The New Turn to Post-Secular Social Analysis

In reading and discussing the introductory chapter of The Post-Secular in Question: Religion in Contemporary Society, 2012 (PSQ), edited by Philip Gorski et al, the Outrageous Ideas Team made some interesting points.postsec-cover


The post-secular vs. the post-modern. Some scholars, probably incorrectly equate these two terms. Whatever the post-modern might mean in connection with social analysis, the post-secular refers specifically to that stream of work that has, over the last several decades, interrogated some of the core components of the Secularization Thesis (ST).

The ST, a dominant paradigm in sociology until at least the 1980s, stressed the inevitability of the increasing irrelevance of religion for sociological scholarship. And while there are still a number of (especially western European) scholars who cling to the ST, the majority of recent scholarly work has demonstrated the failure of the ST to properly predict the demise of religion (or at least its radical privatization) for most of the world.

From the rise of the American Religious Right to the rise of ISIL, it seems clear that the ST was (at the very least) a wish seeking fulfillment. Even in western Europe, it seems that only in the bastions of the academic elite has the ST maintained its protected hegemony. See PSQ for more on the failure of ST. And, some of the most interesting new forms of ST (call this ST2) stress the fact that the post-secular world is a place where thoughtful scholars can now discuss the secular itself in the context of multiple religious worldviews.

See Taylor’s A Secular Age for one of the best examples of this sort of work. Here post-modern relativism maybe helpful. Religion and the Secular are foundational choices. Neither occupies a position of philosophical or logical certainty. And Religion may actually provide a stronger (more internally coherent) inference to the best explanation of the widest range of social phenomena.

The Emperor’s Clothes.

The persistence of ST in the social sciences is itself an indicator of the power of the secularist dream. Across the academy it is not at all uncommon to meet with skepticism about any project that takes Religion seriously as anything other than an epiphenomenal result of the current faddish essentials – race, gender, and class. So, it is refreshing to meet with comments from Gorski et al like this one on page 5:

“…it is impossible to make sense of the world without taking account of religion and that a social science inattentive to religion cannot hope to be adequate to the realities that it seeks to elucidate.”

Levels of Analysis.

It might be wise to consider exactly how Religion can be best analyzed by the social sciences. Some scholars argue that such analysis will proceed on multiple levels. A common approach argues for 4 levels:

  • Minimal Description – What? (data, basic correlations)
  • Explanation – Why? (esp. of causes and effects)
  • Depth Description (understanding of ethos, movements, paradigms)
  • Evaluation (the moral of the story, broader meanings and contexts)

While ST might argue that we must all do careful minimal description, the post-secularist will argue that the choice of “what” to describe will also be affected by one’s position in the post-secular landscape. Of course, each of the next levels of analysis will be even more deeply affected by a scholar’s stance. That stance will reflect the initial worldview assumptions of any given scholar.

Analysis, Choices, and Method.

Post-secularists recognize the impact of this choice. The problem is to find a way to translate the ineffable into the language of social science. And to seek a method that allows a conversation between the two.

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