The Myth of Normative Secularism

Religion and Politics in the Democratic Homeworld

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Daniel D. Miller
  • Pittsburgh, PA: 
    Duquesne University Press
    , April
     346 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In The Myth of Normative Secularism, Daniel D. Miller asserts that the conception of the social, understood in terms of what he calls “normative secularism”—a narrative with normative force which defines the relation between the religious and the political within the social—needs replacing as a result of emerging religious sociopolitical movements, the historicity of the concepts of religion and the secular, and the myth of religious violence. In addition to the introduction and conclusion, this book is split into two parts, each with three chapters. In part 1, Miller critically examines three attempts to redefine the social: Graham Ward and John Milbank’s Radical Orthodoxy, Jürgen Habermas’s “postsecular” political deliberation, and Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s theory of Empire and the multitude that resists it. Miller finds that all three attempts to redefine the social share a dogmatic metaphysical speculation that abstracts from the concrete way in which the political moves within the social. In part 2 Miller offers his own account of the social—and the relation of the religious and the secular—while drawing on Anthony Steinbock’s development of Husserl’s generative phenomenology and the post-Marxist political theory of Ernesto Laclau. Whereas in part 1 Miller’s criticisms focus on dogmatic metaphysical assumptions that depart from the concrete of the sociopolitical, in part 2, Miller uses the concrete as the starting point for his theory of the social.

In chapter 1, Miller details Ward and Milbank’s criticism of secular liberal democracy. Ward and Milbank see democracy as requiring a political body which forms and gives obedience to it, but as this body is imaginary, it contains a latent totalitarianism, and so democracy is ultimately a failure. Ward and Milbank offer their own political ontologies by grounding the social in realist metaphysics. Ward’s political theology places the concrete within the existence of the Christian church—which has a body—under the sovereignty of Christ. Milbank appeals to christology to support his view on the necessity of kingship in leading to the concrete kingdom of Christendom, a renewed vision of the Christian Roman Empire (55). Miller argues, however, that Ward fails to connect his grounding of the sovereignty of the church with any actually existing organization, whereas Milbank grounds his model of the social on a conception of the historical church of the medieval period that ultimately does not stand up to historical scrutiny. Miller argues that Ward and Milbank demand a concrete political grounding, but their theories fail to live up to their own criteria.

In chapter 2 Miller considers Habermas’s conception of the postsecular as an ideological replacement for normative secularism. Habermas argues against the secular thesis—that religion will slowly fade away with the rise in cultural and social modernity—instead advocating for the embrace of religion for its political importance, and denying the stance that religion is irrational. Despite characterizing his position as postsecular, Habermas defends the necessity of secularity in the liberal state to promote neutrality. He claims that each actor communicates from within their lifeworld, which is totalizing and prereflective—contingent but nonetheless fundamental. So a neutral state, and moreover, secular reason, is necessary to protect these lifeworlds as a matter of basic rights. Miller criticizes Habermas’s theory of communicative reason as actually being a defense of normative secularism, despite the move towards postsecularity. Habermas’s emphasis on secular reason as universal presupposes a connection between the unconditional validity of discursive statements, and universal reason. In other words, Miller argues, if lifeworlds are contingent, it does not follow that religious reasons, which stem from the lifeworld, can be translated into a universal reason.

In chapter 3 Miller explains that Hardt and Negri’s criticism of the liberal state and their rejection of the characterization of fundamentalist movements as anti-modern can be viewed as a denial of normative secularism. Rather than being an antimodern phenomenon, fundamentalism is the expression of the multitudes rising up against the globalized sovereignty of Empire. However, as Miller explains, Hardt and Negri assume the “smooth texture” of the social, but if that presumption is wrong, then the global sovereignty of Empire is no longer a coherent concept (115). Rather than address this failing, Hardt and Negri shore up their argument with appeals to metaphysical structures, which Miller finds to be an evasion that leaves too many inconsistencies in the overall argument.

In chapter 4, Miller turns to his own positive theory of the social. He suggests that an inquiry into the transcendental aspect of the nature of the generation of the homeworld is required to account for the concrete democratic political structure of the homeworld; claiming that because the homeworld is democratically structured, the political is a modality of the social, not a separate and distinct sphere. By synthesizing Steinbock and Laclau, Miller offers a phenomenological account for the a priori conditions of the emergence of aspects of the political while also explaining how these conditions are themselves generated, and historical. Furthermore, a democratic political articulation will exceed any barriers that separate the political from other dimensions of the social. Since the political is not simply part of the homeworld but pervasive in it, the political defines the homeworld.

In chapter 5, Miller advances his generative phenomenological account of a political articulation by making the connection between Steinbock’s phenomenological generation of the political and Laclau’s political articulation to offer a specifically democratic articulation. Miller argues that a democratic political articulation requires the politicization of social identity. This is created by the spreading out of democratic ideals, such as equality and liberty, into ever widening aspects of the homeworld. The expansion of democracy throughout the social is a historical process, which Millers refers to as the democratic revolution, and so our present political articulation is therefore a democratic one, or as Miller says succinctly: “we are fully at home within democracy” (234). As the homeworld is defined by this radically and plurally democratic articulation, it must be the case that the political is not simply a separate sphere, but a fundamental modality of the homeworld.

In chapter 6, Miller leans heavily on Jacques Derrida’s notion of alterity to argue that the discourse of this generative phenomenology of the homeworld is formally indistinguishable from the religious discourse of apophaticism. Apophaticism is not essentially religious but religious in a generative sense. Since a radical and plural democratic articulation therefore represents a religious vocation, the religious must also be a fundamental modality of the homeworld, and not a separate and distinct sphere.

In the last two decades, scholars—notably Charles Taylor, William Connelly, and José Casanova—have thoroughly critiqued the concept of secularism. However, dissolving conceptions of secularism, or more specifically what Miller defines as normative secularism, presents the challenge of how to reconceive the social. How should we think of the connection between the religious and the political if the distinctive lines to which we are accustomed are blurred or removed? Miller offers an interesting and useful step towards remedying this lack. His argument that the religious and the political are both fundamental modalities of our homeworld, and thus define the social rather than being distinct spheres inside it, is a novel way to express the importance of the religious and the political in constructing our views of the world. While Miller’s work is not intended for general readership, those with some background in continental political theory will find this to be a highly creative piece which takes a solid step towards redefining the relationship between the religious and the political.

About the Reviewer(s): 

R. W. Mittendorf is a doctoral candidate in the philosophy of religion program at the Claremont Graduate University.

Date of Review: 
March 30, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Daniel D. Miller is assistant professor of religion and philosophy at Landmark College and has also taught at Mount Allison University. His work has appeared in Political Theology and Method and Theory in the Study of Religion; this is his first book.


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