One typically thinks of secularism as a Western phenomenon. A new collection of essays from Princeton argues that that perception is wrong: “a worldview based on rationalism and individual autonomy” is not simply a creation of Reformed Protestantism and the Enlightenment. Secularism appears in other religious cultures as well. Moreover, the discontents with secularism today, worldwide, reflect the failure of secularism to respond to people’s spiritual needs. The book is Formations of Belief: Historical Approaches to Religion and the Secular, edited by Princeton historians Philip Nord, Katja Guenther, and Max Weiss. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:
For decades, scholars and public intellectuals have been predicting the demise of religion in the face of secularization. Yet religion is undergoing an unprecedented resurgence in modern life—and secularization no longer appears so inevitable. Formations of Belief brings together many of today’s leading historians to shed critical light on secularism’s origins, its present crisis, and whether it is as antithetical to religion as it is so often made out to be.
Formations of Belief offers a more nuanced understanding of the origins of secularist thought, demonstrating how Reformed Christianity and the Enlightenment were not the sole vessels of a worldview based on rationalism and individual autonomy. Taking readers from late antiquity to the contemporary era, the contributors show how secularism itself can be a form of belief and yet how its crisis today has been brought on by its apparent incapacity to satisfy people’s spiritual needs. They explore the rise of the humanistic study of religion in Europe, Jewish messianism, atheism and last rites in the Soviet Union, the cult of the saints in colonial Mexico, religious minorities and Islamic identity in Pakistan, the neuroscience of religion, and more.
Based on the Shelby Cullom Davis Center Seminars at Princeton University, this incisive book features illuminating essays by Peter Brown, Yaacob Dweck, Peter E. Gordon, Anthony Grafton, Brad S. Gregory, Stefania Pastore, Caterina Pizzigoni, Victoria Smolkin, Max Weiss, and Muhammad Qasim Zaman.
This new book from the University of Toronto Press caught my eye for something it doesn’t address, at least judging from the publisher’s description. Quebec in a Global Light: Reaching for the Common Ground, by Robert Calderisi, purports to be a survey of Quebecois society–its commitments and values. Conspicuously absent from those commitments and values is religion, specifically, Catholicism. Quebec went through a Quiet Revolution in the 1960s, after which the Catholic Church, once so important, became something of an afterthought, at best–a phenomenon captured brilliantly by films like The Barbarian Invasions. I have no reason to think the author is wrong in leaving Catholicism off the list. But his doing so suggests how profoundly secular Quebec has become in a short time. Perhaps a similar process is taking place in Ireland today. Here’s the publisher’s description:
To the outside world, Quebec is Canada’s most distinctive province. To many Canadians, it has sometimes seemed the most troublesome. But, over the last quarter century, quietly but steadily, it has wrestled successfully with two of the West’s most daunting challenges: protecting national values in the face of mass immigration and striking a proper balance between economic efficiency and a sound social safety net. Quebec has also taken a lead in fighting climate change. Yet, many people – including many Quebeckers – are unaware of this progress and much remains to be done. These achievements, and the tenacity that made them possible, are rooted in centuries of adversity and struggle.
In this masterful survey of the major social and economic issues facing Quebec, Robert Calderisi offers an intimate look into the sensitivities and strengths of a society that has grown accustomed to being misunderstood. In doing so, he argues that the values uniting Quebeckers – their common sense, courtesy, concern for the downtrodden, aversion to conflict, and mild form of nationalism, linked to a firm refusal to be homogenized by globalization – make them the most “Canadian” of all Canadians.
Enlightenment secularism seems to have a concentrating effect on religion. In response to the challenge secularism poses, more moderate expressions of religion fade away, while more insular, “extreme” communities come into existence and thrive. Perhaps, as secularism occupies more and more space in a culture, only those religious communities that consciously set their face against it can survive.
A new book from Princeton University Press, Hasidism: A New History, by historian David Biale and others, discusses the history of the Jewish movement, particularly, how the movement formed in response to European secularism. Looks very interesting. Here’s the description from the Princeton website:
The first comprehensive history of the pietistic movement that shaped modern Judaism
This is the first comprehensive history of the pietistic movement that shaped modern Judaism. The book’s unique blend of intellectual, religious, and social history offers perspectives on the movement’s leaders as well as its followers, and demonstrates that, far from being a throwback to the Middle Ages, Hasidism is a product of modernity that forged its identity as a radical alternative to the secular world.
Hasidism originated in southeastern Poland, in mystical circles centered on the figure of Israel Ba’al Shem Tov, but it was only after his death in 1760 that a movement began to spread. Challenging the notion that Hasidism ceased to be a creative movement after the eighteenth century, this book argues that its first golden age was in the nineteenth century, when it conquered new territory, won a mass following, and became a mainstay of Jewish Orthodoxy. World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the Holocaust decimated eastern European Hasidism. But following World War II, the movement enjoyed a second golden age, growing exponentially. Today, it is witnessing a remarkable renaissance in Israel, the United States, and other countries around the world.
Written by an international team of scholars, Hasidism is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand this vibrant and influential modern Jewish movement.
One of the most interesting aspects of comparative law is the way legal terms migrate across borders and, in the process, acquire different meanings. “Secular” is one such term. Both the French and Turkish Constitutions declare that the state is “laic,” usually translated as “secular.” But “secular” can have different meanings, depending on the local context. A new book from Columbia University Press, The Politics of Secularism: Religion, Diversity, and Institutional Change in France and Turkey, by Murat Akan (Boğaziçi University) explores the topic. Here is the description from the publisher’s website:
Discussions of modernity—or alternative and multiple modernities—often hinge on the question of secularism, especially how it travels outside its original European context. Too often, attempts to answer this question either imagine a universal model derived from the history of Western Europe, which neglects the experience of much of the world, or emphasize a local, non-European context that limits the potential for comparison. In The Politics of Secularism, Murat Akan reframes the question of secularism, exploring its presence both outside and inside Europe and offering a rich empirical account of how it moves across borders and through time.
Akan uses France and Turkey to analyze political actors’ comparative discussions of secularism, struggles for power, and historical contextual constraints at potential moments of institutional change. France and Turkey are critical sites of secularism: France exemplifies European political modernity, and Turkey has long been the model of secularism in a Muslim-majority country. Akan analyzes prominent debates in both countries on topics such as the visibility of the headscarf and other religious symbols, religion courses in the public school curriculum, and state salaries for clerics and imams. Akan lays out the institutional struggles between three distinct political currents—anti-clericalism, liberalism, and what he terms state-civil religionism—detailing the nuances of how political movements articulate the boundary between the secular and the religious. Disputing the prevalent idea that diversity is a new challenge to secularism and focusing on comparison itself as part of the politics of secularism, this book makes a major contribution to understanding secular politics and its limits.
The description of this new book from Princeton University Press, Sex and Secularism, by Joan Wallach Scott (Institute for Advanced Study) puzzles me. The author appears to argue that secularism historically stood for the oppression of women and for Christian superiority, and that only the recent challenge of Islam has caused secularism to switch positions and promote women’s equality. I’m not sure what secularism the author means. Simone de Beauvoir wrote The Second Sex in the 1940s, long before “the Muslim question” arose in the West, and, although one can make a good argument that secularism derives historically from Christian ideas about church and state, it seems implausible that secularism was itself a means of promoting Christian superiority. Secularists eagerly attacked Christian legal and cultural superiority at every turn. Anyway, readers can judge for themselves. Here’s the description from the Princeton website:
How secularism has been used to justify the subordination of women
Joan Wallach Scott’s acclaimed and controversial writings have been foundational for the field of gender history. With Sex and Secularism, Scott challenges one of the central claims of the “clash of civilizations” polemic—the false notion that secularism is a guarantee of gender equality.
Drawing on a wealth of scholarship by second-wave feminists and historians of religion, race, and colonialism, Scott shows that the gender equality invoked today as a fundamental and enduring principle was not originally associated with the term “secularism” when it first entered the lexicon in the nineteenth century. In fact, the inequality of the sexes was fundamental to the articulation of the separation of church and state that inaugurated Western modernity. Scott points out that Western nation-states imposed a new order of women’s subordination, assigning them to a feminized familial sphere meant to complement the rational masculine realms of politics and economics. It was not until the question of Islam arose in the late twentieth century that gender equality became a primary feature of the discourse of secularism.
Challenging the assertion that secularism has always been synonymous with equality between the sexes, Sex and Secularism reveals how this idea has been used to justify claims of white, Western, and Christian racial and religious superiority and has served to distract our attention from a persistent set of difficulties related to gender difference—ones shared by Western and non-Western cultures alike.