Genesis and Validity of the Concept of the Secular

Secular society and religion are necessarily and constitutively related to each other in their self-descriptions in a way that constitutes each’s counterpart as the “other” to which they relate both as an indispensable semantic resource and as a threat to their identity. Every abstract and one-sided attempt to proclaim either the inevitability of secularization or the indispensability of religion therefore provokes the dismissal of this dismissal as a counter-reaction.
The notion that modernization is to be identified with a necessary disappearance of religiosity has met with strong criticism in recent years. But the refutation and relativization of this thesis and the proclaimed “Return of Religion” (Martin Riesebrodt) has also been contested. As far back as the 1960s, sociologists of religion began to criticize the narrow theoretical frame of the classical secularization thesis. Since the 1990s the classical secularization thesis has become the focus of a differently accentuated critique. It is formulated from a perspective that defines the “resistance to secularization” of religion more in terms of its politically active role and less in terms of its function as a mechanism of social integration.
Therefore, the question of religion is currently discussed not only in the field of the philosophy of religion, religious studies, or theology, but increasingly also in political philosophy. This is not only due to the political, social, and cultural developments in Western societies, which give more space to religion in the public sphere than was suggested by the classical secularization theories following Max Weber, but also to the changing premises within the philosophical debates themselves.
The main focus of one subproject was the investigation of the postsecularism hypothesis. Postsecularism, according to Habermas, is devoted to analyzing and explaining the growing awareness in secularized societies that, contrary to the still widespread secularization hypothesis, religion does not disappear from societies as they continue to modernize.
A second focus of this subproject was on postsecularism in the context of postcolonial theory. The question addressed was: How should the theoretical study of religion be understood from a postcolonial perspective under conditions of secularization?
The third subproject dealt with the challenges that the discourse of postsecularism, as understood by Habermas and Taylor, entails from the standpoint of normative political philosophy for justifying political orders, that is, secular, liberal democracies.
Having initially reconstructed Habermas’s and Taylor’s concept of postsecularism in the first subproject, we proceeded to problematize these conceptions by juxtaposing them with the programmatically contrasting approach of Talal Asad. This involved, in particular, reconstructing and critically questioning the epistemological dichotomy secularism/religiosity.
Moreover, the second subproject, through a discussion of universalism and particularism with reference to the concept of postsecularism, showed that the inter-contextual extension and application of the concept of postsecularism should be sought at the global level and not against the backdrop of secularization informed by universalism. The results of the second subproject were discussed in a very well-received international workshop in which representatives from Africa, Central and North America, Asia, and Europe took part. The forthcoming publication of these results will provide comprehensive documentation of the context-specific experiences that contribute to the theoretical study of religion in the postcolonial context and of their importance for politics in this context.
In the third subproject, we developed a position that situates the question of the religiosity and secularism of political interpretations and discussion contributions in the context of a theory of pluralism that does not accept the liberal democratic distinction between “appropriate” and “inappropriate” interpretations. Without attempting to understand religious patterns of interpretation as “reasonable” or “rational,” we asked what role that which is not reducible to reason can play in the justification political orders. The proposal was to formulate the question concerning reason and what is not reducible to reason in such a way that the focus is not on the question of reason and the rationality of articles of faith, aesthetic experiences, and the like, but on whether, when it comes to justifying political decisions, it can also be reasonable to appeal to what cannot be reduced to reason.

The most important publications of this project:

Lutz-Bachmann, Matthias (ed.): Postsäkularismus. Zur Diskussion eines umstrittenen Begriffs, (Normative Orders Vol. 12), Frankfurt am Main: Campus, 2015.

Lutz-Bachmann, Matthias and Michael Kühnlein (eds.): Vermisste Tugend? Zur Philosophie Alasdair MacIntyres, Berlin: Berlin University Press, 2015.

Schmidt, Thomas and Annette Pitschmann (eds.): Religion und Säkularisierung. Ein interdisziplinäres Handbuch, Stuttgart: Metzler, 2014.

Okeja, Uchenna B.: Normative Justification of a Global Ethic: A Perspective from African Philosophy, Lanham/Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013.

Winandy, Julien: Normativität im Konflikt. Zum Verhältnis von religiösen Überzeugungen und politischen Entscheidungen, Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2013.


People in this project:

  • Project director / contact
    • Lutz-Bachmann, Matthias, Prof. Dr. Dr. | Profile
    • Schmidt, Thomas, Prof. Dr. | Profile
  • Project members
    • Okeja, Uchenna, Dr. (former member) | Profile
    • Winandy, Julien, Dr. des. (former member) | Profile

Publications of this project:

  • Lutz-Bachmann, Matthias (2015): Postsäkularismus. Zur Diskussion eines umstrittenen Begriffs, Normative Orders Bd. 12, Frankfurt am Main: Campus 2015.
  • Open-Access-Logo Rieck, Katja (2014): “Post(Secularism) – Theoretical and Empirical Findings on a Contested Category”, Proceedings of the International Conference ‘Normative Ordnungen im Wandel: Globale Herausforderungen’ [Normative Orders in Transformation: Global Challenges], hosted by the Cluster of Excellence “The Formation of Normative Orders”, Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, Frankfurt/Main.
    Details | Link to full text
  • Winandy, Julien (2014): “Normativität im Konflikt. Zum Verhältnis von religiösen Überzeugungen und politischen Entscheidungen”. Baden-Baden: Nomos (Eingereicht 2013 als Dissertation am Max-Weber-Kolleg der Universität Erfurt)
  • Schmidt, Thomas; Müller, Tobias (2013): Was ist Religion? Beiträge zur aktuellen Debatte um den Religionsbegriff, Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh 2013
  • Schmidt, Thomas; Endreß, Martin; Höhn, Hans-Joachim; Wiertz, Oliver (Hrsg.) (2012): Herausforderungen der Modernität. Würzburg: Echter 2012


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