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The Religion Factor is self-consciously a post-secular blog. But what exactly is post-secular? In our first two installments, we explore this relatively new idea as both a description of and a response to the conditions of 21st century society.

The contemporary world is in crisis. Multiple financial meltdowns, widespread food shortages and impending environmental catastrophes are only a few of the immense challenges confronting the 21st century global community.

At the same time, there seems to be growing cynicism about dominant forms of politics. The most recent elections in Australia, the UK and the Netherlands all resulted in minority governments. Hopes for real change in the late 2000s, evident around the election of Barack Obama and the 2009 COP15 in ‘Hopenhagen’, have been quashed by the realities of political systems bogged down in opinion polls, party politics and neoliberal market economics. People are in search of real alternatives – and so far they have yet to find them.

It is in this context of profound disillusionment and crisis that the post-secular has emerged as one possible way forward.

Like ‘secular’, I think it is possible to consider ‘post-secular’ as both a description of what is and a prescription for what could or should be. As a description of what is, post-secular describes an emerging social condition – that neither belief nor unbelief is dominant in society any more. In the Middle Ages, religion was everywhere. Post-Enlightenment, especially in the 20th Century, religion was almost nowhere (or so it was assumed). In the early 21st century, this situation again seems to be changing. It is now acceptable to believe, to not believe, to be interested in religious and spiritual issues or to not care about them at all. People don’t have to hide whether they do or don’t believe in order for others to take them and their viewpoints seriously. What is emerging now is a healthy and humble self-reflexivity that recognizes the value alongside the fallibility of various perspectives on the ‘meaning of life’.

The emergence of the post-secular means that traditional binary oppositions such as secular/religious, public/private, history/progress, reason/emotion are beginning to break down. We are recognizing that perhaps it is not so easy to neatly and clearly separate domains of human existence that are so intimately connected, and also perhaps that it is not entirely necessary to do so. Instead of being faced with an either/or choice – something is either religious or secular, public or private, rational or emotional, and cannot ever be both – it is now possible to see elements of life, society and politics as both religious and secular, without any seeming contradiction. It may even be possible to have public debate that incorporates both secular and religious arguments.

This is how I think post-secular operates in its descriptive form. Yet post-secular also operates as a prescriptive term, offering a suggestion for how we should respond to these shifting realities of public life in the early 21st century. I’ll explore the prescriptive dimensions of the post-secular in Part II of this post.

Erin Wilson is Director of the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain, Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Groningen.

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