After Secularism?

I like to keep religious interference in my life to a minimum. I count myself lucky that I Iive in a social and work environment where there’s no expectation that I should attend any kind of religious service. And in politics as well, one of my leading concerns is to preserve church-state separation and to promote an environment where public matters are debated without reference to faith-based commitments.

As far as I can tell, most nonbelievers also have similar attitudes toward religion and public life: let religion be a private matter, let it not intrude upon the common public space we all must share. Fortunately, many religious people share such attitudes, as liberal and individualistic forms of spirituality can also flourish in a secular environment. More communally-oriented faiths, however, such as conservative Catholicism and most varieties of Islam, are genuinely disadvantaged in a secular public realm, and so they tend to resist secularism as an anti-religious imposition rather than a stance of enforced religious neutrality.

Fine — so this means nonbelievers such as myself will probably remain staunch defenders of political secularism, regardless of sharp political disagreements that we may otherwise have among ourselves. Our activists focus on church-state separation; our political thinkers argue for the virtues of a secularized public realm. But I don’t see much discussion of other possibilities. In particular, a question that bothers me is what, as nonbelievers, we can do if social circumstances change in a way that overtakes secularism.

Predicting the social future is very difficult, but I don’t think this is an idle worry. In many parts of the world, such as Islamic cultures, attempts at secularism have been failures; secularism is now irremediably associated with authoritarian government, elitist impositions, and inauthentic westernizing tendencies. In other parts of the world, existing secularism is constantly under strain, such as in India, or even the United States. So it is at least possible to think of a future where the fortunes of secularism have declined significantly, and a more conservative religious populism dominates the public sphere of many more countries. In that case, what can we hope for? What is our Plan B?

Now, I don’t quite know. I teach physics, not political science; I wouldn’t call myself an especially astute political thinker. But I think I am familiar enough with the subculture of religious skepticism in the United States to have a decent impression of what we are preoccupied with. And other than the common worries about “encroaching theocracy,” I don’t see much discussion of what might happen after secularism. Furthermore, I’m not sure that our worries about theocracy are all that well-founded; by spinning scenarios of clerical rule, we miss the democratic, populist nature of much anti-secular politics today. If we continue moving toward a post-secular world, this is more likely a world where religious symbols have much more prominent roles in public tasks of legitimation, but not some crazy extremist fantasy where a holy text serves as a national constitution.

So, what would happen — for example, if religiously defined communities were to become more prominent political units and rights-holders as opposed to individuals? How much of what is precious to nonbelievers could we preserve and keep flourishing? Would it be possible (though much against the grain) to define ourselves as one among many communities? Would it then be possible to have art and literature that might be considered blasphemous still circulating freely as long as they are confined to the “skeptical community” and subject to more restrictions when made available more generally? How would science be affected by a loss of its privileged position in public education in matters such as evolution?

I’d like to see more answers to such questions that are more subtle than “back to the Dark Ages” fears. Anti-secular populism and religious fundamentalism are thoroughly modern social phenomena: they are not atavisms, they are not echoes of theocratic political visions our Enlightement forebears struggled against. And if they end up more successful than our rather tired-looking secularism, I expect we will have to respond in new ways. So, here’s a call to secular people better equipped for original political thought than myself. If you know of work that fits what I’m interested in, please point me to it. (I’m aware of a lot that goes on but not everything; it’s quite possible that I’m woefully ignorant of a lot of good work.) I’ll buy the recommended books, and I’ll do my best to publicize them. And if my impression is correct, that we nonbelievers have not paid as much attention to possibilities after secularism as we should, well, I hope someone does this work. I’m sure I’m not the only person who’d be intensely interested in what comes out.