Defining Our Dilemma: Must Secularization Privatize Religion?Author(s): Mary DoakSource:
American Journal of Theology & Philosophy,
Vol. 29, No. 3 (September 2008), pp. 253-270Published by:
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Defining Our Dilemma: Must Secularization Privatize Religion? Mary Doak / niversity of San Diego
I. The Dilemma: The Meaning of Secularity1
The appropriate ole of religion in society is much discussed in the
academy these days, where it has gained the attention of sociologists, political theorists, philosophers, and religious scholars. Yet this topic is also of considerable interest to people who have no connection to academic trends: one need not study philosophical or sociological theories of secularization to have noted the passionately religious politics of so many throughout the world, along with the resistance this explicitly religious politics generates. Even within the United States, contention over whether political religiosity is a good thing, and whether it is a contradiction to or the embodiment of religious freedom, demonstrates that we no longer have a consensus on the appropriate role of religion in public life. We are thus presented one of those rare opportunities for an academic contribution that is multidisciplinary and of immediate public significance. I contend that this is also an area in which clarity and nuance are particularly helpful, indeed essential, to reconstructing a position that could achieve broad public support and be acceptable to devoutly religious people as well as to militant atheists. Academics searching for societal relevance have here a field wide open for them, one in which, as I will argue below, academic training in rigorous thought and nuanced distinctions might serve the good of society and not mere intellectual jousting. At least some of the confusion in our academic and in our public discourse is due to our lack of a single clear and shared definition of secularization. The word secular has, of course, a rich history of various meanings, referring to such disparate realities as 1 I am deeply indebted to the 2007 members' seminar of the Highlands Institute or American Religious and Philosophical Thought, and to organizers Linell Cady and
Sheila Davaney for the opportunity to present an earlier version of these ideas at that
seminar. While my thought as deepened through he lively onversation nd insightful critiques of all participants, gratitude is especially due to Harley Chapman and to
Delwin Brown for their thoughtful, detailed, and critical responses.
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American Journal of Theology & Philosophy
priests who are not members of religious orders (and are thus referred to as secular priests ), the world outside of (perhaps removed from) the control of ecclesiastical authorities, and, as John Milbank has reminded us, the time between the fall and the redemption of humanity.2 Of course, many of these dictionary definitions of secular can be set aside as irrelevant to conversations about the role of religion in a secular society today. It is well understood that words can have more than one meaning, and not all of the meanings are serious contenders in a particular context. Nevertheless, there remains considerable slippage in the meaning of secular even in discussions about modern secular society, as Jos? Casanova has shown. Secularization in academic discourse, he notes, describes three different processes. Most fundamentally, secularization refers to a process of functional differentiation and emancipation of the secular spheres?primarily the state, the economy, and science, from the religious sphere. 3 A secular society is, then, one in which political and religious matters are no longer united and are not dependent on the same principles and authorities. Along with this primary understanding of secularization as functional differentiation, Casanova identifies two further processes that are referred to as secularization: (1) the privatization of religion, which then becomes preoccupied with individual salvation and
subjective, personal meanings; and (2) the decline of religion, largely
due to its diminished social relevance.4 If Casanova is right that each of these three processes is often described as secularization, then attention must be paid to which process (or processes) is intended when secularization is discussed. This danger of misunderstanding is all the more real if Casanova is also right to maintain that the three processes are not essentially concomitant, so that any one of the processes might occur without the other two forms of secularization. This is an important point precisely because so much of the contemporary discussion presumes that secularization necessarily involves at least the first two of Casanova's distinct processes. That is, functional differentiation and the privatization of religion are assumed to be equally essential to the
2 John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (Oxford, UK and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1990), 9. 3 Jos? Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 19. 4 Ibid., esp. 19-39.
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Vol. 29, No. 3, September 2008
definition of a secular society. In my survey of the literature, this presumption that the privatization of religion necessarily accompanies the functional differentiation of politics from religion is the majority report, even while there is disagreement over how to evaluate this religious privatization. There is much less tendency to identify Casanova's third process, the decline of religion, as integral to secularization, perhaps because institutional religious practice has clearly declined only in Western Europe. In fact, some argue that a secular differentiation of
religion and politics, especially when it takes the form of religious
disestablishment, actually contributes to the flourishing of religion under the conditions of modernity.5 While debates over the decline of religion in secular society are by no means insignificant and will be noted here, our focus will be on the more common assumption that secularization necessarily involves privatization (with or without religious decline). In examining below the disagreement over the role of religion in secular society, I contend that the assumption that secularization necessarily privatizes religion results in an impasse between those who favor and those who oppose secularity. Many celebrate the development of a secular society as a realm of freedom, a place where we are able to reason together despite our differences and without religiously motivated constraints. Many others condemn secular society as lacking authoritative morality and as hostile to religion and to religious people. Those who fear that religiously motivated politics will result in legislation that infringes on religious freedom are thus pitted against those who insist that religious freedom guarantees their right to
seek legislation in accord with their beliefs. Especially in the United
States, we no longer share a common description of the basic structures of our form of government. Those who see some truth on both sides are then left wondering whether a secular state is not in any case an historically doomed aberration, given that religion remains a social and political force in much of the world.6
5 Ibid., esp. 214. See also David Martin, On Secularization: Toward a Revised General Theory (Aldershot, England and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005), 21. 6 Matters are further muddied by the tendency to juxtapose creationists and secularists in a way that leaves little room for the many who are neither biblical literalists nor hostile to religious traditions. See Adam and Eve in the Land of the
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