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Why I Am Not a Secularist

2000
Author:

William E. Connolly

Why I Am Not a Secularist

Challenges the limitations of traditional secularism.

In Why I Am Not a Secularist, distinguished political theorist William E. Connolly argues that the secularist’s critique of religion’s influence in American politics, although admirable in its pursuit of freedom and diversity, too often undercuts these goals through its narrow and intolerant understandings of public reason. In response, he crafts a new model of public life that more accurately reflects the needs of contemporary politics.

This is a first-rate book by one of the most creative political theorists in the country. Why I Am Not a Secularist is powerful and original.

Stephen White, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Religion’s influence in American politics is obvious in recent debates about school prayer, abortion, and homosexuality, as well as in the success of grassroots religious organizations in mobilizing voters. Many liberal secularists decry this trend, rejecting any interaction between politics and religion. But in Why I Am Not a Secularist, distinguished political theorist William E. Connolly argues that secularism, although admirable in its pursuit of freedom and diversity, too often undercuts these goals through its narrow and intolerant understandings of public reason. In response, he crafts a new model of public life that more accurately reflects the needs of contemporary politics.

Connolly first shows how the secular division between public and private life conceals the vital role of “the visceral register” in public life itself. Then, while elaborating an ethos of engagement that appreciates this element, he examines capital punishment, the War on Drugs, the liberal idea of the nation, the public role of atheism, and the right to die. The traditional formulations of secularism, Connolly contends, underestimate the vitality and complexity of real-life political judgments. At its best, secularism remains immodest in its claim to provide the authoritative basis for public reason; at its worst, it overlooks possibilities for selective collaboration between religious and nonreligious perspectives in politics.

To correct these limitations, Connolly advances a bold new vision of public diversity that acknowledges questions about its own ideology, incorporates a wider variety of ethical views, and honors the desire of believers and nonbelievers alike to represent their faiths openly in the civic forum. Throughout this provocative volume, Connolly presents convincing evidence of the need to refashion secularism to foster a more responsive public life and a more generous political culture.

Why I Am Not a Secularist

William E. Connolly is professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of numerous books including The Terms of Political Discourse (1983; winner of the 1999 Lippincott Award from the American Political Science Association), Identity\Difference (1991), and The Ethos of Pluralization (Minnesota, 1995).

Why I Am Not a Secularist

This is a first-rate book by one of the most creative political theorists in the country. Why I Am Not a Secularist is powerful and original.

Stephen White, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

There is something profoundly moving about Connolly's effort to rethink the secularism that formed him, to call into question progressive shibboleths that have long appeared as the only possible counters to forces of reaction and conservatism, and to confront problems such as capital punishment and the phenomenon of evil without reliance on the handmaidens of secular rationalism, cynicism, or humanism. Along the way, Connolly offers some of the finest critiques of Habermas and Rawls yet penned, as well as brilliant diagnoses of contemporary political cultural formations. This is a work of political theory that is brave, soulful, and profound. It is also devastatingly smart, funny, politically incisive and written in an appealing style that is at once conversational and rigorous.

Wendy Brown, University of California, Santa Cruz

William Connolly is one of the subtlest, boldest and most intellectually fertile political/moral theorists now writing in the United States. His new book, Why I Am Not a Secularist, is an incisive critique of dogmatic rationalism, an immensely valuable analysis of the psycho-social dynamics of ‘identity politics’—both local and global-and a compelling argument for a strenuous and potentially self-transforming ethics of ‘critical engagement’ as appropriate to the project of a genuinely pluralistic society.

Barbara Herrnstein Smith, author of Belief and Resistance: Dynamics of Contemporary Intellectual Controversy (or Braxton Craven Professor of Comparative Literature and English, Duke University)

There’s lots to disagree with in this book, but it does help to show how shallow and inconsistent much talk about secularism is today. Connolly demonstrates how far we still have to go to understand what it means to live in a democratic society, and some of his ideas will help us come to grips with these vital and unresolved issues.

Charles Taylor, McGill University

This is the latest in a series of works in which Connolly has been interrogating liberalism and its fellow travelers. Drawing on thinkers such as Nietzsche, Foucault, Deleuze, and Arendt, he has become one of liberalism’s deepest and most original critics today. And he is one of liberalism’s most valuable critics, in part because his own intellectual journey begins with the experiences and preoccupations that led to liberalism.

American Political Science Review

Connolly argues that although secularism has made great contributions to the promotion of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and the acceptance of diversity, its response to contentious public issues has been dogmatic and exclusionary. He believes that in dealing with controversial issues such as the death penalty, the right to die, and the war on drugs, secularism has failed to recognize the complexity of public views because it has excluded religious and theistic viewpoints. In doing so, he claims that it has ignored an opportunity to create public consensus. He argues further that the narrowness of the secularist vision has helped to increase support for the death penalty, which he himself opposes.

Library Journal

Connolly is not a secularist because he seeks to defend a position based on appreciation for policies of economic and educational inclusion affirming increased equality, contingency, intracultural respect, and the ‘politics of becoming.’ His projected multicultural, pluralistic community would replace a republican nation governed by a single conception of the common good derived from Christian cultural sources. He lauds the political virtues of critical responsiveness, agnostic respect, and studied indifference in relations between independent constituencies. Connolly undertook his mission because liberals have ‘ceded much of the terrains of micropolitics to the Christian right.’ He responds to William Bennet’s conservatism with a politics of cultural contingencies, pluralization of culture, and a recognition of ambivalence. The author projects an ideal, multidimensional pluralism in which various ethnic, social, religious, and faith groups seek space in a globalized, denaitionized universe.

Choice

William E. Connolly has articulated a powerful case for a pluralist ethos that is respectful of the essential contestability of social reality and cultivates a generous and forbearing attitude towards political and philosophical differences among various collectivities. A closely argued and elegant work.

Theory and Event

This book deserves careful consideration.

Journal of Church and State