A Newly Re-Enchanted World: Secularism, Religion, and the Limits of Modern Society

Open—Fall

For the last 300 years, many of the world’s most enlightened thinkers have predicted the beginning of humanity’s first ‘disenchanted’ epoch: a world from which God and organized religion withdrew, leaving us alone to understand nature scientifically and to create meaning for ourselves. At the dawn of the 21st century, we witness a rather different reality: a major religious resurgence in societies throughout the world. Internationally, religion has replaced ideology as the most important axis of conflict. At home, controversies between religion and science roil our politics, with even some secular critics claiming that “scienticism” is its own kind of fundamentalism. Meanwhile, fundamentalism proper—forms of faith that deny that sacred texts are always subject to human interpretation—is proving to be among the most popular and dynamic sources of religious faith. This course tackles issues emerging in the new field of postsecular studies, which starts by acknowledging that traditional forms of religiosity often play an important role in the civil life of advanced modern societies. The course will focus on the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and modern and contemporary issues, especially: (1) the persistence of religion as a main source of practical belief (especially in “secular” societies); (2) religion’s reemergence as a major axis of international and cross-cultural conflict (specifically the clash between Judeo-Christian and Islamic faiths); and (3) “secularism and its discontents” within modern, Western liberal societies. The course will focus on the following questions: On the one hand, are religious worldviews and rituals unrivalled in the ability to create a sense of meaning, purpose, and belonging in the world? If so, where does religion’s unique power come from, and what are the obstacles to transferring it onto secular culture and philosophies? On the other hand, taking into account postsecular insights, can we still salvage the “secular” project of taming fundamentalist political theologies and the messianic zeal and disastrous certitudes that they can generate? Is it possible for persons who subscribe to different religions or hold widely varying attitudes (from the deeply religious to the aggressively secular) to nevertheless understand one another, engage in meaningful political and ethical discourse, reach some basic understanding about how to live together, and embrace tolerance and the idea of a nonsectarian state? To address these questions, we will read about religion, including theological and philosophical texts, and then turn to works that consider the persistence of religion and its social and political implications from the perspectives of the sociology of religion, political theory, and cultural studies.