Does Religious Pluralism Require Secularism?   /   Fall 2010   /    Does Religious Pluralism Require Secularism?

Rethinking Secularism

Between escape and interconnected ecumenism.

Craig Calhoun

The Sultan Ahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque), Istanbul; © Bernd Weissbrod/dpa/Corbis.

Secularism is often treated as a sort of absence. It’s what is left if religion fades. It’s the exclusion of religion from the public sphere but somehow in itself neutral. This is misleading. We need to see secularism as a presence, as something, and therefore in need of elaboration and understanding. Whether we see it as an ideology, a worldview, a stance toward religion, a constitutional approach, or simply an aspect of some other project—of science or a philosophical system—secularism is something we need to think through, rather than merely the absence of religion.

Secularism is not simply a creature of treaties to end religious wars, the rise of science, or the Enlightenment. It is informed by a long history of engagements with the temporal world and purposes that imply no transcendence of immanent conditions. It needs direct attention in contemporary discussions of religion and public life. Moreover, I shall contend that working within a sharp binary of secularism versus religion is problematic. Not least, it obscures (a) the important ways in which religious people engage this-worldly, temporal life; (b) the important senses in which religion is established as a category not so much from within as from “secular” perspectives like that of the state; and (c) the ways in which there may be a secular orientation to the sacred or transcendent.

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