CBC’s “The Myth of the Secular”

This past fall, CBC ran a wonderful seven-part podcast series called “The Myth of the Secular.” The series, driven by interviews with scholars from various disciplines, hits on themes important to The Humanist Lens, such as: the positive role of religion in the public sphere, secularism as a contingent cultural phenomenon, and the resurgence of theology and metaphysics in high-level academic discussions around the world.


Part one: Craig Calhoun, Director of the London School of Economics, and Rajeev Barghava of India’s Centre for the Study of Developing Societies:

In modern Western societies a powerful ideology divided the world into two opposed domains, the religious and the secular.   Religion was private; the secular was public and political.   As societies modernized, they would become more secular, and religion would gradually lose its remaining public significance.  Until quite recently this was the story told in Western social thought.   But it no longer seems to fit. Religion, far from fading, has grown ever stronger.  And modernization has developed along different lines in different societies.

Part two: David Martin, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics:

It was once common to define secularization as the overcoming of religion.  Karl Marx’s famous description of religion as the opiate of the people is typical of countless modern theories that saw religion as false consciousness, an ideological façade that hid humanity’s real situation. Philosopher Charles Taylor calls these theories “subtraction stories” –  religion is a kind of ideological froth, the secular is the underlying reality that is revealed when this froth is blown away.   

Part three: Saba Mahmood, Anthropologist at University of California at Berkeley:

In the decades after the Second World War most Muslim countries were ruled by secular and nationalist ideologies – from Sukarno’s Indonesia to Nasser’s Egypt to the Shah’s Iran.  Then around 1980 there was a sea change.  The Iranian revolution of 1979 is often taken as the watershed.  Islam reasserted itself – and as something more than what the secular West had come to understand as religion –  merely private belief.  It reasserted itself as a way of life – as much political as personal.  This Islamic Revival, as it’s sometimes called, directly challenged one of the axioms of modern social thought – that modernizing societies would inevitably grow more secular as they developed, and the significance of religion would fade. Instead religion was growing in power and political influence.  What was going on?   

Part four: Malise Ruthven, author of various books on Islam and religious fundamentalism:

The Fundamentals was a series of books, published by the Bible Institute of Los Angeles between 1910 and 1915, which tried to set the basics of Christianity in stone. Fundamentalism now refers to any back-to-basics movement. Malise Ruthven’s Fundamentalism asks what all these movements have in common, in this feature interview with David Cayley.

Part five: Paul Kahn, Professor of Law at Yale University:

When the President of the United States is away from the White House he’s accompanied by a military aide carrying a black briefcase, nicknamed “the football.”  It contains codes that enable the launch of nuclear weapons. Should the President consider that the national interest of the United States required it, he could, on the spot, give orders that would destroy or poison much of the world.  At that moment no assembly would vote, no court would review the case, no precedent would apply – the fate of the world would hang on his or her sovereign decision. In a recent book called Political Theology, American writer Paul Kahn cites this example to show how much politics, in his native United States, rests on theological bedrock – on faith, not reason. What else but a religious commitment, he asks, could make the destruction of the world even thinkable.  What else could justify the sacrifice of soldiers in war?  

Part six: John Milbank, Professor of Theology at the University of Nottingham:

The English poet William Blake once wrote that humanity must and will have some religion – the only question is which religion.  British theologian John Milbank agrees.  A purely secular society, in Milbank’s view, is simply not viable.  The only choice in our time, he says, is between religion and nihilism.  But religion for him means something more than just a private moment with God on a Sunday morning – it means a way of life. Milbank belongs to a movement called Radical Orthodoxy.  Under its banner, he and a group of like-minded colleagues have argued that modern Western societies have lost touch with authentic Christianity and, as a result, are now living  in a spiritually flattened world.

Part seven: William Connolly, Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University, Mark Taylor, Professor of Religion at Columbia University and Fred Dallmayr, Professor of Political of Philosophy and Political Science:

A separation of the secular from the religious was one of the founding ideas of the modern world. In the interests of peace and civic order, religion was to be stripped of worldly power and made into a purely private and spiritual matter. Public affairs were to be governed by secular considerations. God might get the occasional nod – like the acknowledgement of his supremacy in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms – but the secular was generally imagined as a religion-free zone. That was the theory, but in recent years this way of cutting things up has come under serious challenge. The boundary between the secular and the religious has eroded. Scholars like Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor have pointed out, for example, that the secular is in many ways a product of religion. And secularization itself seems to have gone into reverse –  with religion resurgent all around the world.  



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