Varieties of Secularism
SOCIOLOGISTS HAVE DEBATED the secularization thesis for decades.1 Political theorists have analyzed the public-private divide since the founding of the discipline.2 These debates have only just begun to enter the field of international relations. When Christine Sylvester wrote that international relations “smacks of debates within the hierarchy of one church,” she might have been right in more ways than one.3 For the most part, it is a secular church.4 Contemporary international relations takes the Euro-American definition of religion and its separation from politics as the natural starting point for social scientific inquiry.
This book adopts a different starting point. Secularism is one of the most important organizing principles of modern politics. It is a discursive tradition defined and infused by power.5 The social construction of secularism has taken two distinct paths in international relations: a laicist trajectory, in which religion is seen as an adversary and an impediment to modern politics, and a Judeo-Christian secularist trajectory, in which religion is seen as a source of unity and identity that generates conflict in modern international politics. These two varieties of secularism, and their history and consequences for international relations, are the subject of this chapter.
Each of these traditions of secularism is associated with particular sets of practices. Laicism, which comes out of the Enlightenment critique of religion, is associated with attempts to force religion out of politics. The secular spheres are emancipated and expanded “at the expense of a much-diminished and confined religious sphere.”6 Judeo-Christian secularism is associated with attempts to claim and reinforce the “secular” as a unique Western achievement that both distills and expresses the essence of Euro-American history, civilization, and culture. Each of these forms of secularism is a contingent and productive form of power located on a much broader spectrum of theological politics.7 They are not mutually exclusive. There is no strong or necessary dividing line between them. An individual or an institution may draw upon the substantial discursive resources of both traditions simultaneously to legitimate a particular political position.
The forms of secularism delineated in this book are indebted to three different bodies of work by Charles Taylor, José Casanova, and Talal Asad. In “Modes of Secularism,” Taylor describes an “independent political ethic” variety of secularism and a “common ground strategy” of secularism which, he