ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Secularism and Secularisation

A Bibliographical Essay

Tracing the trajectory of "secularism" studies, this essay brings out a critique of the evolutionary perspective that pronounced a waning of the "religious" in a predominantly "secular" "modern" world. In the face of global and local realities that negate any strict boundaries between the "secular", "religious" and "political", many western and non-western debates on secularism have creatively re-envisaged the concept and highlighted its variegated meanings. Yet, these have been unable to locate secularism in lived phenomenological realities. This bibliographical essay discusses works that may not be categorised as "secularism" studies and yet offer insights into the interaction between religious, cultural, political and secular aspects of society, while attempting to unentangle the different, but related, processes of "secularism" and "secularisation". It is the secularisation process that needs academic attention to understand the complex interaction between the "secular" and the "religious".

The author is grateful to the editors for comments to an earlier draft.

The post-enlightenment understanding of “secular” as a specific set of behaviours marked by a neat demarcation between “secular” and “religious” prevailed for a large part of the 20th century. Many academics (Berger 1969; Luckmann 1967; Wilson 1966) analysed the relationship between secularism and secularisation, assuming that both are engendering a “modern” world by replacing religion. This thesis received a setback when evidence pointed to not just prevalent religiosity among people in Western and non-Western landscapes, but also to the dialogic and entwined nature of interaction between the “secular” and the “religious”. The inadequacy of previous theories highlighted the failure of “secularisation” studies that were operating in isolation from studies on religion or culture. Studies focusing on the significance of everyday religious practices did not concern proponents of the secularisation thesis, as long as such practices did not assume any politically conspicuous form. The master narrative of progress continued to inform their theorisation until finally negated by events such as 9/11 in the US, the emergence of the religious right in the West, and conflicts with religious dimensions in south Asia. Resistance by the non-Western world towards cultural-evolutionary understandings of secularism also invigorated a debate that not only pointed to the localised and variegated meanings of secularisms, but also diminished the premise of a reason/faith divide. The canonical understanding of secularism as a default natural condition was challenged and a new space defined where “secular” and “religious” could coexist, overlap, converge or diverge, thus providing new perspectives on the processes of secularisation.

Studies on secularism and secularisation from south Asia have contributed greatly to recent re-contemplation. They have emphasised the south Asian specificities and contradictions. Yet, these studies have not problematised the relation between “secularism” and “secularisation”. How do secularism and secularisation engage/disengage with each other? How can the lived realities, religious pluralities, and intercommunity interactions or conflicts contribute to the theorisation of secularism? How do the religious, political and cultural processes in everyday life blur the secular/religious or rational/irrational boundaries? Do secularism and secularisation always move in the same direction? To draw attention to these intricacies, this bibliographic essay will describe a range of works – dealing with varied religious and cultural practices – that may not have dealt directly with “secularism”, but may provide significant pointers about the diverse processes of secularisation and its complex relation to secularism. However, it will do so after illustrating the global and south Asian debates on secularism and secularisation.

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