The secular is not just about religion.

Coming to the end of this Ph.D. (I’m planning on submitting for examination early in 2014) I am beginning to sift through the various positions and arguments about the existence or otherwise of this thing called the secular. I am firmly in the camp that sees secularisation as the deployment of particular ways of thinking about the world; it is not a natural occurrence. Secularisation is not an inevitable result of the decline of religion. This is a story that some like to tell so that firstly, we can feel good about being all modern, and secondly allows Us to confirm Our obviously superior way of being to The Other’s. In short, a story of the secular that assumes a progressive and inexorable move from more to less religious is a reduction of experience to the point of real and symbolic violence. It is an ethnocentric projection which prolongs a sense that We have superseded history to take an objective position. It seeks to de-anthropologise one set of human values in relation to another.

Moreover, secularisation is complementary to a worldview that extends to a deity, it is not a replacement for god. 11th century Christian monasteries referred to the secular as that which is outside their walls. This does not mean that god ceased to exist at their gate. The secular exists in relation to a religious worldview; it is in tension with a way of being in the world that draws upon theism. Within this tension are contestations of what it is to be a human – a question that arises from an objectification, a distancing, an alienation. What Taylor’s Great Disembedding grants Us Moderns is the conceit that We decide this. We authorise ourselves to live our lives. Through a process of authorisation of what is included in the human, power and place come to the fore. Some forms of the secular authorise ‘the here and the now’ over ‘the there and the past’. This is a practice with an inherent politics. Such authorisations are concerned (by no means exhaustively) with people with Down’s syndrome in the workplace, restorative justice, the extension of marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples and transgender politics. It is also inclusive of the current moves to create greater diversity in primary school provision. This is a political space which helps decide that some practices are private and others are public. Authorisation implies power.

I was thinking of this last week as I heard the story about the owner of Daintree (a Dublin paper store) refusing to stock same-sex cake toppers in his shop “because it was in conflict with his religious beliefs”. (I won’t be buying any more of my paper there.) While there may have been the use of a religious legitimation for the sake of not dealing with a conflict, the response to his refusal points to an understanding of secularism as temporally progressive. Many responses on twitter referred to the fact that This is The 21st Century and these views have no place in Ireland now. The objection to the Daintree shop owner’s decision was partially based on the sense that his views about the illegitimacy of same-sex marriage belong to The Past. For many, it was an unauthorised utterance at a time when the Irish state is beginning to authorise new forms of partnership and family. In this way, we can begin to detect a political anthropology for secularism: what is allowable here (now) and not there (then). There is a spatial politics at play, a politics where secularisation is a lens for analysis, not a destination.

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