Monday, March 1, 2010

The Post-Secular is not the Pre-Secular

3/1/2010—The term “post-secular” is all the rage now. The law school section on law and religion is even considering it for next year’s program, among other possibilities. But what does it mean?

One aspect of the post-secular is clearly the resurgence of religion in the world. This phenomenon is said to represent a challenge to the secularization thesis: that religion would decline as wealth increased in the world. But, since the “religion” that is increasing is mostly of the fundamentalist variety, and this is true in Christianity as well as Islam, this growth would seem to suggest a “pre-secular” context rather than a post-secular one.

I think the notion that religion is on the rise is false. But whether it is the case or not, the presence of believers in the public square serves only to discredit a rather extreme secular view that religious believers have no right to express their religion in the public square. That view, popular at the end of the twentieth century among some secularists, has not been much heard from since the 2004 Presidential election. (You still hear its echo in the attacks on the Mormon Church for supporting Proposition 8). The recent Newsweek story about Harvard and religion demonstrates this kind of change.

What I mean by the post-secular is something different and has to do with changes within secularism. There are secular thinkers, for example Stuart Kauffman’s book Reinventing the Sacred or Andre Comte-Sponville, The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, who are looking at religion and religious images and traditions as sources of wisdom. In other words, the post-secular is characterized by the softening of the religious/secular border, no longer a wall but perhaps a grab bag, with gifts from and to many different traditions.


  1. I think you've got it backwards.

    Within my living memory, religious groups monopolized what you call "the public square". In those days, we had Sunday blue laws, the Catholic Church ran the Hollywood production code, artificial contraception was banned in some states as was no-fault divorce -- hence the trip to Mexico or Reno. In Ohio, the state censored movies. The Post Office censored material it deemed offensive and Customs prevented the importation of novels like "The Tropic of Capricorn", etc., etc.

    What's more, atheists kept their non-belief to themselves even though they were coerced to participate in state-sanctioned religious activities, such as school prayer. Then, as now, religious groups sought to suppress the teaching of evolution or anything else that ran counter to dogma.

    Homosexuals were still in the closet. And, of course, religious fervor gave us Prohibition.

    Religious access to the public square did not become an issue until these marginalized groups got their place in the sun and pushed the Church and its allies in government out of the business of policing public morality. Only then did organized religion begin falsely claiming that it had been denied access, when, in fact, it merely lost its monopoly.

  2. And all this doesn't even include the recent Supreme Court decision revoking state anti-sodomy laws, whose only purpose was to make every homosexual relationship a de-facto felony.

  3. Very enlightening and beneficial to someone whose been out of the circuit for a long time.

    - Kris