The Varieties of Secular Experience

UNCC Author/Contributor (non-UNCC co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Gregory Starrett, Professor (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNCC )
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Abstract: Taking the Egyptian case as an example, this article examines secularism (and its cognates secularity and the secular), not so much as a failed social project, but as a problematic concept. Reflecting on the on-going scholarly interest in the notion of waning secularity in Egypt, I will suggest that the idea reveals as much about the scholars studying it as it does about a changing social world. Building on the work of British philosopher W. B. Gallie, I will argue that secularism is an essentially contested concept, its meanings fluid, variant, and elusive. This is not merely to observe, as many others have done, that “the ‘religious’ and the ‘secular’ are not essentially fixed categories” (Asad 2003: 25), or that “the secular” is so difficult to grasp directly that “it is best pursued through its shadows, as it were” (ibid.: 16). It is to say that the secular’s unfixedness is one of its essential features, and that its significance, therefore, is a function of the arguments it generates and the conflicts it organizes, rather than of some phenomenon it purports to describe. Two things follow from this. The first is that the secular’s usefulness as an analytical concept is deeply suspect. The second is that growing scholarly interest in studying the secular—Michael Warner (2008: 609) writes about “the emerging realm of secular studies” on the model of religious studies—is a phenomenon that requires our attention.”

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2010
secularism, Egypt, religion

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