What Is “Secularism on the Edge” About Anyway?

Since its terminological inception in 1851—where the British Freethinker George Jacob Holyoake suffixed an “ism” onto the existing and theologically freighted word “secular”—tremendous confusion has reigned as to what secularism entails.

For some, such as Holyoake, secularism referred first and foremost to an ethical lifestyle predicated on rational and mutually beneficial moral acts in this world. For others, such as Holyoake’s frequent critic Charles Bradlaugh, secularism comprised a thoroughgoing anti-theology, which rejected, in strident terms, he existence of God or any phenomena not explicable in materialist terms.

And for still others, the secular is neither an ethical nor a theological problematic, but a decidedly political one. This conception of the secular focuses almost exclusively on relations between Church and State. This political approach is characteristically deeply suspicious of any excessive or prolonged mixing between the two. Contrary to popular belief, however, this political conception of the secular need not be reduced to mere “separationism,” though that is one possible application of a secular political program. There exist other possibilities, ranging from what is known as “accomodationism” to “disestablishmentarianism,” to “strict state neutrality,” to a model similar to French laïcité, to “non-cognizance” (all terms whose semantic range overlap in both popular and scholarly usage).

It is this last broad category that construes secularism as a political problematic, albeit one with many possible iterations in practice, which we will investigate in our gathering this February. We shall refer to this as “political secularism/s” and among the questions we wish to engage are, as follows:

  • What are the fundamental tenets of American secularism, French laïcité and Israeli chiloniyut? Instead of offering constricting definitions of each, we seek to expose the plausible range of meanings that actors in the State, the media, and on the ground associate with these terms.
  • What historically prompted the rise of American, French, and Israeli secularisms? Which figures can we point to as providing some of the theoretical common denominators in forming all three iterations? How have different historical processes molded different conceptions of the secular in each of these countries?
  • Who speaks for secularism in Israel, France, and the United States? Who speaks against secularism in these countries?
  • In what ways are religious fundamentalist movements, such as the American Christian Right, French Islamists, and ultra-Orthodox Israelis, to name but a few, challenging the traditional principles of secularism? What do they understand secularism to be? What is their critique? And in what ways is their intervention reasonable and legitimate?
  • How have the historical secular, laïque and hiloni models been challenged by the emergence of new voices (e.g. Muslim feminism and Jewish orthodox feminism)?
  • In what ways have the historical secular, laïque and hiloni movements resulted in the betterment of the condition of women in the United States, France, and Israel? In what ways have they worked to the detriment of the improvement of women’s lives?
  • What may the future of secularism portend? How might secularism need to reconfigure itself so as to offer useful benefits to pluralistic and democratic societies?

“Secularism on the Edge” is an interdisciplinary gathering of political scientists, historians, legal scholars, sociologists, theologians, demographers, and scholars of gender, among others. We would note that the emphasis at this gathering will be on secularism, as opposed to secularization. Our core interest is not the historical process through which religion did or did not assume a less salient role in what Max Weber called “all departments of life.”

Rather, we are concerned with secular political and lay movements in an era of global religious reawakening. We are also seeking to stay clear of the very important, though not necessarily germane, philosophical discussions of “secularity,” the “post-secular” age, or secularism as a “discursive formation.” Our focus will be less on the philosophy of secularism and more on its political manifestations in the three countries under scrutiny.