Towards a Postsecular Society

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Towards a Postsecular Society
Mike King
London Metropolitan University

The word ‘religion’ means different things to different people. At one extreme it represents everything primitive and superstitious that we have struggled to eradicate over the last three hundred years, and at the other extreme it represents a quiet joy of recognition and warmth in the heart for everything we hold most precious. Hence, to use the word properly is to recognise the spectrum of its reception. The word ‘postsecular’ on the other hand represents little to anyone, because it is recently coined and not much in circulation. The term implies that there might emerge, or already be emerging, a quality of thought that goes beyond the secular, a thinking that celebrates our hard-won democratic rights and freedoms, but which is more open to the spiritual than the secular mind has generally been. In the late 20th century an increasingly casual atheism became central to Western culture, if not to Western society. This casual atheism was a precocious and extraordinary part of Marx’s thought in 1860, but by 1960 most Western schoolchildren would be culturally impelled to adopt it, almost without question.

The origins of the secular mind in the 17th century are complex. It is useful to think of Western thought as following a presecular form up to the 17th century, and then, over a three-hundred year period, developing into the secular form familiar in the middle-late 20th century. The emergence of a possible postsecular mode of thought has to be dated from about 1980, and its origins, rather ironically, may lie in science. In the 1980s Fritjof Capra in ‘The Tao of Physic’ and Gary Zukav in ‘The Dancing Wu Li Masters’ popularised the parallels between mysticism and quantum theory. Commentators from a wide spectrum of thought began to see quantum holism and quantum indeterminacy – which these books explained to a lay audience – as undermining the classical mechanistic view of the universe, and allowing new modes of thought to surface. This is ironical because it was physics that underpinned the Age of Enlightenment, and which led to the secular, even atheistic, late 20th century outlook. It looks like physics is again underpinning a transition, this time from the secular to the postsecular.
I shall quote just one recent notable event in support of this idea: the award of the million-dollar Templeton prize for progress in religion to the British physicist Paul Davies in 1995. Davies won the prize on the basis of a series of books including ‘God and the New Physics’ which ends with the proposition that ‘science is a surer path to God than religion.’ This ought to be considered remarkable, at the very least prompting the reflection that religion must be rather unsure of itself to reward such a statement with such a prestigious prize (other recipients include Mother Teresa of Calcutta and the Rev. Dr. Billy Graham). It is also part of the irony previously raised when one considers that Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600 for his views on science and religion – these views, when compared to Davies’s statement, now look mild indeed.
We might sum up the religious trajectory of the last four centuries in the West as follows: in the middle of the 17th century thinkers were all theists with a few deists appearing; in the middle of the 18th century thinkers were mostly deists with a few agnostics appearing; in the middle of the 19th century thinkers were mostly agnostic with a few atheists appearing, and in the middle of the 20th century atheism dominated Western thought. This atheism ranged from casual, as in Marxism, to vituperative, as in writers like Richard Dawkins and Gore Vidal. Indeed it is often surprising how vehement the rejection of religion can still be today, when our secular freedoms have been so long guaranteed in the West. What the postsecular begins to question is the assumption that the spiritual impulse itself has to inevitably create the presecular religious hierarchies that we so rightly reject as inimical to freedom and democracy.
To say that the spiritual life of the new millennium has to some extent found an ally in science is to state only part of the current dynamic. Transpersonal psychology in the tradition of Jung, Hillman, Maslow and Wilber can be seen as a part of science contributing to the postsecular, while art has remained a separate force. The arts are one of the few areas in the 20th century where the cultured elite were ‘permitted’ to some degree to retain an interest in the spiritual. The composer John Cage and the video artist Bill Viola have no difficulty in airing their commitment to Buddhism, while it seems that the Sufi poet Jelaluddin Rumi has reached the best-seller lists in the US, and is read by many thinkers and media figures including the singer Madonna. Looking further back we find strong spiritual interests amongst the American Abstract Expressionists in the 1950s, and before WW1 many abstract painters were drawn to new spiritual movements such as Theosopy, Anthroposophy and the teachings of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky.
Amongst postmodern philosophers the hospitality to the spiritual is mixed. In general the postmoderns, while rejecting most of the Enlightenment project – including the remnants of religious thinking – created small intellectual spaces where the spiritual could flourish. These lacunae were permitted as long as they did not arrogate themselves to the status of a system, and as long as the central spiritual discourse was near-buried under the weight of postmodern terminology. We can better understand this phenomenon if we look back to the 17th century. At its dawn stood the sobering spectacle of Giordano Bruno’s murder by the Church, a warning to the thinkers of that age. Descartes’s ideas were banned, Newton kept his heretical Arianism a secret, and Spinoza was unable to publish at all. It is perhaps Spinoza’s ‘Ethics’ that best demonstrates the lengths that these thinkers had to go to in order to hide their ideas. They firstly avoided any direct expression of their religious insights, and secondly were seduced into using the emerging language of maths, physics and reason. As a result the postmoderns inherited an intellectual tradition of extreme circumlocution.
I am suggesting that the postsecular is emerging from the secular in a patchy way, with elements contributing to it that run at different speeds and over different timeframes, and that they include science, art, and postmodernism. But what of the relationship between the presecular and the postsecular? We have to observe that parts of this even larger picture run with still greater variation of speed, there being entire sectors of contemporary society that are untouched by modernity and postmodernity, let alone the postsecular. There are estimated for example to be 70 million Christian fundamentalists in the US today.
Yet the means for bypassing the secular mindset appears to lie in some postmodern thinking, as in the work of Phillip Blonde for example, the editor of one of the very few books in print with the word ‘postsecular’ in its title. Blonde’s anthology, called ‘Post-Secular Philosophy: Between Philosophy and Theology’ contains essays by a number of writers examining the relationship between the spiritual and postmodern thinking from Descartes to Baudrillard (a previous anthology also included an essay by Don Cupitt). Blonde is a theologian finding ways to express presecular ideas in a postmodern context. Cupitt’s ‘Mysticism and Modernity’ demonstrates that postmodern thinking – in particular the ‘Linguistic Turn’ – allows for new ways to examine mysticism. But Cupitt’s conclusion, that mysticism is a form of writing, may box us in. The postsecular may certainly take from the postmodern its pluralism, and perhaps even some of its relativism, but I believe that the time has come to be more confident about the spiritual. We don’t have to rely on physics to speak to us about ‘God’; we may not be able to use transpersonal psychology to fully encompass the transcendent; we don’t have to hide behind obscure modern art styles to explore our aesthetic response to the sublime, and we don’t need to adhere to the Linguistic Turn to develop theories of mysticism.
A postsecular approach would also begin to challenge the secular reading of the Enlightenment philosophers, and undo the barbed wire around the subject of the spiritual. At the same time it would release theology from its intellectual ghetto. I have commented how the presecular survives in great swathes into the secular world, but the fact is that it contributes very little to popular or highbrow culture. We might say that religion flies below the cultural radar of the West, largely due to the intellectuals of the West having poured their energies into less problematic projects, such as science and politics. It is also rather shocking that Eastern ideas have been known in the West since the mid-18th century, but, with the exception of Schopenhauer, they have been ignored by almost all important thinkers, whether modern or postmodern.
With these points in mind I have set up a Centre for Postsecular Studies at my University. Its focus will be to support Doctoral studies from a range of disciplines in such a way as to foster an open enquiry into the spiritual. It is fitting that a University should be the setting for this. In the Middle Ages Universities supported the intellectual efforts of Scholasticism, in the Modern period Universities defended the secular freedom to question authority, and in a postsecular spirit, perhaps the University setting can restore the creativity and vigour of intellect to spiritual questions. We have yet to give a wider circulation to the word ‘postsecular,’ but a postsecular society might demonstrate some of these features:

  • Spiritual: a re-engagement with the spiritual, but secure in our secular freedoms

  • Pluralistic: treasuring our presecular heritage, but denying primacy to any one tradition

  • Literate: a spiritual literacy based on a wider and more critical reading of the world’s spiritual writings, including those of the East

  • Cultural: popular and highbrow culture invigorated with works that reflect a broader and more literate interest in the spiritual.

In all this one might ask: how do you define the spiritual? My favourite starting point is simply to say that it involves a profound sense of connectedness.

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