Is There a Secularocene? (Political Theology Network)

A Snapshot of Sea Ice by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center CC BY-NC 2.0

By Mohamad Amer Meziane – September 17, 2021

If modernity is the Anthropocene and if secularization is a defining feature of modernity’s birth, then it is natural to ask: did secularization engender climate change?

Why is secularization never connected to climate change? And why is climate change not connected to secularization? If modernity is the Anthropocene and if secularization is a defining feature of modernity’s birth, then it is natural to ask: did secularization engender climate change?

I aim to open a new space in the study of both secularism and the Anthropocene, of religion and climate change. Further, I aim to create a philosophical bridge between influential currents in anthropology and the humanities. I build this bridge through the critique of Orientalism and the anthropology of secularism and Islam, respectively founded by Edward Said and Talal Asad, on one hand, and the literature on the Anthropocene influenced by scholars such as Donna Haraway and Bruno Latour, on the other.

I argue that secularization should be re-conceptualized not only as an imperial and racial but also as an ecological set of processes.

My perspective stems from a philosophical engagement with both the project and the concept of secularization. It therefore presupposes a critical understanding of what has been called ‘the secular’ as a name given to the result of the destruction of nature: the transformation of the earth itself by industrial and colonial powers. I propose an alternative definition of secularization, secularism, and secularity. As I argue fully in my first book, Des empires sous la terre, the Anthropocene is an outcome of secularization understood as a set of processes engendered by the imperial relations of power between Europe and the rest of the world.

Thinking Through the Secularocene

What is secularization? Neither a supposed decline of religion nor a simple continuation of Christianity by other means, secularization should be seen as a transformation of the earth itself by virtue of its connection with fossil empires and capitalism.

This perspective differs from scholars who have been engaged in criticizing the idea of secularization as a mythology of progress and privatization – a mythology to which 9/11 proved false. I argue that the concept of secularization should be redefined instead of being dissolved. It is only if one presupposes that secularization is reducible to the privatization of religion that the existence of political religion can be construed as testifying against the reality of secularization. When one opposes the permanence of religion or of Christianity to the reality of secularization, one is in fact reactivating the secularization thesis in its primitive, Hegelian version (developed by Marcel Gauchet) – that modernity is the secular realization of Christianity on earth – and, therefore, of all religions in the world.

In other words, before it can be seen as a process, secularization should be approached as an order which articulates philosophy and politics, discourse and practices throughout the 19th century in Western Europe. Secularization is the order which claims that the other-worldliness of religion and the divine must be abolished by virtue of its realization in this world. The first instance of this demand is Hegel’s absolute knowledge and his interpretation of the French Revolution as the realization of heaven on earth. The so-called ‘end of history’ is indeed the accomplishment of a secularizing process by which the divine becomes the institution of freedom through the modern state.

The first way in which secularization manifests its reality is discursive. As a discourse, it asserts that the modern West must be and therefore is Christianity itself, Christianity as the secular. Before it can become an analytical concept, the concept of secularization formulates a demand: Christianity and religions realize heaven and all forms of transcendence in this world. 

Is the reality of secularization solely discursive? No. The reality of the secular is the earth itself as it is transformed by industrial capitalism. This redefinition of the secular and of secularization allows us to think alternatively about this ‘global’ event called climate change. I argue that the Anthropocene should be seen as an effect of secularization, and that one might use the word Secularocene to describe this dimension of ‘colonial modernity.’

How did secularization lead to climate change, one might ask? By authorizing the extraction of coal through expropriating lands that belonged to the Church, and dismissing the reality of demons in the underground as superstitious, secularization allowed fossil industrialism to transform the planet. For this reason, secularization should be seen as a crucial aspect of what Marx calls the primitive accumulation of capital: an extra-economic process of expropriation structured by state violence deploying itself through racial, gender, class, and religious hierarchies.

The critique of secularism is more than the critique of a political doctrine demanding the privatization of religion. It is the critique of how the earth itself has been transformed. As such, philosophical secularism refers to an ontology that posits this world as the sole reality. It defines immanence, or earth, as the reality which must be opposed to transcendence, or “heaven”. The critique of heaven is not the condition of all critique, as Marx famously puts it. It is part of how capitalism operates. Hence, the critique of heaven has transformed the earth itself through the secularization of both empire and capital.

While genealogy authorizes us to think about the categories of religion and secularity critically, it should be integrated within a larger perspective if we are to rethink secularization by constructing an alternative narrative of its deployment beyond the tropes of religion’s decline. A post-genealogical philosophy of history is a theory, not of progress, but of how the earth has been transformed through imperial and capitalist processes of globalization. The very existence of climate change invites us to think past Foucault’s legacies in postcolonial thought. Beyond genealogy, the hypothesis of the Anthropocene – or of the Secularocene for that matter – might require that we integrate genealogical inquiries into a radically new form of philosophical history. After the genealogy of religion and the secular, a philosophy of global history might help us understand imperial secularization as the birth of the Anthropocene.

By Mohamad Amer Meziane

Mohamad Amer Meziane holds a PhD from the University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne. He is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow and Lecturer at Columbia University. He is affiliated to the Institute of Religion Culture and Public Life, the Institute of African Studies and the Department of Religion.

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