U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Vincent Lloyd and Elliot A. Ratzman, ed. SECULAR FAITH (2011)

One of my colleagues has just published a new book with the rather enigmatic title, Secular Faith, which might interest some of our readers. Coming out of religious studies conversations about the relationship of religion to what some scholars portentiously call “the secular,” Lloyd and Ratzman move in a somewhat different direction. Rather than asking about religion or secularism per se, they ask a series of more puzzling questions: “Is faith a necessary virtue in the contemporary world? May it be, or must it be, detached from religious commitment? What do genealogies of the secular tell us about faith? Does religion need a secular faith?”

I puzzled what all of this meant while I was reading Lloyd and Ratzman’s opening essay, “Secular Faith as Tragic Faith.” The authors begin with a 1949 collection of essays, The God That Failed, which features former communist party members and sympathizers reflecting on their faith in and subsequent disappointment with communism, which Richard Crossman suggested was ultimately “a vision of the Kingdom of God on Earth.” Though their God had failed, as many people’s gods have failed, faith in the abstract did not go away. For Lloyd and Ratzman, faith is necessary human state that, drawing upon Arthur Koestler’s essay in The God That Failed, can be exemplified by a man and his beloved. Lloyd and Ratzman ask, “there are plenty of beautiful, charming, intelligent women,” so why do we fall in love with one and not another? Although social scientists could offer a multitude of non-personal reasons, those reasons were not those that the lover would offer. “The lover’s actions are motivated by faith in his beloved, faith in her as an ideal,” Lloyd and Ratzman suggest. “This commitment to an ideal, a pure ideal, is, according to Koestler, the defining feature of faith.” For Lloyd and Ratzman, faith “is connected with our very humanity.”

But they do not mean religious or sectarian faith. Rather, faith for Lloyd and Ratzman is a posture of radical authenticity. In my reading, Lloyd and Ratzman are sort of existentialists. Secular faith is the product of moments in which all the usual rules are suspending and all the options are bad, which is all the time. Drawing upon the political theorist Bonnie Honig, Lloyd and Ratzman argue that “we ought to stop thinking about states of exception, moments when the rules are suspended, as extreme, unusual. Rather, states of exception occur everywhere, every time a decision is made. The notion that there is a rulebook ‘out there,’ ready for easy application to whatever set of circumstances present themselves, is one of the fundamental mystifications of ideology. Each time a decision is made rules are re-interpreted; technicalities are not footnotes, they are the substance of law.” This secular faith then breeds “secular criticism” (a phrase from Edward Said), which involves “a refusal to accept the purported closure of ideological and theological aestheticizing narratives, an acknowledgment of moments of the tragic that reveal those contradictions, and a further commitment to use rhetoric to pursue and publicize those moments of the tragic faith.”

The essays in Secular Faith are somewhat disparate in focus, but they tend either to enact or to analyze moments of this secular faith worked out as secular criticism. Jean Comaroff, David Chidester, and Michael Saler are the best known of the contributors, but good essays abound. My favorite essay comes from Edward J. Blum, who continues his analysis of W.E.B. Du Bois, a man that many consider a secularist but who wrote prayers, seemed obsessed with Jesus, reflected on the faiths of black people and their white oppressors, and, of course, became a communist. “If Du Bois was a secular figure who placed faith in secularism,” Blum writes, “then secularists write prayers, craft new tales of Jesus, and morally reflect on history. If secularism is an effort to banish faith to the private sphere, to minimize religious confrontation in public, or to separate religion from social problems, then Du Bois was a terrible secularist. But if we view the time period in which he lived as a moment when modernity left the relationships between faith, religion, society, and politics to be confused, jumbled, and unable to be categorized, then Du Bois’s writings make sense.” Blum’s essay–along with Joshua Dubler’s smashing essay on Harry Theriault, a prisoner in Atlanta and Texas who called himself the Bishop of Tellus while exposing the bad faith of the prison system–showed me the power of drawing upon the critical theory of religion in trying to make sense of a wide range of subjects that seem at once religious and secular.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I don’t think that expressions of secular faith are that unusual. Rather, they are quite common.

    Since the 1960s, intellectuals have questioned the same, seemingly unquestioned faith in “progress” that buttressed both liberalism and Marxism alike for 100 or more years prior. And a great many of those in traditional sects have critiqued the Progressive faith in science (i.e. Dewey’s faith) since the 1920s. Indeed, it is in questioning science and progress that strange political alliances have formed in the United States since the 1970s.

    We can also critique the cross-party faith in “freedom” expressed by so many Republicans and Democrats alike since World War II—i.e. Truman and his doctrine, Vietnam and LBJ, Bush II and Iraq, etc.

    Finally, the widespread faith in mass democracy expressed by mid-century liberals—again both Republican and Democrat in the U.S., and in many Western countries—is another secular institution that has come into question. See Ben Alpers research on Leo Strauss, et al, for more on that. Indeed, doubts about the idea of mass democracy have driven recent promoters of states’ rights/secessionists (e.g. Rick Perry) and the principle of subsidiary (expressed extremely) in Catholic intellectual circles.

    Indeed, the objects of my research—Adler, Hutchins, and their community of discourse—expressed a strong faith in representative democracy, so much so that they were willing to sacrifice their reputations on the viability of world federal government.

    So these “great ideas”—meaning progress, science, freedom, and democracy—all comprise objects of secular faith and that have resulted in ritualistic civil religious invocations over the past 150 years or so.

    But maybe these examples miss the point of the book? Please correct me here if I’m wrong. – TL

  2. Two more things:

    1. Many promoters of the ideas I posed above saw their faith as “posture[s] of radical authenticity.”

    2. The idea of progress probably best encapsulates an object of faith shared by secular peoples and people of (Christian) faith alike.

  3. I am a little hung up on the notion that some kind of faith is endemic to the human condition, that all people have some kind of faith. Is this really true? Might this be a western thing? Might this be different in different parts of the world? Are there people without any faith? What would the opposite of faith be? Fatalism? Is there (can there be) an opposite to all faith?

    Just curious as I cannot think of anything in which I have faith, I find everything just kind of happens and that there is a great deal of subjectivity in life but I don’t know that I have anything in my life I would call faith. Perhaps I am wrong, or perhaps I misunderstand what faith really is.

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