Why We Do Not Live in a De-Secularised or a Post-Secular World

Adrian Pabst, Lecturer in Politics at the University of Kent, UK, Visiting Professor at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Lille (Sciences Po) and at IBS Moscow

Dr Adrian Pabst, Senior Lecturer in Politics, School of Politics and IR, University of Kent; Visiting Professor, Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Lille (Sciences Po), specially for wpfdc.org

Since the nineteenth century, social theorists of religion have claimed that the rise of modernity is synonymous with the decline of religion and the spread of secularism. Since the 1960s, critics have contended that modernisation is compatible with faith and that the contemporary resurgence of religion marks the de-secularisation of the world. While modernity was predominantly secular, it seems that post-modernity (or late modernity) has a significant religious dimension.

In my previous essay, I argued that notions such as the ‘return of God’ are misguided because they obscure the enduring presence of religion in politics – both nationally and globally. What has changed compared with the post-1960s era is that secularism – as an ideology and as a socio-cultural reality – is no longer hegemonic (even though it remains dominant in certain parts of the world, including much of Europe and the East and West coast of the USA). Faith is once again more visible and influential.

One question that arises from this is how best to describe and explain the global resurgence and growing prominence of religion at the national and the global level. Put differently, how can we make sense of this evolution and characterise the emerging order? A variety of concepts have been suggested, ranging from de-secularisation via religious (re-)awakening to post-secularity. All these notions reflect some important features trends but they imply monolithic realities and linear trends. None of them can capture the bifurcation between traditional, orthodox traditions, on the one hand, and modernising creeds, on the other hand.

In this essay, I shall argue that post-secularity and cognate concepts remain trapped in the secular logic that they seek to challenge. By contrast, my argument is that we need better theories that can account for recent changes in both ideas and popular practices. Across the world we are seeing a dialectical process that oscillates between two opposite forces. On the one hand, there is a dominant secularism and a variety of denominational subcultures that are positively linked to modernisation – including certain religious creeds like Calvinism or Pentecostalism in the case of Christianity or certain charismatic movements in other world religions.

On the other hand, we are witnessing an increasingly visible revival of traditional faiths that resist and seek to transform the secular outlook of global modernity, such as Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, parts of the Anglican Communion, Shia mysticism and many other religious traditions. Instead of the rather sterile debate in terms of secularisation versus de-secularisation, the future will probably consist of a growing contest of ideas and practices between those traditions that either embrace or challenge secular liberal modernity.

Secularisation vs. de-secularisation

The standard models of the ‘secularisation’ and the ‘de-secularisation’ thesis are variants of essentially the same set of theoretical assumptions and empirical claims – though with opposite conclusions. Broadly speaking, both suggest that there is a single, linear relationship (either positive or inverse) between economic-political modernisation and socio-cultural secularisation. By producing a more differentiated economy and fragmented society, modernisation tears the ‘sacred canopy’ of religion asunder. This has the effect of either loosening the grip of faith or increasing the demand for religion.

This conception is grounded in a historically dubious narrative which can be briefly summarised as follows. On the one hand, public religion was gradually superseded and sidelined. New, progressive ideas of nature, science, technology, states, and markets gradually replaced archaic, obsolete notions of creation, theology, rituals, and the Church, as well as the civil economy of guilds and cooperatives. On the other hand, it is contended that religion never really went away and that it has already returned to a position of cultural visibility and political influence. Thus, the same secularising effects of modernisation on faith have produced very different consequences. Either religions have adapted to modernity and become more like secular society. Or else faiths have engendered powerful movements of counter-secularisation and ensured the continuity of religious belief and practice, albeit at the level of individuals and groups rather than society as a whole.

At the risk of caricaturing a little, proponents of the ‘secularisation’ thesis accuse their critics of underplaying the persistence of secularism. Advocates of the ‘de-secularisation’ thesis blame the defenders of ‘secularisation’ for reading the whole world through the lenses of secular western Europe. My contention is that both are right about each other but wrong about religion.

The reason is that both theories view the historical and social evolution of religion in the modern era through an essentially secular prism. This prism rests on certain sociological and anthropological concepts that are theoretically flawed and empirically questionable (mainly measuring Church attendance and similar statistics).

Sociologically, the paradigm of (de)secularisation is inextricably intertwined with socioeconomic modernisation and cognate ideas such as industrialisation, urbanisation, rationalisation, bureaucratisation, individualisation, privatisation, and disenchantment. Linked to this is the claim that society represents a set of general, social facts and law-like regularities rather than an association of living communities and groups. This shifts the focus from communal practice to individual belief, defined in terms of private consciousness – something that goes against the faith and practice of most religious believers.

Much of the disagreement between the two theories therefore boils down to empirical evidence. Either the crisis of religious consciousness is proof for the growing secularisation of modern societies (Emile Durkheim and Max Weber). Alternatively, the perseverance of religious consciousness in individuals and groups is evidence that modernisation is compatible with faith and that it can even lead to de-secularisation (David Martin and Peter Berger). Since both phenomena are supported by different sets of statistical data, neither theory can fully explain world religions.

Anthropologically, notions such as ‘general social systems’ and ‘inner consciousness’ are deeply problematic. Both theories hold to an essentialist conception of religion that uproots each faith from its unique and specific traditions and reduces all religions to a set of abstract, generalisable principles, beliefs, or emotions. These are assumed to be either inner psychological phenomena linked to individual human nature (rather than the entire cosmos) or outer social phenomena tied to formal institutions and general spiritual exercises (rather than specific communities and practices of worship) – or indeed both at once. In any case, the ‘secularisation’ and the ‘de-secularisation’ thesis confidently predict that religious principles, beliefs, and emotions will either be swept away or strengthened by the process of modernisation.

The conceptual problem is that such and similar conceptions redefine faith in one of two ways: either as a sort of innate, natural, rationalist (or reasonable) religion or as a blind, fideist belief in an external divinity (and divine, providential intervention). Both theorisations posit a unitary, trans-historical essence of faith that denies two anthropological insights.

First, that religions constitute distinct forms of belief and practice irreducible to any other sphere (nature or consciousness). Second, that religious symbols embodying models of and for reality are inextricably linked to narratives, meaning, and culture. For narratives, meaning, and culture cannot be subsumed under any abstract, disembodied concept representing general laws of natural regularity or human consciousness (or again both at once).

Why the post-secular remains secular

Compared with the secularisation vs. de-secularisation debate, post-secularity and cognate notions such as ‘multiple modernities’ go further by challenging the hegemony of secularism and defending the freedom of religions to express themselves directly in their own terms within the public square (nationally and globally). Common to different accounts of post-secularity is pluralism and also the idea of a post-secularist society in which religions are an integral part of a reinvigorated political sphere. However, I shall argue in the remainder of this essay that post-secularity is trapped in a residually secularist logic.

First of all, the post-secular fails to challenge the secularist account of religion that essentialises faith or views it as an epiphenomenon (or both at once). J?rgen Habermas and other theorists of the post-secular such as William Connolly cling to conceptions of religion that fail to contest the modern transformation in the nature of belief itself (especially in the Judeo-Christian tradition). This applies to the shift away from the cultural mediations of objective revelation and the communal practice of faith towards subjective assent and a private, sacramentally unmediated relationship between the individual and the divine – the idea that believers have an immediate link to Jesus or Mohammed.

Therefore post-secularity accepts uncritically the ‘presumption of unbelief’ (Charles Taylor). Unbelief constitutes the default position and the supposedly neutral vantage point from which religion is defined and the impact of faith on international affairs can be analysed. The post-secular implies that the moral intuitions of religious traditions should be included in political debate and be allowed to contribute to the common good, but merely on secular terms and in instrumental ways that serve the purposes of secular politics.

Second, post-secularity fails to overcome the hegemony of secular reason. Despite inflecting his long-standing Enlightenment stance, Habermas still claims that faith is a-rational or even irrational and that the gulf separating secular rationality from religious revelation cannot be bridged. Furthermore, he assumes that only reason sundered from faith can preserve state neutrality vis-?-vis rival and conflicting religions: “the domain of the state, which controls the means of legitimate coercion, should not be opened to the strife between various religious communities, otherwise the government could become the executive arm of a religious majority that imposes its will on the opposition”. (1) Thus Habermas’ defence of the secular state is more concerned with the clash of fanatical faiths than it is with the violent wars of secular utopias – a strange oblivion of 19th- and 20th-century history…

It is true that his argument in favour of translating the moral sentiments of religious believers into the discourse of secular reason encourages a measure of mutual learning between religious and non-religious traditions. However, for Habermas the common language in both public debate and political deliberation must be free of any religious references to transcendent principles and governed by secular reason alone. As a result, post-secularity does not transform the secularist terms of debate and engagement between religions and other perspectives. Faith is not permitted to make any substantive or critical contribution to public discussion that could undermine the primacy of formal, procedural reason. Paradoxically, the post-secular uses religion to compensate for an instrumental rationality whose shortcomings are the result of divorcing faith from reason in the first place. This excludes any possibility of any shared substantive ends or a transcendent horizon.

Third, this bias against a transcendent outlook reinforces the dominance of secular reason. That, in turn, rules out a teleological ordering of politics towards a substantive, plural unity such as the common good or the duty to uphold the dignity of the human person, which goes beyond notions of utility, happiness or individual human rights. The denial of shared ends also serves to disallow the particularity of universal religious principles in the name of a false secular universalism for which everything is an expression of pure immanence. Various faith traditions suggest that the immanent order of politics and international relations would benefit from transcendent reference points that can uphold normativity beyond power, wealth, instrumental interests or constructed, artificial values such as utility or individual happiness, which is reduced to personal pleasure.

Fourth, post-secularity is wedded to notions of difference and alterity. Like much of late modern philosophy, post-secular pluralism elevates difference into the sole transcendental term, which overrides any notion of normative unity or substantive shared ends that embed the legislating reason of citizens and states. Difference so defined either sanctifies the power of regulative reason or else it sacralises the ‘other’. Neither conception works on its own terms, and both are ultimately secularist. That’s because the proper use of reason requires and involves some form of trust in the reasonableness and regularity of reality, which is neither reducible to the forces of unalterable nature nor the power of human artifice (the social contract or the will-to-power) nor pre-rational moral sentiments (empathy or the ‘invisible hand’ of the market).

Rather, to trust that reality is to some extent reasonable and regular implies that the natural and the social world are endowed with some intelligible meaning and that they are governed by some knowable finality – the supernatural good in God. Rationality appeals to something beyond the individual mind that links us to symbols, signs and narratives, which we all inhabit and which embed the exercise of reason itself.

Thus, reason properly configured seems to point to a transcendence that is somehow present in immanence. To restrict rationality to regulative reason is to impose a secularist limit of finitude on the human desire for transcendent infinity that finds its expressions in both religious and non-religious traditions. Such a limit means that “[e]verything is to be negatively tolerated, but nothing is to be positively allowed” (John Milbank) – an account that favours the empty formalism and proceduralism of secular reason over religious faith embodied in communal practice.

Fifth and finally, the shift towards post-modern difference merely reinforces the sacralisation of the secular. By enshrining difference as the new ‘absolute’, post-modernism elevates alterity or otherness into the sole transcendental term that rules out any substantive, plural unity which might bind together the national polity or the international system.

Thus post-secular pluralism involves one of two positions. Either difference is absolutised, in which case incommensurable values and violent conflict become self-fulfilling prophesies that can only be settled through the use of power. Or else the only mode of attaining unity or at least some form of peaceful coexistence is to convert the ‘other’ into the ‘same’ through ahistorical, supposedly universal but in reality modern, western categories. The most prominent examples are perhaps the values of ‘liberation’ or ‘emancipation’ linked to the political left or the values of ‘freedom of choice’ and ‘opportunity’ associated with the political right.

Beyond the post-secular towards the common good

By contrast the post-secular, this essay argues in favour of a plural search for the shared common good and substantive ends that can mediate between the individual and the collective will and thus help bind together members of diverse bodies and polities. Such an argument challenges the view that the incommensurability of rival values either requires central sovereign power to arbitrate conflict or else leads to a fragile modus vivendi in which peaceful coexistence merely regulates a violent state of nature that rules out the possibility of a just, harmonious order. To suggest that competing values are incommensurable (especially in the late modern context of multiculturalism and the global clash of fanatical faiths) is to assume that different values have equal claim to normative validity and that no hierarchical ordering can command popular assent. In the absence of higher-order universal principles from which particular norms derive their moral character, general values such as freedom, equality and security are wrongly assumed to constitute their own foundation and finality.

However, no value is valuable in itself or as such, not even ancient liberties or modern human rights. Values are valuable because they originate from an ‘invaluable’ source and because they are ordered towards an equally ‘invaluable’ end – a transcendent principle that provides an intelligible account of what is valuable and how it ought to be valued, blending the empirical with the normative. For example, the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person underpin the principles of liberality like fair detention, fair trial or habeas corpus that are central to notions of freedom, equality and security.

Crucially, this argument shifts the focus away from unilateral practices centred on self-interest and individual entitlements towards more reciprocal arrangements that rest on the balance between rights and responsibilities. Unlike the rather sterile debate on liberal values that are self-referential, the alternative that this essay puts forward helps revive the critical engagement between cultures and civilisations by raising fundamental questions about shared substantive ends, which exceed instrumental reason or arbitrary will.


[1] J?rgen Habermas, ‘Secularism’s Crisis of Faith: Notes on a Post-Secular Society’, New Perspectives Quarterly, 25:4 (2008), pp. 17-29, quote at p. 28.