Religion after Secularization in Australia

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Timothy Stanley
  • New York, NY: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , September
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


An ambiguity troubles the question of the “post(-)secular.” Like (post-)modernity, (post-)secularism has been intended in both an empirical and a theoretical sense. The first involves claims about changes in and to “religion” in the world; the second refers to scholars’ perceptions of those changes. This very welcome and interdisciplinary volume addresses both sides of the question. It presents, first, a variety of Australian perspectives on the past and possible futures of secularization. It offers, in addition, a theoretical contribution to questions of secularism, democracy, and modernity through a re-examination of key debates in philosophy, theology, and social theory.

The volume’s two-part structure reflects this dual contribution. Part one, “The Australian Case,” explores secularization in “Australia’s unique political culture” (vii). The first two chapters examine how religious dynamics shaped the making and writing of Australia’s “secular” history. Stephen A. Chavura and Ian Tregenza trace the influence of liberal, reformist Christianity on the development of “state secularism” in Australia from 1788 to 1945. Their chief concern is to contest conventional narratives about secularization by uncovering its Christian liberal provenance. Yet their analysis also uncovers how state support for “nonsectarian” religion in Australia was tethered to a broader civilizing mission. The targets of this mission were not only white convicts, who form the focus of this chapter, but also indigenous peoples, who are strikingly absent in this account. While Chavura and Tregenza delineate liberal Christianity’s influence on Australia’s “secular” political and educational system, Hilary M. Carey highlights the religious dimensions of Australian historiography. She argues that “convictism”—the positive view of Australia’s convict past as foundational to its culture of mateship and anti-authoritarianism—is a myth originating with “sectarian” Catholic opponents of Britain’s convict transportation system. Carey’s otherwise incisive critique of the Australian national legend is itself undercut by the author’s own rehearsal of a “nonsectarian” narrative, which casts Catholics as the makers of historical myths that “nonsectarian” historians dispel (42). Both chapters’ discussions of “nonsectarianism” evoke parallels with nineteenth-century U.S. discourses, which invariably marked Catholics as “sectarian.”

Turning towards more recent historical developments, Paul Babie and Kathleen McPhillips examine how sociolegal interactions produce and are produced by the category of “religion.” By tracing the uncertain trajectories of religious “freedom” in the courts, Babie uncovers “religion” as both inadequate to and generative of social realities. This includes, of course, the state’s power to define “religion” itself. This power is crucial, as McPhillips underscores, because deciding who and what counts as “religious” is bound up with the reproduction and naturalization of patriarchy. McPhillips examines the “sexularism” of the Australian state, showing how religious freedom laws enable otherwise illegal forms of gender-based discrimination in the neoliberal context. The connections between neoliberal consumer capitalism and changing religious contexts are also apparent in Marion Maddox’s analysis of the conservative charismatic Christian Outreach Center.  

While all of these chapters address the processes by which authentic “religion” is distinguished from its others, Holly Randell-Moon offers an especially incisive critique of secularism’s hegemonic function in Australia. Contrasting political and media representations of Aboriginal “welcome-to-country” ceremonies with those of the British royal family’s Australian tours, Randell-Moon interrogates the ideological function of the “secular.” That is, she asks how discourses of the “secular” present a particular, exclusive and diasporic social group—in this case, Anglo-Australians—as historically transcendent, universally inclusive, and sovereign in the settler colonial context. Colonial epistemologies, as Randell-Moon emphasizes, produce the “secular contract” as voluntaristic and raceless in order to obscure how violence and racism constitute it. Her analysis contests the peripheralization of race in theories of secularization, and challenges scholars to reflect on their own complicity in the ongoing dispossession of settler colonialism.

These case studies do much to unsettle the mythical linking of Australian secularism with popular irreverence, which continues to be celebrated in a country where “bush Baptist” is affectionate slang for an atheist, and where the first Google result for “religion” is a Wikipedia article on “irreligion.” While the case for Australia’s “uniqueness” is not entirely clear, these chapters offer a promising basis for further comparative work in Australia and beyond. Although not always explicitly stated, the findings here suggest the possibility of re-examining settler colonialism as central to secularization processes not only in the colonies, but in the heart of empire. This finding also foregrounds the intimate ties between religion and the secular, on the one hand, and race, indigeneity, and economy, on the other.

Part two, “After Secularization,” offers further critical insights into the normative and political dimensions of “secularization.” While these chapters bear little explicit connection to the preceding section—or, indeed, to the Australian context—they provide a variety of hermeneutic tools which cast light on the earlier case studies.

Matthew Chrulew’s excellent chapter recalls the Nietzschean inspiration of Michel Foucault’s genealogical project in order to highlight Christianity as a central problematic in his work. Chrulew rightly cautions against the temptations of a secular humanism—or, indeed, a humanist “postsecularism.” He reminds us that the “transvaluation of all values” implied not the death of God but the death of “Man”—the sovereign subject that remains as the specter of Christian morality in the (post-)secular present. Roland Boer’s fascinating chapter traces the theological genealogy of Lenin’s vision of “socialist democracy” as well as his distinction between “formal” and “real” freedom. The third chapter, by Michael Hoelzl, interprets contemporary manifestations of civil disobedience as a revival of aequitas, or the virtue of moral deviation from the law. Timothy Stanley’s chapter, lastly, takes up Paul Ricoeur’s critique of Jürgen Habermas’s “depth hermeneutics.” Following Ricoeur, Stanley interprets Habermas’s project as “utopic” in the literal sense of occupying an impossible position “outside” power, history, and ideology. The task of postsecular democracy is not, as Habermas insists, the integration of religious voices into a public sphere that must remain secular. Rather, Stanley argues, the challenge is to develop a hermeneutics of utopia capable of shattering present ideologies.

Stanley’s Ricoeurain critique of Habermas sheds light on why this volume itself resists “integrating” the diverse and at times conflicting voices that it includes. The work’s task, as Stanley notes, is neither to “settle” the question of religion and the (post-)secular, nor to predict their futures. Rather, it presents a welcome invitation to wade patiently through the unsettling muddiness of the debate itself, relinquishing any imminent prospect of coming unstuck. The work addresses itself, therefore, not to a bounded “postsecular” but to the uncertain space that comes “after secularization” in academic theory.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Stephanie Wright is a PhD student at University of California Santa Barbara who specializes in Islam and gender.

Date of Review: 
May 19, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Timothy Stanley is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Newcastle, Australia, where he teaches and researches topics in philosophy of religion. He has written on religion in the public sphere, the religious nature of technology, and the question of metaphysics and theology. He led the two year funded research project on Religion in Political Life based at the University of Newcastle, which was the impetus for the collection of essays in this book.


Joseph Blankholm

Thanks for the great review. You hint at what sounds like an absence of attention to the presence of anti- and non-religiosity in your "popular irreverence" pagraph, which would be a lived secular presence, or what it is that ostensibly secular people do in fact affirm, tacitly or avowedly. In other words, is lived secularism in Australia present in the volume, or is the focus solely on secularization theory and Asadian, religion-making secularism?


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