Thursday, February 20, 2003

I feel like writing something, though I don't have anything really useful or insightful to say. "What's new," moan the elders.

My latest big idea is a subversive genealogy of secularism. I want to say that Western secularism actually emerges from and in engagement with the "traditional" religious practices of non-Western peoples encountered from the 15th century on, and what we typically call Western secularism is actually the most dogmatic of religious forms (the latter part is perhaps nothing new in view of the poststructural critique of modern rationality and subjectivity).

Anthony Appiah says that what we call "traditional" religion is actually much closer to the modern conception of science than the modern conception of religion. In studying Afro-Atlantic religions this semester, I am really beginning to get a taste of this. African traditional religions often beat anthropology to its own punch--in many cases they self-consciously understand their religious practices in terms of their social utility and pragmatic value. An enlightened anthropologist doesn't need to step in and make a demystifying functionalist interpretation of their religious practices, because the Africans themselves are already doing this. In effect, then, by a Western standard, African traditional religions constitute a supremely rational, even "secular" discourse. In fact, even more so than Western discourse, which is riven by Platonic dualism and so posits an entirely super-natural realm, Africans tend to conceive of the world in entirely naturalistic terms. Theirs is not an obscurantist supernaturalism replete with primitive mumbo jumbo, but rather a rather hard-headed naturalism based on rational cultural concerns. For instance, according to Barnes and Ben-Amos the West African worship of Ogun, the god of iron, civilization, and war is nothing more or less than an ideology of progress that accounts for the dominance of certain peoples over others--Africa-s Ogun = Hegel's History. How can we deny "secular" rationality to the one and accord it in abundance to the other?

In short, the "traditional" religious forms practiced by African and Amerindian peoples radically interrogate the very categories of "religion," "sacred," and "profane." In fact, these "traditional" religious discourses often operated within patently pragmatic, experimentalist, "secular" epistemological parameters. You believed in that which worked, and if it didn't work, you moved on to another god, or enlisted another god, or another revelation or ritual, in order to achieve the desired effects. As a result, these discourses were often incredibly cosmopolitan in their willingness not only to countenance the Other but to invite the Other into the sacred precincts of religious practice. The syncretism, hybridity, and eclecticism evident in various forms of New World mestizo religiosity thus reflect a sophistication, sensitivity, and universalism that in Western parlance represent nothing less than the sine qua non of enlightened "secularism."

In early accounts of encounter in the New World, there even emerges a literary character that I would call the "secular" Indian. Again and again, you encounter two sides of the same tropic coin: either the Indians either believe in nothing entirely, or they believe in everything too readily and insincerely, discarding it when it is convenient. Underlying both of these descriptions is an uncomfortable awareness of a skeptical, pragmatic Native paradigm that comes awfully close to what the West calls "secularism."

Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the New World pragmatic tradition--of which I see Mormonism as a shining exemplar--emerging as it does out of an encounter with non-Western Others who practiced "traditional" religion (see Scott Pratt's great new book, Native Pragmatism) in a context of intractable pluralism, becomes in a sense a form of what I have called "traditional" religion (just read James in The Varieties of Religious Experience). Following this logic, insofar as "traditional" religion is conceived as a sort of and source for "secularism," perhaps we might fly in the face of our own commonsense and fruitfully conceive of Mormonism as a sort of secularism, an alternative rationality, rather than as a religion, at least in its modern sense. Certainly the scope of the Mormon project seems to strain at the confines of the modern conception of "religion." What do we gain by calling Mormonism a secularism? You tell me. I think it begins to explain the profoundly naturalistic, humanistic, and scientistic bent of early Mormon doctrine, as well as making it more viable--for my political purposes--as an intellectual position. Besides, it's always fun to completely upend scholarly commonsense.

So there it is: what we call traditional religion is actually what we glowingly call secularism, and what we call secularism is actually what we insultingly call traditional (i.e. "voodoo hoodoo") religion.

So Mr. Scientist, want a paper topic? Synthesize all this for me. I think there might be something big here that begins to get at Mormonism's seemingly uneasy mixture of modern and premodern. Maybe the traditional religion as secularism paradigm begins to resolve these seeming contradictions.