The Circulation of Secularism

  • Greg Urban


Inquiring into the causes behind the spread of secularism in the modern world, this paper proposes that the concept has proliferated owing to its peculiar property as culture: It is simultaneously a piece of culture and also a reflection upon culture. In its latter capacity, it imagines a world in which alternative religious belief systems divide people. It spreads as a piece of culture because it enables sharing and, hence, community, across the cultural boundaries erected by religious belief. For this reason, some governments have embraced the concept and incorporated it into official state discourse. Other governments, in turn, have copied the language of secularism not for its intended meaning but for pragmatic purposes—namely, to proclaim a position within the community of modern nations. State discourse, however, irrespective of the reasons for which it was adopted, affects how ordinary people reason about religion. Reasoning from the possibility of alternative religions opens a space for unbelief. Through an analysis of constitutional language, census data, and interviews, the paper concludes that secularism has more to do with the circulation of discourse and the reasons behind it, than with an immanent versus transcendent solution to the puzzle of existence—the transcendent solution being the foundation for the circulation of religious belief itself.


Religion Secularism Discourse Metaculture 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of PennsylvaniaPhiladelphiaUSA

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