Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Can Political Theology Save Secularism?


If the violence of September 11, 2001, accomplished one thing, it was to force the United States, and by proxy the other Western powers who joined its military adventure in the Middle East, to drop the pretense of being secular nations. When one saw some of the most prominent atheists in American discourse calling for crusades against Muslim invaders, the supposed progressivism of our intellectuals—which still regularly and loudly proclaims its superiority to the passions of religion—looked a bit less convincing. Osama bin Laden had forced us to admit that, while the U.S. may legally separate church and state, it cannot do so intellectually. Beneath even the most ostensibly faithless of our institutions and our polemicists lie crouching religious lions, ready to devour the infidels who set themselves in opposition to the theology of the free market and the messianic march of democracy. Our god may not have a name, but we kill for him just the same.
With theologically energized political movements raising a din among both citizens and enemies of the state, the liberal paradigm—which depends on legal secularism, representative politics, and market economics to suppress deeper social conflicts—seemed more and more besieged. Though it still has its champions, the secularism that triumphed in the nineteenth century has been ill-prepared to handle the voracious economies it unleashed, and the religious currents it struggles to contain. (The riots that began across the Middle East last week are yet another illustration of how explosive the reaction can be.) But now, scattered across philosophy, religion, and literature departments, a movement of critics is working to meet the challenge of this post-secular age. As our political system depends on a shaky separation between religion and politics that has become increasingly unstable, scholars are sensing the deep disillusionment afoot and trying to chart a way out.
Even outside the academy, the ongoing crisis of secularism is a high-profile event. The most recent sideshow was the rise of reactionary literary atheism, which gallivanted into the breach with a commitment to polemicizing against religion and, ironically, baptizing Western military aggression in a series of what have been religious wars in everything but name. Increasingly, though, the horizon in popular literature is toward a middle ground. James Wood, the literary critic for The New Yorker, called in a 2009 essay for “a theologically engaged atheism that resembles disappointed belief.” The call seems to have been answered: a litany of titles, including Greg Epstein’s Good Without God and Karen Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, have tried to soften the edges of atheism by making popular cases for non-religious ethics. The Swiss writer Alain de Botton has taken it a step further, arguing that secular liberals should not just respect religion, but should actively emulate it.
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