Secularism: Its Content and Context

Power-of-Religion-200x300Akeel Bilgrami over at The Immanent Frame. (The post is an excerpt from a longer SSRC Working Paper.)

If secularism has its relevance only in context, then it is natural and right to think that it will appear in different forms and guises in different contexts. But I write down these opening features of secularism at the outset because they seem to me to be invariant among the different forms that secularism may take in different contexts. It is hard to imagine that one hasn’t changed the subject from secularism to something else, something that deserves another name, if one finds oneself denying any of the features that I initially list below. Though I say this is ‘hard to imagine,’ I don’t mean to deny that there is a strong element of stipulation in these initial assertions to come. I can’t pretend that these are claims or theses about some independently identified subject matter—as if we all know perfectly well what we are talking about when we speak of secularism—and the question is only about what is true of that agreed upon concept or topic. The point is rather to fix the concept or topic. But, on the other hand, such talk of ‘fixing’ should not give the impression that it is a matter of free choice, either. Once the initial terminological points about ‘secularism’ are made, the goal of the rest of the paper will be to show why they are not arbitrary stipulations. So the reader is urged to be unreactive about these initial topic-setting assertions until the dialectic of the paper is played out.

First, secularism is a stance to be taken about religion. At the level of generality with which I have just described this, it does not say anything very specific or precise. The imprecision and generality have two sources. One obvious source is that religion, regarding which it is supposed to take a stance, is itself, notoriously, not a very precise or specifically understood phenomenon. But to the extent that we have a notion of religion in currency—however imprecisely elaborated—‘secularism’ will have a parasitic meaning partially elaborated as a stance regarding whatever that notion stands for. Should we decide that there is no viability in any notion of religion, and should the notion pass out of conceptual currency, secularism too would lapse as a notion with a point and rationale. The other source of imprecision is that I have said nothing specific or precise about what sort of stance secularism takes towards religion. One may think that it has to be in some sense an adversarial stance since surely secularism, in some sense, defines itself against religion. This is true enough, but still the very fact that I find the need to keep using the qualifier ‘in some sense’ makes clear that nothing much has been said about the kind of opposing stance this amounts to. Part of the point of this essay is to add a little precision to just this question.

Second, for all this generality just noted, ‘secularism’—unlike ‘secular’ and ‘secularization’—is quite specific in another regard. It is the name of a political doctrine.