Secular, Secularism, Secularization

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Secular, Secularism, Secularization


The term secular arises from the history of Christianity and describes that which is not sacred or not of the church. The term secularization thus refers to the process by which human activity and knowledge progressively come under the control of scientific rather than religious understanding. Max Weber (18641920) termed this rationalization and intellectualization characteristic of modern times, the disenchantment of the world ([1918] 1946, p. 155).

This differentiating of the sacred from the secular is associated with Europe in the seventeenth century. Prior to this time in Europe, and in non-Western cultures generally, the sacred and the secular were not necessarily separate spheres in the context of political rule. Secularism is thus associated with modernity and in the twentieth century has come to refer to two interrelated practices: (1) a mode of political organization in which the state is neutral with reference to all established religions; and (2) later in the century, a political practice of the state that protects the rights of minorities in a multicultural society.

The need to separate church from state arose in seventeenth-century Europe for three broad reasons: (1) the rise of the industrial bourgeoisie that questioned the divine right of kings, against the older landed feudal elites that drew on the political and economic power of the church; (2) the fatigue produced by a century of war in Europe, in which Christian denominations clashed with each other for political power; and (3) the challenge posed to religious knowledge by the great breakthroughs in science.

It is only in the late twentieth century that it became widely recognized that secular, secularism, and secularization are not neutral descriptive terms of universal applicability, but arise from a specific spatial-temporal context. Charles Taylor (1998), however, argues that despite its specific origins, secularism continues to be relevant for modern democracies everywhere. Even the most diversified societies can be secular, despite differences about religion at the deeper level, by building consensus on a common political ethic, such as a doctrine of human rights, freedom, and equality. Such a consensus can be brought about even if there is no agreement about the values in which this ethic is embedded.

From the latter half of the twentieth century, however, it is precisely the concepts of human rights, liberty, and equality that have been challenged as being (Western/Christian) culture-specific. The rise of modern political movements based on Islam offers a powerful challenge to the idea that modern societies must be built on the basis of separation between religious and political power. Even within the West, secularism as state neutrality is increasingly challenged by the growing diversity within these societies. It has become evident that, historically, secularism was achieved in Western societies only after defeating rival Christian denominations and diverse cultural practices. The religio-cultural formation that was victorious then attained the status of the universal. What we see today in the West then, is a resurgence of diversity rather than a new phenomenon.

In newer postcolonial democracies such as India, Hindu right-wing politics opposes the protection of minority rights that is an aspect of Indian secularism. A self-critical response from those opposed to such politics has been the acknowledgement that secularism in India has been state-centric and has not engaged sufficiently with beliefs and practices on the ground.

In this context arises the question of the relationship of secularism to democracy. Many contemporary states assume that secularism as a value trumps democracy. To take one instance, Turkey and France legally prohibit symbols of religion in public, over the protests of Muslim believers who want Muslim women to wear head scarves.

Feminist scholars point out that the controversy centers on womens bodies precisely because the patriarchal, patrilineal family is at the heart of modern statecraft. Veena Das suggests that once the idea of God was displaced, secular means had to be crafted to ensure that the sovereign receives life beyond the lifetime of individual members (2006, p. 94). In other words, Das suggests that the state has to reimagine its relation to the family in more complex ways than merely assigning the family to the realm of the private.

Samuel Huntingtons clash of civilizations thesis (1993) argues that current debates over secularism arise from the division of the world into opposing civilizational frameworks, broadly, that of the West and Islam. He traces the conflict between Western civilization and Islamic civilization to the founding of Islam itself. Thus what we see today is merely an ancient rival reacting irrationally to our Judeo-Christian heritage and our secular present.

From this point of view it appears that the contemporary West is rational and secular, with its religious heritage lying in the past, while contemporary Islam is irrational and trapped in religion. However, scholars have pointed out that the apparent secularism of Western states is built on Christian assumptions; for example, the practice of observing the weekly holiday on Sunday rather than any other day, is biblical in origin. Further, Western secularism involves the continuous regulation of what constitutes religious as opposed to nonreligious practices and institutions. In the United States, the legal apparatus of the state periodically defines what religion is by deciding whether particular forms of public behavior come under the principle of freedom of religion. In France, the antireligious state owns and administers all property belonging to institutions of religions that existed in France in 1905, when the law was passed.

The paradoxes of Western secularism are explained, in Talal Asads (2003) view, by the fact that the emergence of secularism in modern Europe merely shifted the proper domain of violence from religious communities to nation-states. Henceforth, the nation-state would determine the place of religion, and the only legitimate perpetrator of violence was to be the nation-state, whether the violence was inflicted upon its own citizens, upon other nations, or upon colonized parts of the world.

Ashis Nandy (1990) also makes the link between the violence of the modern nation-state and secularism. Despite its contradictions, the modern state has succeeded in marginalizing all religions, while its own ideologies of secularism, development, and nationalism act as intolerant faiths backed by the coercive state apparatus. Nandy recognizes religious fundamentalism (or in India, communalism), as a rational and modern project that seeks to control state power. Religious fundamentalism is thus a product of secularization and is as intolerant of the eclecticism of lived religion as is the modern nation-state. A more tolerant society would require the recovery of those resources within religious practices that make it possible to live with fluid definitions of the self, an idea inimical to both modern state practices and to religious fundamentalism.

SEE ALSO Christianity; Democracy; Modernity; Religion


Asad, Talal. 2003. Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Das, Veena. 2006. Secularism and the Argument from Nature. In Powers of the Secular Modern: Talal Asad and his Interlocutors, eds. David Scott and Charles Hirschkind, 93112. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Huntington, Samuel P. 1993. The Clash of Civilizations. Foreign Affairs 72 (3): 2250.

Nandy, Ashis. 1990. The Politics of Secularism and the Recovery of Religious Tolerance. In Mirrors of Violence: Communities, Riots, and Survivors in South Asia, ed. Veena Das, 6993. New York and Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Taylor, Charles. 1998. Modes of Secularism. In Secularism and Its Critics, ed. Rajeev Bhargava, 3153. New York and Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Weber, Max. [1918] 1946. Science as Vocation. In From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, trans. and eds. H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, 129156. New York: Oxford University Press.

Nivedita Menon

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Secular, Secularism, Secularization

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