Secularism, Post-Secularism, Religion and the ‘Open Society’
Reinhard Schulze 13 December 2010

Reinhard Schulze is Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Berne, Switzerland

What does secularism mean today?

German philosopher Jürgen Habermas was one of the first to use the phrase ‚post-secular society’ in a German language context. In his acceptance speech for the German Publishers and Booksellers Association’s Peace Price on October 14th, 2001, he said: „We will only be able to keep in perspective the risks of a secularization going berserk elsewhere when we understand what secularization means in our post-secular societies.“ This ‚secularization going berserk’ appears to post a fundamental challenge to the venerable principle of ‚the open society’ which Karl Popper so eloquently portrayed in 1945. Critics like Ralph Dahrendorf have pointed out that Popper may have underestimated the necessity and importance of ‚ligatures’, that is social ties and traditions, for a society’s social integration. Today, some even go so far as to suspect that the secular key term ‚society’ has become fragmentized. Interestingly enough, those who fear an ‚implosion of secularism’ are advocates of a radical orthodoxy such as William Ward, Norbert Samuelson or Tariq Ramadan, and they even theologically assign to religion the role of secularism’s defender, because this post-secular assumption applies to religion too. In secular conditions, religion and society are two normative orders which have accepted each other.

Changes in religion cause changes in secularism, and vice versa

It appears that the normative order which had defined religion as different from secularism and society is at the point of differentiating itself, possibly transforming into a new dual(ism). Today, we cannot yet say with any certainty what the new orders will be that are developing from religion. But everything points to the development of two poles: on the one hand, we find a spiritual field which today is associated with happiness, life style, experience, and practiced interiority. On the other hand we find an hard-to-define field of genealogical and at times mythically determined affiliation. Both of these fields in themselves draw upon religion as a prerequisite while at the same time transcending it. Charles Taylor calls this process: „the fragmentation of the religious’. He stresses:

“I want to argue that we are moving toward a sort of “fragmentation” of the spiritual, in which its previous connection with whole societies, be this in the older medieval form of sacred monarchies or in the modern form of “civil religion”, is being strained to breaking point. We are entering a ‘post-Durkheimian’ age [a situation in which faith is not connected, or only weakly connected, to a national political identity]. We end up living in what I want to call an ‘immanent frame.’”

These interpretations show that religion does not simply return but rather its increased differentiation today vehemently enforces claims which will in turn mean a radical reframing of religion’s traditional counterpart secularism.

What does post-secular mean?

Charles Taylor shows how the secular situation we have gotten used to for the first time allowed people to make choices in the field of religion. Religion lost its status as a body with compulsory membership and came to depend more and more on people’s individual and collective acceptance. This secular option is available for as long as society – as an abstract, postulated order – holds firm as a social collective that supports the social norms. Post-secular, then, would mean a situation in which social groups do not accept society as the dominant order of the collective, and in place of that, develop their system of standards and values from particulate societal orders.

The ban on minarets is nothing but an example of this new ‘culture war’

One particular societal order has managed to annul the state’s religious neutrality as society’s legal order. Through this, the secular option – that is, the freedom to choose –, is symbolically killed off. This also points towards a different process: the open, secular society threatens to turn into a laical one when the state takes on the function of an religio-juridical regulatory body. In this doubled fragmentation of both society and religion, the state is assigned a role which, within the classical liberal social order, had never been its due. This laical transformation of claims is much more than a mere extrapolation of the religio-political model that became the law in France over 100 years ago; it is a model of order which is based on statements on the truth of religion. In the example of Islam, this can be seen quite clearly: advocates of the ban on minarets justified their demands by stating that they knew ‚the truth of Islam’.

In a secular situation, it is accepted that the religious stakeholders themselves define their order of truth and that society as an abstract, postulated order does not define statements on the truth of religions. Thus, the fragmentation of society comes to mean: the once established consensus that society has no right to claim a prerogative of interpretation on religion is abandoned. The fragmentation – or rather differentiation – of religious order has a clear parallel here. On one hand, religious practices governed by the rules of consumption and based on personal experience are becoming ever more popular; on the other hand, we find a – still barely sociologically definable – category of affiliation that is genealogically construed and transforms religion into an existential raison d’être. Once again, the state is called upon to enforce a form of social policy which is based on the claim that religion can determine society’s truth.

This draws the state into the center of the new cultural war and forces it to abandon its neutrality. Islam has become the symbolical field of this cultural war.

This is the text of the paper the author presented at the conference “After the Ban on Minarets: The Open Society and Islam” organized by ResetDoc and UFSP Asia and Europe and held at Zurich University on Wednesday November 17th 2010.