Senses of the Secular Symposium

Co-organisers Justine Esta Ellis and Marek Sullivan report back on the day-symposium Senses of the Secular, held 21 May 2018 at Balliol College, Oxford.


The symposium Senses of the Secular took place on 21 May, at Balliol College, Oxford. Intended as a capstone for a reading group convened during Hilary term 2018, Senses of the Secular provided a platform for graduate students at Oxford to present work on aspects of secularism, secularity, or ‘the secular’, from a range of disciplinary perspectives. The symposium comprised six talks, followed by a keynote from Dr Lois Lee (University of Kent). Subjects ranged from Athenian secularism in the fifth century BCE to the cognitive science of unbelief, and from Jean-Luc Nancy and Kant to the contested genealogy of the notion of right.

Xavier Buxton’s (DPhil Classics) paper ‘States of Fear in Greek Tragedy’ started the event with a sharp critique of Athenian exceptionalism – the persistent view that Athens was an enlightened state untainted by ‘religious’ fear or reverence for gods. This ‘secular’ city of rational inquiry and fearless debate is regularly set against the barbarism of Persia and the primitivism of Sparta. Xavier’s paper took this ‘Enlightenment delusion’ to task, using tragedy to examine the place of religious fear in the Athenian law court, and drawing parallels with Spartan cult of Phobos. In his conclusion, he suggested that what set Athens apart in this respect was not a peculiarly democratic courage, but a peculiarly democratic fear, cultivated among the strong as well as the weak, which guaranteed stability through a kind of mutual vulnerability.

Steven Firmin (DPhil Theology) examined modern retrievals of Augustine’s concept of the saeculum, the period of time between Christ’s resurrection and return in which the earthly and heavenly cities are mixed and intermingled in this world. His paper ‘Augustinian Senses of the Secular: Variations on a Theme’ critiqued the writings of Robert Markus and John Milbank on Augustine, citing Markus’ overemphasis on shared meanings and Milbank’s elision of a distinction between persons and institutions. In his conclusion, Steven advocated for ‘compraxis’, an approach centred on acting jointly, rather than on either commonality or consensus. This, he argued, might provide Christian religious voices a confident place in secular society without being triumphalist.

In her paper, ‘The Anatomy of Unbelief: Cognitive Science of Religion and Secularisation,’ Mari Ovsepyan (DPhil Theology) explored Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR) approaches to nonreligion and unbelief. Emphasising the importance of developing a biocultural theory of religion, which is based on an expanded view of cognition anchored both in the brain and the body, Mari challenged CRS approaches’ strong focus on ‘the absence’ of belief in supernatural agency. Mari argued in her conclusion that CSR approaches reproduce some of the assumptions about religion seen in the secularisation narrative.

Stevan Veljkovic’s (DPhil Theology) paper, ‘Steven Pinker and the Art of Secular Storytelling’, provided a critical comment on Pinker’s recent book Enlightenment Now (2018), with reference to North American pragmatists Richard Rorty, Robert Brandom and Charles Taylor. Rather than take issue with Pinker’s optimism (the usual line of Pinker criticism), Stevan pointed to the fact that Pinker conjoins data-based observation of civilisational improvement with metaphysical storytelling (for example, the Second Law of Thermodynamics as a cornerstone of modern morality) while apparently believing that the latter follows unproblematically from the former. He argued that this logical leap is characteristic of distinctly secular narrative-making, and that it implies an insufficient understanding of historicism and its pervasive legacy.

Nikolaas Deketelaere’s (DPhil Theology) ‘Critique of Secular Reason, or, On a Word that Means Little’ addressed French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s skepticism concerning the secular nature of modern society and thought. Nikolaas pointed out that, although Nancy rejects the idea that we are now ‘secular’, as though secularisation were a meaningful term in the first place, he is equally critical of any attempt to return to religion: as Nietzsche would say, God is very much dead, but the question is how we are to deal with the stench of decay emanating from his corpse. Responding to Nietzsche’s question, Nikolaas offered a critique of secular reason, where critique is understood in the Kantian sense to mean a consideration of how modern reason operates, an examination of reason as it does its work autonomously, freed from religious authority. As Nikolaas showed, the moment at which reason’s supremacy is proclaimed (the modern moment) it is immediately displaced: there is no reason for reason, one can only have faith in reason. As such, both secularism and reason, are—in Nancy’s phrase—‘words that mean little’.

Sean Lau (DPhil Theology) concluded the paper portion of the symposium by identifying a paradox within human rights discourse: Christian theologians such as John Milbank have criticised this discourse for being atheistic or ‘secular’, whereas atheist philosophers like Alain Badiou have alleged that human rights language remains entangled with problematically religious terms. Framed in these opposing ways, human rights discourse suffers from the charges of being simultaneously too ‘secular’ and too ‘religious’. As his paper title ‘Human Rights: The Unwanted Child of Christianity and Secularism?’ suggests, Sean argued that viewing these ambiguities and tensions through the lens of secular studies may help us understand the complicated genealogy of human rights which makes both these charges possible, and how the human rights project might proceed in the future.

Dr Lois Lee’s keynote raised the question of whether it is time to be more critical of ‘critical secularism studies’. Drawing on Prof Cécile Laborde’s recent work, Liberalism’s Religion (2017), Lois began her talk with a challenge to the symposium participants: to disaggregate the concept of the secular. What would happen, her talk asked, if we were to attend to the asymmetrical ways in which current scholarship approaches the constructed categories of the ‘secular’ and the ‘religious’? Does critical secular studies, in other words, reproduce some of the assumptions it seeks to challenge? In response, Lois urged scholars in this emerging area to try separating various areas of the secular in order to consider different possible configurations of the concept. Critical secularism studies, at its core, challenges the classic secularisation narrative –the assumption of religion’s inevitable decline. But, as Lois’ remarks suggested, perhaps the time has come to push critical secularism studies to examine its own preconceptions and explanatory power, and to proliferate our concepts in ways that fulfill the promise of critical arguments to move beyond binary approaches to religion and secular once and for all.

The organisers Justine Ellis and Marek Sullivan wish to thank the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion, and the Faculty of Theology and Religion at Oxford for their generous financial support.


Justine Esta Ellis is a doctoral candidate in the Oxford Faculty of Theology and Religion, where she is an Oriel College Scholar. Her current research focuses on the intersection of religious literacy, secularity, and public policy within US and UK contexts. At Oxford, Justine also works as a researcher on the Saïd Business School ‘Mutuality in Business’ project and is a co-founder of a Secular Studies graduate reading group. She earned an MSt from Oxford and a BA from Barnard College, Columbia University. Prior to beginning doctoral work, she held public speaking and project management roles at several policy and non-profit institutes.

Marek Sullivan is a doctoral candidate and Clarendon Scholar at the University of Oxford. His research focuses on the intellectual history of Modern Europe, with particular attention to secular theorisations of the body, emotion, race, and power in the French Enlightenment. Marek is also a Managing Editor of the Journal of Secularism and Nonreligion, Senior Editor of the Oxonian Review, Assistant Editor of the Oxford Theologian, and Respondents Editor of the Religious Studies Project. He holds an MSt from Oxford and a BA from the University of Bristol.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s