February 23-25, 2007

For much of its long history, “secularism” has been defined by what it is not: as the non-ecclesiastical, the non-sacred, or the non-religious. The inadequacy of such negative definitions has become increasingly clear, as people of all religious and political affiliations anticipate the end of “secularism” with dread or with satisfaction, fighting to insure its survival or to speed its demise. This seminar will ask what the positive content of “secularism” might be: what are the beliefs, practices, or values that this term connotes, which so many feel compelled to defend or decry?

From its Enlightenment origins to its role in twentieth-century nation building endeavors, secularism has been connected, at different times and places, to nationalism, internationalism, socialism, capitalism, and imperialism. Scholars have often explained this varied history according to some version of the “secularization thesis,” arguing that the rational frameworks of modern science, social science, or philosophy would gradually replace religion or restrict its sway to only the most narrow private sphere. In recent decades, however, world events have defied this thesis. For many Americans, September 11 made clear that secularity is not eclipsing religiosity, either at home or abroad.

Instead, secularization seems to be on the decline, as the divisions it had erected between different institutional or intellectual domains are increasingly breached. In the United States and elsewhere, for example, religious organizations are stepping into social and political roles left vacant by neo-liberal nation-states; evangelical churches are embracing secular strategies of media and the market; and proponents of “Intelligent Design” are deploying the relativist rhetoric often associated with secular educators to argue for “teaching the controversy” in biology classrooms. Conversely, political leaders and Supreme Court justices freely bring religious rhetoric and beliefs into the political realm. Some observers warn that such developments signal the start of a new post-secular era, while others argue that we are simply coming to see that secularization never really happened: that unlike Europe, perhaps, but like most of the world, the United States has never clearly separated politics and religion. Still others contend that secularization and religious resurgence are not mutually exclusive movements but rather simultaneous and interrelated processes. In order to understand how these processes work together, they argue, we must rethink the theoretical assumptions that underlie some of our most basic concepts, like modernization, secularism, and religion itself.

Scholars have begun to bring a range of disciplinary perspectives to the task of rethinking or clarifying the concept of “secularism.” Many have connected secularism with a specific set of beliefs and practices, often citing commitments to the separation of church and state, to pluralism and the democratic process, to some variety of humanism and materialism, and to improving conditions in this world. Some thinkers suggest, however, that secularism is most crucially defined not by any particular set of beliefs, but by its willingness to subject all belief to critique, to the criteria of evidence and of argument. One of the most useful ways to understand secularism, some argue, is as an epistemological mode that is not incompatible with religion, but which does sit uncomfortably with some religious models of certain knowledge grounded in revelation or subjective conviction.

Following on these kinds of inquiries and insights, this seminar will ask: in an age that is often and perhaps too simply characterized by the clash of fundamentalisms, what can secularism offer, and what are its shortcomings? If a fundamental attribute of secularism is its lack of absolute fundaments, can this lack provide a compelling position from which to engage in contemporary political or intellectual struggles?

Speakers will include: Jean Comaroff (Anthropology), W. Clark Gilpin (Divinity School), Paul Mendes-Flohr (Divinity School), Francoise Meltzer (Comparative Literature and Divinity School), Martin Riesebrodt (Sociology and Divinity School), Eric Slauter (English).