The Secular, Secularizations, Secularisms - Rethinking Secularism - Craig J. Calhoun

Rethinking Secularism - Craig J. Calhoun (2011)

Chapter 2. The Secular, Secularizations, Secularisms

José Casanova

Rethinking secularism requires that we keep in mind the basic analytical distinction between “the secular” as a central modern epistemic category, “secularization” as an analytical conceptualization of modern world-historical processes, and “secularism” as a worldview and ideology. All three concepts are obviously related but are used very differently in various academic-disciplinary and sociopolitical and cultural contexts. I propose to differentiate the three concepts simply as a way of distinguishing analytically in an exploratory manner among three different phenomena, without any attempt to reify them as separate realities.1

The secular has become a central modern category—theological-philosophical, legal-political, and cultural-anthropological—to construct, codify, grasp, and experience a realm or reality differentiated from “the religious.” Phenomenologically, one can explore the different types of “secularities” as they are codified, institutionalized, and experienced in various modern contexts and the parallel and correlated transformations of modern “religiosities” and “spiritualities.” It should be obvious that “the religious” and “the secular” are always and everywhere mutually constituted. Yet while the social sciences have dedicated much effort to the scientific study of religion, the task of developing a reflexive anthropology and sociology of the secular is only now beginning.

Secularization, by contrast, usually refers to actual or alleged empirical-historical patterns of transformation and differentiation of “the religious” (ecclesiastical institutions and churches) and “the secular” (state, economy, science, art, entertainment, health and welfare, etc.) institutional spheres from early-modern to contemporary societies. Within the social sciences, particularly within sociology, a general theory of secularization was developed that conceptualized these at first modern European and later increasingly globalized historical transformations as part and parcel of a general teleological and progressive human and societal development from the primitive “sacred” to the modern “secular.” The thesis of the “decline” and the “privatization” of religion in the modern world became central components of the theory of secularization. Both the decline and the privatization theses have undergone numerous critiques and revisions in the last fifteen years. But the core of the theory—the understanding of secularization as a single process of differentiation of the various institutional spheres or subsystems of modern societies, understood as the paradigmatic and defining characteristic of processes of modernization—remains relatively uncontested in the social sciences, particularly within sociology.

Secularism refers more broadly to a whole range of modern secular worldviews and ideologies which may be consciously held and explicitly elaborated into philosophies of history and normative-ideological state projects, into projects of modernity and cultural programs, or, alternatively, it may be viewed as an epistemic knowledge regime that may be held unreflexively or be assumed phenomenologically as the taken-for-granted normal structure of modern reality, as a modern doxa or an “unthought.” Moreover, modern secularism also comes in multiple historical forms, in terms of different normative models of legal-constitutional separation of the secular state and religion; or in terms of the different types of cognitive differentiation among science, philosophy, and theology; or in terms of the different models of practical differentiation among law, morality, and religion, and so on.

This chapter presents an analytical elaboration of each of these concepts and some of the phenomenological experiences, institutional arrangements, historical processes, constitutional frameworks, and normative-ideological projects to which they refer.

The Secular

The secular is often assumed to be simply the other of the religious, that which is nonreligious. In this respect, it functions simply as a residual category. But paradoxically, in our modern secular age and in our modern secular world, the secular has come to encompass increasingly the whole of reality, in a sense replacing the religious. Consequently, the secular has come to be increasingly perceived as a natural reality devoid of religion, as the natural social and anthropological substratum that remains when the religious is lifted or disappears. This is the conception or epistemic attitude that Charles Taylor has critically characterized as “subtraction theories.”2

The paradox resides in the fact that rather than being a residual category, as was originally the case, the secular appears now as reality tout court, while the religious is increasingly perceived not only as the residual category, the other of the secular, but also as a superstructural and superfluous additive, which both humans and societies can do without.

Theories of secularization have emerged as explanatory conceptions of this process of differentiation and liberation of the secular from the religious, understood as a universal world-historical process, while secularist worldviews function as justificatory explanations of the paradoxical inversion in the dyadic relation of the religious and the secular, vindicating not only the primacy of the secular over the religious but also the superseding of the religious by the secular. Both function as uncritical and unreflexive ideologies insofar as they disregard, indeed mask, the particular and contingent historicity of the process, projecting it onto the level of universal human development. Moreover, by postulating the secular as the natural and universal substratum that emerges once the superstructural religious addition is lifted, theories of secularization, as well as secularist social science, have avoided the task of analyzing, studying, and explaining the secular, or the varieties of secular experience, as if it is only the religious, but not the secular, that is in need of interpretation and analytical explanation.

Any discussion of the secular has to begin with the recognition that it emerged first as a theological category of Western Christendom that has no equivalent in other religious traditions or even in Eastern Christianity. Originally, the Latin world saeculum, as in per saecula saeculorum, only meant an indefinite period of time. But eventually, it became one of the terms of a dyad, religious/secular, that served to structure the entire spatial and temporal reality of medieval Christendom into a binary system of classification separating two worlds, the religious-spiritual-sacred world of salvation and the secular-temporal-profane world. Hence the distinction between the “religious” or regular clergy, who withdrew from the world into the monasteries to lead a life of Christian perfection, and the “secular” clergy, who lived in the world along with the laity.

In its original theological meaning, to secularize meant to “make worldly,” to convert religious persons or things into secular ones, as when a religious person abandoned the monastic rule to live in the saeculum or when monastic property was secularized following the Protestant Reformation. This is the original Christian theological meaning of the term “secularization” that may serve, however, as the basic metaphor of the historical process of Western secularization. In fact, the historical process of secularization needs to be understood as a particular reaction to the structuring dualism of medieval Christendom, as an attempt to bridge, eliminate, or transcend the dualism between the religious and the secular world. In this respect, the very existence of the binary system of classification served to determine the dynamics of the process of secularization. Even within the Christian West, however, this process of secularization follows two different dynamics.

One is the dynamic of internal Christian secularization that aims to spiritualize the temporal and to bring the religious life of perfection out of the monasteries into the secular world, so that everybody may become “a secular ascetic monk,” a perfect Christian in the saeculum. Such a dynamic tends to transcend the dualism by blurring the boundaries between the religious and the secular, by making the religious secular and the secular religious through mutual reciprocal infusion. This was the path initiated by the various medieval movements of Christian reform of the saeculum, which was radicalized by the Protestant Reformation and has attained its paradigmatic expression in the Anglo-Saxon Calvinist cultural area, particularly in the United States.

The other different, indeed almost opposite, dynamic of secularization takes the form of laicization. It aims to emancipate all secular spheres from clerical-ecclesiastical control, and in this respect, it is marked by a laic/clerical antagonism. Unlike in the Protestant path, however, here the boundaries between the religious and the secular are rigidly maintained, but those boundaries are pushed into the margins, aiming to contain, privatize, and marginalize everything religious, while excluding it from any visible presence in the secular public sphere. When the secularization of monasteries took place in Catholic countries, first during the French Revolution and later in subsequent liberal revolutions, the explicit purpose of breaking the monastery walls was not to bring the religious life of perfection into the secular world, as had been the case with the Protestant Reformation, but rather to laicize those religious places, dissolving and emptying their religious content and making the religious persons, monks and nuns, civil and laic before forcing them into the world, now conceived as merely a secular place emptied of religious symbols and religious meanings. This is precisely the realm of laïcité, a sociopolitical sphere freed from religious symbols and clerical control. Such a path of laicization, which is paradigmatic of the French-Latin-Catholic cultural area, although it found diverse manifestations throughout continental Europe, could well serve as the basic metaphor of all subtraction narratives of secular modernity, which tend to understand the secular as merely the space left behind when this-worldly reality is freed from religion.

With many variations, these are the two main dynamics of secularization that culminate in our secular age. In different ways, both paths lead to an overcoming of the medieval Christian dualism through a positive affirmation and revaluation of the saeculum, that is, of the secular age and the secular world, imbuing the immanent secular world with a quasi-transcendent meaning as the place for human flourishing. In this broad sense of the term “secular,” that of “living in the secular world and within the secular age,” we are all secular, and all modern societies are secular and are likely to remain so for the foreseeable future, one could almost say per saecula saeculorum.

There is a second, narrower meaning of the term “secular,” that of selfsufficient and exclusive secularity, when people are simply “irreligious,” that is, devoid of religion and closed to any form of transcendence beyond the purely secular immanent frame. Here, secular is no longer one of the units of a dyadic pair but is constituted as a self-enclosed reality. To a certain extent, this constitutes one possible end result of the process of secularization, of the attempt to overcome the dualism between religious and secular, by freeing oneself of the religious component altogether.

In his recent work A Secular Age, Charles Taylor has reconstructed the process through which the phenomenological experience of what he calls “the immanent frame” becomes constituted as an interlocking constellation of the modern differentiated cosmic, social, and moral orders. All three orders—the cosmic, the social, and the moral—are understood as purely immanent secular orders, devoid of transcendence and thus functioning etsi Deus non daretur, “as if God would not exist.” It is this phenomenological experience that, according to Taylor, constitutes our age paradigmatically as a secular one, irrespective of the extent to which people living in this age may still hold religious or theistic beliefs.3

The question is whether the phenomenological experience of living within such an immanent frame is such that people within it will also tend to function etsi Deus non daretur. Taylor is inclined to answer this question in the affirmative. Indeed, his phenomenological account of the secular “conditions” of belief is meant to explain the change from a Christian society around 1500 CE in which belief in God was unchallenged and unproblematic, indeed “naïve” and taken for granted, to a post-Christian society today in which belief in God not only is no longer axiomatic but also becomes increasingly problematic, so that even those who adopt an “engaged” standpoint as believers tend to experience reflexively their own belief as an option among many others, one moreover requiring an explicit justification. Secularity, being without religion, by contrast tends to become increasingly the default option, which can be naïvely experienced as natural and, thus, no longer in need of justification.

This naturalization of “unbelief” or “nonreligion” as the normal human condition in modern societies corresponds to the assumptions of the dominant theories of secularization, which have postulated a progressive decline of religious beliefs and practices with increasing modernization, so that the more modern a society is, the more secular, the less “religious,” it is supposed to become. That the decline of religious beliefs and practices is a relatively recent meaning of the term “secularization” is indicated by the fact that it does not yet appear in the dictionaries of most modern European languages.

The fact that there are some modern non-European societies, such as the United States or South Korea, that are fully secular in the sense that they function within the same immanent frame and yet their populations are also at the same time conspicuously religious, or the fact that the modernization of so many non-Western societies is accompanied by processes of religious revival, should put into question the premise that the decline of religious beliefs and practices is a quasi-natural consequence of processes of modernization. If modernization per se does not produce necessarily the progressive decline of religious beliefs and practices, then we need a better explanation for the radical and widespread secularity one finds among the populations of most western European societies. Secularization in this second meaning of the term “secular,” that of being “devoid of religion,” does not happen automatically as a result of processes of modernization or even as the result of the social construction of a self-enclosed immanent frame, but it needs to be mediated phenomenologically by some other particular historical experience.

Self-sufficient secularity, that is, the absence of religion, has a better chance of becoming the normal taken-for-granted position if it is experienced not as an unreflexively naïve condition, as just a fact, but actually as the meaningful result of a quasi-natural process of development. As Taylor has pointed out, modern unbelief is not simply a condition of absence of belief or merely indifference. It is a historical condition that requires the perfect tense, “a condition of ‘having overcome’ the irrationality of belief.”4 Intrinsic to this phenomenological experience is a modern “stadial consciousness,” inherited from the Enlightenment, which understands this anthropocentric change in the conditions of belief as a process of maturation and growth, as a “coming of age,” and as progressive emancipation. For Taylor, this stadial phenomenological experience serves, in turn, to ground the phenomenological experience of exclusive humanism as the positive self-sufficient and self-limiting affirmation of human flourishing and as the critical rejection of transcendence beyond human flourishing as self-denial and self-defeating.

In this respect, the historical self-understanding of secularism has the function of confirming the superiority of our present modern secular outlook over other supposedly earlier and therefore more primitive religious forms of understanding. To be secular means to be modern, and therefore, by implication, to be religious means to be somehow not yet fully modern. This is the ratchet effect of a modern historical stadial consciousness, which turns the very idea of going back to a surpassed condition into an unthinkable intellectual regression.

The function of secularism as a philosophy of history, and thus as ideology, is to turn the particular Western Christian historical process of secularization into a universal teleological process of human development from belief to unbelief, from primitive irrational or metaphysical religion to modern rational postmetaphysical secular consciousness. Even when the particular role of internal Christian developments in the general process of secularization is acknowledged, it is in order to stress the universal significance of the uniqueness of Christianity as, in Marcel Gauchet’s expressive formulation, “the religion to exit from religion.”5

I would like to propose that this secularist stadial consciousness is a crucial factor in the widespread secularization that has accompanied the modernization of western European societies. Europeans tend to experience their own secularization, that is, the widespread decline of religious beliefs and practices in their midst, as a natural consequence of their modernization. To be secular is experienced not as an existential choice that modern individuals or modern societies make but, rather, as a natural outcome of becoming modern. In this respect, the theory of secularization mediated through this historical stadial consciousness tends to function as a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is, in my view, the presence or absence of this secularist historical stadial consciousness that explains when and where processes of modernization are accompanied by radical secularization. In places where such secularist historical stadial consciousness is absent or less dominant, as in the United States or in most non-Western postcolonial societies, processes of modernization are unlikely to be accompanied by processes of religious decline. On the contrary, they may be accompanied by processes of religious revival.

Following this reconstruction one may distinguish three different ways of being secular: (a) that of mere secularity, that is, the phenomenological experience of living in a secular world and in a secular age, where being religious may be a normal viable option; (b) that of self-sufficient and exclusive secularity, that is, the phenomenological experience of living without religion as a normal, quasi-natural, taken-for-granted condition; and (c) that of secularist secularity, that is, the phenomenological experience not only of being passively free but also actually of having been liberated from “religion” as a condition for human autonomy and human flourishing.


In the book Public Religions in the Modern World, I proposed to disaggregate analytically what was usually taken to be one single theory of secularization into three disparate and not necessarily interrelated components or subtheses, namely, (a) the theory of the institutional differentiation of the so-called secular spheres, such as state, economy, and science, from religious institutions and norms; (b) the theory of the progressive decline of religious beliefs and practices as a concomitant of levels of modernization; and (c) the theory of privatization of religion as a precondition of modern secular and democratic politics.6 Such an analytical distinction makes possible the testing of each of the three subtheses separately as different empirically falsifiable propositions.

Since in Europe the three processes of secular differentiation, privatization of religion, and religious decline have been historically interconnected, there has been the tendency to view all three processes as intrinsically interrelated components of a single general teleological process of secularization and modernization, rather than as particular and contingent developments. In the United States, by contrast, one finds a paradigmatic process of secular differentiation, which is not accompanied, however, either by a process of religious decline or by the confinement of religion to the private sphere. Processes of modernization and democratization in American society have often been accompanied by religious revivals, and the wall of separation between church and state, though much stricter than the one erected in most European societies, does not imply the rigid separation of religion and politics.

While the two minor subtheses of the theory of secularization, namely, “the decline of religion” and “the privatization of religion,” have undergone numerous critiques and revisions in the last fifteen years, the core of the thesis, namely, the understanding of secularization as a single process of functional differentiation of the various secular institutional spheres of modern societies from religion, remains relatively uncontested.7 Yet one should ask whether it is appropriate to subsume the multiple and very diverse historical patterns of differentiation and fusion of the various institutional spheres (that is, church and state, state and economy, economy and science) that one finds throughout the history of modern Western societies into a single teleological process of modern functional differentiation.8

Moreover, rather than viewing secularization as a general universal process of human and societal development culminating in secular modernity, one should begin with the recognition that the very term “secularization” derives from a unique Western Christian theological category, that of the saeculum. Talal Asad has called our attention to the fact that “the historical process of secularization effects a remarkable ideological inversion …. For at one time ‘the secular’ was a part of a theological discourse (saeculum),” while later, “the religious” is constituted by secular political and scientific discourses, so that “religion” itself as a historical category and as a universal globalized concept emerges as a construction of Western secular modernity.9

Thus, any thinking of secularization beyond the West has to begin with the recognition of this dual historical paradox. Namely, that “the secular” emerges first as a particular Western Christian theological category, while its modern antonym, “the religious,” is a product of Western secular modernity. The contextualization of our categories, “religious” and “secular,” should begin, therefore, with the recognition of the particular Christian historicity of western European developments, as well as of the multiple and diverse historical patterns of differentiation and fusion of the religious and the secular, as well as of their mutual constitution, within European and Western societies.

Such recognition, in turn, should allow a less Eurocentric comparative analysis of patterns of differentiation and secularization in other civilizations and world religions and, more important, the further recognition that with the world-historical process of globalization initiated by the European colonial expansion, all of these processes everywhere are dynamically interrelated and mutually constituted. Without questioning the actual historical processes of secular differentiation, such analysis contextualizes, pluralizes, and in a sense relativizes those processes by framing them as particular Christian-Western historical dynamics, which allows for a discourse of multiple modernities within the West and, of course, even more so for multiple non-Western modernities.

As Peter van der Veer has stressed, the very pattern of Western secularization cannot be fully comprehended if one ignores the crucial significance of the colonial encounter in European developments.10 Indeed, the best of postcolonial analysis has shown how every master reform narrative and every genealogical account of Western secular modernity needs to take into account the colonial and intercivilizational encounters. Certainly, any comprehensive narrative of the modern civilizing process must take into account the western European encounter with other civilizations. The very category of civilization in the singular only emerges out of these intercivilizational encounters.11

This is even more clearly the case when one attempts a genealogical reconstruction of the unique modern secular category of “religion,” which has now also become globalized.12 Indeed, any discussion of secularization as a global process should start with the reflexive observation that one of the most important global trends is the globalization of the category of “religion” itself and of the binary classification of reality, “religious/secular,” that it entails. While the social sciences still function with a relatively unreflexive general category of religion, within the newer discipline of “religious studies,” the very category of religion has undergone numerous challenges, as well as all kinds of critical deconstructions. There has been much debate in the last two decades concerning the competing genealogies of the “modern” category of religion and its complex relation to the pluralization of Christian confessions and denominations in early modernity, to the Western colonial expansion and the encounter with the religious “other,” to the Enlightenment critique of religion and the triumph of “secular reason,” the hegemony of the secular state, and the disciplinary institutionalization of the scientific study of religion, and to the Western “invention of the world religions” and the classificatory taxonomies of religion which have now become globalized.13

It is therefore appropriate to begin a discussion of global religious and secular trends with the recognition of a paradox, namely, that scholars of religion are questioning the validity of the category of “religion” at the very same moment when the discursive reality of religion is more widespread than ever and has become for the first time global. I am not claiming that people today everywhere are either more or less religious than they may have been in the past. Here I am bracketing out altogether the question that has dominated most theories of secularization, namely, whether religious beliefs and practices are declining or growing as a general modern trend throughout the world. I am only claiming that “religion” as a discursive reality, indeed, as an abstract category and as a system of classification of reality, used by modern individuals as well as by modern societies across the world, by religious as well as by secular authorities, has become an undisputable global social fact.

It is obvious that when people around the world use the same category of religion, they actually mean very different things. The actual concrete meaning of whatever people denominate as “religion” can only be elucidated in the context of their particular discursive practices. But the very fact that the same category of religion is being used globally across cultures and civilizations testifies to the global expansion of the modern secular/religious system of classification of reality that first emerged in the modern Christian West. This implies the need to reflect more critically on this particular modern system of classification, without taking it for granted as a general universal system.14

Moreover, while the religious/secular system of classification of reality may have become globalized, what remains hotly disputed and debated almost everywhere in the world today is how, where, and by whom the proper boundaries between the religious and the secular ought to be drawn. There are in this respect multiple competing secularisms, as there are multiple and diverse forms of religious fundamentalist resistance to those secularisms. For example, American, French, Turkish, Indian, and Chinese secularism, to name only some paradigmatic and distinctive modes of drawing the boundaries between the religious and the secular, represent not only very different patterns of separation of the secular state and religion but also very different models of state regulation and management of religion and of religious pluralism in society.

Similarly, despite “family resemblances” observed among the diverse religious fundamentalisms, one should resist the temptation to view them all as diverse manifestations of a single process of religious fundamentalist reaction against a single general global process of progressive secularization.15 Each of the so-called religious fundamentalist movements—American Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and so on—besides being internally plural and diverse, are particular responses to particular ways of drawing the boundaries between the religious and the secular. Moreover, those responses are not only reactive but also proactive attempts to seize the opportunity offered by processes of globalization to redraw the boundaries. Above all, always and everywhere, the religious and the secular are mutually constituted through sociopolitical struggles and cultural politics. Not surprisingly, everywhere one finds also diverse resistances to attempts to impose the European or any other particular pattern of secularization as a universal, teleological model.

Indeed, if one finds that European patterns of secularization are not simply replicated either in the “Christian” United States or in Catholic Latin America, much less should one expect that are they going to be simply reproduced in other non-Western civilizations. The very category of secularization becomes deeply problematic once it is conceptualized in a Eurocentric way as a universal process of progressive human societal development from “belief” to “unbelief” and from traditional “religion” to modern “secularity” and once it is then transferred to other world religions and other civilizational areas with very different dynamics of structuration of the relations and tensions between religion and world or between cosmological transcendence and worldly immanence. Moreover, in the same way as Western secular modernity is fundamentally and inevitably post-Christian, the emerging multiple modernities in the different postaxial civilizational areas are likely to be post-Hindu, or post-Confucian, or post-Muslim; that is, they will also be particular and contingent refashionings and transformations of existing civilizational patterns and social imaginaries mixed with modern secular ones.

We should think of processes of secularization, of religious transformations and revivals, and of processes of sacralization as ongoing mutually constituted global processes, rather than as mutually exclusive developments. Indeed, adopting a necessarily fictitious global point of view, one can observe three different, parallel, yet interrelated global processes that are in tension and often come in open conflict with one another. There is, first, a global process of secularization that can best be characterized as the global expansion of what Taylor has characterized as “the secular immanent frame.” This frame is constituted by the structural interlocking constellation of the modern cosmic, social, and moral secular orders.16 But as the ongoing debates between the European and American paradigms and the discourse of American and European “exceptionalisms” make clear, this process of secularization within the very same immanent frame may entail very different “religious” dynamics.17

Despite its many variations, the general European pattern is one of secularization (i.e., secular differentiation) and “religious” decline (i.e., decline of church religiosity and loss of ecclesiastical power and authority). But the American pattern is one of secularization combined with religious growth and recurrent religious revivals. Thus, the fundamental question for any theory of secularization is how one is to account sociologically for the radical bifurcation in the religious situation today between Western societies on both sides of the North Atlantic, that is, between the radical secularity of European societies, which, indeed, appear to match perfectly Taylor’s phenomenological account of A Secular Age and the predominant condition of religious belief among the vast majority of the American population.18

I concur with Dipesh Chakrabarty in the need to “provincialize” Europe and to turn the European theories of American exceptionalism upside down.19 Instead of being the norm, the historical process of secularization of European Latin Christendom is the one truly exceptional process, which is unlikely to be reproduced anywhere else in the world with a similar sequential arrangement and with the corresponding stadial consciousness. Moreover, non-Western and non-Christian societies, which did not undergo a similar process of historical development and always confronted Western secular modernity from its first encounter with European (Christian) colonialism as “the other,” are more likely to recognize the European process of secularization for what it truly was, namely, a particular Christian and post-Christian historical process, and not, as Europeans like to think, a general or universal process of human or societal development.

Without such a stadial consciousness, it is unlikely that the immanent frame of the secular modern order will have similar phenomenological effects on the conditions of belief and unbelief in non-Western societies. It is an open empirical question which kind of “religious” dynamic will accompany secularization, that is, the expansion of the secular immanent frame and of secular differentiation in non-Western cultures. For instance, one can certainly view the process of desacralization of the traditional caste system in India, which must perforce accompany modern processes of democratization, as a particular form of Indian secularization. But such a secularization, even when legally imposed, is unlikely to have the same secularizing phenomenological effect on the conditions of belief and unbelief that ecclesiastical disestablishment may have had in the European confessional context. The very post-Reformation Christian categories of “belief” and “unbelief” might be totally unfitting in the context of India or “Hinduism.”

If, as I have suggested, globalization entails a certain decentering, provincializing, and historicizing of Europe and of European secular modernity, even in relation to the different religious pattern of American modernity within the same immanent frame, then it is unlikely that what Taylor calls “our” secular age will simply become the common global secular age of all of humanity or that “our” secular age will become absolutely unaffected by this process of globalization and by the encounter with the emerging non-Western and in many respects nonsecular modernities.

Parallel to the general process of secularization, which started as a historical process of internal secularization within Western Christendom but was later globalized through the European colonial expansion, there is a process of constitution of a global system of “religions,” which can best be understood as a process of global religious denominationalism, whereby all of the so-called world religions are redefined and transformed in contraposition to “the secular” through interrelated reciprocal processes of particularistic differentiation, universalistic claims, and mutual recognition.

But the modern “secular” is by no means synonymous with the “profane,” nor is the “religious” synonymous with the modern “sacred.” Only “the social as religious” is synonymous with the “sacred” in Durkheimian terms. In this respect, modern secularization entails a certain profanation of religion through its privatization and individualization and a certain sacralization of the secular spheres of politics (sacred nation, sacred citizenship, sacred constitution), science (temples of knowledge), and economics (through commodity fetishism). But the truly modern sacralization, which constitutes the global civil religion in Durkheim’s terms, is the cult of the individual and the sacralization of humanity through the globalization of human rights.20

It is an open empirical question, which should be the central focus of a comparative-historical sociology of religion, how these three ongoing global processes of secularization, sacralization, and religious denominationalism are mutually interrelated in different civilizations, sometimes symbiotically, as in the fusions of religious nationalisms or in the religious defense of human rights, but often antagonistically, as in the violent conflicts between the sacred secular immanent norms (of individual life and freedom) and transcendent theistic norms. From the Salman Rushdie affair to the Danish cartoons, from the destruction of the Babri Masjid to suicide murders, from the assassination of Theo van Gogh to the confrontation between the German pope and the German chancellor over the papal absolution of the excommunication of Bishop Richard Williamsons, an unrepentant “integralist” who dared to commit publicly the sacrilegious crime of denying the Holocaust, what we are repeatedly observing in the “glocal” media of the global public sphere can best be understood not so much as clashes between “the religious” and “the secular” but, rather, as violent confrontations over “the sacred,” over blasphemous and sacrilegious acts and speeches, and over the profanation of religious and secular taboos.

It is all part and parcel of ongoing global struggles over universal-particular mutual human recognition.


As indicated above, “secularism” can refer most broadly to a whole range of modern worldviews and ideologies concerning “religion,” which may be consciously held and reflexively elaborated or, alternatively, which have taken hold of us and function as taken-for-granted assumptions that constitute the reigning epistemic doxa or “unthought.” But secularism also refers to different normative-ideological state projects, as well as to different legal-constitutional frameworks of separation of state and religion and to different models of differentiation of religion, ethics, morality, and law.

It may be fruitful to begin by drawing an analytical distinction between secularism as statecraft doctrine and secularism as ideology. By secularism as statecraft principle, I understand simply some principle of separation between religious and political authority, either for the sake of the neutrality of the state vis-à-vis each and all religions, or for the sake of protecting the freedom of conscience of each individual, or for the sake of facilitating the equal access of all citizens, religious as well as nonreligious, to democratic participation. Such a statecraft doctrine neither presupposes nor needs to entail any substantive “theory,” positive or negative, of “religion.” Indeed, the moment the state holds explicitly a particular conception of “religion,” one enters the realm of ideology. One could argue that secularism becomes an ideology the moment it entails a theory of what “religion” is or does. It is this assumption that “religion,” in the abstract, is a thing that has an essence or that produces certain particular and predictable effects that is the defining characteristic of modern secularism.21

One can distinguish two basic types of secularist ideologies. The first type are secularist theories of religion grounded in some progressive stadial philosophies of history that relegate religion to a superseded stage. The second type are secularist political theories that presuppose that religion is either an irrational force or a nonrational form of discourse that should be banished from the democratic public sphere. They can be called, respectively, “philosophical-historical” and “political” secularisms.

My aim here is not to trace, from the perspective of a history of ideas, the origins of both forms of secularism in early-modern Europe and the ways in which they came together in Enlightenment critiques of religion and became separated again in the different trajectories of positivism, materialist atheism, atheist humanism, republican laicism, liberalism, and so on. I am also not interested here in examining the secularist “philosophical-historical” assumptions permeating most theories of secular modernity, such as Jürgen Habermas’s theories of “rationalization of the life-world” and “linguistification of the sacred,” or the “political” secularist assumptions permeating prominent liberal democratic political theories such as those of John Rawls or Habermas, although both began to revise their secularist premises in their later works.22

As a sociologist, more than on the high intellectual versions of both types of secularism, I am interested in examining the extent to which such secularist assumptions permeate the taken-for-granted assumptions and thus the phenomenological experience of ordinary people. Crucial is the moment when the phenomenological experience of being “secular” is not tied anymore to one of the units of a dyadic pair, “religious/secular,” but is constituted as a self-enclosed reality. Secular then stands for self-sufficient and exclusive secularity, when people are not simply religiously “unmusical” but are actually closed to any form of transcendence beyond the purely secular immanent frame.

Earlier here, I argued that it is the presence or absence of what I have called a “secularist historical stadial consciousness” that explains to a large extent when and where processes of modernization are accompanied by radical secularization. In places where such secularist historical stadial consciousness is absent, as in the United States or in most non-Western postcolonial societies, processes of modernization are unlikely to be accompanied by processes of religious decline. On the contrary, they may be accompanied by processes of religious revival.

The different ways in which European and American publics respond to public-opinion polls trying to measure their religiosity—how strongly they believe in God, how frequently they pray, how frequently they go to church, how religious they are, and so on—may serve as a confirming illustration of my thesis. We know for a fact that both Americans and Europeans lie to the pollsters. But they tend to lie in opposite directions. Americans exaggerate their religiosity, claiming to go to church and to pray more frequently than they actually do. We know this for a fact because sociologists of religion, trying to prove that modern secularization is also at work in the United States, have shown that Americans are less religious than they claim to be and that one should not trust their self-reporting religiosity.23 But the interesting sociological question is why Americans would tend to exaggerate their religiosity, claiming that they are more religious than they actually are, unless they somehow believe that to be modern and to be American, which for most Americans means exactly the same thing, also entails being religious.

Europeans, by contrast, if and when they lie to the pollsters, tend to do so in the opposite direction; they tend to undercut their own persistent religiosity. I cannot offer general evidence for all of Europe, but there is clear evidence for this tendency in the case of Spain. The 2008 Bertelsmann Religion Monitor offers overwhelming confirmation of the drastic secularization of Spanish society in the last forty years.24 There is a persistent and consistent decline in self-reported religiosity across all categories of religious belief, church attendance, private prayer, and importance of religion in one’s life. But I find most interesting the even lower figures in religious self-image. The proportion of Spaniards who view themselves as “quite religious” (21 percent) is much smaller than that of those who express a “strong” belief in God (51 percent), significantly smaller than that of those who attend religious services at least monthly (34 percent), and much smaller than that of those who claim to pray at least weekly (44 percent). I am inclined to interpret the discrepancy between self-reported religiosity and religious self-image as an indication that Spaniards would prefer to think of themselves as less religious than they actually are and that being religious is not considered a positive trait in a predominantly secular culture.

The natural response of Europeans to the question of whether they are “religious” would seem to be “Of course, I am not religious. What do you think? I am a modern, liberal, secular, enlightened European.” It is this taken-for-granted identification of being modern and being secular that distinguishes most of western Europe from the United States. To be secular in this sense means to leave religion behind, to emancipate oneself from religion, overcoming the nonrational forms of being, thinking, and feeling associated with religion. It also means growing up, becoming mature, becoming autonomous, thinking and acting on one’s own. It is precisely this assumption that secular people think and act on their own and are rational autonomous free agents, while religious people somehow are unfree, heteronomous, nonrational agents, that constitutes the foundational premise of secularist ideology. It entails in this respect both “subtraction” and “stadial” theories of secularity.

Taylor characterizes as “subtraction” theories those accounts of secular modernity that view the secular as the natural substratum that is left behind and revealed when this anthropologically superfluous and superstructural thing called religion is somehow taken away. The secular is precisely the basic anthropological substratum that remains when one gets rid of religion. Stadial theories add genealogical or functionalist accounts of how and why this superstructural thing, religion, emerged in the first place, usually in the primitive history of humanity, but has now become superfluous for modern secular individuals and for modern societies.

Political secularism per se does not need to share the same negative assumptions about religion or assume any progressive historical development that will make religion increasingly irrelevant. It is actually compatible with a positive view of religion as a moral good or as an ethical communitarian reservoir of human solidarity and republican virtue. But political secularism would like to contain religion within its own differentiated “religious” sphere and would like to maintain a secular public democratic sphere free from religion. This is the basic premise behind any form of secularism as statecraft doctrine, the need to maintain some kind of separation between “church” and “state,” or between “religious” and “political” authorities, or between “the religious” and “the political.” But the fundamental question is how the boundaries are drawn and by whom. Political secularism falls easily into secularist ideology when the political arrogates for itself absolute, sovereign, quasi-sacred, quasi-transcendent character or when the secular arrogates for itself the mantle of rationality and universality, while claiming that “religion” is essentially nonrational, particularistic, and intolerant (or illiberal) and, as such, dangerous and a threat to democratic politics once it enters the public sphere. It is the essentializing of “the religious” but also of “the secular” or “the political,” based on problematic assumptions of what “religion” is or does, which is in my view the fundamental problem of secularism as ideology.

It is, indeed, astounding to observe how widespread is the view throughout Europe that religion is “intolerant” and “creates conflict.” According to the 1998 ISSP public-opinion survey, the overwhelming majority of Europeans, more than two-thirds of the population in every western European country, held the view that religion was “intolerant.”25 This was a widespread view, moreover, already before September 11, 2001. Since people are unlikely expressly to recognize their own intolerance, one can assume that in expressing such an opinion, Europeans are thinking of somebody else’s “religion” or, alternatively, present a selective retrospective memory of their own past religion, which they consider themselves fortunately to have outgrown. It is even more telling that a majority of the population in every western European country, with the significant exceptions of Norway and Sweden, shares the view that “religion creates conflict.”

It should seem obvious that such a widespread negative view of “religion” as being “intolerant” and conducive to conflict can hardly be grounded empirically in the collective historical experience of European societies in the twentieth century or in the actual personal experience of most contemporary Europeans. It can plausibly be explained, however, as a secular construct that has the function of positively differentiating modern secular Europeans from “the religious other,” either from premodern religious Europeans or from contemporary non-European religious people, particularly Muslims.

So when they think of religion as “intolerant,” Europeans obviously are not thinking of themselves, even when many of them may still be religious, but, rather, they must be thinking either of the religion they have left behind or of the religion of “the other” within their midst, which happens to be Islam. Insofar as they identify religion with intolerance, they seem to imply that they have happily left their own intolerance behind by getting rid of religion. The argument for tolerance becomes in this sense a justification for secularity as the source of tolerance.

Most striking is the view of “religion” in the abstract as the source of violent conflict, given the actual historical experience of most European societies in the twentieth century. “The European short century,” from 1914 to 1989, using Eric Hobsbawm’s apt characterization, was, indeed, one of the most violent, bloody, and genocidal centuries in the history of humanity. But none of the horrible massacres—not the senseless slaughter of millions of young Europeans in the trenches of World War I; or the countless millions of victims of Bolshevik and Communist terror through revolution, civil war, collectivization campaigns, the great famine in Ukraine, the repeated cycles of Stalinist terror, and the gulag; or the most unfathomable of all, the Nazi Holocaust and the global conflagration of World War II, culminating in the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—can be said to have been caused by religious fanaticism and intolerance. All of them were, rather, products of modern secular ideologies.

Yet contemporary Europeans obviously prefer selectively to forget the more inconvenient recent memories of secular ideological conflict and retrieve instead the long-forgotten memories of the religious wars of early-modern Europe to make sense of the religious conflicts they see today proliferating around the world and increasingly threatening them. Rather than seeing the common structural contexts of modern state formation, interstate geopolitical conflicts, modern nationalism, and the political mobilization of ethnocultural and religious identities, processes central to modern European history that became globalized through the European colonial expansion, Europeans seemingly prefer to attribute those conflicts to “religion,” that is, to religious fundamentalism and the fanaticism and intolerance that are supposedly intrinsic to “premodern” religion, an atavistic residue that modern secular enlightened Europeans have left behind.26 One may suspect that the function of such a selective historical memory is to safeguard the perception of the progressive achievements of Western secular modernity, offering a self-validating justification of the secular separation of religion and politics as the condition for modern liberal democratic politics, for global peace, and for the protection of individual privatized religious freedom.

In fact, existing European democracies are not as secular as secularist theories of democracy seem to imply. European societies may be highly secular, but European states are far from being secular or neutral. One only needs to point out that every branch of Christianity, with the exception of the Catholic church, has privileged establishment, and not only a symbolic one, in some European democracy: the Anglican Church in England, the Presbyterian church in Scotland, the Lutheran church in all Nordic countries (Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Finland) except Sweden, and the Orthodox church in Greece. Even in laicist France, 80 percent of the budget of private Catholic schools is covered by state funds. Indeed, between the two extremes of French laïcité and Nordic Lutheran establishment, all across Europe is a whole range of very diverse patterns of church-state relations, in education, media, health and social services, and so on, which constitute very “unsecular” entanglements, such as the consociational formula of pillarization in the Netherlands or the corporatist official state recognition of the Protestant and Catholic churches in Germany (as well as of the Jewish community in some Länder).27

One should focus less on secularism as an allegedly prescriptive democratic norm or as a functionalist requirement of modern differentiated societies and more on the critical comparative historical analysis of the different types of secularism that have emerged in the process of modern state formation. As a statecraft doctrine, every form of secularism entails two principles, which are well captured by the dual clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, namely, the principle of separation (i.e., “no establishment”) and the principle of state regulation of religion in society (i.e., “free exercise”). It is the relationship between the two principles that determines the particular form of secularism and its affinity with democracy.

Concerning the first principle, there are all kinds of degrees of separation between the two extremes of “hostile” and “friendly” separation. Indeed, in places in which there was no ecclesiastical institution with monopolistic claims, such as the Catholic church before the Second Vatican Council, or compulsory confessional state churches, such as the ones that became institutionalized through the Westphalian system of European states under the principle cuius regio eius religio, one does not need, properly speaking, a process of disestablishment, and one may have a process of friendly separation, as was the case in the United States.

As Ahmet Kuru has shown, the type of separation at the formative period of the modern state will be very much determined by the particular configuration of relations between religious and political authorities during the ancient regime.28 Postcolonial states are likely to have their own particular dynamics. In colonial America, for instance, there was no national church across the thirteen colonies from which the new federal state needed to separate itself. However, the separation was friendly, not only because there was no need to have a hostile separation from a nonexistent established church but, more important, because the separation was constituted in order to protect the free exercise of religion, that is, in order to construct the conditions of possibility for religious pluralism in society.

Ultimately, the question is whether secularism is an end in itself, an ultimate value, or a means to some other end, be it democracy and equal citizenship or religious (i.e., normative) pluralism. Indeed, if the secularist principle of separation is not an end in itself, then it ought to be constructed in such a way that it maximizes the equal participation of all citizens in democratic politics and the free exercise of religion in society. Taking the two clauses together, one can construct general gradual typologies of hostile/friendly separation, on the one hand, and models of free/unfree state regulation of religion in society, on the other.

One could advance the proposition that it is the “free exercise” of religion clause, rather than the “no establishment” clause, that appears to be a necessary condition for democracy. One cannot have democracy without freedom of religion. Indeed, “free exercise” stands out as a normative democratic principle in itself. Since, on the other hand, there are many historical examples of secular states that were nondemocratic, the Soviet-type regimes, Kemalist Turkey, or postrevolutionary Mexico being obvious cases, one can therefore conclude that the strict secular separation of church and state is neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition for democracy. The “no establishment” principle appears defensible and necessary primarily as a means to free exercise and to equal rights. Disestablishment becomes a necessary condition for democracy whenever an established religion claims monopoly over a state territory, impedes the free exercise of religion, and undermines equal rights or equal access to all citizens.

Understandably, most discussions of the secular and secularism are internal Western Christian secular debates about patterns of Christian Western secularization. As Noah Feldman has pointed out, this is basically a debate about how we got from Saint Augustine to where we are today.29 We should be cautious in trying to elevate this particular and contingent historical process to some general universal historical model. Indeed, we should remind ourselves that “the secular” emerged first as a particular Western Christian theological category, a category that not only served to organize the particular social formation of Western Christendom but also very much structured thereafter the dynamics of how to transform or free oneself from such a system. Eventually, however, as a result of this particular historical process of secularization, “the secular” has become the dominant category that serves to structure and delimit, legally, philosophically, scientifically, and politically, the nature and the boundaries of “religion.”

As it happened, this particular dynamic of secularization became globalized through the process of Western colonial expansion, entering into dynamic tension with the many different ways in which other civilizations had drawn boundaries between “sacred” and “profane,” “transcendent” and “immanent,” “religious” and “secular.” We should not think of these dyadic pairs of terms as being synonymous. The sacred tends to be immanent in preaxial cultures. The transcendent is not necessarily “religious” in some axial civilizations. The secular is by no means profane in our secular age. Indeed, we would need to enter into a much more open analysis of non-Western civilizational dynamics and be more critical of our Western Christian secular categories, in order to expand our understandings of the secular and secularisms.


1. This chapter builds on and expands the argument developed in José Casanova, “The Secular and Secularisms,” Social Research 76, no. 4 (Winter 2009): 1049-1066.

2. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007).

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid., 269.

5. Marcel Gauchet, The Disenchantment of the World: A Political History of Religion (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997).

6. José Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994). For a critical revision of the thesis, see José Casanova, “Public Religions Revisited,” in Hent de Vries, ed., Religion: Beyond a Concept (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 101-119.

7. José Casanova, “Rethinking Secularization: A Global Comparative Perspective,” Hedgehog Review 8, nos. 1-2 (Spring/Summer 2002): 7-22.

8. For a poignant critique of the thesis of differentiation, see Charles Tilly, Big Structures, Large Processes, Huge Comparisons (New York: Russell Sage, 1984), 43-60.

9. Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2003), 192.

10. Peter van der Veer, Imperial Encounters (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2007).

11. Johann P. Arnason, Civilizations in Dispute (Leiden: Brill, 2003).

12. Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993); Wilfred Cantwell Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion (New York: Macmillan, 1963).

13. Hans Kippenberg, Discovering Religious History in the Modern Age (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002); Tomoko Mazusawa, The Invention of World Religions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005); Russell McCutcheon, Manufacturing Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982); Jonathan Z. Smith, “Religion, Religions, Religious,” in Mark C. Taylor, ed., Critical Terms for Religious Studies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 269-284; Hent de Vries, ed., Religion: Beyond a Concept (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008).

14. Peter Beyer, Religions in Global Society (London: Routledge, 2006).

15. Gabriel A. Almond, R. Scott Appleby, and Emmanuel Sivan, Strong Religion: The Rise of Fundamentalisms around the World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).

16. Taylor, A Secular Age.

17. José Casanova, “Beyond European and American Exceptionalism,” in Grace Davie, Paul Heelas, and Linda Woodhead, eds., Predicting Religion (Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2003), 17-29.

18. Peter Berger, Grace Davie, and Effie Fokas, Religious America, Secular Europe? A Theme with Variations (Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2008).

19. Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000).

20. Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (New York: Free Press, 1995); José Casanova, “The Sacralization of the Humanum: A Theology for a Global Age,” International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society 13, no.1 (Fall 1999): 21-40.

21. Asad, Genealogies of Religion and Formations of the Secular.

22. Jürgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984 and 1987), The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1989), Religion and Rationality: Essays on Reason, God and Morality (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002), and Between Naturalism and Religion (Cambridge, U.K.: Polity, 2008); John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971) and A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith, with “On My Religion” (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009).

23. Kirk Hadaway, Penny Long Marler, and Mark Chaves, “What the Polls Don’t Show: A Close Look at US Church Attendance,” American Sociological Review 58 (1993): 741-752.

24. José Casanova, “Spanish Religiosity: An Interpretative Reading of the Religion Monitor Results for Spain,” in Bertelsmann Stiftung, ed., What the World Believes (Guetersloh: Verlag Bertelsmann Stiftung, 2009), 223-255.

25. Andrew Greeley, Religion in Europe at the End of the Second Millennium (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 2003), 78.

26. José Casanova, “The Problem of Religion and the Anxieties of European Secular Democracies,” in Gabriel Motzkin and Yochi Fischer, eds., Religion and Democracy in Contemporary Europe (London: Alliance, 2008), 63-74; and Europa’s Angst vor der Religion (Berlin: Berlin University Press, 2009).

27. John Madeley has developed a tripartite measure of church-state relation, which he calls the TAO of European management and regulation of religion-state relations by the use of Treasure (T, for financial and property connections), Authority (A, for the exercise of states’ powers of command), and Organization (O, for the effective intervention of state bodies in the religious sphere). According to his measurement, all European states score positively on at least one of these scales, most states score positively on two of them, and more than one-third (sixteen out of forty-five states) score positively on all three. John T. S. Madeley, “Unequally Yoked: The Antinomies of Church-State Separation in Europe and the USA,” paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Chicago, August 30-September 2, 2007.

28. Ahmet Kuru, Secularism and State Policies toward Religion (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

29. Noah Feldman, “Religion and the Earthly City,” Social Research 76, no. 4 (Winter 2009): 989-1000.