August 31, 2012
Stathis Gourgouris, “De-Transcendentalizing the Secular” and “Anti-Secularist Failures” (2008)

Secularism has become a fashionable thing to bash amongst a certain set of historians, anthropologists, and theorists. I confess to have taken pleasure in this bashing. The arguments of the bashers hold special appeal for scholars of religion, for the continued relevance and significance of “religion” as a category figures prominently in them. To oversimplify a huge body of work, scholars such as Saba Mahmood, Talal Asad, Gil Anidjar, Bill Connolly, and Hent de Vries have argued that secularism, despite the claims of its cultural advocates, does not connote the decline of religious belief and practice, nor the removal of religion from the public sphere, nor even the existence of a government, a system of law, or state institutions that are religiously neutral or free of religion’s influence. Instead, they argue that secularism is a rearticulation of religion in modernity. It is religion après la lettre. This is because religious habits of thought and practice remain deeply ingrained in seemingly secular spheres of culture and society. In the west and particularly in the United States, the ideology and practice of the secular is shaped dramatically by Protestant norms.

In two posts on The Immanent Frame, the first called “De-Transcendentalizing the Secular,” and the second, a follow-up rebuttal to Saba Mahmood more polemically titled “Anti-Secularist Failures,” Stathis Gourgouris combats the arguments of these scholars, who he somewhat inaccurately dubs the “anti-secularists.”In his posts, Gourgouris admits that that the secular, as a category, is shot through with transcendental or metaphysical assumptions. Secularism is “an institutional term that represents a historical range of projects, and thereby often tends to certain a priori and dogmatic assumptions,” that is, it is guilty of a “secularist metaphysics” (ASF 2). (Gourgouris doesn’t explicitly state what those dogmatic assumptions are in these two pieces; I assume he does so elsewhere.) Yet be that as it may, it is a category mistake, Gourgouris argues, to assume that the metaphysics of secularism derives from, or is the same as, the metaphysics of Christianity. Secularism has its problems, but Jesus is not one of them. For scholars unhappy with the current state of secularism, the task is not to reject it or expose it as religion but rather “to unpeel the layers of normativity from secularist assumptions and reconceptualize the domain of the secular” (DTS 3). Gourgouris remains confident that the secular possesses the resources within itself to submit itself to persistent self-critique.

Liberalism and Secularism: Not the Same

Gourgouris’ most persuasive argument is that Mahmood and others have erroneously yoked western “secularism” to western liberalism and imperialism, speaking as if they were interchangeable parts of the same piece. Gourgouris allows that liberalism and empire have, at times, enlisted secularism to do their dirty work, but he insists that these periodic collaborations do not mean that secularism, as a concept, is inexorably linked to these other concepts. When, for example, western states seek to prohibit certain forms of Islam from their public spheres—like the much-discussed veil—this need not be the fault of secularism; old-fashioned racism and cultural imperialism may be more proximate villains. Gourgouris hence regards Mahmood’s lumping of secularism with these other western projects to be a misleading essentialism, reflective of a view that these things are somehow all intrinsic qualities of the West, thereby imagining the West as a “continuous unalterable entity.” Gourgouris reminds us that this is “the very thing that avid Eurocentrists claim” (DTS 2). Accordingly, the necessary critique of Western imperialism and liberalism need not also be a critique of secularism. I think this argument could be taken constructively by secularism’s critics, forcing us to be more precise in our definition of “secularism” and more discriminating when assigning blame.

If Not Secularism, Then What?

Gourgouris also warns that the rejection of secularism offers bleak alternatives. Even if secularism is not perfect, and Gourgouris does not think it is—if in it lurks a hidden metaphysics, or latent colonialist ambitions—he argues that “the response is surely not to subscribe to an allegedly liberational space of ‘native-religious’ sentiment suppressed by colonial or imperial power” (DTS 3), for that would be to revert to “nativist identity politics” (ASF 6). Gourgouris also points out that Mahmood has not adequately considered the disturbing political implications of her position’s “de facto alliance” with the anti-secularist factions of the American Christian Right (DTS 3).

I’m not sure that Gourgouris is on the right track, here. I doubt that any of secularism’s interrogators would describe themselves as “anti-secularist,” and I know that no one would advocate scrapping the whole project and handing the reigns of government to the loudest priest, imam, or rabbi. Criticism of secularism’s boasts does not imply the support of theocracy—this should be obvious. These critical thinkers, more modestly, seek to show how secularism is simply not all its cracked up to be, that is, that secularism is not religiously neutral but is religiously biased, and that non-Christian or nonwestern local religious cultures and practices suffer under its hegemony. They nowhere claim that such religious cultures offer a “liberational” space. I also fail to see how an anti-Orientalist cultural politics, one attentive to the plurality of religions and cultures and that respects their histories, practices, and knowledges, is immediately reducible to identity politics. And finally, I don’t see how a critical suspicion that secularism is latently Christian is anything at all like the position of the Christian Right, which holds secularism to be anti-Christian.

Secularization Implies Transformation

Gourgouris also critiques Mahmood and others for overemphasizing continuities while willfully ignoring changes. “Even if we assume that, at the very least,” Gourgouris argues, secularization registers a mutation of the Christian imaginary, our attention yields most if focused on the transformative elements that signify a mutation. Even if we were to underline the theological remnants in secular metaphysics (‘In God we trust’ etc.), our attention yields most if focused on them as remnants of meaning in a new configuration of meaning” (DTS 3). Put simply, societies and states have changed and are changing. That does not mean that we’ve arrived at an ideological state of total secularity, but rather that we are engaged in a historical process of secularization. Secularization, by definition, implies transformation—in this case, the transformation of a “prevalent theological social imaginary” (DTS 1). He explains:

For something to be secularized cannot possibly mean that it remains as it was before. Whatever the theological traces in modern states, a transformation of the meaning of the theological—this at the very least—has taken place. Transformation does not mean annihilation of the object, but nor does it mean mere dissimulation or renaming of the object. In fact, precisely because the transformation of the object alters the terms of relation to it, secularization is a process whose theological object, in some partial way, evades it, thereby ever-renewing its pursuit. Thus, whatever might be its ideologically proclaimed teleology by secularists of all kinds, secularization remains unfinished. This is its greatest power (DTS 2).

Tautology is a word that comes to my mind reading this argument. If the secular is defined by its difference from theology and religion, then the secular, indeed, by definition, cannot be religious. It seems equivalent to saying that the secular is defined by redness, while the religious is defined by blackness; red cannot be black, ergo, the secular is not religious.

What is Meant by Religion?

The biggest problem with Gourgouris’ argument, however, is his narrow definition of religion, as coterminous with Christian theological ideas about God and “non-material” transcendent authority. In contradistinction to religion, Gourgouris sees secularism, at its core, as the commitment to question transcendent authority. He writes that “the secular (as I have been considering it) consists in recognizing the ubiquity of finitude, thereby placing the possibility of transcendence continually into question” (DTS 4). Secular criticism thus “purports to unmask social historical situations where authority is assumed to emerge from elsewhere,” that is, from a transcendental authority like a God (DTS 4). While Gourgouris admits that secularism might become transcendental in certain historical cases, he maintains that it ideologically differs from religious worldviews in that it deprives transcendental authorities of their unquestioned a priori supremacy.

But Mahmood has never equated religion with “transcendence” alone. Her definition of religion is not quite so narrow. In fact, she could be said to have staked her career on the primacy of materiality, social formations, relations of power, and immanence in religious life. Mahmood and Talal Asad don’t think that secularism is religious because it relies on the authority of a transcendent “elsewhere”; they think secularism is religious because it repeats certain entrenched habits of mind and practice—embedded in webs of power relations, often performed without theological or even cognitive intentions—that belong to the domain of religion. Such entrenched habits have little or nothing to do with God. There is no need to be quite so lofty.

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