In his magisterial ‘A Secular Age’, Charles Taylor interrogates the nature of secularism in the West and its gradual emergence over five centuries. Taking this work as their lead, Mirjam Künkler, John Madeley and Shylashri Shankar have edited a new volume which investigates whether Taylor’s conclusions regarding secularity can also be applied to other regions. This detailed study finds that his thesis is not readily applicable to other parts of the world where religion-state relations remain strong and religious belief cannot readily be reduced to one option among many.

David Davies, Flickr, Creative Commons

With his monumental study A Secular Age, Charles Taylor created a new high point in contemporary thought about historical processes of secularization and the relationship between the religious and the non-religious in Western modernity. He offers a historically grounded account of the emergence of secularity as a contingent process in societies characterized by Western Latin Christianity, and identifies a series of departures from earlier religious life that have allowed older forms to be dissolved or destabilized in favor of new, diverse religious, spiritual, non- and anti-religious options around large questions of meaning of society, the cosmos, and the self. Taylor’s explicit focus on what he calls the “North Atlantic world” invites an exploration of secularity in other parts of the world. This is where our volume takes its starting point.

Based on an international research cluster of country specialists interested in the nexus between politics and religion in Asian, North African, and Middle Eastern countries, our volume A Secular Age beyond the West: Religion, Law and the State in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa comparatively investigates the place of religion and non-religion in countries outside the heartland of Latin Christendom. The case studies take Taylor’s work as their point of departure. They focus on the patterns of religion–state relations in the modern era, wherein each has created particular conditions of belief.

Taylor identifies three notions of secularity. The first notion, Secularity I, is that of the classic differentiation theory: it emerges as political authority, law, science, education, and the economy are emancipated from the influence of religious norms and authority. Secularity II is the notion describing the decline of religious belief and practice, something some sociologists argued was the case in the Europe of the 1960s and which they predicted would be a universal trend. Today, European Secularity II, if religion really has been on the decline there at all, is regarded as the global exception rather than the rule. But it is a third notion that particularly interests Taylor. Under Secularity III he understands a condition in which it is possible to not believe, and still live a fulfilled life. This condition is characterized by three phenomena: exclusive humanism (a humanism that does not appeal to transcendence), the availability of meaningful options between belief and unbelief (a belief in the self-sufficiency of human agency and a widening of the range of possible options), and the availability of these meaningful options to a large majority of people, not just elites. Secularity III emerges through “a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace”. This condition of Secularity III, according to Taylor, as an option available to a large majority of people, not just elites, developed uniquely in the North Atlantic world, where it prevails today, and he leaves open the question of whether it could be, or has in the meantime been, realized in other parts of the world.

In our approach, two variations to Taylor’s narrative stand out.

First, in Taylor’s account, processes of gradual differentiation facilitate the emergence of a widening range of possible options of belief and unbelief, and, as such, Secularity III. The picture is rather different in most contributions to our volume. While differentiation played a large role in facilitating the emergence of a pluralism of outlooks, both religious and non-religious, it did so often as a consequence of sudden historical breaks, often disruptive and violent, such as the establishment of colonial administrations with their consequent breaches in notions of authority, meaning, property rights, social organization, cosmology, etc. One important consequence of this is that the drive to reform internal to religious traditions was then highly impacted, in many ways limited, by political factors. In some societies, elites have purposively harnessed religion to create a collective national identity; in others, religion was perceived as antithetical to modernization with the consequence that religious thought was marginalized from the public sphere and withdrawn from public deliberation. The link between authoritarian rule and its religious legitimation in Morocco, Iran and Pakistan, for example, has meant that internal reform – theological reform – is viewed with suspicion (and indeed as undesirable) by most political elites as it invariably would bring the authoritarian nature of state-society relations into focus. The strong link between the majority religion and the state in Turkey, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, Morocco, and Russia has moreover reinforced cohesion inside both the majority and minority religions of these societies and stifled the public expression of the pluralism in beliefs and practices internal to the religious communities.

Second, the encounter with the West has in most cases created certain path dependencies in terms of how religion is understood and regulated. Very often, post-colonial administrations continued to use the very institutional mechanisms which colonial or imperial administrations had set up to regulate religious practice, religious law, religious space, and religious education. Conceptions of religion in colonial books of law carried over into the post-colonial period. Thus, what is evident from all country studies, whether democratic or not, is the impulse of the state to tame, suppress, co-opt or mould religion in the name of “public order”. We speak in this context of the “marker” state: the state that marks its citizens in religious terms.

In our concluding chapter we dedicate much space to these founding conditions and path dependencies. Let us just provide here some crude summaries.

First, in general terms, the case studies appear consistent with Taylor’s argument that Western secularization was critically contingent upon particular characteristics of Latin Christendom rather than on the ineluctable consequences of some universal multi-stranded process of modernization. While globalizing trends have accelerated the spread of technological and economic modernization across the world, the emergence of Secularities I, II, and III has not ineluctably followed in their wake. Rather, in the early twenty-first century the trend appears to have been to reverse developments in each respect – including even partially in the West itself, where the renewed political salience of religious (or religion-related) issues is widely in evidence. In the non-Western cases, however, many of the evidences for Secularity I have seen a distinct pegging-back of ostensibly secular settlements achieved earlier in the wake of such critical junctures such as second- and third-world revolutions, decolonizations, and/or wars. The fact of many earlier, ostensibly secular settlements, on the other hand, piques the question of whether those clear evidences found of Secularity I outside the West should be seen as the mere products of international diffusion or imposition from the West or, rather, as responses by local actors to risks of domestic social conflict. The conclusion which emerges is that, while both aspects need to be taken into account in understanding individual cases, domestic political factors with their real legal and regulatory consequences have tended – and tend – in almost all cases to act as the decisive drivers and gatekeepers of change.

A second general conclusion concerns what we have called the “differential burdening of religion by the state”. Thought of in simple terms, it relates to the observation that religious traditions are not symmetrical in terms of the “contact surface” they offer to state regulation. This is particularly relevant in the field of law: in the Muslim world, India, and Israel, the religious traditions of Islam, Hinduism, and Judaism respectively tend to place greater demands on the nature and content of public law than is the case in those countries where Christianity, Buddhism, and Chinese religions have been historically dominant. Thus, with the expansion of the regulation of private and public spaces on the part of consolidating modern states, religions tend to be differentially burdened, depending initially on how many and what type of regulatory practices were historically performed under religious auspices and/or according to religious principles. As Taylor notes, by the time modern political and legal institutions had achieved full development in the societies of Latin Christendom, religion had already ceased to define the operating principles of the law, in most cases even losing their monopoly hold over family law. By contrast, in all the Muslim-majority countries included in this volume, as well as among the Jewish diaspora, the administration of personal law had remained under the authority of religious elites prior to the emergence of modern state systems. With the introduction of Western-style constitutions and the transplantation of Western legal systems, many of these traditional competencies were stripped rather abruptly from religious authorities. Accordingly, in Islam-state relations it has been in the field of religious law that the most profound interference by the twentieth-century state was experienced, while in China, for example, it was in the field of education, in Russia in the realm of church property.

A key step toward understanding when and how Secularity III emerges, then, lies in identifying the conditions under which local ideas in favor of it successfully translate into the institutional constellations of Secularity I that are necessary to sustain it, and which interests, institutions and (counter-) ideas so often obstruct this act of translation and institutional lock-in.

Note: A Secular Age beyond the West: Religion, Law and the State in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa was published by Cambridge University Press in February 2018, and an authors-meet-critics panel was held at LSE on 18 October, 2018.

About the authors

Mirjam Künkler is a senior research fellow at the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study. Her books include Democracy and Islam in Indonesia (with Alfred Stepan), Columbia University Press, 2013; Al-Dimokratia va al-Islam fi Indonisia, All Print Publishers Beirut, 2016; and with Tine Stein, Selected Writings by Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde, Oxford University Press, 2017. Her book on Female Religious Authority in Shi‘i Islam: Past and Present is forthcoming with Edinburgh University Press in early 2019.

John Madeley taught at the London School of Economics and Political Science for some three decades. Starting as a specialist in the government and politics of the Nordic countries, he later concentrated on researching and teaching the linkages between and contrasting patterns of religion and politics, especially across Europe’s fifty-odd countries. His books include Church and State in Contemporary Europe: The Chimera of Neutrality (with Zsolt Enyedi, 2003), Religion and Politics (2003), and Religion, Law and Politics in the European Union (with Lucian Leustean, 2010).

Shylashri Shankar is a senior fellow at CPR. She is the author of Scaling Justice: India’s Supreme Court, Anti-Terror Laws and Social Rights (Oxford University Press, 2009), and co-author of Battling Corruption (Oxford University Press, 2013). Her intellectual and research interests include constitutionalism and religious freedom, ‘activism’ and policy making by the judiciary, impact of anti-terror laws on civil liberties, conceptual history and the migration of ideas between judiciaries.

Note: This piece gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Religion and Global Society blog, nor of the London School of Economics.