Secular Rationality/Secular Affects

This post was written by Donovan Schaefer

Whatever the secular is, it’s wrapped up with questions about how we think, how we know, how we reason, how we classify, stratify, and differentiate. In that sense, the secular is connected to the history of European modernity and the European Enlightenment—the great movement, in Kant’s words, of Sapere aude: “Dare to know.”[1]

In the Enlightenment’s own grammar, the operation of reasoning is also the operation of detachment from feeling. As the inheritors of the Enlightenment tradition, scholars often take it for granted that thinking and feeling are separate, that rationality is the process of purifying thought of emotional residue. (Rival traditions like romanticism use the same coordinates—only they flip the valence, privileging feeling, which remains the antonym of thought.) But what if the binary split between thinking and feeling is itself a historical construct—and one desperately in need of reexamination? What if rethinking the secular means rethinking the form and syntax of “rationality” itself?

My book Wild Experiment: Feeling Science and Secularism after Darwin explores this proposition from a range of perspectives: secularism studies, science and technology studies, affect theory, psychology, and philosophy. The bookthen applies this framework to a sequence of events in the history of “scientific secularism”—moments when the separation of religion and nonreligion (often with an eye to the supersession of the former by the latter) was driven by new developments in the natural sciences, especially evolutionary biology.

What does secularism studies have to say about the relationship between thinking and feeling? Charles Taylor’s work (taking cues from the phenomenological tradition) considers secular rationality not as the emergence of an unmarked universal truth rising above the convoluted babble of religion—what he calls the subtraction story[2]—but in actuality “a new shape to the experience which prompts and is defined by belief.”[3] Talal Asad, similarly, argues that we need to think of the secular as a set of “behaviors, knowledges, and sensibilities” that coalesce not as an inevitable or natural consequence of the application of reason to life, but as differentiated “formations of the secular” tinged by histories, dispositions, and embodied practices.[4] In the work of these thinkers, what we believe or disbelieve is not just a set of detached conceptual coordinates, but a way of orchestrating the experiential architecture of life. And just as importantly, for Asad, our practices of knowledge-making and interpretation emerge from the matrix of our bodily dispositions.[5] Rationality and affect form a single seamless garment.

Despite this, both Asad and Taylor sometimes lapse into the Enlightenment’s own conceptual framing, opening the door to a reaffirmation of the “disenchantment” of the world in modernity.[6] Following scholars like Jane Bennett, William Connolly, Jason Josephson-Storm, and George Levine, Wild Experiment argues that the disenchantment thesis is mistaken, but with a twist: my contention is that Max Weber, in correlating science and “disenchantment,” never intended for disenchantment to be understood as the obliteration of feeling.

Weber’s “disenchantment” (Entzauberung in German—literally “demagification”) was about the intellectual situation of modernity in which we feel like we can, in principle, answer any question about the world around us. Nothing is beyond the probing of the human intellect.[7] Although this seems to resonate with the notion that thinking is about the eradication of feeling, this misses the thrust of Weber’s use of the word. When Weber introduces disenchantment in “Science as a Vocation,” he doesn’t assert that academic inquiry is passionless[8]; quite the opposite, he’s expressly interested in how science serves as a calling—a Beruf—the same term he used to organize his earlier inquiries into the drivers of Protestantism. This is why “Science as a Vocation” starts with Weber’s story of his students relentlessly insisting—against his advice!—on pursuing the life of the mind. Even though science, he affirms, cannot answer big questions about the “meaning” of life, it is nonetheless driven by emotion—by scholars “brood[ing] at our desks and search[ing] for answers with passionate devotion.”[9]

Similar motifs crop up in contemporary studies of the secular. In works like Darwin Loves You and The Joy of Secularism, George Levinehighlights the role of feeling in the production of scientific knowledge.[10] In her essay “Religious Reason and Secular Affect,” Saba Mahmood brilliantly demonstrates that even though secular rationality presents itself as defined by detachment from emotion, its fascination with critical aloofness rises to the level of an affective fixation—a fixation that leads to the characteristic blind spots of “religious freedom” in secularist legal reasoning. Even Foucault, in his late work, retools his early formula power-knowledge as power-knowledge-pleasure: “The medical examination, the psychiatric investigation, the pedagogical report, and family controls may have the over-all and apparent objective of saying no to all wayward or unproductive sexualities,” he writes in History of Sexuality, Vol. I (in French La volonté de savoir, or “Will to Knowledge”), “but the fact is that they function as mechanisms with a double impetus: pleasure and power.”[11]

“Daring to know”—and “disenchantment” itself—are rationality elevated to heroic adventure, not dim button-pushing. “An inner devotion to the task,” Weber declares, “and that alone, should lift the scientist to the height and dignity of the subject he pretends to serve.”[12] And like all heroic mythologies, the exhilaration of secular rationality carries with it a tendency to self-delusion—especially when it denies its own affective determination.

Critical studies of the secular, then, have always been interested in disrupting the autonomy of secular rationality. Scholars like Lois Lee, William Mazzarella, John Modern, Ann Pellegrini, Marek Sullivan, Monique Scheer, Nadia Fadil, and Birgitte Schepelern Johansen all indicate that in answering the question of whether there is a “secular body”[13] we can’t rule out the domain of secular feelings. The secular body—like the religious body—is a thinking body. And the interrelationships of thinking and feeling mean that the way we think about the world shapes how we feel about it. The profile of the secular body lies not just in how it thinks, but how it feels.


[1] Kant, Immanuel. “What Is Enlightenment?” Smith, Mary C., trans.

[2] Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007, 22.

[3] Ibid., 20.

[4] Asad, Talal. Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003, 25.

[5] Ibid., 10.

[6] Robbins, Bruce. “Enchantment? No, thank you!” In: Levine, George, ed. The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011, 89. Asad, Talal. Secular Translations: Nation-State, Modern Self, and Calculative Reason. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2018, 150.

[7] Weber, Max. “Science as a Vocation.” In: From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. Gerth, H.H. and C. Wright Mills, ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1946, 139.

[8] Weber includes all forms of scholarship, including his own, under the umbrella term “science.”

[9] Ibid., 136. This sets up an interesting conversation with Taylor’s essay “Reason, Faith, and Meaning” (in: Coakley, Sarah, ed., Faith, Rationality, and the Passions, Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012: 13–28) in which Taylor does seem to recognize that there are affective dimensions to philosophical reasoning, though only in its mode of existential reflection.

[10] Levine, George. Darwin Loves You: Natural Selection and the Re-enchantment of the World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006; Levine, George. “Introduction.” In: Levine, George, ed. The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011: 1-23.

[11] Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: Volume One. Hurley, Robert, trans. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1990, 45.

[12] Weber, “Science as a Vocation,” 137.

[13] See: Hirschkind, Charles. “Is There a Secular Body?” Cultural Anthropology 26.4 (2011): 633-647.

Donovan Schaefer is an assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. His most recent book, Wild Experiment: Feeling Science and Secularism after Darwin (Duke University Press, 2022), argues for a reconsideration of the relationship between feeling and rationality and explores the implications of this shift for topics like science, racism, conspiracy theory, and secularism. He has taught at Oxford University, Haverford College, Le Moyne College, and Syracuse University.


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