Kant’s notion of subjectivity and secularism

Peter Danchin has been writing again over on the strangely tumbleweed-for-comments Immanent Frame. Danchin is an Associate Professor at the University of Maryland School of Law and is one of a number of respondents to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs report entitled Engaging Religious Communities Abroad (here as a large pdf). The Chicago report is one of those reports that was sponsored with a very specific political agenda in mind: how can the US imperial project co-opt ‘good’ Muslims to help spread ‘democracy’. It is seeking to respond to Obama’s Cairo call for the US to engage with ‘the Muslim world’ on a more constructive basis. The task force for this project had thirty (yes, 30!) members drawn from across the churches and academia in the US, including one Jose Casanova.It is hard to know how 30 people could contribute effectively to such a report but you know, if it helps your standing in your own community?

Danchin addresses the construction of the ‘other’ in his series of incisive posts over the last fortnight. In Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, Danchin works outwards from a question posed by Saba Mahmood:

what “constitutes religion and a proper religious subjectivity in the modern world,” and how such a conception relates to the language and normative structure of religious freedom in international law and politics.

In invoking Mahmood, Danchin brings along our old friend Immanuel Kant. Kant’s universal reason sets up the religious subject as narrowly defined, proscribed by the imperatives of a rational thought process rooted firmly in the German Protestant re-formation of the person. Re-formation, not reformation. Worth quoting at length for the argument I am proposing, Mahmood (through Danchin) states that:

“…contrary to the ideological self-understanding of secularism …, secularism has historically entailed the regulation and re-formation of religious beliefs, doctrines and practices to yield a particular normative conception of religion (that is largely Protestant Christian in its contours).” John Locke thus justified his theory of the right to freedom of conscience by the Protestant argument that conscience was directly bound to obey and follow God and not men; a theory of “the free and at the same time unfree conscience.”

If secularism is thus a re-formation of the subject through a fairly narrow understanding of free and unfree conscience, where does that leave how we think about secularisation processes unfolding in sites and spaces that are not Protestant Christian in their social relations? I have precious little knowledge of anything other than the Christian so indulge me as I stick with what I know. How would secularisation processes and secularism (as an ideology with self-conscious historical inevitability) unfold in Catholic Christian contours? Has a secularisation process itself been colonised?

At a departmental seminar earlier this week, I contended that we do not fully understand what secularisation processes ‘do’ to societies and cultures if we take as our basis a ‘model of constant loss’, of teleological evacuation. This model proposes that we are now less religious because fewer people attend church on a regular basis and there are fewer priests cycling along on their large-framed bicycles. This model tends to be the way that my own employers like to think about secularisation in Ireland: an inevitable loss from a high point when God’s kingdom was served by a well-fed and contented priest (or three) in every parish in the country.

What though if secularisation processes and attendant secularisms refer instead to changing practice moulded into newly-formed cultural formations? In short, what does Catholic secularisation look like? Is it more like the processes we see in non-Christian places? There is a reason why Irish people no longer place holy water fonts at the front doors of their houses. (I hope to discover this in time.) However, what if emergent practices that we exhibit right now are the new ways to be Catholic? Am I reading way too much about Merleau-Ponty?

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