Archive for December, 2013

Rethinking Secularism

Rethinking secularism, edited by Craig Calhoun, Mark Juergensmeyer and Jonathan Van Antwerpen, New York, Oxford University Press, v + 311 pp., ISBN 978-0-19-979668-7

Rethinking secularism is an attempt to understand the complex and dynamic relationships between the secular and the religious in contemporary world. The central questions in this book are:  are these categories constant and fixed or are they contingent upon the socio-historical context of a specific society? And, how do the religious and the secular interact with politics, state and democracy? Addressing these questions, this book brings together thirteen essays by eminent scholars from a range of disciplines. A comprehensive introduction by Calhoun, Juergensmeyer and Van Antwerpen sets the tone of the book and outlines the debate. The contributors question the universalization of the European experience of secularism and call for an understanding of the many forms of secularism, noting the overlap between ideology and policy in different parts of the world.


Following the introduction, the book opens with an essay by Charles Taylor, ‘Western secularity’, in which it is argued that the idea of the secular is built on the separation of the immanent from the transcendental. However, Casanova, in ‘The secular, secularizations, secularisms’ maintains that ‘the religious’ and ‘the secular’ are mutually constitutive and there are multiple ways of experiencing the secular (54). He makes a distinction between the secular (modern epistemic category), secularization (modern world-historical process), and secularism (worldview and ideology) and argues that secularization is an on-going global process, which must be understood through institutional differentiation, religious privatization and religious decline. Calhoun, however, argues that the idea of religious privatization is misguided in his essay ‘Secularism, citizenship, and the public sphere’. For him, ‘religion has never been essentially private’ (22) and it is thus important to see ‘whether religious arguments have a legitimate place’ (75) in the public sphere. It is in this context, Bhargava advocates for ‘principled distance’ in his essay ‘Rehabilitating secularism’ and Stepan (‘The multiple secularisms…’) calls for ‘twin tolerations’ between religion and the state. Although Bhargava and Stepan believe that secularism still remains the best bet to deal with religious diversity and violence, they both reject any kind of monolithic/universal conception of secularism. They emphasize instead on a context-sensitive approach and call for understanding the ‘multiple secularisms’. In ‘Civilizational states…’ Katzenstein also argues for a ‘polymorphic globalism,’ in which ‘intersections of secularisms and religions are created through never-ending processes of mutual cooperation, adaptation, coordination, and conflict’ (156).

Through her work with NGO activists, Cecelia Lynch (‘Religious humanitarianism…’) discusses the dynamic intersections between the secular and the religious and argues that the questions of modernization cannot today (nor could they in the past) be discussed in exclusively secular terms (221). For example, Lynch argues that humanitarian actions done in the name of charity cannot be deemed exclusively religious; likewise, proselytizing serves to advance market liberalism and democracy, as well as to promote religious beliefs and practices (221).  Appleby discusses the ‘secular-religious binary’, engaging with Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press).  Appleby discusses how religious fundamentalism transforms the immanent frame.  Discussing the cases of China and India in ‘Smash temples, burn books…’, van der Veer shows how secularism has, besides being emancipatory, also been violent. In the final chapter ‘Freedom of Speech…’, Talal Asad takes up the issue of Islamic blasphemy and discusses how it is constrained not only by legal but also theological languages. Thus, by approaching the issue of secularism differently, the authors conclude that the boundaries between the secular and the religious are porous and secularism must not be understood in monolithic terms. A context-sensitive and pluralistic approach will help us better understand the complexities of the modern world.

The essays in this book make significant and sophisticated theoretical contributions to the literature on secularism. One problem, however, is that it has not adequately dealt with the Weberian theory of modernity and secularism. While rethinking secularism, though the book has stressed on ‘political ethics,’ it has completely ignored the ‘economic ethics’ of world religions.

Sarbeswar Sahoo, Indian Institute of Technology (Delhi), India and Max-Weber-Kolleg, Germany.


© Sarbeswar Sahoo (2013) “Rethinking Secularism”, Contemporary South Asia, Vol. 21, No.3, pp.348-49.
Sahoo – Rethinking Secularism