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  • The Secular Paradox: On the Religiosity of the Not Religious by Joseph Blankholm and: Wild Experiment: Feeling Science and Secularism after Darwin by Donovan O. Schaefer
  • Valeria Vergani
Joseph Blankholm, The Secular Paradox: On the Religiosity of the Not Religious (New York: New York University Press, 2022)
Donovan O. Schaefer, Wild Experiment: Feeling Science and Secularism after Darwin (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2022)

In two pioneering works on the limits and affordances of the secular in North America, scholars of religion Donovan O. Schaefer and Joseph Blankholm underscore the fictitiousness of the secular/religious binary while also revealing how this very binary has been at the foundations of American secular culture for the past century. To do this, both authors use the resources of religious studies to critique secularism's self-sufficiency: the notion that secularism can, or somehow has, overcome the contaminations of religion and is therefore above or immune to social critique advanced through the language of religious studies. Both Schaefer and Blankholm develop theoretical models that challenge the idea that secularity transcends religious modes of being in the world by making the secular/religious binary the theoretical conundrum at the heart of both books—including its staying power, its consequences, and its contradictions. On the other hand, both authors refuse the proposition that the category of religion can exhaust the secular, choosing instead to develop analytics that are uniquely suited, and respond to, the particular concerns of self-identifying secular thinkers and communities. The result of this approach is tentative, experimental, and yet [End Page 108] a passionate theoretical enterprise in which Blankholm and Schaefer find their voices as secular scholar-practitioners who defend secular commitments partly through their thorough critique of what Schaefer calls the "racialized reason" (24) of American secular culture. By taking a normative stance towards secular formations of world-making, these two books also probe the very boundaries and terms of American religion as a field, offering insights about the peculiar nature of American secular culture and the contributions that studying it might make to the broader field of religious studies.

Blankholm's interventions are more explicitly embedded within an "American" context. The Secular Paradox is a thorough ethnographic exploration of organized secular culture in the contemporary United States. Blankholm aims to give readers an accurate sense of the organizations, players, and debates that structure the individual and collective lives of those most invested in the project of secularism. Blankholm skillfully narrates his visits to secular organizations such as the American Ethical Union, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, the American Humanist Association, and the Center for Inquiry. He recounts and quotes interviews with leaders and participants, and he describes the enactment of secular summits, trainings, and events. By capturing the central questions that animate these spaces, Blankholm makes the persuasive case that those who most invested in the secular as a redemptive negation of religion ultimately work to reproduce cultural forms that resemble and mimic religion itself (including performing rituals, debating sources of communal authority, and cultivating embodied and linguistic discipline). This is the experience of the secular paradox: the constitutive ambivalence of secular attempts at purging contemporary American life of religion, which emerge in spite of themselves as "surprisingly religion-like" (6).

Blankholm's writing style throughout the book is crystal clear and could be easily followed by popular audiences and undergraduate students. His analysis shines in particular when he applies classic concepts in religious studies, such as the ritual theory of Catherine Bell (112–113) or the concepts of religious purity and pollution (5), to illustrate the everyday and pervasive workings of the secular paradox in shaping the emotional and intellectual lives of secular individuals and organizations. This attentive, on-the-ground analysis also allows Blankholm to give voice to the experiences of marginalization of "secular misfits" (3), the racialized subjects who are seen as carrying a religious and racial excess that limits their access to, and authority within, white secular spaces. Here the secular paradox—the persistence of religion, and in particular white Protestantism, in and through American secular culture—provides the avenue that allows Blankholm to critique the persistence of structural racism in secular communities. Black...