EssaysFeatureReligionSex & Gender

I Was Primed for Sex & Secularism

Reflections on Joan Wallach Scott

When I was young, I wanted to understand how one became secular. At first, I had no word for the change I sought. What I wanted– not so much to know as to do – was leave religion behind. I had been religious. I now was not. Getting there was not easy. How, I asked, does one do that? How does one make sense of that? In asking how to become secular and/or what it meant, I built on ambiguity and ambivalence – entering a field characterized by its obsession with religion; a field with a genealogy that was, on the one hand, all about the lingering impact of the Reformation and the rise of liberal Protestantism and hence itself quasi-theological, or on the other hand, the work of what some call cultured despisers of religion (e.g., Freud, Marx, Durkheim). The discipline was defined in its origin myth as “about” religion not “as” religion (usually citing the 1963 US Supreme Court decision Abington School District versus Schempp). Religion was simultaneously “not there” — and pervasive. Over time, I understood myself not as a caretaker for religion but as caring against religion.

My interest in secularization became, when I eventually taught about it as a faculty member, a single course called “the loss of certainty” which featured work on doubt, apostasy, uncertainty, secularization per se, and more. My concern for the secular in its many meanings would also appear – if only by implication – everywhere else. I taught courses on 19th century figures I see as central to the hermeneutic of suspicion called religious studies (Freud, Marx, Weber, Durkheim, etcetera) and on American religions (“covering” both the many so-called world religions evident in the US, civil religion and quasi-religions as diverse as sports, Star Trek, and gourmet dining). I found familiar territory in Michael Warner’s essay “Tongues Untied” reflecting on his move from Pentecostal Christianity to coming out – continuities and disjunctures between my past, my present and my future, my unthought- through living and my academic work.

Through the years teaching this course, the many ways that my adamantly pro-secular approach might function – both for me and more broadly – became a new version of my question. What did my own focus prevent me from seeing, I asked? Read alongside one another, Bruce Lincoln, Mark Juergensmeyer, William T. Cavanaugh and Jonathan Z. Smith pointed, implicitly, to the relation of categorization, gender, and the politicization of violence. They hinted at the ways the secular itself was made and how it functioned. Revising my syllabi, I added work that explicitly attends to feminism and religion, like that of Rita Gross, along with others, like Tisa Wenger, looking to race, colonialism and to links between the oppression of Native Americans and the category called religion.

These reflections came rushing in for me when I read Joan Wallach Scott’s Sex and Secularism, recently excerpted on Public Seminar. Her argument resonated. That aligning Islam with misogyny and secularism with democracy serves to distract attention from the misogyny of (Christian) democracy and the centrality of gender politics to the establishment and maintenance of democracy seemed right. She successfully raises to visibility today’s deployment of the binary religion/secular in order to obscure. That the various visibilities and invisibilities of religion and of secular are consequential in individual lives and in geopolitics, most especially with regard to Islamophobia (and, though less evident in Scott’s argument, American white evangelical Christianity) struck a chord. Scott extends the history of religion as male when read positively and female when denigrated. She extends, as well, the equation of not religious (secular) with what is gendered female when bad (e.g., witchcraft) and male when good (e.g., science). As she does so, Scott directs our attention not merely to a snapshot of binaries but to their dynamics and implications. She directs our attention to the many ways equating democracy with LGBTQ rights and women’s rights reduces (some) Islamic rule to hostility to such persons and evades the matters of racism and colonial power. As importantly, she renders intelligible the ways such discourses obscure the reality that women and LGBTQ persons (among others) are not full democratic citizens, not included, and why those truths are not easily (re)solved accidents of history, but definitive of the worlds within which we live.

In this, Scott speaks to those of us whose struggle with religion – and with secularization – is both personal and professional. On the one hand, Scott is obviously right. Just as the religious violence argument renders secular violence either “good” or invisible, so too the entanglement of post-Christian democracies and matters of gender rights serves both the agendas of racist and colonialist attacks on Muslim nation states and to obscure the misogyny at the heart of (Christian) democracy. Just as my quasi-militant secularism obscured the ongoing impact of a particular religion on my life, so too do the discourses of secularism and secularization obscure much. Democracy (at least American democracy) does not include women, LGBTQ persons and people of color no matter that the US is approaching 100 years since the 19th amendment granted (some) women suffrage, and that both racial and sexuality exclusions no longer fully determine who can marry. The struggle with religion and secularization, and the struggle of the closet and coming out, like the effort to be a (white) woman, is not merely the struggle to be a citizen. It must be the struggle to remake democracy.

And yet, my sense of familiarity and agreement with Sex and Secularism was matched by an uneasiness that grew as I read and re-read. The discomfort of reading Scott felt like my concern about the ways liberal education functions to reproduce conformity while espousing social change, and my guilt when I say that around first-generation college goers or when political conservatives and anti-education fanatics espouse a vaguely similar line. That is, my feeling of dis-ease reading Scott’s book feels simultaneously conservative and demanding of more radical change. My reading of Sex and Secularism came with some indescribable — dare I say uncanny — discomfort.

Some of the sources of that discomfort are readily accessible. The relative shallowness of Scott’s references regarding secularization theory lead her, in my view, to a peculiar timeline in which secularization matters are absent exactly when I think they were strongest: the late Cold War through the early 1980s. The thinkers and trends within sociology and other fields focusing on such themes are missing – and their presence would both strengthen and challenge her case. Where were they? Why was a period I associated with the “death of God” and the rise of substantive theorizing about secularization, modernization and pluralization characterized differently?

Similarly, the relative absence of attention to the burgeoning scholarship on the history and deployment of the discourses of religion(s) got my attention. Yes, Scott cites Tomoko Masuzawa on the invention of world religions and Talal Asad’s Genealogies of Religion. Indeed, I breathed a sigh of relief when I discovered Scott’s reference to this terrific work. Yet, many others whose scholarship preceded or elaborated such work are not there. Perhaps most significantly, Wilfrid Cantwell Smith’s The Meaning and End of Religion (recently subject to a review that critiques Asad’s characterization of his work), draws in large measure on his understanding of Islam for a historical understanding of the term religion (and thus its obverse, secular) remains hidden behind the screen of others. Why did it feel as though the absence was more glaring than it was?

This last question is the one that keeps coming up for me. I experienced a similar sense around the topic of LGBTQ history and thinkers. Then I thought the issue was work “at the intersection” – focusing on both religion(s) or secularization and women, feminism, gender and/or LGBTQ matters. Every time I thought they were not there, I went back to the bibliography and the text. And, they are there. At least some of them. Again, why did it feel as though the absence was more glaring than it was?

My uncanny feeling of discomfort might be about rendering both my field – and myself – absent. Such “ghosting” can make one question oneself in significant ways. While Scott provides for such discomfort in describing her work as a schematic rather than thoroughgoing work, as opening a conversation rather than concluding one definitively, and by expressing her hope for additional voices, my uneasiness persists. On the one hand, her call echoes many uses of the conversational metaphor in the academy and beyond. On the other, to be spoken about while absent can feel decidedly awkward. And yet, to repeat, every time I thought they were not there, I went back to the bibliography and the text. And, they are there. At least some of them. Again, I ask, why did it feel as though the absence was more glaring than it was?

Perhaps, I thought, such uneasiness and the attendant repetition evidences the kinds of difficult knowledges that I reflected upon some years ago in asking, in regard to AIDS/HIV, “If Silence = Death, Then What is Life?” If, to be secular is not to be liberated but to be stuck, once again, with the structures of misogyny and the requirements of heterosexuality and, indeed, to be Islamophobic, racist and colonialist, then what indeed . . . . is life after religion(s)? How does this relate to my repeated peculiar sense of absence in reading the book? Is my encounter with Sex and Secularism, primed as I was by history and circumstance, a reminder of “knowledge that challenges the framing of education as progress or development; knowledge that is more than merely cognitive, more than merely experiential or conscious; knowledge that ‘interferes.’’

Of course, it is. Scott is right. And yet, I remain uneasy. Still. There are (as Peter Berger so rightly put it in 1969), ideological matters at work in the making of the secular. More recently, Linell E. Cady and Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, editors of the volume Comparative Secularisms, have made a similar point, writing: “Secularization theory attained paradigmatic status within the social sciences in the twentieth century, imprinting these disciplines with ideological and prescriptive features that were hidden within purportedly objective categories and explanatory frameworks.” While, as they noted, secularizing disciplines “corral and contain” religion, I have come to see that they also “corral and contain” what appears under the rubric “secular.” They corral and contain citizenship and gendered lives as well. They contain us all. That they do so personally and professionally is perhaps the source of both the familiarity of Scott’s argument – and the discomfort that it raises for me. How they corral and contain Scott –and those she writes about – may not be the only ways they corral and contain.

The non-disappearance of religion pained and pains me. Throughout my life and work, both religion and secular have emerged and receded over and over again, like symptoms of a historic malady, the persuasions of propaganda, the sublimations of the hegemonic, and more. Both have been mourned and celebrated in the academy and beyond. My gender, my sexuality and more have excluded – and included me – in both. In Sex and Secularism, Scott accomplishes more than a historical argument. She reminds us of the damaging consequences of uncritical, melancholic responses to loss and calls us to look at the very real consequences of it all. The uncanny discomfort that accompanies my experience of her work asks that we do so very carefully, with an eye to the lived experience of those for whom the secular is safer than the religious. The discourses of religion and secularization, of gender and sexuality, of misogyny and liberation, of democracy and freedom, corral and contain. Their real-world impacts reverberate in the lives of all too many and in all too horrific a fashion.

Susan Henking is President Emerita of Shimer College and Professor Emerita of Hobart and William Smith Colleges. 

Also for you:

Susan Henking

Previous post

In a Tragedy Always Look for the Helpers

Next post

Orban’s Government vs. The Social Sciences