Introduction Secularization: A Modern Myth?

In: The Post-Secular City
Paolo Costa
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Between History and Autobiography

The topic I am dealing with in this book is the near past of secularization theory. Ideally, the text would like to offer to an audience of readers who are specialists or, if not specialists, at least motivated and interested in the subject a reliable picture of the recent developments of a debate that has accompanied the great social and political upheavals happened in the West over the last three centuries and that has recently returned to the centre of public discussion.

The topic is, at least at first sight, within everyone’s reach. Who does not have an opinion on the fate of religion, or secularism, today? In an arc ranging from the jeremiads of those who complain that nothing is sacred anymore to the dismay of those who cannot understand how the hell obscurantism and superstition have not yet disappeared from the face of the earth, the opinionated niches in which to huddle comfortably are numerous and well known.

At the same time, however, it seems hasty to take for granted the inclusion of the term in the vocabulary of educated people. It is an easily verifiable fact that, if asked, many struggle to explain what exactly “secularization” is, demonstrating a hesitation that does not seem to touch semantically contiguous terms such as disenchantment or de-Christianization.

The uncertainty of this lexical appropriation can be read as a symptom of a theoretical operation that was only half successful. In some respects, the word seems to function as a proper noun and denote a state of affairs analogous to a numerable event in the physical world (e.g. that felled tree there or the dead cat on the side of the road). In reality, however, this is not the case. Secularization is not a fact of the world around which an informed conversation can spontaneously arise. It does not denote a fullness, but an emptiness: not a presence, but an absence – and, indeed, not an emptiness as much as an emptying, not an absence as much as a sinking into absence. In other words, we are not dealing with a concept whatsoever, but with a concept of process, with which one aspires to grasp a significant historical transformation that incorporates a change of state: the metamorphosis from one condition that is sensed as familiar to another, familiar but elusive – the transition from one mode of existence or experience to another. What is more, the transition does not concern a negligible change, but regards people’s most basic moral, political, spiritual – even ontological, if you like – commitments. ‘Secularization’ is both a manifesto-concept and an ideological litmus test.1

There can therefore be no functioning concept of secularization without a narrative context, i.e. without some form of storytelling that clarifies how the transition from there to here, i.e. from a non-secularized to a secularized condition, took place and what it consists of. This constraint places an additional burden on those who tackle the topic with a scientific intent. The narrative in question belongs to a very specific literary genre: the autobiographical tale where – as Walter Benjamin noted in his celebrated essay on Nikolai Leskov2 – the narrator has earned the right to dispense advice by virtue of his ability to encapsulate the gist of his own life in a coherent whole. By placing herself in the ‘here and now’ and projecting a beam of light on the past, the narrator can take stock of her own experience, and with it that of many others, transforming the story she has lived into an exemplary tale that rises above the plane of ordinary contingency without losing its familiarity.

In this sense, the pre-understanding of the historical phenomenon of secularization is conditioned by a series of narratives, either trumpeted or merely overheard, that superimpose the linearity of physical displacement in space onto the complexity and confusion of long-term transitions. The idea may sound abstruse at first glance, but one example should suffice to convey the insidious sense of familiarity with which such narratives are suffused. To this end, I have to interrupt my long argument for a while in order to immerse myself in the atmosphere of those quasi-ethnographic novels which, in a range of characters, styles and plots going from Carlo Levi’s Christ stopped at Eboli to Annie Ernaux’s The Years, have sought to capture the biographical significance of a key historical change which, observed retrospectively, has not lost, indeed has even increased its astonishing character.3 It is no coincidence that in these stories, the narrator’s voice often has a dreamy timbre, a trace of the shakiness of the events brought back to memory. The dissonance between the brute fact of continuity (in substance) and the sense of discontinuity (in experience) produces a significant effect of estrangement to which, in view of the aims pursued in this book, it is important to devote some preliminary thoughts. Let us imagine for a moment that we are sitting in front of a direct witness of the silent revolution that transformed Italy in a few decades from a largely peasant civilization to a modern consumer society: what can we expect in such cases?

The beginning of the story will be likely set in an exotic, almost fairytale-like place: a form of community life that gives the impression of having always existed – with no before or after, so to speak. In this world, the fulfilment of basic physical needs is so painful and urgent that there is literally no room for detaching personal beliefs from context. Put simply, for those born into it there is an implicit reason for everything and the explanation for the hardships is simple and brutal: it has always been so.

This compression of the space of reasons, on the one hand, encourages an unreflective conformism, but, on the other hand, prevents the emergence of a pressing need for coherence. In short, people live for the day, not caring much about the gap between words and things. Theirs is a society that does not need a well-defined picture of itself and the world. The main problem for them is the unexpected – family disasters or natural catastrophes – but such periodic events immediately translate into daily challenges so dramatic that there is no time left for anything other than the struggle for survival. This also explains how a high level of communal virtues can coexist aproblematically with an astonishing laxity of personal morality when measured against a bourgeois ethical code.

In this context, religious rituals operate as an invisible glue of social life. The parish is the cornerstone of the community both because it exercises an ordering power over everyday affairs and because, in doing so, it embodies and gives shape to the idea that, despite everything, human existence is not reducible to drudgery, squalor, callousness, in a word, to ‘brutality’, albeit the latter is an obvious dimension of people’s ordinary living. The essential thing is that it is not all there is. That is why the church, and the rites it administers and oversees, act as a bulwark against the ever-looming risk of disintegration of the involuntary solidarity between subalterns holding the community together.

So far, there is nothing epic about such story. The narrative only accelerates when this form of life loses its exclusive character and, as a result, fails to saturate people’s imaginations. The change is heralded by the intensification of the marginal effects of a History from which it is increasingly difficult to isolate oneself. Gradually, the community ceases to be an elusive and insurmountable horizon. In the space of a few generations, not only does the idea spread that true life is ‘elsewhere’, but – more importantly – the conviction matures that it is an attainable good, placed on the same level, within the same horizon of ordinary existence.

It is at this point that the tale requires a change of backdrop. The twist is the transition to a new form of life: from ‘community’ to ‘society’.4 The shift from a life centred on the parish to one revolving around the factory and the market is initially a source of enchantment. The magic of crowds, technology, commodities, of a mode of elective sociability, unknown freedom and unprecedented focus on the future have a disorientating effect at first, but immediately afterwards an exhilarating influence on the fugitives. Such experience of enchantment, however, is inseparable from the impact of disenchantment. All it takes is just a minor bump in the road, for the magic city to fall silent, to lose all resonance. After that, the fact that everything is on the same level, ideally within reach but in fact unattainable, is bound to produce a disheartening backlash.

Hence, it is not surprising that a sense of alienation and nostalgia for a lost world may take hold in people’s minds. A return to the origin, however, is only possible through an imaginative effort that puts the transplanted person in a painful performative contradiction. The disillusioned world from which one has escaped now reappears in the guise of an enchanted universe, sunk in space and time, archaic. But this form of primitivism, which projects into the past the only conceivable source of meaning and authenticity, has only become possible after the rebound produced by a failed enchantment that reverberates on the world of yesterday, generating the image of an original place that is simultaneously beyond and above the present. Only in this way can the ‘here and now’ appear as a profane, mundane, impoverished reality: an evanescent trace of a lost world.5

It can, but it does not have to. Nostalgia is not the only plausible response to disillusionment. The alternative exists. It lies in willingly cutting the ties with the past, and inventing, building or embracing a different way of being a person. The challenge, in this case, is to live without roots, being pulled by the future rather than stuck in an irretrievable past. In the end, however, it is symptomatic that, in this type of fictional memoirs, the narrator gives up the last word. Given its figurative function, it is essential that the story ends on an ambiguous note, suspended in a state of genuine indecision.

As in fairy tales,6 the story that I have tried to condense into a vignette has a pivot, i.e. the decision to migrate: an exterior and interior exodus that leads the storyteller from a home that has now lost its ‘point’ to a world full of opportunities but lacking a recognizable form. On a macro level, the protagonist’s journey, which is at the same time a journey through space and time, is governed by the antitheses between a closed and an open world, dark and light, poverty and wealth, prose and poetry, dead and living, stagnation and progress. While the details of everyday life and experience complicate the overall picture, the story is dominated by a vague sense of radical change, of a quantum leap from one form of life to another. It is this contrasting intuition that ends up grabbing the audience’s attention. Something cumbersome has been left behind in favour of a new way of being in the world that is not self-explanatory and poses a problem of intelligibility.

The space for theory opens up precisely in this gap between the intuitive certainty of change and the indecision about its meaning. Not just any theory, in fact, but a theory forced to come to terms with ultimate values, and the related emotions, around which personal and collective identities always take shape. In this sense, many arguments about ‘secularization’ have been, and still are, attempts to neutralize the autobiographical short-circuit hanging over genealogical narratives.7

For a long time, the perspective that has established itself in many circles of Western societies as the narrative capable of making this kind of experience and its causes intelligible is what we have come to call the ‘classical theory’ of secularization.8 In its implicit métarécit, the peasant who decides to ‘make the journey’ and change his life suddenly finds himself in a world devoid of the sacred – a demagified and disenchanted world that has been and is being created elsewhere, routing the traditional cosmic, social and religious imaginary. Between the factory and the market, there is no longer any room for the pre-modern analogies of the religious basso continuo, nor for the many countryside ‘madonnas’ that the American anthropologist Edward C. Banfield observed with condescension at the end of the 1950s.9 Now what you see is all there is. In the metropolis, what remains of the traditional religious imagery dries up to become an appendage of the political struggle or of a generic civilizational effort. Entering modernity means, therefore, moving from a context of continuous communication between this and the other world to a condition of increasing rationality in which the plane of immanence ends up exhausting all available space. It is the experience in which a marginal aspect of the earlier form of life, namely hic et nunc existence, becomes the ‘whole’, without remains, without metaphors, without depth. Without a sacred that can, from time to time, break into everyday life to tear the individual and his family away from life-as-is. From this point of view, the story of the expansion of modernity involves, as such, the marginalization and obliteration of the sacred, as if there could only be modernity at the cost of the extinction of religion.

Using a less immediate vocabulary, one could summarize the issue as follows. The classical theory of secularization is based on a reading of the transition from the archaic to the modern that has the form of a parallelogram generated by two contrasting pressures: addition/growth of modernization on the one hand, and subtraction/diminution of religion on the other. In short, like water and oil, religion and modernity do not blend together. The space and influence reserved for religion are dependent variables that diminish in proportion to the colonization of pre-modern forms of life by practical and structural logics that share a rationalizing and immanentist tendency. Hence the infiltration into theoretical discourse of a sense, depending on the case, of loss or overcoming, which gives scientific argumentation a characteristic emotional tone.

If it is true that any theoretical field is by definition a contested, controversial, open-ended space, we can imagine the classical theory of secularization as an identity axis, a social imaginary that functions as an ‘unthought’, a field of ideal forces that carves out the space of the thinkable and shapes it. Within this discursive field, a set of plausible positions is distributed, which are linked by an understanding of the process of modernization as an evolutionary slope that, depending on the image favored by the various authors, ‘marginalizes’ or ‘dislocates’, ‘disarms’, ‘shapes’, ‘empties’ the experiences, practices and religious forms that were supposed to exist before.

Therein lies the paradigmatic and, in a non-derogatory sense, ‘myth-historical’ character of the thesis of the inescapable decline of the sacred in modern society. In practice, it has influenced the investigative efforts of scholars with the configuring power of those traumatic or glorious memories that act as attractors with respect to individual or collective beliefs, providing them with a universal pass even vis-à-vis the most intransigent epistemic police.

How New is the ‘New’ Debate on Secularization?

The question, now, is whether the classical secularization theory has succeeded in meeting the epistemic challenge of consistently thinking about a historical change of this magnitude without betraying the phenomenon it set out to explain. To put it in interrogative form: does the world that our storyteller has left behind have a name, a definition, an essence? Does it have a precise and unchangeable temporal location (‘pre-modern’ or ‘archaic’) or is it rather a permanent possibility of the human form of life? In short, is the mainstream theory of secularization the mature fruit of a judicious imaginative exploration or the product of the projective fantasy of a misfit?

The very possibility of asking such questions depends, of course, on the fact that today, as I am writing these pages, the classical secularization theory has already lost much of its ability to shape the views of researchers. The plausibility of a theoretical activity heavily relying on concepts of process depends on its ability to do justice to the simultaneous sense of foreignness and familiarity aroused by major historical transitions as it strives to bring the perceived contrast into focus. In order to compensate for the inevitable drive to abstraction, a language is needed that does not conceal differences and creates the conditions for a creative and stereoscopic redescription of the relevant transition within a space of discordant reasons that allows it to be illuminated without completely dissolving its enigmatic nature. The general opinion these days is that secularization theory has failed in both tasks.

But why? Why does the standard theory no longer function as a description and explanation of the experience of the sacred in contemporary society? Is it, as some would have it, a forced reassessment due to an unexpected and momentous return of religion that would have falsified the theory of secularization from the outside, or are we dealing here with a redefinition of categories and concepts that is wholly internal to the scientific field?

Reflecting almost half a century later on the merits and flaws of The Secular City, the book that perhaps better than any other embodied the spirit animating the advocates of secularization, its author, the Protestant theologian Harvey Cox, interpreted the change of atmosphere as the product of an overlap of internal and external factors.10 The most important of these is globalization, which has prompted Western scholars to acknowledge the local, ‘regional’, historically and politically conditioned character of the process of secularization. “Certain deep-seated religious impulses,” Cox wrote, “have never died. They had once remained under the radar, out of sight of cultural elites, but they are now becoming more assertive and visible”.11 From this awareness comes the need to rethink the very concept of secularism, which not only could not be understood, but in all likelihood could not have spread so rapidly if it had not served the interests of the new entrepreneurial classes both within Europe’s borders, and outside, in colonial expansion.

Cox’s intuition is important. Indeed, there is often nothing more effective in changing the tone of an autobiographical narrative than a touch of healthy realism and a little imaginative effort to shake up what Bertrand Russell once called the dogmatism of the untravelled. The evolution of the secularization debate could be summarized by noting how the aim of theoretically shielding a single narrative of change by anchoring it to a stadial view of history has given way to a change of narrative in which the linear view of human development has lost influence, as well as the guiding metaphor of tra(n)slation. What has replaced it is a rhizomatic or, better, mycelial model of change, in which the various cultural and institutional incarnations of religion (and secularity) appear as the macroscopic, visible outcomes of an underground thick web of complex practical and ideological relations whose previous manifestations had been pushed to the margins of the experts’ field of attention by a more or less generic endorsement of the thesis of its inevitable decline.

Thus, in the best cases, the re-opened debate has encouraged a multiplication of the meanings of the very concepts of religion and secularity (or modernity) rather than issuing in a mere swinging of the theoretical compass. Once the search for their intemporal essence has been set aside, the ‘religious’ and the ‘secular’ open up to a situated and tentative work of redefinition and re-imagination, offering themselves as culturally determined routes that coexist alongside other options that can be appropriated in different social contexts and adapted to them. Hence, there are no longer two simple substances competing for the same share of reality, nor is there a single (anthropological) matrix that manifests itself in different guises according to the stage of development reached by humanity, but we have a plurality of contingent cultural constructs whose understanding cannot be separated from thick and contextual descriptions.

This should make the recent vicissitudes of the public image of religious beliefs less puzzling. On the one hand, at least in the West, religion has almost pulverized, disappearing and then reappearing in the most unpredictable ways. The more some of its traditional expressions seemed to have entered an irreversible crisis, the more its revivals and ‘resurgences’ ended up attracting the attention of opinion-makers outside and inside the scientific community. On the other hand, however, this oscillation of views and moods has contributed to reinforcing in some intellectual circles the tacit judgement about the special nature of religion that has been circulating in Europe since the Enlightenment. From this perspective, religion appears as an odd human phenomenon, inasmuch as it is seen as the expression of a distinctive, objectively describable mindset or psychological configuration – for instance, as the tendency to see intentionality even in physical phenomena, or as an above-average propensity to wonder or enthusiasm.

Perhaps, one way to mitigate the cognitive dissonance between the two equally plausible insights about the mercurial or substantial nature of, let us say, the ‘sense of the sacred’ is to suppose that the unity of the religious phenomenon is to be found not so much in its most striking devotional or institutional manifestations, but in that way of being in the world straddling the gap between the visible and the invisible that intersects the human condition as such at many points. From this point of view, the fact that the recent metamorphoses of this habit of heart and mind has taken on the appearance of an out-of-the-ordinary epistemic challenge should appear less puzzling. After all, explaining human nature is no child’s play.

An indirect evidence of this problematic density is that secularization as an object of study admits no disciplinary monopoly. This means that we must accept that it is a subject that solicits different approaches and perspectives (primarily sociological, historical and philosophical, as well as, obviously, those developed in the plural realm of Religious Studies) and that, moreover, cannot ignore the contribution of the type of knowledge most reluctant to modern epistemological discipline: theology.12 From this point of view, the challenge for students of secularization today revolves around the possibility of finding or creating places where such a plurality of interpretations, conceptualizations and patterns can lead to coexistence or fruitful interaction, rather than open and unproductive conflict.

In this book, philosophy is given the task of drawing a reliable portrait of the recent debate on secularization. On what basis? The key idea is that the inclusive, not autarchical, character of philosophical knowledge is a valuable asset in view of this goal. As Charles Taylor recently argued, “philosophers cannot answer the questions at the heart of their enquiries without referring to the knowledge produced by other disciplines”.13 The ability, as it were, to speak many languages and, when necessary, to poke one’s nose into the affairs of others is a distinctive feature of philosophical practice from its earliest days. It is no accident that Plato ironically pictures it in the Symposium as an activity motivated by scarcity and unachievable without expedients. Although this epistemologically impure attitude has now become a self-evident drawback in the hyper-compartimentalized universe of contemporary scientific research, it remains a valuable resource for anyone wishing to offer a meaningful insight into a debate which, despite some esoteric aspects, remains a crucial junction in the global human conversation.14

After all, before the sociological moratorium proposed by Max Weber, it was classical German philosophy that shifted the notion of saecularisatio from the legal plane (where it indicated the expropriation of ecclesiastical property) to the level of universal history, envisioning a progressive inversion of polarity in human development between high and low, transcendent and immanent, abstract and concrete – what Hegel, exploiting the flexibility of German language, called Verweltlichung (mundanization, worldliness, ‘enworlding’) as the end goal of human mind’s growth.15 This is the terrain on which, willingly or unwillingly, all those who still confide in the value, or perhaps just in the inescapability of the concept of secularization, are to test themselves. In the following eight chapters, thus, I will make use of all the sources (and the intellectual freedom) necessary to answer the key framing question: how new is the ‘new’ debate on secularization? And why are we still exercised by it?

A Book, a Map

In the book, the first question receives an affirmative, albeit qualified, answer. In short, my claim is that something like a paradigm shift has occurred in the secularization debate over the last fifty years. More precisely, what has happened is a shift in the burden of proof between supporters and critics of the standard view. It makes sense, therefore, to regard the deconstruction of the supposed obviousness of the standard thesis as the true novelty of the debate. At the same time, however, the efforts to clarify and maintain the secularization theorem should not be disregarded, as they have helped to make the debate less muddled than it was before. In short, the deconstructive effort has also benefited those – and there is plenty of them – who have not let themselves be spellbound by religion’s alleged global comeback. Understandably, the hunch that the key to human history lies in the long-term trend towards the overcoming of ‘religion’ in favour of ‘secularity’ can reach the status of a well-rounded statement aspiring to become a justified true belief only when it ceases to be a truism. Progress, in short, has been twofold and should be recorded as such.16

That said, the book is offered to the reader as a reasoned account of recent strands of the secularization debate that are worthy of consideration as they indicate an upheaval in the understanding and conceptualization of the phenomenon. Borrowing the vocabulary of plate tectonics, the evolution of classical theory is in some respects reminiscent of the division of the original supercontinent, Pangaea, and the beginning of continental drift. Untangling the metaphor, the idea is that, at least at the level of theory, there has been a sort of progressive ‘unpacking’ of the meta-claim of the decline or degeneration of religion, leading to an articulation in different local or ‘regional’ narratives and accounts of the macro-dialectics between the ‘religious’ and the ‘secular’ in personal and social life.

In order to do justice to such a process of reflexive appropriation of a both existential and intellectual habitus, as I have already claimed above, we have to keep a constant eye both on theory and experience. In particular, the appeal to experience is indispensable to counteract the drive towards doctrinal simplification: there is nothing like reality’s challenges to prevent it from being completely supplanted by a bloodless simulacrum. The book, however, is in essence a meta-discourse, that is, a discourse on discourses, and, accordingly, the burden of explaining why, at this moment in time, first-order reflections are not enough and need to be framed in a meta-reflection is up to its author.

The first thing that I can say on my behalf is that the debate on secularization is not only very complex – a judgement that could probably be applied to any other socially relevant phenomenon being studied today – but also messy. In many cases it is not clear, in fact, what exactly is at stake, where are the most significant disagreements, even whether the basic premises are agreed upon or not. The need for order is therefore pressing. In such a context, drawing a map represents a significant theoretical contribution. Where debilitating confusion reigns, simplifying is never a theoretically neutral operation, as it presupposes interpretative choices that separate the centre from the margins of scientific discussion.17

The main simplification incorporated in the text has been foreshadowed in the previous pages, but it ought to be seen as an enabling condition for the reconstructive work undertaken in these pages as such. Let me explain. Thinking of the recent secularization debate in terms of a paradigm shift inevitably means assembling everything that came before the shift, levelling out some differences that do have their relevance, such as that between an ‘intransitive’ and a ‘transitive’ understanding of secularization. This point needs to be clarified. When the concept is used intransitively, as I did myself when I sketched a myth-history of the transition from a magical world to a disenchanted world, the advocates of secularization merely take note of the progressive and irreversible decline of religion in human history: a measurable phenomenon that poses no special problems of interpretation for them. Change, in fact, can be detected even without explaining what actually happened to religion, whether an eclipse or just a displacement. Frequently, this happens because the inconsistency of religious beliefs is taken for granted from the outset. In this view, people’s faith – just like any other false belief – simply dissolves into thin air once it has been proven false.

The concept of secularization, however, can also be used in a more sophisticated sense, assuming the existence of an original substance (the religious forma mentis or forma vitae) that can undergo a process of mundanization – the shift, that is, from a spiritual, transcendent or supernatural plane to the sensible and material world. The desire for personal immortality, for example, can be turned into an ardent desire to leave a mark on history. The aspiration to holiness into an exemplary dedication to the duties of daily life. The sense of belonging to the mystical body of the Church into a social imaginary centred on the idea of nationhood; etc. The possible interpretations of the meaning of these transfigurations are manifold. For mundanization can be read as a form of corruption or hybridization of the original content (as happens, for example, in Carl Schmitt or Karl Löwith); or as a teleologically oriented process through which the abstract is articulated, substantiated and becomes concrete (Hegel); or it can be hailed as a form of brave re-appropriation, disalienation and self-assertion of the human race (Feuerbach).

In the reconstruction of the new debate on secularization that I propose in this volume, however, the differences just mentioned are less important than they appeared before the paradigm shift occurred. Both the thesis of the evaporation of the religious and that of its metabasis eis allo genos are grouped here under the notion of the ‘theorem’ or, if you will, the ‘theoroid’ of secularization. The main features of this rickety theoretical construct are as follows: (a) religion is thought of in terms of origin, past, descent; (b) intentionally or not, Christianity and religion tend to become interchangeable terms; (c) modernity is conceived as a largely homogeneous phenomenon; (d) change is always interpreted in a weltgeschichtlich key, that is, in terms of universal history.

The gist of my cartographic endeavour is led by the conviction that, over the past fifty years, this “package”, i.e. the epistemic imaginary that has oriented for three centuries the understanding of the trajectory of religion in human history, has been first challenged and then gradually deconstructed both from a socio-historical and philosophical point of view (and, I suspect, also from a theological angle) to the point that, in the end, the burden of proof has shifted from the new to the old interpretative framework which, with hindsight, tends to appear apodictic, maximalist, and in some cases even proclamatory.

The just described simplification of the framework of analysis goes hand in hand with a thematic reduction of complexity, which takes place through the selection of some controversies and some authors that are considered helpful, if not crucial, to establish the coordinates of the recent debate. To begin with, a philosopher (Hans Blumenberg) and a sui generis sociologist (David Martin) are entrusted with the role of emblematic precursors of the paradigm shift.

Blumenberg, whose dispute with Karl Löwith marks the beginning of the change of atmosphere investigated in this book, is considered exemplary for three main reasons. The first is his critique of substantialist, antidiscontinuist views of history (i). The second is his take on modernity as a genuine cultural innovation, that is, as a historical advance not reducible to its antecedents (ii). The third, and last, is his stressing ‘local’ histories and changes (iii), which, among other things, underlies his inquiries into the emergence of the concept of progress from developments in astronomical knowledge and controversies about the superiority of modern art over the ancient one. It is on this terrain, moreover, that the crucial distinction between a maximalist use of Enlightenment philosophies of history and a non-ideological interest in macro-history or metahistory could flourish after the post-modern rejection of Grand Narratives.

Martin’s crucial role in my account, on the other hand, is largely due to the consistency with which he tried over the years to inject a healthy dose of empiricism into the mythopoetic efforts of the classical theorists of secularization. The questions on which his path-breaking works are based are often naïve, but effective. Since his snappy entrance in the debate, he asked in a loud voice, for instance, to what extent the widespread claim of the modern decline of religion was actually confirmed by empirical evidence. Thus, once he detects macroscopic local differences, Martin immediately wonders whether the umbrella concept of secularization does not encompass uneven socio-historical phenomena that require different explanations, in particular contextual explanations based on detailed descriptions rather than sweeping interpretative schemes. From this systematic use of circumstantial doubt comes his suggestion to replace the standard image of a unitary process of secularization with that of a series of local patterns of change that can be explained in the light of historically contingent variables (e.g., alliance between throne and altar; religious pluralism; mono-confessionality; etc.).

To cut a long story short, my main claim thereafter is that the transformation inaugurated and advocated in an exemplary manner by Blumenberg and Martin in the 1960s and 1970s from a minority position comes to completion – and thus becomes fully recognizable – in Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007). The immediate and global success of this work, despite its complex, even Byzantine architecture, can only be explained if due weight is given to its ability to synthesize decades of criticism of the secularization theorem, without, however, neglecting the need to make sense of the unquestionable relevance of the Great Modern Transformation for the difficult-to-define phenomenon of religious faith. Indeed, A Secular Age is a book that sets itself an at first sight paradoxical goal: to interpret secularization also, if not primarily, in the light of the impact it has had on modern spiritual life – how it has transformed, that is, what the Canadian philosopher calls the modern conditions of belief.

Taylor’s contribution to the new secularization debate could be summed up in the following terms. Unlike Martin, Taylor wants (1) to make room for synoptic reconstructions, in particular he aims to tell a coherent story about the rise of the modern (Western) identity. He does so, however, by renouncing any mythopoetic intent. In other words, he disposes of any philosophy of history drawn from a zenithal angle and replace them with contingent stories that retain their refigurative force while being narrated from the point of view of the participants, i.e. the concrete historical agents. But, in detail, how do you keep meaning and historical contingency together? From a methodological point of view, the key notion here is the idea of an affirmative genealogy. That is, Taylor is betting on the fact (2) that it may be possible to unearth the contingent genesis of a cultural construct in order to reasonably assess its claim to truth (or, to evoke Blumenberg, “legitimacy”) and not just to cast suspicion on it. This means, more concretely, (3) explaining the origin of the secular option, without setting aside its innovative character. Modern secularity is the historical product of the creative responses of flesh-and-blood people to epochal practical and theoretical challenges (among others: the legacy of the Axial turn; disenchantment; transformations of subjectivity; emergence of new social imaginaries; etc.). Finally, (4) the main novelty of a ‘secular’ age such as the western-modern one consists, on the side of mentality, in the rise of exclusive humanism and, on the side of social practices, in the making of the Immanent Frame, that is, of a way of being in the world that can (though it does not necessarily have to) ignore any reference to something overstepping the worldly domain of physical or psychological causes. Thanks to both, new ways of being a person and new modes of believing (deep reflexivity; ‘second naïveté’; fragilization; pluralism; neo-fundamentalism; etc.) become possible.

The interpretative framework developed independently by Blumenberg, Martin and Taylor is a mixed explanatory model, which does not exclude circumscribed and circumstantial uses of the category of secularization (both in its transitive and intransitive guise). In this sense, it is open to discordant theoretical appropriations. Indirect proof of this are, on the one hand, Hans Joas and, on the other, Talal Asad, who in the book exemplify, respectively, a modest, heuristic, even deflationary use of the concept of secularization – carefully distinguished from the related and no less abused notions of modernity or modernization – and its polemical, political, anti-idealistic and anti-eurocentric exploitation.

The second part of the book shifts the focus of the discussion from the deconstructors to the maintainers of the classical thesis. The investigated authors, too, belong in their own right to the nouvelle vague. For, in scientific disciplines with a relatively weak epistemological status such as the socio-historical sciences, paradigm shifts, when they occur, never put the obsolescent theoretical framework completely out of action. Rather, they exert a slight but constant pressure to updating it simply by shifting the burden of proof. Even if the canonical interpretation of the concept of secularization has lost its status as a parascientific factual truth over the last fifty years and has been replaced by a theoretical constellation in which divergent insights into the non-linearity, complexity and cultural-historical relativity of the phenomenon prevail, this does not mean that the previous explanatory model has melt into the air. Rather, its proponents have adapted to the new situation by refining their interpretative tools.

In the final three chapters of the book, the focus of the analysis moves therefore to three exemplary attempts to revise the standard view. Each of them uses one of its strengths – its capacity for simplification, its inclusiveness and its recursive logic, respectively – to renovate the theoretical machinery supporting it and to nuance its claim to truth. Thanks to the pugnacity and intellectual creativity of influential thinkers such as Marcel Gauchet, Jürgen Habermas and Gianni Vattimo, the paradigm shift mapped out in this volume has not only produced intellectual conformism, but a robust debate whose theoretical outcome remains uncertain even today.

Finally, the concluding short chapter is given the (onerous) task of pulling the threads together. Its aim is not so much to draw up a definitive balance sheet of the debate, a detailed map of real gains and residual mental cramps, or a forecast of future scenarios. Rather, the point of adding it to the previous charting is to discuss the residual usefulness of the category of secularization after its theoretical domestication, that is, after its historicization, articulation, and demythologization scrutinized in the book. In fact, my investigation should prompt the reader to ask, first of all, whether what we need today is not, in fact, a more inclusive vocabulary less conditioned by the special European trajectory.

The work I am handing over to the reader, to conclude my preliminary remarks, has an amphibious nature. I mean, it is half reconstructive and half theoretical. On the one hand, it is a fact that, given the scope of bibliographic sources, the most that an elucidatory work such as the one undertaken in this volume can aspire to today is a sort of non-encyclopedic mapping of the territory. This cannot be carried out, that is, from a bird’s-eye view, but only from the standpoint of an agent who urgently needs to orient herself in an only partially familiar environment. Given these premises, my book resembles a personal, but not idiosyncratic mental map in which, starting from certain privileged points of observation, theoretically homogeneous and relatively well-demarcated spaces are identified and profiled, which have the suitable requisites to act as markers of meaningful directions.

In this sense, as I have already stressed, a reconstructive effort is not antithetical to the theoretical impulse. The uncompromising commitment to scientific virtues such as reliability and impartiality is not to be confused with a declaration of indifference. The possibility of a theoretical spin-off is far from excluded in principle. Rather than upstream, in the form of an original theoretical synthesis, however, it is bound to emerge downstream, in the negative guise of a problematization of the two semantic poles around which the secularization debate has been structured from the outset: religion and secularism, heaven and earth, God and world. Today, moreover, it would be, if not impossible, at least incongruous, to presume to be able to discuss secularization without taking a stand on one of the crucial questions of contemporary political debate: how special – or, to put it bluntly, how especially worrying – is ‘religion’ today for the future of common goods such as democracy, respect for human rights, freedom, economic progress, women’s emancipation, equality, distributive justice or environmental protection?

After all, this has been the practical-theoretical stake of the secularization tale since the beginnings. It was precisely its urgency, its being first and foremost a response to a condition of general disorientation, that transformed it along the way into a sort of founding myth of modern identity. Significantly, the revisionist impulse underpinning the efforts of all the protagonists of the debate at the centre of this book went in the direction, if not of a demythologizing, at least of a substantial downsizing of the meta-theoretical value of the claim of the decline of religion. From this point of view, the main goal of those who are still grappling with the subject nowadays is to offer an informative and plausible description of the work of deconstruction and reformulation, in order to finally arrive with the necessary detachment at the question of whether we still need the concept of secularization at all to meaningfully think about our time.


On the sui generis nature of the concept of secularization, see Monod, Jean-Claude, La querelle de la sécularisation. Théologie politique et philosophies de l’histoire de Hegel à Blumenberg, Paris: Vrin 20162, pp. 16–22.


Benjamin, Walter, The Storyteller. Reflections on the Work of Nikolai Leskov, trans. H. Zohn, in Walter Benjmain, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, New York: Schocken Books 1968, pp. 83–109.


Cf. Levi, Carlo, Christ Stopped at Eboli, trans. F. Frenaye, London: Penguin 2000; Ernaux, Annie, The Years, trans. by A.L. Strayer, New York: Seven Stories Press 2017.


It is worth remembering in passing that Ferdinand Tönnies, the inventor of the ‘Gemeinschaft-Gesellschaft’ dyad, was a member of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Ethische Kultur, one of the associations most committed to the campaign for secularization of German culture and society in the second half of the nineteenth-century. See Monod, Jean-Claude, La querelle de la sécularisation, p. 25; Lübbe, Hermann, Sakularisierung – Geschichte eines ideenpolitischen Begriffs, second edition, Freiburg/Munich: Alber 1975, p. 62.


Michel de Certeau has written memorable pages on this aspect of the question. See Monod, Jean-Claude, “Inversion du pensable et transits de croyance: la trajectoire de sécularisation et ses écarts selon Michel de Certeau”, in: Revue de théologie et de philosophie (54/2004), pp. 333–346.


Cf. Propp, Vladimir J., Morphology of the Folktale, trans. by L. Scott, Austin: University of Texas Press 1968.


If someone needs an example to render what I am talking about less abstract, one only has to browse through Nietzsche’s blistering Genealogy of Morals and reflect, even superficially, on the effect that the reading has on one’s own mood.


For a concise presentation of the “received orthodoxy” see Gorski, Philip S., “Historicizing the Secularization Debate: An Agenda for Research”, in Michele Dillon (ed.), Handbook of the Sociology of Religion, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2003, pp. 110–122. For an up-to-date defence of the standard view see Bruce, Steve, Secularization: In Defence of an Unfashionable Theory, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2011; Pollack, Detlef, “Varieties of Secularization Theories and Their Indispensable Core”, in: The Germanic Review: Literature, Culture, Theory (90/2015), pp. 60–79. For a reconstruction of the sociological debate on secularization based on Kuhn’s notion of a paradigm shift, see Tschannen, Olivier, Les théories de la sécularisation, Geneva: Droz 1992. See also Goldstein, Warren S., “Secularization Patterns in the Old Paradigm”, in: Sociology of Religion (70/2009), pp. 157–178. The work that best exemplifies the theoretical new wave within the contemporary sociology of religion is the book by Casanova, José, Public Religions in the Modern World, Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1994. For a balanced assessment of the dispute between “orthodox” and “revisionists” see Lingua, Graziano, Esiti della secolarizzazione. Figure della religione nella società contemporanea, Pisa: ETS 2013.


Cf. Banfield, Edward C., The Moral Basis of a Backward Society, New York: Free Press 1958.


Cf. Cox, Harvey, “Introduction to the New Edition”, in Harvey Cox, The Secular City: Secularization and Urbanization in Theological Perspective, Princeton: Princeton University Press 20133, pp. xi–xxxviii.


Cf. Cox, Harvey, “Introduction”, p. xiv.


On this theme see Costa, Paolo/Zordan, Davide, In una stanza buia. Filosofia e teologia in dialogo, Trento: FBK Press 2014.


Cf. Taylor, Charles, “Was ohne Deutung bleibt, ist leer”, in: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (16 January 2016), available at: (date of last access: 11.04.2022). I myself have relied on an analogous view of philosophy in Costa, Paolo, La ragione e i suoi eccessi, Milan: Feltrinelli 2014.


For a study of modern philosophy’s fascination with the topic of secularization, see De Vriese, Herbert, “The Charm of Disenchantment: A Quest for the Intellectual Attraction of Secularization Theory”, in: Sophia (49/2010), pp. 407–428.


On these topoi in the history of the concept of secularization see Marramao, Giacomo, Cielo e terra. Genealogia della secolarizzazione, Rome/Bari: Laterza 1994; Zabel, Hermann/Conze, Werner/Strätz, Hans-Wolfgang, Säkularisierung, Säkularisation, in Otto Brunner/Werner Conze/Reinhart Koselleck (eds.), Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe, Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta 1984, pp. 789–829; Filoramo, Giovanni, “Secolarizzazione”, in Piero Coda/Giovanni Filoramo, Il cristianesimo: grande dizionario, 2 vols, Turin: UTET 2006, vol. 2, pp. 693–696; Bremmer, Jan N., Secularization: Notes Toward a Genealogy, in Hent de Vries (ed.), Religion: Beyond a Concept, New York: Fordham University Press 2008, pp. 432–437; Casanova, José, “Secularization”, in Neil J. Smelser/Paul B. Baltes, International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, vol. 20, Amsterdam/New York: Elsevier 2001, pp. 13,786–13,791.


I am indebted to Matteo Bortolini for this idea. It was he who pointed out to me that the correct way to summarize the issue I am trying to focus here is to point out that the deconstruction and the construction of the standard view of secularization are two parallel phenomena.


An instructive example of the confusion that still affects today’s debate is offered by the failed attempt at simplification made in De Vriese, Herbert, “Secularization as a Category of Historical Entitlement”, in Stijn Latré/Walter van Herck/Guido Vanheeswijck (eds.), Radical Secularization? An Inquiry into the Religious Roots of Secular Culture, New York: Bloomsbury 2014, pp. 32–44. For an excellent presentation of the status quaestionis from a theological perspective see Dalferth, Ingolf U., Transcendence and the Secular World: Life in Orientation to Ultimate Presence, trans. by J. Bennett, second revised edition, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2018, pp. 1–52 (“Orientation by Distinctions. Christian faith and the secular world”).

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