The Oxford Handbook of Secularism

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Phil Zuckerman, John R. Shook
Oxford Handbooks
  • London, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , January
     760 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In a major endeavour, Phil Zuckerman and John Shook have provided a worthy and hefty survey of attitudes to and issues concerning secularism in many of its varied forms. Given the place of this review within the AAR’s Reading Religion forum, it is perhaps natural to give more time to discussion of what is said about religion and its contested relationships with secularism than every aspect of secular studies. Indeed, given the size and magnitude of the volume, any review will inevitably be partial in what is selected.

The book is divided into six parts and contains forty-three chapters. There is also an initial solid and very helpful twenty-page introduction on “The Study of Secularism” by the editors. The opening section of six chapters entitled “Identifying the Secular, Secularity, Secularization, and Secularism” is a good overview of some major themes, with the first chapter addressing genealogy, and “The Imagined War between Secularism and Religion” being the theme of another by Mark Jurgensmeyer. There is a fair engagement with religion here, with another chapter by Steve Bruce pushing the continued relevance of the secularization thesis. Also given due weight is political secularism, a theme covered in several later sections. Part 2 covers “Secular Governments” and gives chapters on the Anglo-American context, France, Turkey, Israel, Islam, Sub-Saharan Africa, India, the Soviet Union and “its Aftermath,” and China/ Taiwan. All in all, this provides good global coverage that also takes in many of the contested ways that different religious perspectives play into particular situations.

While the first two sections are fairly global (though in historical coverage [naturally?], there is a strong European emphasis), later sections are often much more focused on Europe and/ or America. This appears in Part 3 on “Contesting Political Secularism” which is quite Eurocentric. Its seven chapters are, however, heavily focused on contestations with religion and challenges to secularism in various ways, looking at multiculturalism and challenges in the public sphere amongst other areas. Part 4, “Politics of Church and State,” meanwhile leans heavily to the US, with four of seven chapters covering that country. The other three focus on Europe or both Europe and the US. Religion makes a particular appearance in the chapter on “Secular Education and Religion,” which provides a reasonable overview given the wide scope.

Part Five addresses “Secularity and Society” and provides seven chapters covering quite a diverse range of issues. The first of these on “Varieties of Secular Experience” provides an interesting exploration of what is meant by “secular” and how it is constructed, taking an initial look first at whether “ancestor worship” in African religions can be described as “secular” or not. It then surveys the “secular experience” in Japan, amongst Jews and Muslims, and also in vernacular religion. Further chapters discuss ways of living in secularism, or as a secular way of being, which seem inevitably to need some form of contrast with a construction of “religion.” The final part addresses “Morality and Secular Ethics.” A couple of the seven chapters deal with Humanism, while another directly addresses Confucianism as a source of secular thinking/ morality.

This volume is certainly an excellent resource for scholars and students, and given that I am teaching a session on secularism in a couple of weeks I will add some chapters from this to my reading list on the topic. Some of the individual chapters are excellent, and the introduction was most insightful and thought provoking. Others can be patchy, or given the coverage perhaps somewhat lightweight in their overall analysis and description. Nevertheless, a text like this serves it purpose in several ways. One is with overviews of particular topics, another is in providing a broad scope across many related but diverse aspects of the field, and yet another is in opening up some potentially underexplored areas. In all three of these, The Oxford Handbook of Secularism does sterling service, and libraries, students, and seasoned scholars will all find new things to learn, useful reading lists, and insightful surveys and summaries across the pages of this book.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Paul Hedges is associate professor of interreligious studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies of Nanyang Technical University in Singapore.

Date of Review: 
September 14, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Phil Zuckerman is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Program in Secular Studies at Pitzer College. He is co-author (with Frank Pasquale and Luke Galen) of The Nonreligious: Understanding Secular People and Societies (OUP 2016) and author of Faith No More: Why People Reject Religion (OUP 2011).

John R. Shook is Director of Education and Senior Research Fellow, Center for Inquiry and Visiting Assistant Professor of Science Education and Research Associate in Philosophy at the University at Buffalo.


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