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Narratives of Secularisation: Religion, History and the Secular

An International Workshop to be held at the Monash Centre
Prato 26-28 September 2013
Convened by the Centre for the History of European Discourses, University of Queensland, with the support of The Historical Society

It is becoming increasingly apparent that major genres in the history of secularisation themselves play activist roles within particular cultural-political programs aimed at advancing secularisation, or else opposing it in favour of some kind of ‘desecularisation’ or resacralisation. The central aim of this workshop is to identify some of the major genres of the history of secularisation, and to clarify their historical contexts and tendential purposes.

Without attempting to be exhaustive, and only as a guide to preliminary discussion of the issues, we have identified three histories of secularisation that take place within the domain of philosophical history: 

  • Finding a major expression in Kant’s philosophy of religion is a history of secularisation as the progressive winnowing of the chaff of historical-sacramental religious belief, leading to individual rational and moral autonomy. Kant’s rationalist history played a significant role in 19th century arguments between secularists and religious apologists, even if it was capable of supporting both sides. In the 20th century it fed into Rawls’s philosophical liberalism and Habermas’s detranscendentalising history of discursive politics and ‘unfinished Enlightenment project’.
  • Diametrically opposed to the Kantian form, the Thomist history of secularisation views it as a progressive disembedding of the transcendent forms of divinity from the individual (loss of the virtues), society (loss of moral community), and nature (scientific disenchantment). If the Kantian Protestant style of history views secularisation as the promise of individual rational autonomy, then the Catholic Thomist style views it as a threat to moral community and man’s transcendental belonging in the cosmos. This historiography of secularisation also played a major role in the 19th century arguments between secularists and religionists — particularly when melded with Hegelianism — and finds 20th century expressions in the work of MacIntyre, Taylor, and Milbank. In some postcolonial theory this kind of history has been used to generate a critique of the privatisation of religion, viewed as the repressive strategy of a de facto Protestant state.
  • From the middle of the twentieth century a third historical genre emerged, which viewed secularisation in terms of the ‘forgetting of Being’. Deriving from Martin Heidegger’s metaphysics, but finding significant expression in existential theology, phenomenology, and Derrida’s deconstruction, this genre often constructs modernity in terms of the ‘secular liberal state’. It views the latter as a kind of rational carapace that has been erected to protect the rational individual from dissolution through encounters with the body, the senses, the Other, faith communities, and various other surrogates for primordial Being in the world. Talal Asad is one of its major exponents, and this style of history plays a major role in postcolonial and poststructuralist understandings of secularisation.

In addition to these three philosophical histories of secularisation — which typically work in terms of a general detheologisation of culture and society leading to a holistically conceived ‘secular society’ or ‘secular age’ — there are two other approaches to the history of secularisation that are important for our discussions. These differ in being domain- and context-specific, but sometimes overlap the philosophical histories in a complex and often confused manner:

  • Historians of political thought typically approach secularisation in terms of deconfessionalisation, by which they refer to a variegated array of historical developments through which some European polities ceased enforcing a particular religion as an integral component of civil order. Sometimes referred to as ‘political secularisation’, deconfessionalisation is distinct from the conceptions of global detheologisation that drive the three philosophical histories of secularisation yet is sometimes caught up in them, as we can see in Asad’s approach to the ‘secular liberal state’.
  • Historians of science typically approach secularisation in terms of desacralisation — cf., ‘disenchantment’, objectification. Desacralisation refers to the removal of divine or transcendent dimensions from particular spheres of life and knowledge, especially from domains of scientific knowledge that have become objectified through the historical transformation of scientific methods and personae. Desacralisations of scientific domains — understood as domain-specific secularisations — are also distinct from the global philosophical histories of secularisation while being sometimes caught up in them, as in those accounts that view the rise of the natural sciences as a ‘disenchantment’ of the cosmos.

If our investigation of the three global philosophical histories of secularisation belongs to the history of historiography quite broadly, then  the investigation of deconfessionalisation and desacralisation (objectification) includes contributions from the history of political thought and the history of science.

Our investigations will be part of the history of philosophical histories of secularisation, the history of deconfessionalisation (political secularisation), and the history of desacralisation (culture of scientific objectivity), insofar as the latter histories bear upon the former.

Participants in this project include

For more information about the Prato workship contact Dr Marina Bolinger.


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