I hesitated to respond to Stathis Gourgouris’s riposte because of its dramatic and consistent misreading of my argument in “Secularism, Hermeneutics, and Empire.” His vitriolic tone undercuts critical exchange and makes it impossible to offer anything but a defensive response. Furthermore, it exemplifies the kind of blackmail — one is either for or against secularism — that was my object of concern in the earlier post and that I think carries great analytic and political costs. That said, and perhaps despite my better judgment, let me see if I can elaborate why this kind of thinking is inimical to the development of an analytic language about what constitutes secularism, secularity, and the secular in our present world.
First, a few remarks on Gourgouris’s repeated use of the term antisecular to describe and dismiss my argument. This gesture, of course, invites a simple counterresponse: “No, I am not antisecular” or “Yes, I am.” Such a framing fails to address the complicated set of questions that the symposium “Is Critique Secular?” opened up to reflection and that I alluded to in my earlier riposte. Calls for the embrace (or, for that matter, the rejection) of secularism are often premised on a putative opposition between secular and religious worldviews, wherein each is defined as a necessary and stable essence superior to the other. It is argued that there is an essential kernel to secularism that must be preserved and defended from religious extremism and backwardness. For some, this is secularism’s scientific rationality; for others, it is secularism’s incipient objectivity; and for still others, it is secularism’s strict separation between state and religion. The idea that the “good” elements in secularism can be distinguished from the “bad,” the latter discarded and the former refined, only reinforces the blackmail. (It reminds me of a similar dilemma, thrust upon critics of modernity at an earlier moment, to which Michel Foucault responded astutely in his essay “What Is Enlightenment?”)
Apart from the fact that the good and the bad cannot so easily be distinguished, much less purified, the crucial problem with this kind of thinking is its assumption that a secular worldview is the opposite of a religious one, each indebted to a distinct epistemology irreconcilable with the epistemology of the other. It must be obvious to readers of my work that I do not agree with this understanding of secularism. As a number of scholars have shown, the emergence of the modern category of the secular (to be distinguished from the premodern use of the Latin term saeculum) is constitutively related to the rise of the modern concept of religion, wherein it is impossible to track the history of one without simultaneously tracking the history of the other.1 Furthermore, secularism, as a principle of liberal state governance, has entailed not so much the abandonment of religion as its ongoing regulation through a variety of state and civic institutions. Through this process has emerged a modular conception of religiosity and a concomitant religious subject that animates various secular discourses, including juridical, cultural, ethical, and political ones. Since this argument is well known, I do not want to rehearse it here other than to say that this way of thinking challenges the simplistic assumption that secularism is empty of theological arguments; that if any trace of theology is found in secular discourse, then it is clearly a “bad” development that sullies the true essence of secularism (hence the mission to “detranscendentalize the secular”). For Gourgouris, the fact that I read the theological agenda of the United States (in “Secularism, Hermeneutics, and Empire”) in terms of the secular is a gross error inasmuch as the two are supposed to be mutually exclusive. Not only is this understanding of secularism historically inaccurate, I suggest, but it is blind to the enormous impetus to religious reform that is internal to different varieties of secularism (benign or otherwise).
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