Opacity and Power: How Religion and Secularity Might Figure into Politics

by Shaun Terry

(note: I may use gender-neutral “they,” “them,” “their,” and/or “theirs” to refer to anonymous imagined persons)


If religion were fully supplanted by secularity, then religion would cease to be relevant in society. This seems plain. In lieu of the complete absence of religion, one might presume that the degree of religiosity in society might determine religion’s influence on society, but this relies on the assumption that religion’s influence on society is merely proportional to its prevalence. Instead, it may be that religion is such that its influence could be greater (or less) than is immediately apparent by observing its incidence in society. Moreover, the idea that secularity and religion occupy a simple gradient by which one replaces the other assumes that all constituent aspects of each finds its opposite in the other: for any aspect of religion, there is its opposite in secularity, and vice versa, such that the appearance or absence of one necessarily implies the absence or appearance of the other. But, that might not necessarily be true. For instance, terms like “modern,” “enlightenment,” and “progress” come with particular moralistic undertones: the modern is better than the immodern, and so on. It seems that these terms all carry with them traces of ideas that are separate from the rest of the mentioned terms. So, some of what is meant by “secular” has nothing to do with “religion,” and some of what is meant by “religion” is completely irrelevant to the “secular.” Therefore, not all of what is lost in the absence of religion is replaced by in secularity in the same way that religion does not fully replace the void in the absence of secularity. They are not fully mutually exclusive and can, therefore, work in tandem and even influence each other, despite the secularization thesis.

The secularization thesis states that the secular is “a residual category,” by which the secular is all that which is areligious (Casanova 55). So, according to this thesis, religion and secularity can never overlap; they are both mutually constitutive and mutually exclusive to each other. Religion, according to this same thesis, becomes more and more privatized (Casanova 60). Lastly, as religion disappears from public view, its importance decreases over time.

Asad takes issue with each of these. First off, Asad argues that the secular is not simply a category of the other; in fact, secularity has its own influence on culture and ideology: “The modern secular state is not imply the guardian of one’s personal right to believe as one chooses; it confronts particular sensibilities and attitudes, and puts greater value on some as against others.” (“Thinking about Religious Belief and Politics” 17-8)

Despite the secularization thesis, secularism and religion do not appear to be clearly separate. As Benavides argues, in “Modernity,” modernism is closely related to Abrahamic religions. This relationship appears to be so close that one might conclude that modernism’s most distinct features were always present in Abrahamic religions. The irony, then, would come in the conclusion that secularism emerged from Abrahamic religiosities. Perhaps, the personal relationship between the Christian and their God helped to lead to privatization. As Christianity became increasingly privatized, the absence of religious discourse in the public sphere led to more freedom for people to forego religious practices and religious beliefs. As Abrahamic religious doctrine was often about explaining the otherwise inexplicable, the immanent frame developed within Christianity—that is, the sense that theological arguments had to be consistent with the apparent empirical reality—helped to facilitate the development of science. Scientific discoveries complicated aspects of religious doctrine, leading to greater doubt in modern societies. Therefore, the individualism expressed in Christians’ private relationship to God led to eventual increased non-belief and non-practice of religions.

The notion that religion would have caused its own demise is important because it means that religion’s tendencies represent the primordial condition for the historical development of secularity. Since secularity underpins modernism, religion helped to found both secularity and modernism. Religion and modernism, then, must share an important relationship. Religion, secularism, and modernism are all related ideological concepts that offer epistemological frames with which to view the world. These ideological frameworks help to inform people’s proper roles in the world, so separating these frameworks from politics and public discourse is unreasonable (Asad “Secularism, Nation-State, Religion”). With that having been said, it is important to recognize that each of these concepts is different, and they each come with different assumptions. In modernity, it can be tempting to think of belief as being particularly important to defining religion.

If we think of privatization in terms of the increasing role of belief over the role of ritual and the senses, belief as the distinguishing feature of religion is a new phenomenon (Asad “Thinking about Religious Belief and Politics”). Therefore, religion cannot be simply, exclusively about belief. However, the supposed separation of church and state seems to help to concentrate power (Asad “Secularism, Nation-State, Religion”).

The “separation of church and state” provides two locales within which Enlightenment thinking can work to concentrate and reconcentrate power (Asad “Secularism, Nation-State, Religion”). As religion is supposed to have been forced into privacy, religion supposedly becomes separate from the public sphere (Asad “Secularism, Nation-State, Religion”). Over time, religion’s relationship to public discourse has changed. Despite concerns about religion influencing modern institutions, it is modernism and secularism that have changed religion (Asad “Secularism, Nation-State, Religion”). The secular state, then, creates quasi-separate spheres within which those who hold power can tell different, albeit possibly overlapping, rhetorics. These spheres sometimes overlap, but they also can reinforce each other’s mutually held and, sometimes, divergent goals.

Global trends have resulted in the legitimation of secularist and modernist conceptions of government and social institutions. The emergence of the nation-state has implied secularist institutions, with nationalism generally being thought of as a kind of public replacement for what has become a more privatized religion (Asad “Secularism, Nation-State, Religion”). In the same way that Christianity has, in some ways, been forced to attempt to justify itself on secular terms (in terms of science and empirical evidence), religious nationalism, in the form of political Islamism, has been forced to rely on secular and modernist conceptions of the nation-state and identity (Asad “Secularism, Nation-State, Religion”). In other words, there is something confusing about the idea of religious nationalism. If we take the modern nation-state as a concept that relies on the absence of religious influence, among other things, for its legitimacy, then thinking of national identity as having a relationship to religion appears contradictory, unless we are willing to concede that secularity and religion are not simply each other’s opposites. In other words, religious nationalism can avoid its inherent contradiction in terms if—again, as Asad argues in “Thinking about Religious Belief and Politics”—religion and secularity carry their own assumptions and have their own influences on culture. In such a case, religion and secularity might come to sometimes coexist and to sometimes influence each other. But, how it is that religion and secularity influence culture and government, separately and together, is a question of who has the power to do so and how that power is wielded (Asad “Secularism, Nation-State, Religion”). What gets called into question is who stands to gain by the rhetorics in these spaces, how these people stand to gain, what influence they are having over these rhetorics, and how these narratives influence societies and cultures. What becomes clear is that religion can still be very important in modern societies. What is notable is how modernity sometimes removes religion’s influence on politics from full public view. Under modernity, there can be cases by which religion’s influence is heightened by its invisibility. For example, unbeknownst to the full public, people in power can sometimes have (at least) two separate mechanisms for wielding their power, giving them more opportunities to influence decisions. Rather than it simply being the case that religion becomes less and less important over time, modernity’s obfuscation of activities taking place in religious spaces affords new and different opportunities.

Secularity and religion appear in modernity as something like equal opposites to each other. As one wanes, the other emerges to take its place. Particularly, modernists might propose that religion is being replaced by secularity and those ideas that are informed by, as in the nation-state and other modern institutions. As previously addressed, such a notion of secularity belies the complicated relationship between secularity and religion, darkening the ways by which secularity and religion can interact. These spaces, made secret in society by the myth of secularization, can be fertile ground for power’s influence over society, making the secularization thesis attractive to those in power who are aware enough to understand its implications. Even for those in power who are unaware, the perpetuation of the secularization thesis seems to contain the potential for advancing the goals of those in power.



Asad, Talal. “Secularism, Nation-State, Religion.” Foundations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, and Modernity. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 2003. 181-201.

Asad, Talal. “Thinking about Religious Belief and Politics.” Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2011. 1-21.

Benavides, Gustavo. “Modernity.” Critical Terms for Religious Studies. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 1998. 186-204.

Casanova, José. “The Secular, Secularizations, Secularisms.” Rethinking Secularism. New York: Oxford University Press. 2011. 54-74.