Philosophy book compiles expert analysis on non-Western secularity

Dan Garisto – March 10, 2016

Columbia Spectator

“What is the character of secularism in countries that were not pervaded by Christianity?”

“To what extent is the secular an imposition of colonial rule?”

For three years, Tarrytown, New York played the host to political and philosophical debates between professors from Columbia and other universities trying to answer questions like these on the issue of secularism.

The culmination of these conversations is “Beyond the Secular West,” which was published by Columbia University Press this month. Edited by philosophy professor Akeel Bilgrami, “Beyond the Secular West” is an interdisciplinary collection of essays that look at the rise and existence of secularism and secularization in non-Western countries.

“Beyond the Secular West” is the spiritual successor to Charles Taylor’s 2007 book “A Secular Age,” which examined the growth of secularism in the West.

Both secularism and secularization have received an expansion of interest in the past decade as Islamic extremism has spread and Americans have become less religious.

Bilgrami and his fellow authors draw a sharp line between secularism and secularization in their book—secularization is the loss of belief, whereas secularism is a purely political doctrine separating church from state.

“You can have a great deal of religious devotion, and devout people can be completely secularist even though they’re not secularized,” Bilgrami said.

However, the authors argue that the distinction between church and state is not necessarily as clear in non-Western countries. Souleymane Diagne, a professor of French and philosophy at Columbia and a contributor to the book, wrote, “as Islam makes no sharp division between sacred and secular affairs, it expects governments to be imbued with righteousness.”

This elision of lines between government and religion used to exist in the West as well, before the rise of nationalism, according to Bilgrami.

“The method of creating the feeling for the nation was to find an external enemy within and hate them and subjugate them and say the nation is ours, not theirs,” Bilgrami said. “That’s how the feeling of nationalism was created—the Jews, the Irish, the Catholics in Protestant countries, the Protestants in Catholic countries.”

But setting the majority against the minority had repercussions.

“There was internecine strife between religious minorities and majorities. And that gave rise to the feeling that we have to stop this, and religion itself must be taken out of the state,” Bilgrami said.

Many non-Western countries like India never quite went through a similar process or the process of secularization that occurred as a result of the Protestant Reformation. However, that does not preclude them from being secular, Bilgrami and his co-authors argue.

The form this secularity takes can be radically different though. As Bilgrami explains in his essay on India, secularity there is not “a subtraction of religious elements,” but is rather a “deliberate construction … in which aspects of religion itself played a central role.”

Although the work is couched deeply in theory and academia, understanding the way in which nations and people are secular can reveal practical truths.

According to Bilgrami, without Western secularization, many non-Western countries with large indigenous populations have retained a different conception of nature: They believe it is not a resource, but that it is sacred and has rights.

Bilgrami notes that these beliefs have directly impacted policy and, for example, led Ecuador to leave oil in the ground and stopped uranium mining in Australia. It is this sort of difference between Western and non-Western countries that “Beyond the Secular West” focuses on and magnifies.

“That transformation of nature into natural resources … coincided with the desacralization of nature, because if God was in nature, you couldn’t take from it with impunity,” Bilgrami said.

For Western nations, though, these sacred restrictions do not exist, which Bilgrami said may have even led to difficulties combating environmental problems like climate change.

“Now it’s just a resource, and now they’re realizing there’s something wrong,” he said.

Click here to access the full article.