Cemil Aydin, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


Geopolitics of Turkish Secularization Thesis in Secular Studies

Turkish experience of modernization has been a key example (and even an addiction) in every secularism theory since 1924 abolishment of the Ottoman Caliphate by the Turkish Parliament. Even when scholarly secularism studies had questioned all the certainties of Turkish secularism thesis, the controversy over the success or failure of Kemalist secularism in a Muslim majority country remains an essential part of all journalist and public conversation on Islam and politics. What is often overlooked in this conservation is the fact that secularism thesis had been a crucial part of Turkish Republic’s international legitimacy and geopolitical vision. Thus, even when scholarship has proven that Turkey was never as secular as it claimed to be, while the abandoned Ottoman Caliphate itself was rather secular itself, there is a stubborn resistance to make sense of scholarly revisions in the geopolitical usages of the idea of Turkish secularism. This paper will explore why the myth of Turkish Westernization and secularism was necessary for secularism theory by looking at the geopolitical usage of this idea in instances of early Republican strategy against anti-Muslim and anti-Turkish hostility in the West, in Turkey’s membership to NATO, and in the international debate on Islamism during the 1980s.


Cemil Aydin is professor of international/global history at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill's Department of History. He studied at Boğaziçi University, İstanbul University, and the University of Tokyo before receiving his Ph.D. degree at Harvard University in 2002. He was an Academy Scholar at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies (2002-2024), and a Mellon Foundation post-doctoral fellow at Princeton University's Department of Near Eastern Studies (2007-2008).

Cemil Aydin’s publications include his book on the Politics of Anti-Westernism in Asia (Columbia University Press, 2007) and The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History (Harvard University Press, Spring 2017). His writings on the political history of the world in the long 19th century was published from Harvard University Press in 2018 as part of an edited volume An Emerging Modern World: 1750–1870 (2018) He currently serves as the co-editor of Columbia University Press book series on International and Global History, and editorial board member of Modern Intellectual History journal.


Joseph Blankholm, UCSB


Bad Blood: Protestantism in the Genealogy of the Secular

The critique of the secular and secularism has succeeded in demonstrating the harms of secularist governmentality and related secular ideologies like empiricism. A key debate remains over whether some formation of the secular can be reformed and salvaged, or whether secularism is a fundamentally harmful knowledge regime in need of revolutionary replacement. In this debate, secularism and liberalism are mutually constitutive if not indistinguishable, and Protestantism undergirds both as their genealogical antecedent. This essay reframes the Löwith-Blumenberg debate over modernity’s legitimacy to ask whether the critique of Protestantism necessarily extends to that which it influences, such as secularism. In short, if part of the critique of the secular is that its roots lie in Protestantism, how does this critique rely on the metaphors of genealogy, blood, transmission, and contagion? Do these metaphors overdetermine the ways in which scholars engage in critique by essentializing polysemous, internally diverse concepts, or do they provide an elegant way to describe how certain concepts corrupt the best intentions of those that put them to use? I will argue that scholars who see Protestantism as bad blood that pollutes the genealogy of the secular fail to recognize the ways in which conceptual aggregates like Protestantism and secularism are shot through with internal contradictions that make simple narratives of transmission and contagion untenable. I offer instead a critique of secularism that deconstructs the “bad blood” argument and finds opportunities for secularism’s reform rather than complete rejection.


Joseph Blankholm is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His research focuses on atheism and secularism, primarily in the United States. Most recently, he has published on the contradictory ways in which American law understands nonbelievers, the entangled histories of secularism and humanism, and the paradox of religious indifference. He is currently at work on a monograph about the strange religiosity of organized nonbelievers in the United States.


Sumantra Bose, London School of Economics


The republics of India and Turkey were the two 20th-century exemplars of projects to construct ‘secular states’—in which the constitutional identity and fundamental character of the state were not based on or derived from the religious faith of the majority of the population—in the non-Western world. Until the 1990s, the secular nature of the Indian and Turkish republics were taken for granted. That has changed, and drastically so. Alternative, anti-secular visions of nationhood rooted in the faiths of confessional majorities have risen from the political margins to centre-stage, and won state power in both countries. The ‘secular’ definition of nation and state in Turkey has effectively been supplanted by a Sunni-Islamist majoritarian definition in the early 21st century. The Turkish secular state established by Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) is dead in all but name, and is very unlikely to revive. In India, majoritarian Hindu nationalism has decisively emerged, as of 2019, as the country’s hegemonic political force, and the future of India’s secular state is at best uncertain.

This presentation seeks to explain the political transformations of India and Turkey in an anti-secular direction, in a comparative framework that incorporates both the similarities and the differences between the cases.


Sumantra Bose is Professor of International and Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). His work includes seven sole-authored books, most recently Secular States, Religious Politics: India, Turkey, and the Future of Secularism (Cambridge University Press, 2018). Bose’s other recent books are Transforming India: Challenges to The World’s Largest Democracy (Harvard University Press, 2013), Contested Lands: Israel-Palestine, Kashmir, Bosnia, Cyprus, and Sri Lanka (Harvard University Press, 2007), Kashmir: Roots of Conflict, Paths to Peace (Harvard University Press, 2003), and Bosnia after Dayton: Nationalist Partition and International Intervention (Oxford University Press, 2002).

Sumantra Bose graduated from Amherst College, Massachusetts in 1992 (summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa) and received his PhD in political science from Columbia University in 1998. He was born and grew up in Calcutta, India, and currently divides his time between London and India.


J. Kameron Carter, Indiana University


The Secular: A Black Studies Critique of Political Theology

While the notion of the secular has come under increased scrutiny from various quarters of the critical humanities, here I will explore this notion from the vantage point of a black studies critique of Western Civilization that takes seriously the West, along with its grammars and central concepts, as necessarily theological. My approach into the notion of the secular will be by way of Jamaican cultural theorist Sylvia Wynter. It’s her genealogy of Western Man that interests me. I argue that Wynter’s genealogy of Man carries within it an account of the secular that shows the secular to be a theological formation—of Whiteness. That is to say, from her early, 900-plus page text Black Metamorphosis to her later field shaping essays that explore the “coloniality of being,” Wynter clarifies that what is called the secular stands not in opposition to the theological but rather renders it a planetary, political concept that is unintelligible apart from the violent practices of racially-gendered capitalism—the expropriation of life and land from African and various indigenous peoples. This is but another way of saying that, before and beyond what one finds in recent engagements with the idea of the secular such as Charles Taylor’s engagement, approaching the question of the secular through a Wynterian black critical-theoretical lens, brings the secular into view as a metamorphosed theological discourse of Whiteness. This is what I take up in my contribution to our conversation.


J. Kameron Carter taught for 17 years at Duke University as Associate Professor of Theology, English and Africana Studies in the Divinity School with appointments in the English Department and the Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies Department. He just accepted an appointment as Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington.

He teaches religious and theological studies by way of what some might call critical race studies but that I call black studies. He studies and thinks about black social life as it intersects the sacred, as the deviant scene of alternative practices of the sacred. His first book is titled Race: A Theological Account (New York: Oxford UP, 2008). He edited a collection of essays called Religion and the Future of Blackness in 2013 (a special issue of South Atlantic Quarterly) and is finishing a book called Black Rapture: A Poetics of the Sacred.


Peter Gordon, Harvard University


“The Normative Deficit of Modernity: The Secularization Debate and the Weberian Legacy in Critical Theory”

This paper offers a reflection on the recent rise of what I call “the normative deficit of modernity.” The idea of such a deficit has gained widespread currency among social theorists as part of the resurgent discourse of political theology. By political theology I mean the general view that sees theological concepts as somehow necessary for the continued normative viability of our modern political life. Elsewhere, I have tried to distinguish between the two conjoined theses that inform this idea of political theology, summarized as follows:

1. The thesis of a normative deficit: Modernity suffers from a fatal deficit in normative substance and thus cannot be expected to establish moral and political grounding of its own.

2. The thesis of religious plenitude: To compensate for its normative deficit, secular modernity must appeal to religion as the singular and privileged resource of moral-political instruction without which society cannot cohere.

Within the confines of this paper, I would only like to offer some genealogical reflections as to how the conjoined theses of political theology became so dominant a force in modern social theory and how they came to challenge the classical theory of secularization. My specific claim here is that we might best understand the continued force of this theme in social theory today if we cast a backward glance at Max Weber’s contributions to the sociology of religion. My aim will be twofold: a) to reconstruct some of the salient themes in Weber’s work that have contributed to the idea of a normative deficit of modernity; and b) to offer a brief comment on an alternative understanding of religion that derives from the left-Hegelians (Feuerbach and Marx). By exploring the contrast between the Weberian and left-Hegelian understanding of secularization, I hope to offer just a few thoughts that may help us to move beyond the current theoretical impasse.


Peter E. Gordon is the Amabel B. James Professor of History, Faculty Affilitate in the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures, and Faculty Affiliate in the Department of Philosophy at Harvard University. He works chiefly on themes in Continental philosophy and social thought in Germany and France in the late-modern era, with an emphasis on critical theory, Western Marxism, the Frankfurt School, phenomenology, and existentialism. He is author of Rosenzweig and Heidegger: Between Judaism and German Philosophy (University of California Press, 2003), The Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos (Harvard University Press, 2010), and Adorno and Existence (Harvard University Press, 2016). His next book, Migrants in the Profane: Critical Theory and the Question of Secularization, based on lectures he gave at Yale University in the Franz Rosenzweig Lectures in Modern Jewish Thought, is forthcoming from Yale University Press (Fall, 2020). He is also co-author of Authoritarianism: Three Inquiries in Critical Theory with Wendy Brown and Max Pensky (2018) and has co-edited numerous volumes. He is currently writing a longer, more comprehensive study of secularization and social theory since Max Weber.


Udi Greenberg, Dartmouth


“From anti-Catholicism to anti-Communism: The Evolution of a Trope”?

The Christian campaign against secular Communism was a defining phenomenon in Europe’s modern history. Over the last few years, scholars have begun to uncover its many roots—especially in anti-Semitism—and to chart it’s the vast intellectual production and political mobilization it inspired. This paper will add to this burgeoning work by exploring the role of Protestant anti-Catholic polemics in shaping anti-secularism. It will show how crucial anti-Catholic tropes from the late nineteenth century, according to which Catholicism denied free will and enslaved individuals psychologically, resurfaced as a crucial anti-Communist trope in the twentieth century. By tracing this genealogy, this paper will investigate how intra-religious concepts were utilized to explain allegedly secular movements.


Udi Greenberg is an associate professor of European history at Dartmouth College. He is the author of the prize-winning The Weimar Century: German Émigrés and the Ideological Foundations of the Cold War(Princeton 2015). He also published multiple articles on modern European politics and thought in journals such as the American Historical Review, Journal of Modern History, and Journal of History of Ideas, as well as in magazines such as The Nation, Dissent, LA Review of Books, and n+1.


Eric Gregory, Princeton University


"Political Theology and the Limits of Critique"

About twenty years ago, I attended a welcome reception for new faculty at my university. It was just before 9/11. I still recall a brief conversation with a distinguished colleague who upon reading my nametag, declared, “I don’t talk about religion in class; it is a secular space.” The context limited conversation, but we chatted enough to learn of her serious interest in Augustine and upcoming course on 17thcentury metaphysical poetry. I still find it difficult to imagine that course without “religion” and wonder what she meant by secular space. Even then, I suspect it was an idiosyncratic response, yet revealed something like a commitment to value-neutrality as a privileged model of objectivity under ideological threat. Ironically, perhaps given a confident secularity curious about disciplinary entanglements with religious frameworks, I now often have more theological conversations with colleagues in her discipline (English) and others (especially History, Philosophy, and Politics) than my own field of religious studies. To be sure, they are typically framed in terms of intellectual history or cultural studies rather than first-order theological discourse. But they also extend to questions of ethics and politics that now go under the description of “political theology.” My paper will examine the resurgent, methodologically diverse interest in political theology in light of our interest in “the theologically porous nature and histories of discourses on equality, justice, and rights.” In particular, I will highlight several recent works that betray the challenges and opportunities of this scholarly scrutiny for normative purposes. These include Ronald Dworkin, Religion without God (2013), Cecile Laborde, Liberalism’s Religion (2017), and Eric Nelson, The Theology of Liberalism (2019). I hope to connect these themes to broader debates about humanistic inquiry, religious particularity, and whether the category of the secular has lost its critical usefulness for pluralistic universities and democracies.


Eric Gregory is Professor of Religion and Chair of the Humanities Council at Princeton University. He is the author of Politics and the Order of Love: An Augustinian Ethic of Democratic Citizenship (Chicago 2008), and articles in a variety of edited volumes and journals, including the Journal of Religious Ethics, Studies in Christian Ethics, and Augustinian Studies. His interests include religious and philosophical ethics, theology, political theory, law and religion, and the role of religion in public life. In 2007, he was awarded Princeton’s President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching. A graduate of Harvard College, he earned an M.Phil. and Diploma in Theology from the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and his doctorate in Religious Studies from Yale University. He has received fellowships from the University of Notre Dame, Harvard University, New York University School of Law, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Among his current projects is a book tentatively titled, The In-Gathering of Strangers, which examines religious and secular perspectives on global justice.


Lucia Hulsether, Skidmore College



Moral Consolidation: Religion, Capitalism, and Institutionality

This paper assesses trends in critiques of religion and capitalism, paying particular attention to the triangulation of these concepts through a third party site of “the secular.” Scholars working at this interdisciplinary nexus have excavated a relationship between the ostensibly secular itineraries of expanding corporate empire and the evangelical itineraries of Christian mission projects, often drawing on a polemical language of “Christian secularism” to describe their symbolic and material convergence. But what is the next move once we have exposed the religious underpinnings of secular markets? Recently, scholars have turned to Emile Durkheim’s functionalist sociology as a resource for expanding the question of “religion” beyond doctrinal sects and toward more expansive questions about the totemic organization of modern social life. I argue that, while the articulation of religion as a way of interpreting “social organization” opens this field to new and different questions, it also turns the study of religion away from Marxian traditions of critique.


Lucia Hulsether is finishing her PhD in Religious Studies at Yale University and will begin a position as Assistant Professor of American Religion at Skidmore College in January 2020. Her scholarship is situated within the academic study of religion, the critical study of race and sexuality, and the history of labor and capitalism. She is currently finishing a first book manuscript, Liberated Market: On the Cultural Politics of Capitalist Humanitarianism, which analyzes projects to reform capitalism in the Americas since the 1920s. Her research has appeared in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Public Culture, and Religion and American Culture.


Shruti Kapila, University of Cambridge


Political Theology of Sedition

My paper will focus on B. G. Tilak, India’s first ‘mass’ leader who was anointed by no less than Lenin as the ‘figurehead of revolution in Asia’. His sensational sedition trial of 1908 that was followed by his monumental translation and commentary written in prison on the Bhagavad Gita will be discussed here to uncover the genealogy of a distinct and powerful vocabulary of sovereignty that cannot be understood let alone annexed as part of ‘secularism’.

Tilak created what can be termed a new political theology. By political theology, what is meant here is not simply the public life of religion. Instead, it proposes the opposite, and pace Schmitt namely that the foundational concepts of modern political life are governed by theology. In Western historical experience, theology though potent and attached to political modernity, has more often than not been rendered invisible and obscured through its proclaimed universalisation and dominated by a particular form of rationalism and commonly understood as ‘secularism’. The work of theology and its persistence in politics is now vigorously being uncovered if not to radicalize political vocabularies then certainly to critique the dominant and liberal renditions of religion ranging from the French communist philosopher Alain Badiou’s theorization of revolution to the American liberal-legal theorist Paul Kahn’s arguments on contemporary global warfare.

By contrast, in the Indian context, religion is all too visible especially in its relationship to the political domain that arguably lacks a proper sheath. Religion, in contemporary scholarship and commentary on India, is thus often depicted as a difficulty either vitiating relations between communities and neighbors or a set of uncontainable practices sought to be managed or privatized by the transcendent authority of the state. The failure of the postcolonial state to make religion distant from the political and the heightened visibility of religion are widely understood as a problem to be overcome especially with the recent electoral successes of Hindu nationalism. Secularism in India has at best then understood to be stillborn by those who oppose Hindu nationalism and at worst a form of malevolent hypocrisy and is argued as such by Hindu nationalists. As the discussion on Tilak will clarify, that more than secularism, political theology or the mutual re-articulation of religion and modern political concepts that without brooking boundaries have instead clothed religion with new political concepts. Such a political theology, argued here, realized new and potent forms of sovereign power that could not be contained within the law.

Political theology as Carl Schmitt identified is fundamental to sovereignty. Tilak is not only iconic of the debate on sedition in India, as his 1908 sedition trial became a cause celebre but more foundationally, reinforced and redirected the imperial and legal regulation of Indian politics. Equally, Tilak represents the initial if also foundational and open interplay between religion and politics, that the imperial and colonial state sought not only to separate but zealously policed. Yet precisely because the realm of religion offered a relatively autonomous domain under colonial conditions, that it became productive for a political theology that discovered sovereignty away from its statist if powerful cage. Tilak’s political theology, in short, cast a crucial gap between sovereign power, violence and the legal order that found a new successor in Gandhi’s politics and remains consequential till date.

Shruti Kapila is University Lecturer in History and a Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. She is an editor of Political Thought in Action: The Bhagavad Gita and Modern India (Cambridge University Press, 2013) and An Intellectual History for India (Cambridge University Press, 2010).



Birgit Meyer, Utrecht


Church Matters: Political Secularism in Ghana and the Netherlands

Ghana and the Netherlands both have secular constitutions that grant the freedom of religion, including the founding of religious schools. And yet there are big differences with regard to the actual public presence of religion and the valuation of religion in both settings. In Ghana, atheism is virtually non-existent, and religion thrives. Especially in Southern Ghana Pentecostal Christianity is visually and audibly omnipresent, and Muslims form a substantial, increasingly visible and audible group; by contrast so-called traditional religion has been pushed to the margins, and thrives in the shadow, even though recently some traditional priest manifest themselves on social media. In the Netherlands, by now only 50% of the population belongs to a religious group; and the trend is that this number is decreasing, yielding the steady closing down and de-consecration of churches. The Dutch religious environment is highly diverse, de-churching occurs alongside the articulation of staunch atheism, the search for new spiritualities and the return of Christianity as heritage, as well as the rise of Islam, Pentecostalism and Hinduism in more and more self-consciously diverse societies.

For long I saw these two societies as worlds apart, with Ghana -and Africa in general - appearing as highly religious, and the Netherlands as vanguard of secularization. Of course, this view is a symptom of a problematic imagined division through which these settings are kept at a distance. In this paper I will look at both form a comparative perspective that takes into account complex global entanglements. I am interested to find out which differences exist with regard to the accommodation of different religious players within each of these sites, as well as between them. My aim is to explore how a comparative study of religious matters in the public domain can be of use to flesh out fresh concepts and approaches for research on religion in the interface of anthropology and religious studies. Focusing on church buildings – the building of a National Cathedral in Ghana, and the de-consecration of churches in the Netherlands - the thread of this presentation is a focus on religious matters as entry points into the conditions and modalities in which religions go public and secularism is mobilized in Ghana and the Netherlands. Salient differences exist between the ways in which secularism is made operational: in Ghana the secularity of the state is understood as a lack that produces a need, thus encouraging proactive state involvement with religious matters such as the national cathedral for the sake of the common good. In the Netherlands, the secularity of the state is understood by and large in terms of the accommodation and regulation of religion, and in mainstream public opinion it is found problematic that this accommodation for a great deal pertains to religious newcomers, at a time when Christianity is losing ground and its material culture as reappreciated as heritage.


Trained as a cultural anthropologist and working on lived religion in Ghana for more than 20 years, Birgit Meyer studies religion from a global and post-secular perspective. Her research is driven by an urge to make sense of the shifting place and role of religion in our time, and to show that scholarly work in the field of religion is of eminent concern to understanding the shape of our world in the early 21st century. In so doing, she seeks to synthesize grounded fieldwork and theoretical reflection in a broad multidisciplinary setting. Her main research foci are the rise and popularity of global Pentecostalism; religion, popular culture and heritage; religion and media; religion and the public sphere; religious visual culture, the senses and aesthetics.


Victoria Smolkin, Wesleyan


What can the history of Soviet atheism tell us about the secular?

This paper will bring the history of Soviet Communism’s engagements with religion, secularism, and atheism to address two questions: the larger historical conditions giving rise to (and shaping) interest in the “secular,” and the ways in which these historical conditions have shaped the definition of the term, and ideological and political valences we associate with it. Secular studies as an academic discipline, like secularism as a political project and secularity as a social or worldview position, are troubled by their intellectual and political origins, as well as by their history. Yet while much of the contemporary academic critique of secularism has defined it as a tool of governance and associated it with the modern liberal state in its national(ist) and imperial/colonial projects, this position only came to the fore after the Cold War and the end of Communism. Historically, however, the critique of secularism was grounded in a definition of secularism as unbelief and associated it with individual and societal moral collapse, often raising the danger of socialism or communism as political projects. This was especially the case once the Bolshevik revolution placed an atheist party in power. In many ways, then, Soviet atheism (or “godless communism”) has haunted both secularism and secular studies. At the same time, Soviet atheism has remained a specter – often (generally) invoked, but never (specifically) engaged. This paper proposes that taking a closer look at Soviet atheism both as a historical phenomenon and an object of academic study will allow us to make critical distinctions between secularism in theory versus secularism in practice, as well as secularism in opposition versus secularism in power. It will also allow us to think through the relationship between secularism and atheism as worldview positions and political projects, and to consider both their intended and unintended social consequences.


Victoria Smolkin is associate professor of history and Russian, East European, and Eurasian studies at Wesleyan University. A scholar of Communism, the Cold War, and Russia and the former Soviet Union, her work focuses on the intersections of politics with religion and ideology, including atheism, secularism, and nationalism. Smolkin’s recent book, A Sacred Space Is Never Empty: A History of Soviet Atheism (Princeton University Press, 2018; in paperback 2019), explores the meaning of atheism for Soviet religious culture, ideology, and politics. A Russian translation is forthcoming from the Russian publishing house New Literary Observer in Spring 2020. She is currently at work on two projects: “The Crusade Against Godlessness: Religion, Communism, and the Cold War Order" and “The Wall of Memory: Life, Death, and the Impossibility of History.