What is the Post-Secular?
The opinions expressed herein are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of NYPL.
Jurgen Habermas famously addressed the controversial subject of post-secularity in his "Notes on a Post-Secular Society." Therein, Habermas concludes to think and understand the post-secular concludes with a Kantian limit, "So, if all is to go well both sides, each from its own viewpoint, must accept an interpretation of the relation between faith and knowledge that enables them to live together in a self-reflective manner." This is all well and good.
Of course in order to move forward conceptually here we must accept one conceit, agreeing with Haberas, that a) an event called "secularity" definitely did occur in some countries of the Western world following World War II.
Taking a step beyond Habermas, we should address an assumption that b) an event called
"modernity" has occurred in the past, and is now receding from public, if not private, life.
However, these 'events' are not totalities, and are not zero-sum games of hegemoney, as if to
think of human history epochally could warrant such clear-cut distinctions. No, to accept the
event of one or another is to admit the seepage, influence and reaction from one epistemic sequence
to the next (and by no means should we "cognitively map" them as linear and chronological sequences).
So, in order for us to think about "the theological turn" in the humanities, the prevalence
of religious discourse in politics over the past decade, the clash of fundamentalisms, we should investigate
our terms and our immanent terrain more clearly...
In the introduction to After the Post-Secular and the Postmodern: New Essays in Continental Philosophy of Religion, Anthony Paul Smith and Daniel Whistler address the notion of the previous century's dominion
of "imperial secularity", a supposedly neutral, generic zone of being in which "the secular in the
hands of Western powers becomes an imperialist weapon, for the secular is always already interpreted
as a particularly Western and post-Christian secular, rather than anything approaching a generic secular that can be located equally in all religious traditions." The history of missionary work, colonialization, slavery, and the advancement of "Christianity" throughout the world does not admit of a "Christian" civilization gaining global ground in the 19th and 20th centuries: such material processes were (paradoxically) exploitative coercions into modernity and the global marketplace, thoroughly secular enterprises (arguably).
Of course, globalization and various, even questionable alternative modernities today may more or less
accept the multicultural paradigms of the secular: to acknowledge, tolerate and even appreciably understand
or engage with differing religious beliefs and practices. This is not a static condition, of course, and
the post-secular here can either split into either true or false propositions about its dynamic
throughout the world: a) to sustain, splinter and proliferate the particularities of religious and post-religious
modes of being throughout the world, negating either one's ability to universally claim itself sovereign as both are immanent and concurrent with our own forms of being, first, foremost and in the last instance anyway; or b) to encourage and promote a vulgar return of religious domination over all forms of life and thought.
There is no going back, and although theological resistance to secularity are rife in the media and overwrought, the secular backlash, notably the "Four Horsemen": Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins are only worth mentioning as defenders of Enlightenment (in their minds, anyway) for how wrong they are about the entire issue. For just as there are many theisms, there are many atheisms, and the analytic, positivist handwringings of the "New Atheists" fail to understand the nature of faith, and instead propagate new doxas and new dogmas. Indeed, oftentimes they seem to argue for what Thomas Hardy lamented of and wanted to escape from, the "God-shaped Hole."
Feuerbach and Freud argued religion was essentially an anthropomorphic projection of possibility and agency
alienated into a transcendant sphere of being; these projections credibly eroded as material life through technology, capitalism and negative dialectics were brought to bear on the Western world, with the resultant collapse of universalities. This is arguably what Nietzsche pointed toward when he said "god is dead", a statement many people deeply understand today (even if very few admit to it).
The death of god is not just denying the god, it is denying the god-shaped hole. Postmodernity
produced the post-secular. The post-secular is its own route of escape and insurrection into new secular formations of being, appropriations of religosity and secularity that don't lament their own automutations, but instead delight in their emancipatory potential and attempt to accelerate them.
An atheist public relations campaign in Britain a few years ago point to the choice we possess today. Advertisements on the side of city buses read "There probably is no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." Rather we should say the proper survey of today's terrain could read as follows, "There is certainly not a god. Now start worrying and change your life forever."