‘Being’ religious and ‘becoming’ secular

This is part of the intro to my paper for the UCC workshop being held tomorrow. It’s planned as an informal workshop and so the tone of the paper is in keeping with that. The workshop will begin in the morning with a seminar by Professor Lois McNay.

This is a paper about ‘being’ religious and how we ‘become’ secular. It argues that individualist conceptions of subjectivity have taken firm roots in democracies in Western Europe. These liberal democratic roots have grown into very complex democratic systems, mutually interdependent and secular in their composition. The individualist conception of our own subjectivity makes itself visible in discussions about who is secular and who is religious. In delineating who is which, we can see the outlines of state regulation and enfranchisement of minority positions. However, this ideological individualism is unable to be scaled ‘down’ to take account of the performative or the ethnographic. It is this inability to make differentiations between scales and across regions, that makes current analyses about secularisation highly debatable. […]

Lincoln Center PlazaThis paper draws on the work of Judith Butler, especially her work on secular time, of Talal Asad and his work on what constitutes a human right, and from a lesser known sociologist called Jose Casanova […] If ‘becoming’ secular means bringing the private into the ‘light’ of public scrutiny then this process means something very different for women than for men, who map out and inhabit the conditions of what is ‘public’. Monological representations of the secular subject in public and those that rely on a heavily sedimented ‘universal reason’ are problematic. […] The representation of veiled Muslim women may well be one such monological representation and in this paper, I want to use this particular example to illustrate the shortcomings of a singular conception of the public subject in conditions of secularisation. How some subjects become ‘secular’ and how other remain ‘religious’ is a question of scale but also a question of gender.

Discussions on Muslim veiling practices in Western Europe and the recent moves by the French state to ban facial covering constitute a particular analysis of the modern subject. In an Irish context, where the sense of a secular republic was influenced by an uneven and inconsistent relationship between a dominant Catholic Church and a postcolonial state, any proposal to ban covering one’s face makes less sense. The reconstruction of being religious in public is a political act, and one not unrelated to our conception of what is public and what is private behaviour. In this sense, states ignore scale when legislating for populations to ‘become’ secular; individuals ‘being’ secular adopt this lack of scale in defending what is perceived to be an anti-religious position.[…] This denial of scale, the role of local context in devising what the secular is and is not is a disciplinary act. It is also a political act. It is an act of self-denial, a denial of the dialogical ways in which the secular co-exists with the sacred (or the entanglement of church and State as Daly (2008) has characterised it). They co-exist in a tension that is rarely seen as being beneficial to deliberative democracy. A clarification of what being and becoming a public subject is in Ireland can assist in overcoming a tendency toward a zero-sum political discourse. This is ably reflected in the Submission on an Intercultural Education Strategy by Mullally and O’Donovan (2009).

[…] In short, this is an argument for a flattening of the ontology of secularisation, following on from work by Marston et al (2005) on the reconstitution of ontologies of scale. Representations of the secular in the popular imagination and in theorising by academics focus on parallel processes of disenchantment and privatisation. The disenchantment of the world comes directly from the Weberian description of the rationalisation of societies in capitalism. It is a process whereby human affairs are evacuated of the transcendent. Gods and spirits are no longer infused within objects, emotions and other people. Human conduct is governed less and less by the intervention of saints, the spirits that surround us and that reside in the environment around us. The authority of leaders is not God-given but derived from ‘the will of the people’. […] It is the organisation of the world into frames of reference about what is modern, appropriate, decent, objectionable and narrow-minded. The disenchantment of the world involves the structuring of social action around human action, not divine intervention. […]

In this register, the drop off in attendance at organised and institutional practices such as Mass (in a Catholic context) is sent to the background. This restructuring of organised practices around public reason and individualism are still however present in our everyday lives. The restructured practices are in our families and communities, in the legal system and in church administration. Our self-presentation and our orientation to others in space are present in these practices; most of the time we are complicit. Narratives about the clear division between work and home life (and more recent capitalist imperatives of a work/life balance) is one such practice. Professional behaviour in our work is mostly about disaffect, a detachment from the personal. The division of the world into what is private and public is another such social practice. We bring certain parts of ourselves to the ‘public’ world, the worlds of business and law; and the passions of faith are exercised in private, not brought to bear on important public deliberations. We continue to believe an 18th century Enlightenment conceit that religion is like the gift of a horse from Troy: lovely to look at but containing dangerous things. […]

Patriarch (1574)

The fear that religion contains within it the elements to bring down the republican ideal weighs heavily on our conceptualisation of the secular. Calls for the separation of church and state are replete with condemnations of the irrational mind, the emotive sentiments of religious belief, and the numinous. It is not that faith in a deity had to be privatised as part of some modern project; rather that the unfolding of ‘what makes sense’ includes a fearful awareness that appeals to a transcendent deity trump all rationally communicative action. The definition of what constitutes ‘the modern’ is reflexively constituted in our politico-legal systems, and very visible in our common understandings of state power. It is the characterisation of what constitutes these forms of action (particularly for Muslim women as outsiders) that is questioned in this paper.

Non, les deux ne signifient pas la meme chose. La burqa fait reference a un contexte particulier (afganistan entre autre). D’ailleurs, c’est pour cela que l’on a progressivement utilise le terme voile integral en Français.

[No, both do not mean the same thing. The burqa refers to a particular context (Afghanistan among others). Indeed, that is why we increasingly use the term integral veil in French.]

(source: http://forum.wordreference.com/showthread.php?t=1795879; last accessed July 14th 2010; translated online and edited).

The privatisation of belief (not unlike public disgust at spitting in public) changes over time and is culturally dependent. What is acceptable as the expression of one’s religious faith in the Netherlands is very different from that in Poland, for example. […] However, this understanding changes over time and across spaces and it is my contention here that our understanding of secularism is drawn primarily through state power. The alteration in divisions between what is acceptable in private and what one brings to the public square is central to my own work and to this paper. These are small and large acts of discipline, the most recent and most overtly-political of which is the voile intégrale debate in France earlier this year.

© Eoin O’Mahony, 2010.


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