Secularization (RS Seminar)

Steve Smith
Office:  Christian Center 11, 601-974-1334
– Office hours posted –
Home:  1611 Edgewood St, 601-354‑2290

RLST 3900-01/4900-01
Spring 2010    T Th 1:00

The word “secular” (Latin saecularis) was first applied in early Christianity to persons and activities outside sacred institutions; a “priest secular,” for instance, was a priest operating outside a monastery.  A lot has happened already in cultural history to create this meaning!  Consider what we’re assuming whenever we use this word:

1) A form of religion has arisen that distinguishes between a definitely bounded    zone of sacred life and a large zone external to it.  A “church” has been “called            out” (ec-clesia) of “the world”; belonging to this church means in some sense    leaving “the world,” no longer being a worldling.

2) The sacred zone is habitable.  One can even live in a monastery.  But one can    enter or leave the sacred zone at will.  In fact the set-up of the sacred zone is subject to extensive administrative discretion (which foreshadows the possibility of            “secularization” as something carried out).

3) A time-word for “generation” or “age” or “century,” saeculum, has become a    word for a part of space—for Christianity defines “the world” by its temporal,            passing character in contrast to eternal divine life.

The words “secularize” and “secularization,” which began to be used in the 17th century following the Protestant Reformation, imply a reversal of the religious movement out of the world into eternity.  They reflect a growing interest either in doing more to relate eternity to the affairs of the temporal world, or in restricting the sacred zone.  On most accounts, both of these interests (even though they are opposite in a way) are important in the emergence of the “modern” phase of Western history.

But there is something strange in speaking of “secularization.”  From the religious point of view, wouldn’t any promotion of secularity be ill-advised?  Worldly life needs to be redeemed by the eternal; worldlings need to be saved from being worldlings.  From a nonreligious or anti-religious point of view, on the other hand, the very mention of secularity assumes a distinction between the sacred and the secular that only makes sense from a religious point of view.  (Perhaps it should be replaced by a distinction between, say, “private” and “public” spheres?)

At any rate, historians and sociologists can observe that “secularization” has in fact happened in modern Western societies to the extent that various activities and authorities have largely or wholly been taken out of the control of religion, notably in the areas of government, law, business, education, and the arts.  The extent to which this has happened, and what the true character of the changes are, and which trends are predominant now and predictive, are of course all vigorously debated.  But at this descriptive level what we are talking about is the commonly recognized phenomenon of decreased explicit religious control of human affairs.  Thanks to Max Weber, many now find this phenomenon of secularization to be closely related to a modern type of rationalism and an associated thoroughgoing “disenchantment” of the world, creating a crisis of meaningfulness in life.

These facts raise all sorts of questions about religion:  Is it weakening?  Is it on its way out?  Or is it, on the contrary, resurgent?  Is it acquiring a different nature—are we entering a different phase in the history of what religion is?  What is happening in other areas of human culture along with what is happening to religion?  In what ways does meaningfulness in human life depend on religion?  How does the modern Western experience of secularization compare with, and practically relate to, the experiences of non-Western societies?  What basic causes account for the changes we see?  A theory of secularization tries to answer one or more of these questions on the explanatory level.

Questions arise also on the normative level:  Are these developments desirable or not?  A normative view of secularization would make a case for or against it (or some particular version of it) by placing it in a context of considerations of good and bad or right and wrong, like a theology or a political theory of justice—for example, attacking or defending a political principle of “secularism.”

In this seminar we will explore secularization on all three of these levels, with particular attention to what historical descriptions, explanatory theories, and normative appeals regarding secularization tell us about the nature of religion.

Here are some questions we may pursue:

Are there distinct “spheres” of meaningfulness in any version of human existence, with religion corresponding to one of them?  If so, how is the religious sphere produced and sustained?  Does this happen differently in different types of society?

Does the relevance and power of religion change in relation to changes in human power?  What are the roles of modern natural science, modern capitalist economics, and modern democratic politics in defining and advancing secularization?

Is religion a constant inasmuch as people and society depend on some version of “faith” and a deeply plausible and motivating “worldview” in any case?

Are some key modern secular categories replacements for, or disguised continuations of, corresponding premodern religious categories (e.g. “history” for “eternity” or “progress” for “providence” or “reasonableness” for “piety”)?

Do “religious” and “secular” continue to be mutually implicated meanings, inseparable?

Is it the true intent of Christianity (and of similar forms of religion) to be worldly, after all—or at least not-unworldly?

How much responsibility does Christianity or monotheism bear for the Western “disenchantment of the world”?

Do Muslims have a fundamentally different understanding of secularization issues than Christians do?  Is it true that the U.S. and/or the West imposes a disguised Christian plan for society on Muslim societies under cover of secularism?  What about other religious traditions and types of society?

Our readings will be drawn from various sources including these required texts:

Daniel L. Pals, ed., Introducing Religion. Readings from the Classic Theorists

Harvey Cox, The Secular City

Charles Taylor, A Secular Age

The ingredients of the seminar, and of the course grade, are daily participation and serving several times as a discussion leader and recorder of class minutes (20%), weekly writing (40%), and carrying out a course project, including designing and conducting a seminar session (40%).  Students taking the seminar as RLST 4900 will also write a Core 10 paper. Assignments are explained below.


subject to revision by announcement in class and/or e-mail


Jan. 12 Introduction to the course.

Jan. 14 Theories of religion.

READ E. B. Tylor, Chap. 1 in Pals

Jan. 19 Theories of religion, cont.

READ James Frazer on magic and religion, pp. 50-58 in Pals, and Bronislaw                                 Malinowski, “The Role of Magic and Religion” (handout)

Jan. 21  Theories of religion, cont.

READ Emile Durkheim, Chap. 4 in Pals

Jan. 26 Theories of religion, cont.

READ  Karl Marx, Chap. 5 in Pals

Jan. 28 Theories of religion, cont.

READ Max Weber, Chap. 8 in Pals

Feb. 2  Theories of religion, cont.

READ Clifford Geertz, Chap. 11 in Pals

Feb. 4  A positive secularization proposal in theology.

READ Harvey Cox, The Secular City, Introduction and Chap. 1

Feb. 9  Secularization in theology, cont.

READ Cox, Chaps. 2-3

Feb. 11  Secularization in theology, cont.

READ Cox, Chaps. 5-6

Feb. 16  Updates on secularization from empirical sociology.

READ Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, from Sacred and Secular (handout)

Feb. 18  Updates, cont.

READ Norris and Inglehart, cont. (handout)

Feb. 23  Charles Taylor’s historical and philosophical assessment of secularization.

READ Taylor, A Secular Age, Introduction and pp. 25-66 in Chap. 1

Feb. 25  Taylor’s assessment, cont.

READ Taylor, pp. 66-89 in chap. 1, and Chap. 3

Mar. 2  Taylor’s assessment, cont.

READ Taylor, Chap. 12

Mar. 4  Taylor’s assessment, cont.

READ Taylor, Chap. 14, and pp. 539-574 in Chap. 15

Mar. 9  Secularism as a prescribed system—John Rawls.

READ  Rawls, from Political Liberalism (handout)

Mar. 11  Secularism as a prescribed system—critiques

READ  TBA (handout)

Mar. 16, 18  SPRING BREAK

Mar. 23  Islam and secularism.

READ  Sayyid Qutb, from Milestones (handout)

Mar. 25  Islam and secularism, cont.

READ  Abdolkarim Soroush, “The Sense and Essence of Secularism”(handout)


Apr. 1  Islam and secularism, cont.

READ  Saba Ahmood, “Secularism, Hermeneutics, and Empire:  The                                             Politics of Islamic Reformation” (handout)

Apr. 6  Secularism in India.

READ  T. N. Madan, “Secularism in Its Place” and Ashis Nandy, “The Politics of                         Secularism and the Recovery of Religious Tolerance” (handout)

            Course Evaluation

Apr. 8  Secularism in India, cont.

READ Amartya Sen, “Secularism and Its Discontents” (handout)

Apr. 13, 15, 20, 22  TBA (student-led)


First version of Project due with the associated seminar segment; final version due by end of finals week.



Asad, Talil.  Formations of the Secular.  Christianity, Islam, Modernity.  Stanford:            Stanford U., 2003.

Bennett, Jane.  The Enchantment of Modern LifeAttachments, Crossings, and Ethics.      Princeton:  Princeton U., 2001.

Berger, Peter L. et al., eds.  The Desecularization of the World.  Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans,           1999.

Blumenberg, Hans.  The Legitimacy of the Modern Age.  Trans. Robert Wallace.  Cambridge, MA:  MIT, 1985.

Bruce, Steve.  God is Dead:  Secularization in the West.  Oxford:  Blackwell, 2002.

_______, ed.  Religion and Modernization:  Sociologists and Historians Debate the          Secularization Thesis.  Oxford:  Oxford U., 1992.

Casanova, Jose.  Public Religions in the Modern World.  Chicago:  U. of Chicago, 1994.

Cauthen, Kenneth.  Science, Secularization, and God.  Nashville:  Abingdon, 1969.

Connolly, William.  Why I Am Not a Secularist.  Minneapolis:  U. of Minnesota, 2000.

Cox, Harvey.  The Secular City.  New York:  Macmillan, 1965.

_______.  Religion in the Secular City:  Toward a Postmodern Theology.  New York:       Simon & Schuster, 1984.

Demerath, Jay. “The Varieties of Sacred Experience.” JSSR 39 (March 2000) 1-11.

Elkins, James, and David Morgan, eds.  Re-Enchantment (The Art Seminar).  New York:              Routledge, 2009.

Gauchet, Marcel.  The Disenchantment of the World.  A Political History of Religion.       Trans. Oscar Burge.  Princeton:  Princeton U., 1997.
Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor Adorno. “The Concept of Enlightenment.” Dialectic of    Enlightenment.  Trans. John Cumming.  New York:  Continuum, 1972.

Lilla, Mark.  The Stillborn God:  Religion, Politics and the Modern West.  New York:       Vintage, 2008.

Martin, David.  On Secularization:  Toward a Revised General Theory.  Aldershot:           Ashgate, 2005.

Milbank, John.  Theology and Social Theory:  Beyond Secular Reason.  2nd ed.  Oxford:  Blackwell,  2006.

Norris, Pippa, & Ronald Inglehart.  Sacred and Secular:  Religion and Politics      Worldwide.  Cambridge:  Cambridge U. Press, 2004.

Taylor, Charles.  A Secular Age.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard U., 2007.

Weber, Max.  The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.  Trans. Talcott Parsons.  New York: Scribners, 1958.

Ziolkowski, Theodore.  Modes of Faith:  Secular Surrogates for Lost Religious Belief.      Chicago:  U. of Chicago, 2007.



For the benefit of everyone in the class, make a concise record of the main points and questions of a class session.  On average, something like five or six points, all fitting onto one page (with single-space typing), would be best.  Do not aim for complete minutes—aim for useful ones.  Do not submit a mere transcript; write your own synthesizing representation of what took place. This is your own portrait of the class and you should exercise your own judgment about what to include and what to leave out.  But you should also feel free to check your notes and recollections with fellow class members and/or the instructor.

Give printed copies to all class members as they arrive at the next class meeting.  There may be some discussion of the minutes.  Don’t be offended if changes or additions are suggested:  it shows we care.



Identify several issues in the assigned reading (and/or other experience) that you think would be worthwhile for the class to explore.  Give a brief explanation of each issue, leading up to a question or two.  Keep this on one sheet of paper.  Thus, your question sheet will typically contain two or three short paragraphs.

Avoid posing factual questions.  (Factual questions may be quite important, but if you want an answer to a factual question you should look it up yourself!)  Try to pose at least one good interpretive question and at least one good evaluative question.

Example of an interpretive question:  What does Taylor mean by “secular”?  (What does he think?)

Example of an evaluative question:  Is there a main core meaning of the term “secular”?  (What do we think?)

Give copies of your question sheet to all class members at the beginning of class (after we’ve approved the minutes).  Present the issue that you would like to be discussed first.



By the end of each class week you should turn in a written reflection of 250-500 words (that would be 1-2 pages typed) on any subject relating to the course.  You may use any strategy you like to get at something.  Try not to toss out a question without working toward an answer; working toward answers is what your journal is for.

You may skip one week’s journal writing without penalty.

Your journal will be graded for its religious studies ambition and for how responsive it is to class readings and discussions.



You will investigate a question relating to secularization and present your findings in the general format of a journal article.  (Use the style of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion.)  The paper should include

(1) an introduction that shows how the specific question you have chosen is located in, and how you aim to contribute to, the broader discussion of secularization;

(2) a presentation of relevant evidence, probably containing noteworthy facts observed by historians or sociologists as well as noteworthy ideas put forward by theorists; and

(3) your answer to your question, incorporating a critical assessment of your evidence.  Make clear about how your question, identification of evidence, and argumentation locates you in religious studies (e.g.:  Are you a Marxist?  Or if not, what are you up to?).

You may turn in a draft of the paper, or any portion of it, to the instructor at any time to get suggestions.  You will present some part of it for your student-led seminar segment, including a reading assignment you give the rest of us in advance, and turn in a first version of your project at that point.



You’ll submit a 6-8 pp. reflection on your intellectual growth during your time at Millsaps, taking account of (a) the larger experience of liberal learning and the goals set for all Millsaps students, e.g. in the liberal arts abilities targeted by your previous Core courses, and (b) the more specialized experience of the religious studies major.  How, in particular, does our investigation of secularization affect your sense of what is at stake for you and other contemporary people in thinking in a disciplined way about religion?


  1. Class attendance. Being in class, being engaged with the work of the class, and behaving courteously are all expected. One discourtesy to avoid is coming into class late.  Better late than never, definitely; but lateness counts as half an absence—that is, the assignment of sharing in the class’s work that day will be counted as only half done.  Overall, a course point is lost for every absence after the second; thus someone who was absent a total of five times would lose three points, i.e. a third of a letter grade.
  1. Late papers. Written assignments turned in late will lose a letter grade or equivalent. Homework may not be turned in more than one week after its due date.  No work of any kind will be accepted after the last day of final examinations.  Exceptions to this policy will only be granted to the victims of unforeseeable and uncontrollable circumstances.
  1. As a general rule, no e-mail submissions. Unless the instructor allows it under specified circumstances, e-mail submissions of assigned writing are not accepted. (Weekly journal entries are allowed as e-mails.)
  1. Incompletes. An “Incomplete” grade for the course will only be given to students who, due to unforeseen and uncontrollable circumstances, find themselves unable to complete course requirements during the term and can reasonably be expected to complete them within a few weeks after the term’s end. The “Incomplete” must be requested and appropriately justified before the end of final examinations.
  1. Disabilities. Students with documented disabilities should discuss their needs with the instructor at the beginning of the semester.