Erin Wilson, After Secularism

When I have time, I enjoy browsing in the new books section at the Carleton University Library in Ottawa. Recently, I came upon After Secularism: Rethinking Religion in Global Politics, written by Erin Wilson, a professor in the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Wilson begins with a critique of the limitations of secularization theory, where, as she says, “religion was considered to be dying out and not relevant for understanding politics in developed secularized states such as those in the West.” Post-Enlightenment thinkers such as Marx, Durkheim and others thought that religion was a retrograde and irrational force that would wither away as societies evolved into a more enlightened phase of existence. This has been, by far, the dominant way in which Western academics have viewed their own societies.

Erin K Wilson: After Secularism

Religion has political influence

Those thinkers are only partly right. Religion has certainly not died out as a force in most parts of the world and Wilson argues that it also has much more of an influence on politics and public life in the West than most scholars are prepared to admit. She understands “the West” to include Europe, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the U.S. She says that even those Western scholars who admit to the influence of religion in other countries, particularly Islamist ones, have underestimated the impact that religion has had, and continues to have, upon Western societies. She uses the U.S. as a case study of a Western country steeped in Judeo-Christian values, tradition and language – and finally she offers an analysis of Presidential State of the Union addresses as one way to make her point (I will comment on those speeches in my next blog posting).

Who cares?

You might well ask: Who cares and does it matter? Madeleine Albright, the former U.S. Secretary of State, thinks it matters. In her book, The Mighty and the Almighty, Albright offers a sobering analysis from the political trenches. She writes that American international affairs scholars and intelligence actors were blind to the implications of growing Muslim fundamentalism (because it did not fall within their intellectual framework) and as a result the U.S. was unprepared for the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Blinkered scholars

Wilson says that many Western scholars are hindered by their “lack of critical self-reflection.” They simply cannot believe that religion might be an important actor in the secular West. They are hindered, as well, by a lack of historical knowledge and curiousity about the political role of religion in their own countries.

What about Canada?

Wilson does not talk about Canada in her analysis but during the years that I was involved in politics (several times as a candidate and for a time as an NDP Member of Parliament), I was surprised by how many of my contemporaries did not know about the historical role played by religion and the social gospel in creating the CCF, the NDP’s predecessor party. How many people know much about the role played in that movement and party by Tommy Douglas, or know about Protestant preachers William Aberhart and Ernest Manning, who were involved in right wing populism in Alberta? Each of these three pastors became a premier and Manning and Douglas served as such until the 1960s before moving to federal politics.

No proselytizing

It is worth saying that Wilson approaches her topic as a scholar. She is not proselytizing or saying that religion should necessarily have more influence in politics. She is saying that it has had, and does have, more influence than most Western scholars have been prepared to admit and she attempts to describe that reality.


Wilson goes on to say that most thought and scholarship about the role of religion in Western society begins from a “dualistic” premise that religion belongs to the private realm, “permanently separated from politics and thus of little relevance to International Relations analysis, particularly with regards to ‘secular’ western states.”

In attempting to describe the role of religion in politics, Wilson, says, scholars illustrate a limited, narrow definition of religion “focused on the role of religious institutions, the beliefs of individuals in key positions of power, the decline in the practice of religion by individuals within society as an indication of secularization, and religion’s influence on conflict and violence.”

Wilson argues that this approach overlooks important things, including the “influence of religious ideas and doctrines, imagery and narratives, religion’s role in shaping community identities, and an acknowledgement of religion’s more rational components, particularly in Western contexts…”

Religion not static

She points to the important role that “religious ideas, actors and events” in the West have played in developing the rule of law, sovereignty, democracy, freedom – and secularism itself. She writes, “I suggest that religion is not static and is not permanently separated from politics through the public/private divide as is generally assumed, implicitly or explicitly in International Relations scholarship.”

Finally, Wilson attempts to offer a way of rethinking religion in order to move beyond the secularist bias. She calls her approach “relational dialogism” and says that it owes something to feminist scholarship and historical sociology. “Throughout the book,” she writes, “I emphasize that religion influences politics in various ways through values, norms, identities and narratives told about the US and the West more broadly, as well as stories told about other states and the international community as a whole.”

Then Wilson turns her attention to her American case study — State of the Union addresses from six American presidents. She says a discourse analysis of those speeches illustrates her point.  I will write about that in my next blog post.


6 thoughts on “Erin Wilson, After Secularism

  1. I think there’s no question that religion shapes a secularist society writ large, not only in politics. Philosopher of science and feminist theorist, Sandra Harding, recently presented a paper in which she describes types of secularism as shaped by religion. She claims that North America has a Christian secularism, for example, just as some countries–Turkey comes to mind–reflect a Muslim secularism. In each case, the secularism embodies religious values and some differently from others. In my view, Canada brings a–dying–Catholic secularism, while the United States is imbued with stolid protestant secularism. The difference, some suggest, is in the degree of embedded individualism (US) relative to communitarianism (Canada).

    If any of this has merit, I’d suggest that Canada under Harper is moving Canada more toward protestant secularism, with the emphasis on the individual rather than on community.


    1. Jim, thanks for these perceptive comments. I had never thought of religion’s influence on Western society in quite that way.


  2. Jim makes a good point. Religion shapes culture and has a lingering influence even when not overtly religious. Whether we call it civil religion or implicit religion, religious symbols and rituals pervade our culture and politics. I think its time we retired the concept of “secularization.” Its true that religion has changed dramatically over the past century or so, but change is not the same thing as decline. There is no doubt that Christendom is over, but that is not the same thing as saying religion will disappear.


    1. Hi Bill: Thanks for your comment. Could you tell us a bit more about your comment “There is no doubt Christendom is over, but that is not the same thing as saying religion will disappear.” Is Christendom really over?


    2. Hi Bill:
      Your statement that “There is no doubt that Christendom is over’ must be challenged because while it may be accurate when applied to the developed world, it is not accurate in a global sense.

      Christianity is the fastest growing religion in Africa and South America, and membership is booming elsewhere. Whether one takes that as good news or bad, Christendom is far from over. And, of course, one must keep in mind that there are always a great many exceptions to any generalization.

      What is true is that much of ‘mainstream’ Christianity in North America has wandered so far from ‘The Way’ (as early Christians described their faith) that it has become unrecognizable as the movement inspired by Jesus. For many who profit from the status quo, Christianity is simply a flag of convenience used to justify a structurally sinful (which is to say ‘un-Christian’) economic order.

      A good example of this is the federal government’s turning away from Christian churches and turning to mining companies as its agents of ‘development’ over seas. Whether this is good public policy or not, it simply is not a ‘Christian’ approach to development, no matter how much those who worship at the altar of greed might proclaim it so. This is the essence of ‘secular Chrisianity’ – making Jesus into a cheerleader for profit, instead of an advocate for justice.

      As one noted cleric put it, “When I feed the hungry, they call me a saint. When I ask ‘Why are the people hungry?’ they call me a communist.” And so it goes … much of the western world’s economic leadership would like to delude itself that predatory capitalism is compatible with Christianity while communism is not. This delusion is being constantly ‘sold’ by the media and so it’s no surprise it’s so popular in the developed world.

      I would agree with Bill that the Christendom of the early Church wherein, as the New Testament so succinctly puts it, “all things were held in common,” is all but dead in North America. And it’s on the ropes in Europe.

      This ‘gospel of prosperity’ being passed off as ‘Christianity’ across most of the developed world is simply a twisting Christianity into a grotesque caricature of itself that is compatible with existing social and economic structures and comfortable with systematic injustice in pursuit of private gain. Such is the nature of secular Christianity.

      Since the teachings of Jesus are incompatible with both communism and capitalism, the obvious solution in the developed world has been to recast Christianity in the image of mammon. Alas, in the process, it is necessary to cast the real Jesus aside too…

      But it is a mistake to extrapolate what has happened to ‘Christendom’ in much of the developed world to the whole world. Indeed, outside North America, Christianity may be the world’s fastest growing religion and it remains to be seen whether it will be as easily subverted as it has in the developed world.

      What has happened in our ‘modern’ world is that, to use the marketing jargon, ‘Christianity’ has been ‘re-branded’ and now proclaims (contrary to what Jesus taught) that one can serve God and mammon.

      Christendom is not dead simply because the developed world needs re-evangelization.



  3. Thanks for your comments. Christianity is not the same as Christendom. Christendom was the 1600 year alliance of the Church with the State that gave the Church cultural hegemony over Europe and North America (whether it applies or has ever applied to the Third World is another question). It began with the Roman Emperor Constantine in the 4th century and petered out in the second half of the 20th century. The end of Christendom means that the church is now at the margins of society, not at the center. This is not the same as secularization, which claimed (in the main theories) that religion would disappear and be replaced by science and reason. This has not happened. Science today is almost as marginal as is the church. And while religion has lost most of its power, it has by no means disappeared.


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