover the following, very diverse cases: modern China, Japan, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Iran, Israel, Turkey, Russia, Egypt and Morocco. The team were for the most part social scientists concerned with the interconnections of religion, law and politics in different parts of the world. Their various contributions are framed by a substantial introduction by two of the editors (Mirjam Künkler and Shylashri Shankar) which sets the scene, and a concluding chapter by Künkler and John Madeley which draws out the thematic findings from the case studies that precede.

Equally important in terms of introduction is a more analytical chapter by Philip Gorski on Taylor's distinctive contribution to the secularization thesis. Gorski highlights Taylor's understanding of secularization in terms of the changing "conditions of belief," in the sense that religious disbelief gradually becomes not the only, but a viable—indeed attractive—option for significant numbers of people. Conditions of belief, moreover, are more important for this process than the development of either scientific knowledge or of modernization per se. The argument, therefore, is primarily philosophical.

Gorski's contribution lies in introducing a social scientific element—or rather elements—in order to understand better the connections between what Taylor calls Secularity I (the evacuation of religion from public spaces) and Secularity III (the conditions of belief). Drawing in particular on Niklas Luhmann and Pierre Bourdieu, Gorski elaborates a typology made up of four types of Secularity I: consociationalism, religious nationalism, radical secularism, and liberal secularism, each of which impacts differently on Secularity III. The chapters that follow put flesh and blood on to this schema to demonstrate how political and legal structures affect the conditions of belief and practice in the case studies under review.

Each one of these hugely varied accounts merits careful reading—it would be invidious to select one or two in a relatively short review. More helpful is to show how their riches are sifted in a concluding essay which underlines the key finding of the book as a whole: namely, that "the state plays a major role in shaping, and in some instances determining, the limits of religious experience, by variably regulating religious belief, practice, property, education, and/or law" (p. 349). Furthermore, the key condition of secularity in the West according to Taylor—that is the legal possibility and cultural acceptability of unbelief—is conspicuous by its absence in most of the cases examined. The argument is complex and requires careful reflection; it turns, however, on what the authors call the state's "differential burdening" of religion in the various cases. The term in question is borrowed from the US Supreme Court jurisprudence on free exercise and means the burden imposed through laws, regulations, court decisions, and practices by the state when regulating religion.

Given that the writing of this review is taking place a short time after the death of David Martin—a pioneer in the field of "path dependence" in the study of secularization—it is fitting to underline both his commendation of the...


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