Genealogy and Plurality

Power-of-Religion-200x300Over at the SSRC's Immanent Frame, there's been an interesting and ongoing debate stemming from Akeel Bilgrami's SSRC Working paper “Secularism: Its Content and Context.” In the paper, “Bilgrami addresses two questions: first, the meaning of secularism and second, its justification and implementation. Engaging Charles Taylor’s recent calls for a “radical” redefinition of secularism, he offers an alternative conceptualization of the category, while also addressing Taylor’s deep concerns about the politics of secularism for our time. According to Bilgrami, secularism has its point and meaning not in a decontextualized philosophical argument but in the historical and contextual specificities in which it is applied. In the end, secularism “needs, not replacement, but merely proper implementation, in order to get us ‘beyond toleration.’” Among the responses are ones by Justin Neuman and Simon During. During:

I am in general agreement with Bilgrami’s argument. But I am puzzled by the turn it takes at the point when he squarely confronts the most obvious problem it poses. What about states and polities that don’t accept rights-based, liberal-democratic ideals and the rights and goods that they promise? In such states, there may be no legislative or administrative tension between Church and State, and the demand for neutrality need not get a look-in. The polity may be religious through and through. How might a state-neutralist of Bilgrami’s stripe persuade such a non-secular, non-liberal state to join his position?

The problem is all the sharper because, as has become standard in post-secular liberal arguments, Bilgrami wants to make his case without reference to intellectual secularism. He does so by distinguishing what he calls “atheism” from “secularism.” Atheism (a rather loaded term) denies religion’s propositional truth, while secularism is a “stance towards religion” taken in pursuit of non-religious ends, and which, as such, cannot be true or false. (Here Bilgrami is drawing a distinction similar to the one that Habermas posits between religion’s “validity claims” and its “truth content” [its morality and ethical sociability].) For Bilgrami, there are only “internal reasons” for pursuing secularism (i.e. reasons grounded in one’s own values) not external evidentiary ones. So revealed and natural religion’s falling out of propositional truth is discounted.

Bilgrami responds to both Neuman and During:

On more substantial issues, his instinct is exactly right (and mine) when he says that Taylor wants a neutralism that is not necessarily secular. I wrote a fair number of words in my essay to try and make that instinct into a sound bit of criticism in political theory. I am sure that I have not persuaded Taylor, but it is gratifying to see that During and I share an understanding of Taylor. If he and I are right, Taylor’s honorable and interesting effort to redefine secularism as his form of “neutralism” fails. Or at any rate—if one takes the view that definitions, being stipulative and conventional, cannot exactly fail—it is not theoretically well motivated. During doesn’t mention his grounds for thinking Taylor to be wrong, but does gesture at broad agreement with the grounds I had presented.

Where he seems to find my dialectic is missing something is at the point when I mention that theimplementation of secularism (in those contexts where its implementation is called for) in the face of resistance to it, should appeal to a historicized conception of the subjects who resist it. He suggests that I should have given a thicker sense of the actual historical development that might be needed to bring such subjects around to secular polities and proceeds to guide me to a path by which this might be done by providing a genealogy of how it was in fact achieved in Europe. These genealogical and historical remarks are valuable, but I want to shepherd their relevance to a different part of my dialectic from where he places them.