No Muslim endeavor to face the intellectual challenge of the western tradition can afford to ignore the critical discourse of postmodernism or fail to recognize the Nietzschean claim about truth's complicity with power. Secularism as truth, as doctrine, therefore, cannot be separated from the theory and practice of secular power. As the praxis of statecraft, secularism claims universal sovereignty, and as the theoria of history, it subordinates all religious and moral claims to its own version of the truth. The secularist enterprise, furthermore, has been immensely successful in transforming the historical order of our times. But as such, it is a subject proper to the discipline of (political) history and merits the Muslim scholar's fullest attention there.
Secularism as a doctrine, as an -ism, on the other hand, falls squarely within the province of philosophy and the history of ideas. In order to apprehend the secularist gospel and its discontents, one needs to contemplate, as it were, the ideational visage of secularism. It is this aspect of secularism-the mask of truth worn by the secularist will-to-power-that the present article intends to uncover. Thus, the secularism that is examined here is not a sociological theory but rather a philosophical paradigm, not an empirical fact but rather an ideological axiom. This survey is divided further into two parts: secularizing theories in sociology and politics from the focus of the present essay. Secularism in philosophy, theology, and science will be treated in the second installment.
Secularism or Sacralization?
Secularism, like any darling child, has many names. In contemporary literature it is presented (either humbly) as a rejection of ecclesiastical authority, a model for pluralism, a theory of society, a doctrine of governance or (augustly) as a philosophy of history, a creed of atheism, an epistemology of humanism, or (even more grandiosely) as a metaphysics of immanentism that corresponds to the ultimate scheme of things. Within the academic discourse, it is also customary to accord it an almost Socratic definition and to distinguish its various manifestations as a process of history (secularization), a state of mind and culture (secularity), and a theory of truth (secularism). (One may note the close affinity of these terms with modernity, modernization, and modernism!) Needless to say, not everyone championing its cause ascribes to all these claims, nor is every expression of the secularist, this-worldly, conscience, and piety antithetical or inimical to Islam.
The first point to note is that western attempts to define secularism and its derivatives are not value-neutral and testify to the existence of the intense polemical climate within which these concepts are evoked. For instance Harvey Cox, a modern Christian apologist of secularity, asserts that “secularization is the liberation of man from religious and metaphysical tutelage, the turning of his attention away from other worlds and towards this one.” Previously, however the Christian church was not as enthusiastic and regarded it as a punitive ideology, for secularization at that time simply denoted a judicial measure of confiscating ecclesiastical property for “worldly” use by individuals or the state.’ It is only recently that Christian thinkers have started to modify their position on secularization. Dietrich Bonhoffer, for example, protested the antithesis of ecclesia-saeculum, which is axiomatic to modern individuals, and argued that secularization “represents a realization of crucial motifs of Christianity itself. Hence, Bonhoffer pleaded further, the term was meaningless and should be abandoned.
The whole problem of Christian complicity with the modern has been the subject of an exhaustive and incisive debate and need not detain us here. Suffice it to say that sociologists, for whom the term “secularization” refers to an “empirically available process of great importance in modern western history,” find no reason either to abandon the term or to agree with Bonhoffer. On the contrary, they insist that secularization, as a fait social, can be defined positively as “the process by which sectors of society and culture are removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols.”‘ The typical manifestation of secularization, then, would be the separation of church and state, the expropriation of church lands, the emancipation of education from ecclesiastical authority, and other similar elements. Thus, for all its discomforts to the church, secularization continues to be the cardinal doctrine of sociology.
Belatedly, however, some sociologists have come to the realization that, scientifically speaking, secularization is an inadequate category of societal analysis. According to David Martin, for instance, far from providing an objective description of modern society with scientific validity, the term “secularization” acts mainly as “a tool of counterreligious ideologies.”‘ (We need, however, to question the common assertion that fundamentalism is a revolt against modernity and secularism. Inasmuch as its metaphysical orientations are toward immanentism, it may be regarded as a variant of modernistic secularism. Hence, it is not merely accidental that there is so little love between traditionalists and fundamentalists!) Other moderate critics of secularization theory, who would not dismiss it entirely, have also begun questioning its intellectual underpinnings. They readily concede today that “secularization, as the integrative idea of social change in the modern world, is seriously flawed.”’
A recent critique further reveals that the theory is basically “a hodgepodge of loosely employed ideas rather than a theory,” and that “existing data simply do not support the theory.’” Similarly, the persistence of religion in the heart of secularized societies, which suggests that “religion is perhaps truly ubiquitous in human cultures,” and the fact that religion has reemerged as a significant factor in the articulation of sociopolitical reality in more countries than ever before, challenge the assumptions of the secularization thesis. Even more embarrassing for its supporters is the disclosure that secularization theory is one “scientific” theory that traditionally has not turned to empirical facts for its authentication. Indeed, a recent study exclaims: “Before the mid-twentieth century essentially no empirical research and, hence, no foundation for challenging secularization theory existed.”
The most cogent refutation of the secularization thesis, few would disagree today, has come from the recalcitrant forces of history. It is history rather than theory that has refused to redeem secularism’s claim about the disappearance of religion in the age of science and enlightenment. The death of the sacred remains more of a vain secular hope than a probable historical scenario. And yet despite its spectacular failure, sacralization theory has not been totally abandoned, not least because it serves a useful purpose in modernity’s ideological polemics against its detractors within the West or against other cultures from without. Needless to say, this ideological commitment is also at work behind recent efforts directed toward the restitution and revision of this theory. The persistence of religion in the midst of secular modernity, some secularist theorists point out today, is due to its privatization, for secularization implies not the extinction but rather the privatization of religion. However, according to another revisionist,
the assignment of religion to the private spheres is like having one’s cake and eating it too. One can hold steadfastly to the Enlightenment image of the demise of religion and still account for its embarrassing persistence. It is not necessary to establish a timetable for the disappearance of religion.”
Clearly, the modern advocacy of the secularization thesis stems from an ideological commitment rather than from any fidelity to the scientific method. Even the sociologist has to concede that secularization is more than a sociostructural process, for it affects the heart and soul of a society’s symbolic and cultural world. It manifests itself in “the decline of religious contents in the arts, in philosophy, in literature and, most important of all, in the rise of science as an autonomous, thoroughly secular perspective on the world.” The secularization of societal institutions, then, leads to the secularization of consciousness and bestows upon the modern individual hisher peculiarly antireligious prejudices and passions.
Today, the term does not merely describe what happens in history but expresses a value, perhaps the most sacrosanct value of our age. Secularization represents more than a Promethean bid for the banishment of God from the governance of human polis. The idea of secularization itself has become sacralized and secularism as doctrine has now replaced secularization as process. It has turned itself into a faith: a faith in humanity and a faith in progress, both a secularized faith and a faith in secularization.