Has secularism masked empirical complexities that would help us understand the relationship between religion and modernity?
The question: What is secularism?
Religion occupies a unique place in our understanding of modern society and nation-statehood. Having played a particular role in the formation of the European nation-state system itself, religion has had the dubious privilege of being considered somehow unlike other kinds of social practice and organisation, at once special and especially dangerous. Real modernity must be democratic, runs the logic; and real democracy must be secular. While religious experience and practice seemed to be declining in many parts of the world, this vision was untroubled. Today, however, it has become commonplace to recognise the vitality of some forms of religion – and, what is more, its vitality in precisely those democratic contexts that it was once considered to be anathema to. The impact of this shift is hard to overstate. It amounts to a dethroning of one of the longest-held and deepest-seated aspects of modern understandings and identities. It has led to one of the most profound shifts in general and academic thought about what modernity means and how it can be conducted most progressively. What this does not mean, however, is that the notion of secularism is dead. It means rather that we've noticed that secularism was something we were taking for granted, that we have assumed knowledge about its nature and the conditions it relies upon that we really don't have. Hence, a renewed focus on religion gives rise to a renewed focus on secularism as well. The idea of secularism has its roots in western experience and intellectual traditions, but has nevertheless travelled widely. It has sometimes travelled with colonialists but often by virtue of being, as Chris Hann, director of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, has put it, "a good idea". But has its success as a global concept masked empirical complexities that would help us understand the relationship between religion and modernity in general? Speaking at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna with Hann, the historian Dipesh Chakrabarty has suggested that Indian history challenges western conceptions at their core: given that India became "modern" without it, do we in fact need the concept of "secularism" at all? And even in Europe, the most secularised continent birthplace of the secularisation thesis, things are more complicated than they appear. Weber's idea of Protestantism as a secularising force is upset by noticing the ways in which Protestantism has thrived in modernity, even as it has helped propel its course. Evangelism, in particular, has been involved in the generation of new forms of cultural materialisation, and scholars are beginning to emphasise how important such movements have been as a motor behind the development of modern communications methods and technologies. One implication of this is that, if secularism is in fact a complicated and variable phenomenon, we need to consider whether our understanding of "religion" is of a real existing thing or is a particular construction arising from a certain secularist outlook. Evidence for this is that our notions of religion do not always work well outside of a European context. People are increasingly discussing, in fact, the various things that a secularist framework projects on to religion – with the underlying concern being how these false understandings impinge upon religion. But equally important is the possibility that false ideas of religion associated with local notions and experiences of secularism are what our secular apparatus is built upon. If we are designing secularism – our secularist law, policy, community practice and so on – based upon a false notion of religion, we may end up with an empty secularism on our hands. It may be that, in some ways, we are encumbered with such a secularism already. Our energies have been very focused on religion for some time now, but we are seeing a shift in interest, from religion to secularism and to non-religion. Religion still dominates research agendas, media commentary, policy debate however, and it is important to be clear that this imbalance means we are only looking at part of the picture and addressing only some of the questions that need to be asked.