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Prima pagină » CREDO » CRISIS OF THE SECULARISM PARADIGM: RELIGION’S RETURN TO THE PUBLIC SQUARE Dr. Stelian Gomboş – State Secretariat for Culture, Romania




Dr. Stelian Gomboş

State Secretariat for Culture, Romania

This essay seeks to understand the relationship between modernity, secularization, and religion. By engaging such thinkers as Jose Casanova, Peter Berger, Charles Taylor, and Jurgen Habermas, the essay proposes that the post-Enlightenment project of secularization which would replace religion by science and secular rationality has proven elusive. Instead, there has been a resurgence of religion in different parts of the world, in particular Islam. Secularization itself is a complex phenomenon that cannot be reduced to the absence of religion. Peter Berger summed up the persistence of religion across time and space, and in different cultures, as “desecularization.” The outstanding question concerns the proper role for religion, and whether it can return to the public square as complementary rather than antithetical to Enlightenment values in science, culture, and democratic, pluralistic polities?


The understanding of secularism as a linear, almost teleological, dynamic of shedding religion along a steady, (post-)Enlightenment continuum has been overturned and debunked. In equal parts, the notion of an intrinsic synergy between secularism and modernism has been overcome. Particularly since the 1970s and 1980s, but in accelerated fashion as of the 1990s, and the resurgence of religion in a (then) post-Communist world, theories purporting a more complex understanding of secularism have emerged and gained ground. The crisis of the secularism paradigm, however, is not just a crisis of the understanding of secularism, but of its authority–more concretely, its authority to (re-)allocate religion its due place within the public sphere it dominates, based on a renewed understanding of the relationship between secularism and religion.
José Casanova (2019), in particular, argues against the myth that perceives the history of modernity as a linear progressive evolution of humanity from superstition to reason, from belief to unbelief, and from religion to science–his “decline of religion” thesis. He is arguing for comparative sociological analyses of historical processes of secularization to understand if and when these take place in their multi-varied forms. In order to arrive at an assessment of the legitimate re-insertion of religion into the public sphere, Casanova outlines the process of secularization, and how we have arrived at the need to rethink secularism itself.
In this, Casanova and Charles Taylor (2007) share a genealogical approach. Their historicizing of the process of secularization serves to powerfully unearth the transformational and complex dynamics of the intertwined relationship between religion and secularism. Casanova arrives at the moment of assessing religion’s role in the public sphere by formulating a tripartite theory of secularization. This tripartite theory rests on the “differentiation,” “decline of religion,” and “privatization” theses. The first (differentiation) suggests the evolution of modern differentiation, allocating each sphere of epistemology its due field of application, while also intrinsically implying that–or the first time–the religious sphere came fully into its own.
The second thesis suggests that following the Enlightenment critique of religion, culminating in psychoanalysis and capitalistic individualism, that as part of an evolution from magic to religion to scientific rationalism, religion is faced with the fait accompli of persistent minimization and decline. This position is epitomized in recent years by the writings of the so-called New Atheists, particularly Christopher Hitchens (2007). Finally, the third thesis alludes to the reduction of the religious to the purely subjective, which precludes it from forming part of any significant worldview, a phenomenon that is further emphasized by the depoliticization of religious institutions, and the rise of the modern state.
All three of these theses trace the historical unravelling of religion. Through the evolution of a key trademark of modernity that is differentiation, this unravelling was made to seem ongoing, inevitable, and total. The multiplicity of factors that pulled the authoritative rug of truth from under the feet of religion, and contributed to this perception, were the introduction of religious pluralism from the Reformation (16th century) onwards, capitalism’s emergence as the dominant form of economic exchange (19th century), secular raison d’état centralizing means of coercion around state power, and secular morality, as well as the autonomy of alternate truth claims through modern science (20th century),
Taylor is aligned here in his own rethinking and rehabilitation of religion in its capacity to elevate the human experience away from the functional meaning of “exclusive humanism” towards a religiously endowed “fulness.” For Taylor, the defining moment of the crisis of the secularism paradigm is of a more spiritual nature, and concerns a requirement to satisfy innate spiritual needs. These are unmet, for Taylor, when a society has moved from an unchallenged and unproblematic belief in–and porous relationship with–God, to a situation where this belief is just one among any number of others, that is, one of several optional axes of mobilization and belief, to borrow Taylor’s vocabulary (2007: 507-30).
Taylor is also aligned with Casanova in considering secularism as something beyond the “subtraction stories” type reductionist definitions of value pluralism, church-state separation and state protection of conscience. Instead, secularism should be viewed as a continually evolving state of affairs that needs to be thought of, for Taylor, as achieved in a dialectical relationship between reason and religion, the transformative, operative mode of action between the two being reform. Secularism, therefore, cannot satisfactorily be defined as the absence or subtraction of religion. In brief, the secular has a positive, social, historical and ethical shape; it is not a default condition denoted by the negation of religion.
A further moment of crisis that emerges from Taylor’s thinking is how to classify the relationship between differentiated functional and personal meaning, both of which overlap from the private to the public sphere, in a secular world that is now the all-encompassing realm within which religion will have to find–or be allocated–its own place. Two lines of thought are immediately striking in trying to address this: Peter Berger’s concept of “de-secularization” and “counter-secularization” (1999) and Casanova’s notion of the “de-privatization” of religion (2019).
In the case of the former, Berger points to the observable resurgence of orthodoxy across religions the world over, underlining how this resurgence further demonstrates that modernization and secularization are not cognate phenomena. Berger goes so far as to suggest that secularization and counter-secularization are “at least” equally important phenomena in the modern world (1999: 2-4). Berger maintains that the world today is as fervently religious as it ever was–indeed, in some parts of the world, it is possibly more so than it ever was. Berger is implicitly asking us to differentiate between religious practice (and belief), on the one hand, and religious-institutional and state actorhood type presence, on the other.
Religious communities may reject or adapt to modernity, but nevertheless maintain their religiosity in spite of essentially only wielding influence at a community level. Berger describes this as a “shift in the institutional location of religion” rather than what would classically (and mistakenly) be understood as “secularization” (1999: 11-14). In the case of the latter, de-privatization of religion, according to Casanova, religion’s return to the public sphere from the merely private can be justified in (at least) three instances that either serve (1), or legitimately contest, the liberal social order (2 and 3), specifically:
(1) When religion enters the public sphere to protect all modern freedoms and rights;
(2) When religion enters the public sphere to contest absolutist tendencies in secularism;
(3) When religion enters the public sphere to preserve traditional values that aim to safeguard the sanctity of life itself.
Whereas religions may stand united on the first two of these issues, they risk having to fend for themselves in their struggle to preserve their own traditional values against secular norms when it comes to the third instance outlined by Casanova. In terms of Islam in Europe, for example, this becomes particularly precarious as the totalizing worldview that Islam constitutes means that aspects of civic life that have been relegated to the private sphere in the context of secular social arrangements will continuously find their way back into the public domain.
Particularly in the domains of religious institutions such as houses of worship, community, and education, the ideological underpinnings of the secular public sphere are brought to the fore. When these are at odds in their content and/or their practice with those of Islam, the commitment of traditional Muslims to the sacred as the essential defining aspect of community exposes the tension in negotiating and accommodating Islam in the public sphere, and highlights the ambiguity and contradiction that underlines this process.
Along with elements of what Berger has dubbed “counter-secularization,” involving issues around individual identity and rights, such as the practice of religion or the wearing of religious dress within the public sphere, this revaluation of secularization theory as yet still solidly affirms the crisis of secularism as one that still needs to resolve the role of religion within the public sphere. Jurgen Habermas, like Casanova and Berger, grapples with the issue of the role of religion in the public sphere, and similarly points to the religious traditions and communities of faith that gained a “new, hitherto unexpected political importance” at the close of the twentieth century, and the challenge this resurgence poses to our understanding of the role of religion (2008: 114-48). Similar to Berger’s description of adaptation of religious communities, Habermas describes change in the form of religious consciousness as a response to the challenges of modernity (Allen 1994).
In brief, these theories, as explicated so far, have contributed to our understanding as to why the secularism paradigm is in crisis by demonstrating theoretical rehabilitation of religion within the concept of secularism by furthering our understanding of secularism in line with recent phenomena of religious revival. The theoretical positions of Casanova, Berger, Habermas, and Taylor each underscore the following two propositions: (1) that religions are here to stay, aiming to put to rest one of the cherished dreams of the Enlightenment–that of the gradual eradication of religion; and (2) these theoretical positions have largely sought to establish that religions are likely to continue playing an important public role in the ongoing construction of the modern world and the political debate that shapes it.
In conclusion, the importance of the revitalized role of religion extends to various domains. Within the social domain, as Habermas points out, it plays a role in providing its unique resources for solidarity to become enforced. Culturally, it regains relevance in the shape of theology, and the role of theology to undertake the required self-reflection of religious citizens to overcome the cognitive challenges of modernity. Finally, politically, religion’s role continues to be emphasized in debates that highlight the entanglement of religion and politics such as (same-sex) marriage, bioethics, and others.
Because secularization involves a change in the role of religion, secularization can only begin by marking the boundaries of the sacred. Secularization was already in full swing in the Early Modern Era (1450-1750) before urbanization, industrialization, and the Scientific Revolution appeared to undergird its influence. Both “religion” and “secularism” are amorphous, ambiguous terms vying for definition in context. The sociological view of religion is related to function such as culture. The anthropological perspective focuses upon the supernatural or transcendent. The theological definition of religion is a system of beliefs incorporating a relationship between the human and the divine. The term “secular” or “secularized” might describe a society, an institution, an activity, or a point of view. In today’s world, a multicultural syncretism may combine asymmetrical cultural-religious-philosophical parts as a vehicle of escapism from reality which may create illogical clashes between spiritualism and pop science (Sommerville 1992: 5-8; Hollis 1998: 31-48).
In His Olivet discourse in Matthew 24:36-39, Jesus likens the human condition at the end of the Age of Grace, that is, Church Age, to the Noahic pre-Flood era described in Genesis 6. The Book of Enoch, first composed in the third century, BC, in Aramaic (fragments found in the Dead Sea scrolls), gives details regarding the corruption and depravity in Noah’s day, which led to the Flood. It describes the pervasive influence of “unclean spirits” (Mark 1:24, Acts 5:16) infecting virtually all of ancient humanity (except Noah’s family) to become ungodly, vile, and wicked, with a proclivity toward lawlessness and violence. Hence, according to Jesus, a similar situation will arise prior to the Rapture of the body of Christ, and the onset of the Tribulation (Heiser 2019: 72-77).

Allen, Wayne. 1994. The Search for American Soul: Christian Community vs. Secular Authority. Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies VI (1/2): 41-66.
Berger, Peter L. 1992. A Far Glory: The Quest of Faith in an Age of Credulity. New York: Free Press.
_____________, ed. 1999. The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
Casanova, Jose. 2019. Global Religious and Secular Dynamics: The Modern System of Classification. In Brill Research Perspectives in Religion and Politics. Ed. Jocelyne Cesari. City, State: Publisher: if chapter: pp. (from-to?)
Habermas, Jurgen. 2008. Between Naturalism and Religion: Philosophical Essays. Tr. Ciaran Cronin. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Heiser, Michael S. 2019. A Companion to the Book of Enoch, Vol. I. Crane, MO: Defender Publishing.
Hitchens, Christopher. 2007. God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. New York: Twelve Books.
Hollis, Daniel W. III. 1998. Cultural Origins of New Age Cults. Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies X (1/2): 31-48.
Sommerville, C. John. 1992. The Secularization of Early Modern England. New York: Oxford University Press.
Taylor, Charles. 2007. A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Stelian Gombos, Ph.D., Theology, State Secretariat for Culture, Str. Nita Elinescu nr. 24, et. 1, ap. 2, sector 3, cod. 031871, Bucuresti, Romania.
Commentary by Daniel W. Hollis, III, Ph.D., IIR Senior Fellow; Abstract by the Editor.

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