Talal Asad explains the marginalization of religion in liberal democracies by invoking the modern state's desire to control. This paper argues that, in the Anglophone world, self-conscious secularism played little or no part in the secularization of public life. The expansion of the secular sphere was primarily an unintended consequence of actions by religious impositionists. Far from leading the promotion of the secular, the state had to be pressed by the demands of religious minorities to reduce the powers of established religion. The state provision of secular social services was usually a reaction to the inability of competing religious organizations to continue their provision. As this review of church–state relations in the UK, USA, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand shows, the reduction in the social power of religion owed more to the failure of Christians to agree than to a deliberately secularizing state.
An Empirical Critique of Asad
This article raises questions about the study of secularism, from an anthropological perspective. It begins by discussing some general references in the literature on secularism and its counterpart in Latin languages, “laicity”. It then discusses the approach for defining secularism that privileges models and principles, and advocates for an analysis of the devices that produce forms of regulating the religious. The study of configurations of secularism is the outcome of a consideration of all these elements (models, principles, and devices), and has a strategic focus on ways of defining, delimiting, and managing the religious. Three cases are examined in order to illustrate this approach: France, the United States, and Brazil.