Chipping Away of the Secular Order [2]?


My thinking out loud in response to a perceptive comment to the last post became long enough to count as a post itself, so here it is. In response to my last post, my friend Nadeem wrote:

In the western history, a secular order of knowledge had been created over the centuries, pushing the religious knowledge that held its control across cultures over the millennia. Not familiar with the global health of nation states, I believe the colonial order in India and elsewhere in the colonial world has not permitted a secular and liberal democratic order of knowledge to emerge in the colonized societies. Consequently, a different set of imperatives over determine the future of nexus between knowledge and society in Pakistan. Chipping away of a liberal order that you seek to investigate globally has never been part of dominant discourse in Pakistan.

Together with, I believe, most of the readers of this blog, I wholly agree that the liberal and secular is not the dominant order of things in colonized parts of the world.

However, questions being the raison d’etre of this blog, some more below.

1. There is possibly a historically specific and, therefore, also inextricable connection between ‘modernity’ and ‘coloniality.’ As Walter Mignolo puts it: “The rhetoric of modernity is that of salvation, whereas the logic of coloniality is a logic of imperial oppression. They go hand in hand, and you cannot have modernity without coloniality.” [Mignolo, W. D. (2006). Citizenship, Knowledge, and the Limits of Humanity. American Literary History, 18(2), p. 312]. He also argues that the idea of ‘citizen’ framed during the renaissance was of the constitutive elements within the colonial matrix of power. Do we tacitly accept a huge chunk of coloniality in our aspiration to be ‘modern?’ Or can there be decolonised modernities?

2. The religion was pushed to margins in the academy in the 19th century to the early 20th century. In the middle of the 19th century religion was well and alive in the academy and dominated places like Harvard. Here is an example from a Harvard mathematician Benjamin Pierce, dubbed by some as the father of modern mathematics in America. Peirce, like many of his contemporaries, believed that his mathematical work was an engagement with the heavenly and divine. In 1851, he wrote:

The loftiest conceptions of transcendental mathematics have been outwardly formed, in their complete expression and manifestation, in some region or other of the physical world…They are the reflections of the divine image of man’s spirit from the clear surface of the eternal fountain of truth.

But something amazing happened, and rather fast, that pushed the religion to the margins as also noted in the last post on this topic. But this may be changing now. As sociologist of religion John Schmalzbauer puts it:

…at the turn of a new millennium, religion is making an intellectual comeback on the American campus. What is more, it is widespread enough that it has begun to erode the “wall of separation” between faith and knowledge. Once confined to private life, religious scholars are increasingly “going public” in the university. Long ignored by mainstream academics, religious perspectives are becoming more visible in most academic disciplines. Even the organization of knowledge into specialized disciplines is being challenged, as interdisciplinary structures more conducive to the integration of religion and scholarship proliferate across the academic world. Across the academy, the religious resurgence is redrawing the boundaries between spirituality and academic inquiry, religion and knowledge, sacred and secular.

I am not an expert on Western academy. I do not also know whether to believe John or not, and do not have the credentials to scrutinize his claims. Nevertheless, if these claims are correct, then, are we looking at a delinking of the modernity-coloniality nexus? And if so, with what consequences for the discourses in ‘erstwhile’ colonised countries, where whatever exists by way of academy [and populace in general] is already divided by the tensions mentioned in 1. above?

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About Irfan

I am an independent researcher and blogger interested in everything under the sun, but more so in the philosophy and history of education and education reform generally, and specifically in the so-called post colonial contexts

5 Responses to “Chipping Away of the Secular Order [2]?”

  1. Forgive a naive, non-scholarly, and I suppose a-historic, remark from me: I don’t believe schools should promote secularism or religion and do not see that opposing devotional classes in schools equals promoting secularism. Counter-posing a choice between the two presents a trap that is impossible to escape from. I would oppose classes in atheism in schools for the same reasons that I would oppose religious classes. The real question is how to advance public debate on this issue? If the state considers itself a religious state it will not be possible to advance an argument that schools should not have devotional classes. Don’t even try; this issue has to be sorted out through the democratic process. If we can win support for a civil state that represents all citizens, regardless of religious or non-religious affiliations,it should be possible to win the argument against allowing devotional classes in state schools. I would still not accept that this is promoting secularism. In fact I struggle to indulge a philosophical discussion on this issue, it gives more credit than is due.

  2. Thanks a lot for your comment on this post. It stimulated some more thinking. More thoughts below.

    What the schools should or should not do appears to be a political question, as is education policy in its entirety. But perhaps this does not change the premise that state’s stake in mass schooling is connected with its need for preservation, reproduction, protection etc. etc. This critical stake is expressed lucidly in this court judgement (1912 in some Fogg vs. Board of Education). Quoting verbatim below:

    “The primary purpose of the maintenance of the common-school system is the promotion of the general intelligence of the people constituting the body politic and thereby to increase the usefulness and efficiency of the citizens, upon which the government of society depends. Free schooling furnished by the state is not so much a right granted to pupils as a duty imposed upon them for the public good. If they do not voluntarily attend the schools provided for them, they may be compelled to do so. P.S., c.93, s.6; State v. Hall, 74 N.H. 61; State v. Jackson, 71 N.H. 552. While most people regard the public schools as the means of great personal advantage to the pupils, the fact is too often overlooked that they are governmental means of protecting the state from the consequences of an ignorant and incompetent citizenship.”

    Now what did it mean to be ‘ignorant,’ or for that matter to be ‘educated?’ Not all states and societies have come up with a universally valid answer to this question.

    Re the re-emergence of religion in the Western countries, I have also come across opinions [though as yet unscrutinised] that privatisation indeed may be creating windows of opportunity for denominational schools to emerge in greater numbers and thus counter state’s emphasis on secular education in the West. That could also be one of the reasons that some organisations/foundations on the right promote privatisation [Look here, for example].

  3. In fact, I notice that my last comment was my own ramblings a lot more than a response to the comment left by Hugh. So thought should get back to it as he had made some interesting distinctions.

    Does counterposing religious against secular traps the debate, as Hugh says? Yes, I think! But the trap seems real solid, hardened in the ovens of history, if you will.

    Consider: “If we can win support for a civil state that represents all citizens, regardless of religious or non-religious affiliations,it should be possible to win the argument against allowing devotional classes in state schools. I would still not accept that this is promoting secularism.”

    That hints at a distinction between a ‘civil’ and a ‘secular’ state? If we just focus on the example of allowing/disallowing the devotional texts, the alternatives could be disallowing the devotional texts for all denominations as has happened in the northern Europe and United States, or allowing them for all denominations.

    Inasmuch as not allowing devotional classes is concerned, the ‘secular’ seems to be more ‘civil’ than the ‘religious’ state. A religious state will just fall short of being civil enough from this standpoint. So the civil seems to almost coincide with what has generally come to be regarded as secular. or does it not?

  4. Muhammad Sajjad Reply 18/07/2011 at 7:41 am

    Sorry i am a layman, and would like you to correct me if wrong. Isn’t it that human beings right from the beginning have tried to find different styles of living in the societies. And on the other hand we find the divine orders, which is a comprehensive way of life.

    If the religious scholars or cleric are not role model, it isn’t that building societies on religious injunctions is out dated or not practical. such societies are built on the basis of a belief that God created everything and so also provided ways of ordering societies.

    Secularism is a self depiction. Y the developed world does not let other countries just be.

    • Thank you for visiting the blog. The post on which you have commented is just raising some questions. The purpose of the blog is to encourage constructive debate.

      However, I thought I should note that ‘secularism’ is quite an unfortunate term inasmuch as people associate it with the West. It is simply desirable from a social justice perspective that all people irrespective of their religious beliefs should be able to get the same life chances in a society. Your and mine being a member of a particular religious group should not give us special priority compared with a member of any other religious group living in the same country.

      It is unfortunate that we call this aspect of social justice secularism and associate it with the West only. These are all practical matters too. It is unfair to associate such ideas about social justice with the developed world only.

      Development is about expanding life opportunities to a maximum number of people irrespective of the race, caste, and creed. Being developed, from this standpoint, does not mean being rich, but being optimally just.

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