Neighbors and comrades: secularizing the Mari country -- "Go teach": methods of change -- Church closings and sermon circuits -- Marginal lessons -- Visual aid -- The soul and the Spirit -- Lifelong learning -- Conclusion: affinity and discernment
An increasingly important area within the subfield of religion and politics is the study of secularism, an ideology that seeks to limit the influence of religion in public and private life. Secularism can refer to conditions at the societal level (public secularism) or at the individual level (private secularism). In addition, it can take the form of simply an absence of religion (passive secularism), or it can include an affirmative acceptance of secular ideals (active secularism).Comparative studies highlight the complex ways in which secularism both influences and is influenced by politics. In Western Europe, the long-standing practice of established and/or preferred religions has led to a lack of vitality in the religious marketplace, resulting in high levels of private secularism. In Russia and other Eastern European nations, the end of communism and political motivations are leading to both decreasing public and private secularism. In the Middle East, secularization throughout the 20th century seems to have led to a fundamentalist backlash. Similarly, in the United States, the increasing association between religion and political conservatism seems to be driving increasing levels of private secularism. Together, these lessons suggest that both political factors and local context are key to understanding the relationship between secularism and politics.
The boundary between the religious and the secular spheres of life is contested in many parts of the world. From the latter decades of the 20th century, controversies over issues such as the legalization of same-sex marriage, assisted dying, and freedom of speech, as well as clashes around reproductive rights and equality issues, have all featured highly on national political agendas. Set against a backdrop of the "return of religion" to public life, these debates and tensions have given rise to the notion that secularism might be in a state of crisis or moving toward some form of post-secular condition. The term "secularism" is itself also contested. The precise nature of the "secular" and the "religious" spheres of life is subject to interpretation, and secularism in practice can be manifest in a number of ways. This ranges from exclusivist forms of secularism in countries such as the United States and France to inclusive secularism in the case of India. Supporters of a role for religion in public life maintain that religion provides a range of valuable public goods and gives individuals a sense of meaning and identity. Secularists, on the other hand, claim that the separation of church and state provides the best framework for upholding the rights and freedoms of all citizens regardless of their religion or belief.
For the first time in human history, a significant percentage of the world's population no longer believes in God. This is especially true in developed nations, where in some societies nonbelievers now outnumber believers. Unless religion collapses completely, or undergoes a remarkable resurgence, countries across the globe must learn to carefully and effectively manage this societal mix of religious and irreligious. For in a world already deeply riven by sectarian conflict, this unprecedented demographic shift presents yet another challenge to humanity. Writing in an engaging, accessible style, philosopher and lawyer Ronald A. Lindsay develops a tightly crafted argument for secularism--specifically, that in a religiously pluralistic society, a robust, thoroughgoing secularism is the only reliable means of preserving meaningful democracy and rights of conscience. Contrary to certain political pundits and religious leaders who commonly employ the term secularism as a scare word, Lindsay uses clear, concrete examples and jargon-free language to demonstrate that secularism is the only way to ensure equal respect and protection under the law--for believers and nonbelievers alike. Although critical of some aspects of religion, Lindsay neither presents an antireligious tirade nor seeks to convert anyone to nonbelief, reminding us that secularism and atheism are not synonymous. Rather, he shows how secularism works to everyone's benefit and makes the definitive case that the secular model should be feared by --and embraced by all.
The central question of the Arab Spring - what democracies should look like in the deeply religious countries of the Middle East - has developed into a vigorous debate over these nations' secular identities. But what, exactly, is secularism? What has the West's long familiarity with it inevitably obscured? In Questioning Secularism, Hussein Ali Agrama tackles these questions. Focusing on the fatwa councils and family law courts of Egypt just prior to the revolution, he delves deeply into the meaning of secularism itself and the ambiguities that lie at its heart. Drawing on a precedent-setting case arising from the family law courts -- the last courts in Egypt to use Shari`a law -- Agrama shows that secularism is a historical phenomenon that works through a series of paradoxes that it creates. Digging beneath the perceived differences between the West and Middle East, he highlights secularism's dependence on the law and the problems that arise from it: the necessary involvement of state sovereign power in managing the private spiritual lives of citizens and the irreducible set of legal ambiguities such a relationship creates. Navigating a complex landscape between private and public domains, Questioning Secularism lays important groundwork for understanding the real meaning of secularism as it affects the real freedoms of a citizenry, an understanding of the utmost importance for so many countries that are now urgently facing new political possibilities.