varieties of secularism :: session three

by Eric Daryl Meyer

Series Index

The third session of this weekend’s conference featured papers by Rajeev BahrJava and Simon During; Michael Warner offered a response. (why am I posting my notes?).

**Rajeev Bahrjava – Center for the Study of Developing Societies – RELIGIOUS AND SECULAR IDENTITIES IN A SECULAR AGE

Taylor is committed to a multiplicity of identity in two ways:

Either multiple identities (Xn, Hindu, brick-layer)
Or multiple forms of identity (the way an identity is held—categorically, etc.)

Thesis: Taylor talks about multiple identities in both of these senses; he we would favor not a categorical identity, nor a non-categorical identity, but rather an identity with a “categorical flavor.”

For Taylor, identity is linked to strong distinctions, evaluative decisions and an orientation to “the good” held within a certain framework. “Who I am” is linked to my conception of what a “higher” or “lower” form of life would be.

Can there be ways of inhabiting a secular identity (a variety of secularism) which has more in common with a way of inhabiting religious identity than with certain other ways of inhabiting secular identities (i.e. rabidly and reductively).

There are various ways of relating to the good (of operating with strong evaluations):

  • All goods are subordinated (or even abandoned) for the sake of a hyper-good. He calls this a “categorical” identity.
  • One holds various goods and negotiates between them as to what the best ordering of those goods might be. A negotiated identity.
  • A third way of holding one’s identity holds to a governing hyper-good, but still attempting to negotiate with other goods. The hyper-good accompanies and orders them. This is the identity with “categorical flavor.” Identity is oriented around a single good, but other goods are not negated or denied.

Secularization is not the story of the inexorable march of atheism. Secularity three is not “the age of unbelievers” nor the age of “the domination of the unbelievers over society.” Rather, secularization issues forth in an age where every person experiences an expanding multiplicity of possible identities for themselves. Subsequently the possibility of inhabiting anyone of those identities (and the simultaneous plausibility of all of them) causes angst for people who carry (or half-carry) any identity.

A South Asian example of identity with “categorical flavor”:

19th c. Punjabis worshiped Hindu idols in the morning, and recited Sikh scriptures in the evening. These people are stirred by two religions at once, by two religious identities. In Punjabi culture there are several simultaneous allegiances. These people are living within two frameworks

Their religious identities are dynamic. People are moving between faiths. They are hybrid or amalgamated.

Choice does not mean leaving one faith and joining another. Choice is between one faith and many. Change is not a replacement of one faith with another, but of moving along in a journey and finding new guiding lights.

By the end of the 19th c. this multiplicity of identity in India was dying out and more and more people were drawn into categorical identities.

Secularization can be understood as the production and re-production of categorical identities which are mutually opposed. Taylor invokes a new religious hunger, a search. Might we come to a period of increasing and inspired belief which holds identity in a more fluid and less-categorical fashion?


[During’s lecture was admittedly difficult to follow; it was delivered very quickly and heavy-laden with technical terms]

Short summary: The process of secularization has issued forth in a world where all hope has been lost in the flattening of existence under “end-game democratic capitalism.” Because there are no coherent alternative political visions, the world is without hope. During invoked the “mundane” as a way of seeing the world that stands outside both the religious and the secular. At times the world breaks in on our experience (something like grace/agapé, totally undeserved) and seems to carry great weight, even as it resists any “meaning” imposed upon it. In Taylor’s terms, this seems to be simply a strong re-affirmation of ordinary life against both instrumentalizing tendencies and attempts to posit transcendent meaning to objects and events.

The infusion of literary criticism with philosophy,

Taylor is one of the only scholars writing conjectural history today. (!?)

Taylor’s argument is Burkean in structure, but not in content. Taylor is close to Romantic conservatives like Burke and Novalis.

**Michael Warner: English @ Yale

@ Rajeev Bahrjava:

If the problem is the polarity between religious and non-religious identities, then the solution is identities held in fluid, hybrid, loose, etc. ways.

But perhaps we ought to ask why “identity” is the best lens to ask religious questions anyway? Are we looking for coherence and singularity (something to “be”) where it is not proper to do so? There is a continuity of practice across things that seem like they should be different “identity.” This is a basic notion within queer theory. Identity is a strikingly inadequate category to talk about being human. Even salvation is not really about identity in many frameworks, neither is piety.