Landmarks in the Critical Study of Secularism

Abstract

This essay sets the contemporary problematic of secularism in a critical frame by posing six key questions: Why is it so difficult—perhaps impossible—to reach a scholarly, much less political, consensus on the significance of “secularism”? What are the implications of mounting pressures within Euro-American discourses to tie secularism ever more closely to Christianity? Insofar as secularism is historically constituted through (a contentious and incomplete) exclusion of religion, can the contours of this contested formation be traced more clearly by drawing on an archive of theological figures, such as that of conversion? If secularism cannot be understood as simply coextensive with modernity, what are the limits of the secular? To what extent does political pluralism presuppose and depend on some notion or formation of the secular? And finally, within the shifting patterns of our world today, what are the most salient connections among secularism, nation, state, and capital?

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