[Research] Post-Secular as an Alternative Tool


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.img_0277

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”.


CFP: Rethinking Boundaries in the Study of Religion and Politics

Postgraduate Conference: Rethinking Boundaries in the Study of Religion and Politics

11-12 September 2015

University of Aberdeen

Submission Deadline: 19 June 2015

A common approach to the study of religion and politics frames the inquiry using boundaries. Such boundaries include religion/secular, private/public, belief/practice and theism/atheism, to name just a few. It may be argued that these categorisations are analytically useful in understanding social phenomena because, for example, what is ‘religious’ should be analysed in relation to what is ‘secular.’ Another approach may instead point to the problem with the construction of such binaries in that empirically these distinctions become blurred, so that framing an action, for example as ‘public’ or ‘private’, does not reflect the diversity of human experience. Continue reading

Event: LSE: Governing Difference through Rights: The Politics of Religious Freedom


Governing Difference through Rights: The Politics of Religious Freedom

Speaker: Elizabeth Shakman Hurd (Northwestern University)

Chair: Mathijs Pelkmans

Date: Wednesday, 13 November 2013
Time: 6.30-8.00pm
Venue: Wolfson Theatre, New Academic Building, LSE, WC2A 2AE

What happens when social difference is conceived through the prism of religious rights and religious freedom? Far from occupying an autonomous sphere independent of religious affairs, human rights advocacy is a site of difference and governance that implicates religion in complex ways. This paper explores the consequences of a religious rights model for both politics and religion. It argues that this model regulates the spaces in which people live out their religion in specific and identifiable ways: singling out groups for legal protection as religious groups; moulding religions into discrete “faith communities” with clean boundaries, clearly defined orthodoxies, and seniorleaders who speak on their behalf; and privileging a modern liberal understanding of faith. The right to religious freedom is a specific, historically situated mode of governing difference through rights.

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd teaches and writes on the politics of religious diversity, the intersection of law and religion, the history and politics of US foreign relations, and the international relations of the Middle East including Turkey and Iran. She is the author of The Politics of Secularism in International Relations (Princeton, 2008), which won an APSA award for the best book in religion and politics (2008-2010) and co-editor of Comparative Secularisms in a Global Age (Palgrave, 2010) which will appear in paperback in 2013. Recent publications include “International politics after secularism” in Review of International Studies (2012) and “Contested secularisms in Turkey and Iran” in Contesting Secularism: Comparative Perspectives (Ashgate, 2013). Hurd is currently writing a book on the “strategic operationalization” of religion in international affairs and its implications for religion, law and public policy.

The event is free and open to all. For further information, please contact Dr Mathijs Pelkmans, m.e.pelkmans@lse.ac.uk.

News: New survey – religion and politics in the US

Please see below details of a report released by Juhem Navarro-Rivera, who has worked on a number of reports about the nonreligious, in conjunction with the Public Religion Research Institute on the connections between religion and politics in the US.  The report focuses on the nonreligious (a.k.a. religiously unaffiliated):


CFP: Kongress “Rethinking Europe with(out) Religion” nächsten Februar in Wien

International Congress: Rethinking Europe with(out) religion. Deadline for abstracts 30 September 2012

Full details as PDF can be found here CFP_Rethinking Europe with(out) Religion

Sehr geehrte Interessierte an der Forschungsplattform RaT! Liebe Kolleginnen und Kollegen!

Die Forschungsplattform „Religion and Transformation in Contemporary European Society“ (RaT) möchte Sie hiermit auf den im Februar 2013 stattfindenden Kongress „Rethinking Europe with(out) Religion“ aufmerksam machen.
Details sowie ein Anmeldeformular finden Sie auf der Kongress-Homepage: http://www.rethinkingeurope.at

Die Kolleginnen und Kollegen an Universitäten und Bildungseinrichtungen bitte ich, diese Information im Rahmen der Ihnen zur Verfügung stehenden Möglichkeiten weiterzuleiten. Bitte machen Sie Studierende auf diesen Kongress aufmerksam! Für alle Fälle hänge ich den CfP an.
Mit freundlichen Grüßen und allen guten Wünschen für einen erholsamen Sommer!

Angelika Walser

Dr. Angelika Walser
RaT (Religion and Transformation
In Contemporary European Society)
Schenkenstr. 8-10
1010 Wien
T.: 0664-60277-23803

Beschreibung: RaT_Logo

CFP: Religion and Politics in a Post-Secular World: Telos conference in New York City, Feb 16-17, 2013

Deadline for CFP October 15, 2012.
Religion and Politics in a Post-Secular World: The Sixth Annual Telos Conference in New York City, February 16-17, 2013
The 21st century has been marked by both events and reflections that have explicitly challenged the long-standing liberal project of maintaining a separation between religion and politics. Not only have political conflicts become inseparable from theological and metaphysical considerations, but standard liberal claims of value-neutrality have been undermined by insights into the theological presuppositions of secular institutions. The goal of the 2013 Telos Conference will be to investigate the changing relationship between religion and politics.

Possible topics include secularization and the “post-secular” turn; the theological foundations of political systems such as liberalism, socialism, and fascism; political theology; religion and the public sphere; separation of church and state; new civil forms of religious practice; the politics of religious pluralism; myth and sovereignty; theology and modernity; religion and political values; theocracy and religious law.

Please send short cv, paper title, and a 200-word abstract for a 15-minute presentation to David Pan (dtpan@uci.edu) with “2013 Telos Conference” in subject line by October 15, 2012.

David Pan
European Languages and Studies
University of California, Irvine
Irvine, CA 92697
Email: dtpan@uci.edu
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Publication: Islam and the Politics of Secularism and Varieties of Secularism in Asia

Islam and the Politics of Secularism

The Caliphate and Middle Eastern Modernization in the Early 20th Century

Nurullah Ardic

Published 16th January 2012 by Routledge – 394 pages

This book examines the process of secularization in the Middle East in the late 19th and early 20th century through an analysis of the transformation and abolition of Islamic Caliphate. Focusing on debates in both the center of the Caliphate and its periphery, the author argues that the relationship between Islam and secularism was one of accommodation, rather than simply conflict and confrontation, because Islam was the single most important source of legitimation in the modernization of the Middle East.

Through detailed analysis of both official documents and the writings of the intellectuals who contributed to reforms in the Empire, the author first examines the general secularization process in the Ottoman Empire from the late 18th century up to the end of the 1920s. He then presents an in-depth analysis of a crucial case of secularization: the demise of Islamic Caliphate. Drawing upon a wide range of secondary and primary sources on the Caliphate and the wider process of political modernization, he employs discourse analysis and comparative-historical methods to examine how the Caliphate was first transformed into a “spiritual” institution and then abolished in 1924 by Turkish secularists. Ardiç also demonstrates how the book’s argument is applicable to wider secularization and modernization processes in the Middle East.

Deriving insights from history, anthropology, Islamic law and political science, the book will engage a critical mass of scholars interested in Middle Eastern studies, political Islam, secularization and the near-global revival of religion as well as the historians of Islam and late-Ottoman Empire, and those working in the field of historical sociology and the sociology of religion as a case study.

Varieties of Secularism in Asia

Anthropological Explorations of Religion, Politics and the Spiritual

Edited by Nils Ole Bubandt, Martijn Van Beek

Published 29th September 2011 by Routledge – 261 pages
Varieties of Secularism is an ethnographically rich, theoretically well-informed, and intellectually coherent volume which builds off the work of Talal Asad, Charles Taylor, and others who have engaged the issue of secularism(s) and in socio-political life. The volume seeks to examine theories of secularism/secularity and examine concrete ethnographic cases in order to further the theoretical discussion.

Whereas Taylor’s magisterial work draws up the conditions and problems of a belief in God in Western modernity, it leaves unexplored the challenges posed by the spiritual in modernity outside of the North Atlantic rim. This anthology seeks to begin that task. It does so by suggesting that the kind of secularity described by Taylor is only one amongst others. By attending to the shifting relationship between proper religion and ‘bad faiths’; between politically valorised and embarrassing spiritual phenomena; between the new visibilities and silences of magic, ancestors, and religion in democratic politics, this book seeks to outline the particular formations of secularism that have become possible in Asia from China to Indonesia and from Bahrain to Timor-Leste.