In this post, Samantha May challenges the tendency in the disciplines of Politics and International Relations of drawing a sharp line between religion and the secular. May makes a case for scholars in the field to acknowledge much more nuanced reality between the boundaries between religion/secular and public/private. By doing so, she re-introduces the significance of post-secularism as a way of responding properly to the reality that we live in.
Religious rhetoric appears on the rise yet the divide between the secular and the religious in Western scholarship has left us bereft of useful tools of analysis. From the Archbishop of Canterbury’s meetings with Prime Minister David Cameron (Mendick, 2015) to the Republican candidate Donald Trump calling on a ban of all Muslims travelling to the United States (Pilkington, 2015), religious actors and religious categorisations are repeatedly in the public domain. Thus I call for consideration of the post-secular paradigm which can accommodate and speak to the variety of religious and non-religious positions. Without doubt, this line of inquiry has been apparent in disciplines such as Anthropology and Sociology for decades and more, yet the disciplines of Politics and International Relations (PIR) have remained resistant to the reality of public religion specifically because it challenges the public/private divide which rests at the center of dominant PIR theories.
Post-secularism is an important theoretical position to engage with in PIR precisely because it allows a space for the religious and non-religious to create a dialogue where both positions are respected and neither relegated to archaic practices or private, marginalised domains. It essentially speaks to the empirical reality of our times where both the religious and the non-religious coexist and are mutually dependent even simply in terms of the dichotomy of ‘secular’ makes no sense without its oppositional other ‘religion.’ Additionally it can help us to understand the fluid nature of religion and religious practice which can no longer be contained coherently in the ‘traditional’ boxes of recognised world religions but blur the boundary between the spiritual and the profane. Post-secularism not only adds to the established critiques of secularisation theories but offers an alternative position which allows us all to take seriously religious sentiments and grants the possibility of increased understanding of our contemporary political world. Methodologically post-secularism invites a mutli-disciplinary approach to understanding global political events broadly that can combine existing work from a variety of the social sciences in additional to theological and religious debates. Post-secularism thus opens the gateway for PIR studies to re-engage with religion in the public sphere.
The Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, stated that Muslim refugees threaten Europe’s Christian identity (Traynor, 2015). I do agree with the Hungarian PM that remembrance of our Christian history – the good, the bad and the ugly- is imperative, but perhaps for different reasons than Orbán may defend. To forget impoverishes our understanding, of self, history and the presence of the past. Forgetting endangers repeats of the past which include the crusades, the religious wars in Europe, the witch trials, the ghettoisation of Jewish communities and Jewish programs amongst a plethora of other examples. To forget our religious history creates an assumption that religious violence has always been carried out by ‘Them’ and never ‘Us’. Perhaps more importantly forgetting skewers our memories of the enormous potential religion has for the common good, charitable systems, interfaith dialogue, peace and reconciliation and so on and so on. However, the forgetting of our Christian past cannot be blamed on the Other – the responsibility is Ours.
As many scholars have already articulated, secularism can take many forms. Secularism in Britain has been associated with an accompanying normative and ideological process whereby to be secular was to be non-religious (i.e., rational and modern) (Asad et al., 2014: p.vii). The ideological assumption to this notion of secularisation is that religion is ‘backward’ and thus to retain religious beliefs somehow flies in the face of modern science. Thus to publically discuss religion and religious history in everyday life becomes a social faux pas. The consequences of this normative process have been the growth of a generation largely ignorant of the (debated) ‘Christian’ identity of Britain. The point being, that if non-Christian refugees were indeed a threat to Europe’s ‘Christian’ identity, as Orbán suggests, there would need to be a real understanding of what Christian values and practices actually are throughout the population.
Neither should it be assumed that the history of ‘Christian’ values are shared by all of society. A recent YouGov poll indicated that only 32% of the British population believes in a God (Jordan, 2015). The line that religion in general is in decline in Britain (and Western Europe generally) provides the only piece of evidence that secularism- understood here as a decline in religious belief – is a real phenomenon. Yet, what is considered as “religious” perhaps needs redefining in our contemporary society. The same YouGov poll found that 20% still believed in a higher power albeit not a “god”. Another YouGov poll found that while less than half of the population considered themselves ‘religious’ 1 in 3 (34%) believed in the existence of ghosts (Dahlgreen, 2014). The dichotomy between what is secular and what is spiritual is increasingly (if always) blurred and fluid. According to Asad et. al ‘“secularism does not merely organize the place of religion in nation-states and communities but also stipulates what religion is and ought to be…’ (2013: p.ix).
Post-secularism here should not be understood as the absence of secularism but simply that the religious, the non-religious, the spiritual and the secular coexist and are best thought of as ‘overlapping’ (Falk, 2014: p.34). No longer can we claim with any empirical evidence that religion or belief is absent from the public domain, though its nature may have changed. Post-secularism as both a theory and a methodology assists my own work regarding Muslim charities in the UK and the consequences of political policy as it allows religious practice and theological concerns to be taken seriously which in turn challenge pre-conceived assumptions regarding the motivations of charitable giving, and the distribution of alms: which more dominant theories in PIR cannot accommodate while maintaining the public/private divide and marginalising religion and belief to ‘private’ practice.
Post-secular theory can be considered in at least two ways: the first being simply the recognition of the resilience of religion in the public sphere and the second as a radical critique of secular theory and the emergence of a new intellectual paradigm that questions the empirical reality of the public/private divide (Mavelli and Petito 2012: 931). Importantly, it allows us to understand that neither belief nor non-belief is the default option for individuals in society. A range of options are now available so that non-belief, religion, and spirituality are all now legitimate options amongst many others (Wilson, 2014: p.222). Rather than using the dichotomy of either religion or secularity, post-secularism allows the codependent language of ‘both’/’and’ (Wilson, 2014: 234). As Mahmood has argued, ‘The secular and the religious are not opposed but intertwined both historically and conceptually such that it is impossible to inquire into one without engaging with the other’ (Mahmood, 2013: p.140). Post-secular theory thus allows the breakdown of opposing dichotomies of religion and secular. This then provides a useful tool to examine the abundance of differing perspectives in a world where religion refuses to disappear and is shaped and re-shaped by its co-dependent, the secular.
Asad, T, Brown, W, Butler, J & Mahmood, S. 2013.Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury and Free Speech, Fordham University Press, New York.
Dahlgreen. W. 2014. ‘”Ghosts Exist”, say 1 in 3 Brits’, YouGov, https://yougov.co.uk/news/2014/10/31/ghosts-exist-say-1-3-brits/
Richard Falk. 2014. “Achieving political Legitimacy in the Twenty First Century: Secular and Post Secular Imperatives” pp.41-48 in pp13-38 (eds) Mavelli and Petito, Towards a Post Secular International Politics: New Forms of Community, Identity and Power, (Palgrave Macmillan; Basingstoke).
Jordan, W. 2015. ‘A Third of British Adults don’t believe in a higher power’, YouGov, https://yougov.co.uk/news/2015/02/12/third-british-adults-dont-believe-higher-power/
Mavelli and Petito. 2012. ‘The Post-Secular in International Relations: An Overview’, Review of International Studies, 38.5.
Mendick, R. 2015. ‘Archbishop of Canterbury spoke with David Cameron and to the House of Lords regarding plight of Syrian Christian refugees’, The Telegraph, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/11860902/Archbishop-warns-Cameron-over-Syrian-refugees.html
Pilkington, E. 2015. ‘Donald Trump: ban all Muslims entering U.S’, The Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/dec/07/donald-trump-ban-all-muslims-entering-us-san-bernardino-shooting
Traynor, I. 2015. ‘Migration Crisis: Hungary PM says Europe in grip of Madness’, The Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/03/migration-crisis-hungary-pm-victor-orban-europe-response-madness
Wilson, E. K. 2014. “Faith-Based Organisations and Post Secularism in Contemporary International Relations” in (eds) Mavelli and Petito, Towards a Post Secular International Politics: New Forms of Community, Identity and Power, (Palgrave Macmillan; Basingstoke).
Samantha May is a Research Fellow at the University of Aberdeen and award holder of the Leverhulme Early Careers Fellowship for the project entitled: “ Zakat in the UK: Islamic Giving, Citizenship and Government Policy”.