Craig Calhoun

The Myth of the Secular

This series was presented in October of 2012 - the last thing I would do for Ideas before my retirement at the end of that year.   The series is of a type that I suppose became a signature during the last half of my career:  approaching a subject from multiple points-of-view rather than attempting the authoritative summing-up that is the radio documentary's more characteristic form.  The origin of this style goes back to a series called "The Politics of Information," which I did in 1984.  For this series I recorded interviews with  both Noam Chomsky and Edward Said, and, as I was dicing up these interviews for my documentary, I realized two things: first that the interviews, by themselves, might be just as interesting as my attempt to blend them with various other sources, and, second, that the documentary as a form inevitably eliminates the curriculum vitae of the thinker being presented.  This problem is acute in television documentaries which are often scripted in advance.  In that case the interview just supplies a predetermined piece in a predetermined story.  But, even in the more flexible radio documentary, there is little chance to explore the unfolding of a thinker's particular thought style.   The documentary has its "argument" which has been pitched and approved in advance, and the edited interviews are  necessarily at the service of this argument, however much influence they may have had on its original formulation.  To go back to the case of "The Politics of Information," Chomsky and Said had both had a strong influence on my thinking, but, once I came to make the programmes that comprised the series, they had to be fitted in to flow of my presentation, and the exigencies of the narrative allowed no lingering over their individual stories.  

It was years after this recognition that I finally got the chance to start experimenting with a format in which thinkers are approached one at a time, and second and even third questions about how a particular view developed became possible.  1990's "The Age of Ecology" was the first, and, over the next twenty-two years, this became my preferred way of working.  Instead of trying to summarize a subject, I would develop a theme in a variety of distinct voices.  In the case of "The Myth of the Secular", the theme was growing uncertainty about one of the keystones of Western Enlightenment - the idea that a neat division is possible between  religion and the secular - "The Great Separation," Mark Lilla calls it in his  book The Stillborn God.  British theologian John Milbank in his path-breaking 1990 book Theology and Social Theory had sown doubt about the very possibility of a secular realm free of all theological foundation.   "The return of religion" had become a common figure in Continental philosophy.  In his influential A Secular Age Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor had argued persuasively against what he called "subtraction narratives" i.e. the view that the secular is arrived at simply by subtracting religion and then re-discovering the secular space that was there all along.   My own great teacher Ivan Illich, in a book called The Rivers North of the Future which I compiled after his death, put forward the idea that Western modernity is a debased and displace form of Christianitiy whose origins lie in the Roman Church.  All these accounts put "the secular" into question.  So I said out to explore the history and implications of "the myth of the secular" with the following thinkers:

Part One: Craig Calhoun, currently the director of the London School of Economics, who had then just co-edited and contributed to a volume called Rethinking Secularism; and Rajeev Barghava of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in  New Delhi, who had argued in that book that secularism, though in need of revision, remains a foundational idea for a society like India

Part Two: British sociologist David Martin, the author of A General Theory of Secularization and The Breaking of the Image: A Sociology of Christian Theory and Practice, a book that particularly impressed me and that is extensively discussed here

Part Three: Saba Mahmood, the author of The Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject

Part Four: Malise Ruthven, a British journalist and scholar of Islam, and the author of Islam in the World and Fundamentalism: The Search for Meaning

Part Five: Paul Kahn, a law professor at Yale, and the author of Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty

Part Six: British theologian, John Milbank, one of the founders of a theological stance known as Radical Orthodoxy, and the author of Theology and Social Theory

Part Seven: Philosopher of religion Mark Taylor, a professor at Amherst and the author of After God; William Connolly, professor of political science at Johns Hopkins and the author of Why I Am Not a Secularist; and, finally, German-American thinker Fred Dallmayr, emeritus professor at Notre Dame and the author of Integral Pluralism: Beyond Culture Wars.