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It appears to me that we are and have been for some time in the midst of a formative period of ‘secularism studies’. It also appears to me that this formative period is, and has been, marked by a desire for the search of the true essence of secularism.

It moreover seems to me as the will to hegemonize this newly emerging academic field is guided by a neglect of the insights from related disciplines such as critical religion theory and postcolonial research on religion, namely that a) there is no sui generis religion to be found which should call for caution in searching for a sui generis secularism, b) religion and secularism are contingently articulated categories bound to power and ideology, c) the secular state apparatus’ judiciary is most often involved in defining the boundaries of the religious and the secular by defining religion, d) the last centuries’ scientific articulations of religion have had deep ideological and political implications not the least in creating a European exception and a European universalism, and e) that these articulations have also legitimized Western politics and expansion such as colonialism, neo-colonial politics, and imperialist ambitions.

Now, the sociologist José Casanova has forcefully argued that the assumption that secularization is a historical fact attained a ‘truly paradigmatic status within the social sciences’ from the 19th century and onward. And that it was first during the latter half of the 20th century that theories of secularization were developed into more comprehensive systems of thought (with for example Thomas Luckman, Peter Berger, and Bryan Wilson). Together with the development of theories of secularization we have also seen a rise in interest and theorization of the ‘secular’ and ‘secularism’, especially during the Post Cold War era. The reasons for this interest can be explained by the somewhat sudden realization that ‘religion’ not only still had a grip of human daily life around the globe, but that it could be a force for political action where 9/11 is often taken as the emblematic evidence. Following Casanova’s line of argument, the reason for neglecting religion as a social and political force can thus be explained by the hegemony of the secularization thesis in the humanities and social sciences. ‘Religion’ is for example still a non-existent subject in many social science departments in European and American universities.

Recent research on the genealogy of the trinity ‘secularization-secular-secularism’ have helped to highlight and explain many of the epistemic and hegemonic assumptions that are inbuilt into the various disciplines of the humanities and the social sciences. However, given the recent interest in the trinity it is a curious thing that it has been ‘rethought’ so many times. Here I will discuss one specific ‘rethinking’ of secularism.

Rethinking Secularism (Oxford UP, 2011) is the name of a recent publication by a number of eminent scholars working on ‘secularism’ from a wide variety of angles. The editors of the book are Craig Calhon, Mark Juergensmeyer, and Jonathan VanAntwerpen. The title indicates first of all that secularism has been thought and secondly that this ‘thought’ secularism is in need of revision. My first presentation as a graduate student in 2007 was also called Rethinking Secularism. This is not to suggest that I was ahead of the above publication, nor is it to suggest that it plagiarizes my presentation, it certainly does not. Instead, I wonder what exactly I thought was in need of being rethought with secularism? Today when I look back at the presentation, I guess I wanted to pose a critique to what I understood to be a reigning hegemony in analysis of secularism. As it turned out, my choice in naming my endeavor as a ‘rethinking’ was perhaps unfortunate since what I ended up doing in my thesis was a deconstruction or on undoing of secularism (that is French secularism, or laïcité), rather than rethinking ‘it’. And herein lies a problem in the rethinking of something since it presumes that there is something to rethink.

To be clear, the editors of Rethinking Secularism state that secularism is “often defined negatively” against religion, meaning that the category “in itself” is not “neutral”. (loc. 168) I could not agree more. My own epistemological home ground (in discourse theory, poststructural theory, postcolonial theory, and critical religion theory) and my own research suggest that contemporary (French) secularism is a purely negative category. It is given meaning differently in different contexts and its articulated differently in different discourses. In France, although secularism is a highly non-contested category, there is no consensus on its essential meaning among researchers, among politicians, or among political activists; e.g. it is an important identity marker for the political left as well as the political far-right. Just as the editors suggest, secularism is here given meaning through a negative identification process based on the logic ‘I am not what you are’. This logic is made possible through a negative secular-other, which then most often is ‘religion’.

Based on the editors’ description of ‘secularism’ as a negative category, their conclusion comes as somewhat of a surprise to me. They suggest: “Secularism should be seen as a presence. It is something, [a phenomena in its own right], and it is therefore in need of elaboration and understanding”. (loc. 169) The editors thus seem to suggest that secularism, although being a negatively articulated political concept, still has a positive core, an essence if you may. In other words, they seem to suggest that although secularism is a political category void of essence, we should still act as if essence there is and furthermore that it is the task of the researcher in the social sciences and the humanities to find out what this essence is.

One seminal case in point in finding out this ‘something’ of secularism is the chapter in Rethinking Secularism written by the aforementioned José Casanova. Here I will only touch upon Casanova’s discussion of a) the relation between secularism, secularization, and the secular and b) the relation between secularism and religion.

a) Casanova sets out to analytically separate the trinity of secularization-secular-secularism. He argues that ‘the secular’ is a modern “epistemic category”, that ‘secularization’ is an “analytical conceptualization of modern world-historical processes”, and that ‘secularism’ is a “worldview and ideology”. (loc. 1308) Casanova then goes on to suggest that secularism “refers more broadly to a whole range of modern secular worldviews and ideologies which may be consciously held and explicitly elaborated into philosophies of history and normative-ideological state projects, into projects of modernity and cultural programs, or, alternatively, it may be viewed as an epistemic knowledge regime that can be he held unreflexively [sic] or be assumed phenomenologically as the taken-for-granted normal structure of modern reality, as a modern doxa or an ‘unthought’”. (loc. 1329) If ‘the secular’ is a modern ‘epistemic category’ and ‘secularization’ an ‘analytical conceptualization of modern world-historical processes’ I wonder what separates these two categories from ‘secularism’ (an ‘epistemic knowledge regime’ and a ‘philosophy of history’). If ‘secularism’ is such a potent ‘something’ that it enters into our ‘unthought’, if it is an epistemic knowledge regime creating a philosophy of history, is not the pertinent question to ask how secularism produces notions of secularization as an historical process and the secular as an epistemic category in the first place?
It seems to me that Casanova takes for granted that ‘secularization and ‘the secular’ have an independent meaning outside of ‘secularism’ and that it is secularism that somewhat perverts their true meaning. This leads Casanova to argue that “the core of the [secularization] thesis, namely, the understanding of secularization as a single process of functional differentiation of the various secular institutional spheres of modern societies from religion, remains relatively uncontested”. (loc. 1463) The problem with secularism is according to Casanova that it renders “the particular Western Christian mode of secularization into a universal teleological process of human development from belief to unbelief, from primitive to irrational or metaphysical religion to modern rational postmetaphysical secular consciousness”. (loc. 1430) Instead Casanova suggests, we should acknowledge secularization “for what it truly was, namely a particular Christian and post-Christian historical process, and not, as Europeans like to think, a general or universal process of human or societal development”. (loc. 1560.)
While I believe Casanova to be right in the assumption that one fundamental problem with secularism is how it seeks to universalize the theory of secularization, I am not so sure that a) secularization is a historical European fact and b) that ‘Europeans’ disagree here. One of the ideological problems, to use Casanova’s lingua, is that irrespectively of whether the secularization thesis is taken to be applicable on the entire globe or only on Europe, it still feeds into a modernist imaginary where Europe becomes the only successfully developed secular universal civilization, exceptionally developed and/or exceptionally unique.

b) To distinguish and qualify the analysis of secularism Casanova suggests that it “may be fruitful to begin by drawing an analytical distinction between secularism as statecraft doctrine and secularism as ideology”. (loc. 1591) With secularism as statecraft Casanova understands “simply some principle of separation between the religious and political authority… Such a statecraft doctrine neither presupposes nor needs to entail any substantive “theory,” positive or negative, of “religion”. (loc. 1594) However, Casanova argues that “the moment the state holds explicitly a particular conception of ‘religion’, one enters into the realm of ideology. One could argue that secularism becomes an ideology the moment it entails a theory of what ‘religion’ is or does”. (loc. 1597) If secularism as statecraft ‘simply’ is the separation of the ‘religious’ and the ‘political authority’, how is this separation done without the state deciding where to draw this separation by deciding what ‘religion’ is and does? Since one of the core arguments of Rethinking Secularism is that secularism and religion are negative categories, I cannot see how a non-ideological secularism could be fashioned at all, that even the ‘simple’ separation of the ‘religious’ and ‘political authority’ is a performative act entangled with power and ideology.

To conclude: I wonder if the desire to be a part of the emerging field of secularism studies does not lead some researchers into curious paradoxical epistemological predicaments, as I have tried to (very briefly) show here. It is as if the lessons from critical disciplines are listened to but not heard, as if they are brought up to be neglected, as if certain scholars know that it is very complex but at the same time ignores this complexity.