January 26, 2015

Understanding the Secular

How are we to understand the ‘secular’? For some, the secular is seen as lying permanently opposite ‘religion’, as though whatever the religious is, the secular isn’t (and vice versa). If religion is awe and wonder, then the secular is rather mundane and average. If religion is sociality, relationships and community, then the secular lies in isolation. If religion is irrationality and tribalism, the secular is rationality and altruism. For others, the secular is the end point of secularization; the empty vessel remaining once religion has been emptied out. And still others prefer not to define either term, focusing instead on their relationship as ‘semantically parasitic categories’, i.e. ‘we cannot understand what we mean by [one] unless we put it into relation with [the other]’ (Fitzgerald 2007, 54).

In many cases, conceptualizations of the secular are imagined only after the category of religion has been populated with ‘the good stuff’, with the secular receiving decidedly less good stuff (perhaps an understatement in certain contexts). In this view, the secular was an afterthought, a ‘second-class citizen’ so to speak. However, what happens if the scholarly lens is shifted towards the ‘secular’, with ‘religion’ being placed on the back burner? In Thomas Coleman’s interview for The Religious Studies Project, he sits down with sociologist Phil Zuckerman and philosopher John R. Shook to discuss all things ’secular‘. Making their own contributions to the discourse, Shook and Zuckerman briefly discuss the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Secularism they are co-editing, the growing field of secular studies, what it might mean to ’be secular‘, different secularisms, and offer up two different views of the relationship between categories such as ’religion‘ and ’secular‘.

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  • Fitzgerald, Timothy. 2007. Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.


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