Notes on the “post-secular”

I am interested in two things primarily: 1) an analysis of what we mean when we talk about post-secular religion in light of Charles Taylor’s distinction between the descriptive and normative senses of the word “secular”; and 2) the prospect of a post-secular study of religion, as it relates to the normative sense of the word.

What do we mean when we talk about “post-secular” religion and post-secularity in general? Do we mean those forms of religion that persist in our late modern, rationalized Western context? Are we talking about the fact that despite a long process of disenchantment that has been underway ever since the Protestant reformation, we find new forms of religion, which themselves often reflect the secularization process (such as the New Age concern over the modern, buffered Self, for example)?

If that’s the case then we’re speaking about the post-secular in a purely descriptive sense of the word. We’re talking about religion happening after the rationalization of the West. This is an age where our socially constructed imagination compels us to see ourselves as autonomous, rational agents, whose flourishing is secured through bureaucratic means. It’s late modernity, where atheist scientists, like the deistic philosophers of early modernity, seek to discern the efficient causes underlying a universe conceived of mechanistically— a universe emptied of God and telos. This is an age where meaning and order are imposed on the world by us— all in the name of human flourishing. For it’s our flourishing that matters now, this is the new common good; no longer does life point to anything beyond that. This is an age of immanence, and age of “we can do this”, we can access the truth.  We carry the torch of reason. And many thought this would be an age in which religion comes to an end.

But religion persists. It’s not on its way out, said the critics of the secularization thesis— and they were right. Now protestantism paved the way for an exclusive humanism, as Charles Taylor explains. The apologetic response to atheism reflects this, as does the atheist’s criticism of religion. God is reduced to an abstract idea, a transcendent signifier the need for which is either argued for or against, either internalized or rejected. No longer is belief understood communally, as something material, embodied, or liturgically formed. Belief is reduced to a set of abstract propositions. Within modernity, God is reduced to a mere Deus ex machina, as both Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Søren Kierkegaard were aware of, with regard to the German and Danish Protestantism of their day.

Scholars have studied many contemporary forms of religion, happening within the secularized context of the west, but what about religion that is post-secular in the normative sense of the word? Are there religious imaginations that subvert the modern, secularist imagination? The Emergence Church movement in North America and the United Kingdom, for example, is an expression of such a post-modern, post-secular move beyond the modern, secularist assumptions of civil society regarding religion. What is emphasized, for a post-modern, post-secular form of Christianity, like the Emergence Church, is not belief or the need to make sense of the world, but a liturgically shaped habitus, or way of being in the world. Religion is not, as is the case with modernity, a disembodied affair, but a material one.

David Morgan is right to criticize the modernist assumptions of some scholars regarding what religion and belief are all about, but seems unaware of the fact that there are forms of Christianity happening in the West today that make a conscious effort to move beyond the modernist way of “doing” religion (which is really nothing more than a way of “thinking” about religion in so far as it doesn’t translate into a textured way of life). Scholars like Morgan along with Birgit Meyer and others, reflect a recent tendency within religious studies to direct attention towards what has been termed “lived religion”, or “material religion”. This is an analysis of religion as it plays out, not in the head, but in the embodied habitual way of life of practitioners. I am influenced by their work. However, following James K.A Smith and Peter Rollins, I think our analysis of lived religion will often mean, at least in the modern, secularist context of today, diverting out attention not towards the proclaimed beliefs of persons, but the cultural formations and habits that shape their way of being in the world. For as Kierkegaard expressed in his attack on Danish Lutheran Church, the religion of modernity often means proclaiming the gospel without bearing the weight of the cross. In other words, preachers can walk the walk without having to worry about talking the talk, because religion is analyzed in terms of discourse and beliefs, not in terms of an embodied way of life. Thus, in a secular age, we can have what Peter Rollins calls the “ironic gesture”, where we can identify as Christians while exploiting the poor and oppressed, despite the fact that Jesus stood for exactly the opposite.

The work of Morgan et al. raises methodological questions regarding how we, as religious scholars study religion. Do we reflect the normative assumptions of modernity in the way we analyze a religious movement? What then would a post-secular religious studies look like?

Since the theory was first put forward, scholars have wrote about “post-secular religion”, as those forms of religion that persist within secularized (that is, rationalized, bureaucratic, and legalistic) societies. Religion is not on the way out, say scholars of post-secular religion. This isn’t, however, to deny a rationalization process that has been underway within Western societies and other parts of the world, as famously spoken of by Max Weber. Rather, what scholars have shown is that religion persists, even within secular environments.

As Charles Taylor knew, there’s a story to be told as it relates to how we came to find ourselves living in what he calls a “secular age.” This isn’t an age where religion has disappeared, but one in which religion no longer offers the only plausibility. The transcendent and the immanent now bleed into and compete with one another, as James K. A. Smith expresses. In our secular age, we find the conditions that make it possible for there to be an exclusive humanism. This possibility to live without God is, as Taylor points out, tied up with the emergence of the modern self and the advent of social atomism.

In medieval times, the “secular” was understood in terms of the “worldly”— of mundane vocations— as distinguished from the sacred offices of priests. During this time, as Taylor explains, the world was so enchanted that it was almost impossible not to believe in God. This was a time when the human being was understood— and rightly so, I think— as vulnerable rather than autonomous. However, with modernity the “secular” came to mean something else entirely: a kind of neutral, a-religious, foundation that we’re left with once the religious layers of society have been peeled away. In France, for example, the secularization of society was seen as a sort of purification. Civil society— armed with the light of reason— rescued France from the irrationality of religious belief and the influence of the Catholic Church, or so the narrative goes. This modernist sort of secularism has its roots in the enlightenment project, with its views on the utilitarian self, as a ‘sovereign, self-possessed, dispassionate “thinking thing,”’ as the American philosopher of religion, John Caputo, describes it.

Underlying the former, medieval viewpoint, as well as the secularization thesis, is a descriptive model of society, whereas the latter mentioned Enlightenment epistemology reflects certain normative assumptions regarding the human subject’s access to the world— assumptions that are, I will argue, problematic. These secularist assumptions are still with us today, though. Tyler Roberts, for example, in his book, Encountering Religion, demonstrates the extent to which these assumptions underlie the field of religious studies today. Religions are often studied in a “top-heavy” fashion, with scholars favouring quantitative analysis. What is, in reality, a complex, material, embodied, and liturgical mode of being in the world is reduced to a worldview, to discourse and beliefs. In this way, religious studies continues to reflect the rationalism of the enlightenment tradition as well as European Protestantism. Thus, Peter Rollins can argue that secularism and fundamentalism share much in common.

Following James K. A. Smith, I want to argue not simply against quantitative analysis, or the notion of a worldview, but against the inadequacy of these for understanding a given cultural formation. What Smith calls for is radical rethinking of what we take religion to be. This means moving beyond what Tyler Roberts calls the “locativist” tendencies of many religious scholars, whereby they securely locate themselves on one side of the religious/secular divide. Smith deconstructs this divide by demonstrating that all theorizing is, in a way, “religious”. What Smith means by this is that “non-believing” religious scholars construe their world as embodied subjects shaped by a culturally informed habitus. The way a “scientific” scholar of religion analyses Christianity as compared to a continental philosopher of religion such as John Caputo, for example, has to with the background with which they are working with. This background— what Smith, following Charles Taylor calls our “social imaginary”— is culturally formed, and will determine the horizon of what we find meaningful. And this construal must be understood, says Smith, following Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in terms of an embodied, pre-reflective orientation to the world. Whether we’re Christian or Atheist, we’ll imagine things as meaningful based on the narratives and practices that shape the “background” of our theorizing.

Following Smith, I want to explore the phenomenological tradition in order to undermine the secularist epistemology of modernity as well as its views on the human subject as buffered and autonomous. Far from having direct access to the world, scientific scholars of religion, no less than Christian monks, navigate the world as embodied subjects whose predispositions to things are shaped by habit and thus mediated. Phenomenology offers a remedy to the enlightenment tradition’s disembodied view of the human subject. Yet phenomenology is here understood— as Smith is careful to point out— not in terms a supposed “essence” of all religious experience (that would be a Hegelian phenomenology, not a materialist one), but as the phenomenology of religion’s happening, material and embodied as it is (cf. Morgan and Meyer). For this reason, Smith calls his work an “anthropology of liturgy.” Religion, argues Smith, has more to do with our being in the world, with our orientation towards things. It has to do with the habit formations that shape our longings and desires. We talk about the Christian liturgy, but its due time we talk about what Smith calls “secular liturgies”.

Within the west scholars 1) find themselves in the midst of rationalized, bureaucratic societies within which they 2) acknowledge that post-secular forms of religion happen, and yet 3) analyse them in terms of a secularist framework.


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