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Multiple Secularities: How Culture Matters in Religious-Secular Relations

Date:19 March 2013
Prof Monika Wohlrab-Sahr
Prof Monika Wohlrab-Sahr

Next Tuesday Prof Monika Wohlrab-Sahr will give a seminar in Groningen on her research into the impact of different secularities in various cultural and political contexts. Today she gives Religion Factor readers a sneak preview.

There is a tendency in recent literature on secularism, either to highlight the unifying ideological power of “the secular modern” or to focus on the diversity of religious constellations that cannot be grasped with analytical instruments (like secularism and secularization) that were developed in and for the West. Both did not seem very satisfying to us, and we looked for help in the more recent debates on modernity and modernization, especially the “Multiple Modernities”-concept (Eisenstadt).

Even if we take the broad criticism of classical secularization theories and of the linear historiographies of theories of functional differentiation seriously, distinctions between religious and secular domains and practices – economy, politics, arts, science, education, the law etc., and religion – must still be considered a central feature of modern societies. How such distinctions are achieved, however, how entrenched and explicit they are and how they are framed varies enormously. We tried to grasp this with the concept of “multiple secularities”. Why did we talk of secularity instead of secularism and why did we use the plural of it?

We decided for the term “secularity” instead of “secularism”, because the widely used concept of secularism often conflates the ideological “secularist” program with the empirical institutional differentiations between religion and the state. Analytically, at least, these two aspects should be held separate (in order to be able to analyze their relations). Simultaneously, also part of the literature conjoins object language and meta-language. Therefore, we propose to reserve the concept of secularism for the ideological-philosophical program – i.e. the explicit ideology of separation – and related political practices, and use the concept of secularity, by contrast, as an analytical term for the institutionally, culturally and symbolically anchored forms of differentiation between religion and other social spheres. In that sense, the concept of secularity is meant as a meta-linguistic concept.

By “multiple secularities” we mean the forms of distinction between the religious and other social domains that are institutionalized and in part legitimized through guiding ideas. We assume that the “multiple secularities” that are taking shape in different countries and regions ‘respond’ to specific societal problems (as their reference problems) and offer solutions to them, and that they gain their specific meaning from these references. The prohibition of the wearing of the burqa in public in France and its broad support, for example, gets its specific meaning by the reference to the French republican program and its values, however strange this may seem to someone from outside.

Obviously, these reference problems arise at some point and in some form in many societies, but they come up with different degrees of urgency at different points in time. They can be distinguished by their reference to different central units: the (1) individual, (2) groups, (3) society or the nation, and (4) functional domains.

This leads us to the following typology of “Multiple Secularities”:

Type 1:

Secularity for the sake of
individual liberties

Guiding ideas:

Freedom, individuality

Type 2:

Secularity for the sake of balancing diversity

Guiding ideas:

toleration, respect, non-interference

Type 3:

Secularity for the sake of
social integration/national development

Guiding ideas:

progress, enlightenment,

Type 4:

Secularity for the sake of the independent development of institutional domains

Guiding ideas:

rationality, efficiency, autonomy


Understandings of such problems and solutions however, are often contested and, as a consequence, are collectively shared to varying degrees. What is considered a problem and a viable solution is subject to power struggles: Where one group sees the rights of minority groups in danger, others may argue for the necessity of stronger national integration, and a third group may hint at the threats to individual liberties. Processes of authorization involve diverse movements, often with antagonistic agendas. In some cases, guiding ideas can be used as reference points for a variety of groups (like the notion of individual liberty in the US or the necessity of balancing group interests in India or the Netherlands), even if they pursue competing goals. Therefore, they may develop a binding social thrust for certain historical periods, and thus become points of crystallization for collective identities.

However, our claim is not that guiding ideas of secularity can be identified in every society or that just one of the motives matters. A variety of constellations may restrict the dominance or even the development of a guiding idea.

The concept of “multiple secularities” rests on the recognition that culture matters with regard to religious-secular relations, and that the distinctions that are drawn towards the religious sphere are not just arbitrary, but are “about something”. Notions of the secular, of secularism and secularity are charged with highly divergent meanings in different parts of the world (also within Europe), that are linked to different political and cultural contexts and histories of social conflict. It is necessary to understand these meanings in order to grasp the dynamics of present conflicts concerning religion and the secular. An exclusive focus on human rights and on practices of discrimination may not be revealing enough in order to understand the underlying dynamics. This does, of course, not mean that it is unimportant.

From a sociological perspective, it must be stressed that the distinction between “Multiple Secularities” that we make are ideal-typical in nature. In reality they may overlap and conflict with each other. However, as ideal-types (not: normative ideals) they may help to better understand some of the driving forces of the conflicts that we are facing. Our aim cannot be to put countries into boxes, but to get a better analytical understanding for existing structures and dynamics, similarities and differences. Some empirical configurations that are analyzed and “compared” with the ideal-type, may come closer to it than others; in some cases competing or contradictory tendencies rather than a unifying strand may be revealed; and in others finally, comparisons with the ideal-typical distinctions may help to develop hypotheses on the non-existence of certain features and their consequences rather than to subsume it to one of the types.

Monika Wohlrab-Sahr is Professor for Cultural Sociology at the University of Leipzig. Her research interests focus on conversion to Islam, Islam in Europe, secularization and non-religion, and on multiple forms of secularity in different world regions. She is also an expert in the field of qualitative methodology, and has gained the René-Koenig-Award of the German Sociological Association for the best text book for her book on “qualitative social research”. She will give a seminar next Tuesday 26 March at the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain. See here for more details, or email e.k.wilson


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