Academic journal article Journal of Global Buddhism

Buddhism and Global Secularisms

Academic journal article Journal of Global Buddhism

Buddhism and Global Secularisms

Article excerpt

The Religious-Secular Binary

The wave of scholarship on secularism that has arisen in recent decades paints a more nuanced picture than the reigning model throughout most of the twentieth century. For most of the twentieth century, social theorists adhered to a linear narrative of secularism as a global process of religion waning and becoming less relevant to public life. In this view, the processes of disenchantment, social differentiation, displacement, and the growing dominance of instrumental reasoning and scientific thinking would gradually come to occupy the spaces once inhabited by religion, and religion would fade away or at least become increasingly a matter of private belief.

The classical secularization narrative parallels a prominent narrative of Buddhism in the modern world. In the nineteenth and twentieth-century, authors from around the globe began to create a narrative of Buddhism, celebrating the rediscovery of "true" Buddhism, in part by western scholars: a Buddhism of texts, philosophy, psychology, meditation, and ethics that contrasted starkly with the "degenerate" Buddhism that colonists found on the ground in places they occupied. The latter Buddhism was a matter of "cultural baggage" that had accumulated around the core of the Dharma and was inessential-even corrupting-to its original liberative message (Almond, 1998; Lopez, 2002; McMahan, 2008). Most scholars today are quite skeptical of this narrative and recognize the picture of a pure rational core of Buddhism enveloped by various cultural impurities to be inadequate to account for the complexities of Buddhism in all its varieties today and throughout history. Yet the picture persists in many different contexts of the rescue of Buddhism from moribund tradition and its (re)emergence into its true ancient form, which turns out to be the most compatible with the modern.

Both of these narratives-that of linear secularization of the world and of the linear modernization (and recovery) of Buddhism-are now, I believe, untenable. Yet there is still sense to be made of secularism, as well as Buddhist modernism, and their mutual intersections. After the Iranian revolution and the rise of resurgent Islam, the flourishing of evangelical Christianity and Pentecostalism in the global south, the "return" of religion in China and the former Soviet Union, we need not rehearse all of the reasons why most social thinkers today have become skeptical of the "classical" secularization thesis (Berger, 1999). What has emerged is a more nuanced picture of the complex interlacing of secular forces with religious ones, along with an increased appreciation of the interdependence and co-constitution of these categories. Rather than seeing secularization as the inevitable and global fading and privatization of religion in the face of inexorable processes of modernization, we see heterogeneous, geographically differentiated processes in which different societies adopt certain themes that might fall into the category of "secular" and combine or juxtapose them in unique ways with particular understandings of the "religious". Although perhaps shaped by its origins in the European Enlightenment, secularization is not a uniform process of the withering of religion from public life, as many twentieth century thinkers imagined. The fact that this process happened to a great extent in Western Europe makes that area the exception rather than the rule. Nor is the division between secular and religious a stable, incontestable, and impermeable membrane. Rather, it is something constantly renegotiated in various national and legal contexts.

The contemporary compulsion to put secularism and religion in scare-quotes betrays a meta-reflective stance that recognizes the extent to which the very categories of religious and secular are modern and co-constitutive, and do not simply refer to natural, unambiguous species of phenomena. The religious-secular binary is (or is part of) a discourse-a particular way of constituting knowledge, subjectivity, meaning, power, and practice-that increasingly pervades modern societies. …

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