The 'crisis of secularism' bemoaned by some scholars fails to acknowledge that secularism itself has evolved in a highly complex manner over time.

Analysis emerging from various academic platforms in Europe, Turkey and India in the last five years or so, suggests that the world has entered a 'post secular age'. This is how they understand the growing assertion of religion in the public sphere in these secular countries.

But critics of these thesis fear that it is conceiving secularism in its most simplistic form. Secularism has evolved in a highly complex manner, as demonstrated by two of its most thorough scholars; that anthropologist Talal Asad and the philosopher Charles Taylor.

While tracking its evolution, both saw secularism emerging from a process of reform in Christianity during the Middle Ages, when certain factors led to the need to 'disenchant' Christianity, so that a more orderly and productive society can be formed, free of superstition.

Asad's approach in this context is a bit more nuanced, though, because his overall position is that secularism's origins cannot be pinned entirely to a single occurrence.

In his 2007 magnum-opus, A Secular Age, Taylor writes that the demystification of Christianity added the once 'superstitious layman' to access a disenchanted understanding of the scriptures.

Christian sects such as the Protestant and Calvinist saw having an enterprising disposition a virtue, as long as it benefited humanity. This not only seeded the idea of 'humanism', it also gave birth to ideas that formulated the mechanism of 'modernity'.

According to Assad, in his 2003 book Formations of the Secular 'Christianity's spiritual promise  [''Christ died to save us all''] was folded into political promise [''the world must be changed for Christ''].

Therefore, both Taylor and Assad see the emergence of the idea of secularism springing not from an adverse reaction to religion, as such, but from an urge to reform religion in a rapidly evolving millennium.

To Assad, even though the disenchantment process within Christianity saw it accepting reformist ideas, the traditional notions of Christian morality, for example, did not really wither away. 

They were divorced from the idea of being divinely ordained, and instead expressed through secular formations such as constitutional democracy, state laws and the natural sciences.

Assad writes that religion was never entirely expelled from the service sphere. Indeed, it was privatized [or relegated to the private sphere], but religions that were willing to take part in 'rational debate', and accept the new secular paradigm, were welcome to operate in the public sphere.

With the expansion of modernity, the idea of secularism spread from Europe to other regions. Coming from a position of economic and military dominance, it was as opted by others. But it mutated to accommodate non-Western realities.

For example, although it arrived as an inclusive idea that advocated the privatisation of the sacred and the institutionalisation of the profane as a way to construct a rational nationalistic whole, in communist setups it radically hardened by completely expunging religion.

But this hardness was also present in France. According to Taylor, whereas secularism elsewhere in Europe had largely emerged from reformed Christianity, in France it had appeared a revolt against religion [during the 18th century French Revolution].

Known as 'Laicite' it barely tolerates any display of religion in the public sphere. Unlike inclusive secularism in the US and most other European countries, where the state remains impersonal towards religion as long as it does not threaten the liberal-democratic order.

Laicite sanctions the state to aggressively intervene to discourage religion in the public sphere. Interestingly, this is also the form of secularism that Turkey adopted after it became a republic in 1922.

Most anti-colonial movements also adopted secularism by modifying it to suit their nationalisms. For example, ''Arab Nationalism'' adopted secularism because it saw its anti-colonial religious contemporaries as competition.

It adopted the inclusive secular version, even though Arab nationalist regimes were dictatorial and often jailed leaders of religious groups who challenged the Arab nationalist narrative.

This brilliant historic and analytical essay continues to Part-2. The World Students Society thanks author Nadeem F. Paracha ' Dawn Newspaper's Smoker Corner.


Post a Comment

Grace A Comment!