Professor, Asian Languages and Cultures

Exploring Consciousness II: The Secular/Religious Dichotomy and Consciousness Studies

Alex Prosi (AP): So for this next exchange (see our first post here!), I think it would be appropriate to begin bridging two seemingly disparate parts of your studies. When we first met, I knew you exclusively for your work on the precarious and fickle divide between the secular and the religious; in fact, it was this specialty that originally drove me to take more of your classes. It took me by surprise then when I initially saw your posting for a course focused on exploring consciousness—a subject I initially considered quite apart from your focus. Now, having taken both kinds of courses, I feel there is an intimate link between the two topics but can’t quite flesh it out myself. What bridges these two different topics? Does the secular/religious dichotomy play a role in our approaches to consciousness? Do you address this in your AS409 course, Exploring Consciousness? I think this would be helpful to answer for those looking to expand out their perspective from either one of these starting points, allowing for wider and more relevant connections to our lives.

Arvind-Pal S. Mandair (ASM):  That’s a good question, Alex.  In the 409 course itself I downplay the religion/secular binary as it would overly complicate things. It’s already a challenging course having to learn different ways of approaching the question of consciousness across disciplines, cultures and languages. Adding secularity to the mix would, I think, push students to the limit, especially if they’re exploring these ideas for the first time.

Having said that, secularity or secular consciousness is also the elephant in the room—which is why I said it’s a good question. Secularity or secular consciousness (which for me is simply another way of referring to the mode of thought which separates ‘religion’ from the secular) tends to suck the oxygen out of any conversation about the nature of consciousness, by pretending to be the oxygen that we’re supposed to breathe each time we talk about consciousness. The philosopher Charles Taylor refers to secular consciousness as the “Immanent Frame”. But I see it as a conceptual prison within which we (teacher and students) are expected to carry out our discussions about consciousness.  So my constant struggle in almost every class is to push back its framework so that it doesn’t disrupt what’s important about 409.

AP:  So you just discussed how secularity is often portrayed as the “oxygen” we’re supposed to breathe as we enter dialogue, that some refer to it as the “Immanent Frame” by which we should begin dialogue. However, you’re pushing back on this quite significantly if I’m understanding correctly. Why are you pushing back on this axiom that many scholars use in their work? And how does this directly relate back to consciousness?

ASM:  Well the reason is that what we ordinarily refer to as secularity and secularism are in fact part of a series of historical events that fundamentally reshaped the understanding of consciousness in the West, or more specifically Europe. We normally think of secularity as part of the political narrative of European modernity, Enlightenment,  and the concomitant split between Church and State. That’s certainly true, but what is not often recognized is that this political shift which transferred power and popular loyalty from the Catholic Church to the modern European state, is accompanied by a fundamental shift in the nature of consciousness (as it’s understood in Europe at the time). There are at least three major components to this shift, which I have described in much more detail in an article I co-wrote: “Modernity, Religion-Making and the Postsecular” (in the book Secularism and Religion Making, New York: Oxford University Press, eds. Markus Dressler and Arvind Mandair). The three components are all theologico-philosophical in nature and are put into effect by important figures in European philosophical theology: Luther, Kant and Hegel.

First, Luther’s invention of the divided self, that is, the form of consciousness that separates itself from itself. Second, Kant’s discovery of the mechanisms of the human imaginary and his demarcation of critical thinking under the purview of the law of reason. One consequence of this is that any object of thought must separate itself from itself; in the case of religion this imperative to separate itself from itself constitutes its secularization. Through this mode of secularization the sanctity of religion is replaced by the sanctity of critique, which itself becomes inviolable. And thirdly, Hegel’s incorporation and development of these ideas into a comprehensive comparative schema for organizing the ever-growing knowledge about other cultures in terms of the historical transition between religion(s), secularity, and the postsecular. It is with Hegel that the notion of historical difference becomes integral to the determination of the other. Hegel’s peculiar genius was to integrate the possibility and definition of critique with the notion of historical difference. That is to say, traditions can be defined as critical if from their very beginnings they are able to contest their own origins, separate themselves from themselves (= secularize). The degree to which a culture can make this self-separation at its origins not only defines history (and secularity) but also determines the degree to which it is different from other traditions and cultures (Mandair and Dressler 2011, p. 7).

Of course, Luther, Kant and Hegel are part of a much bigger story that is told over and again by European philosophers, political theorists and theologians about the emergence of secularity and the Western European notion of self. But what’s important about these three figures is not only the philosophical and socio-religious continuity between them (ethnically they were Germans and religiously they were Protestant), but that their philosophical theology gives rise to an understanding of the human self as enlightened becauseit has broken with Catholicism, where this break is not just an external political shift but more importantly, an internal shift in the nature of human consciousness. Basically they redefine what it is to be human in terms of a consciousness that is reflective and (allegedly) aware of itself. A sign of this ‘new’ or modern self-conscious is self-aware’  is its ability to separate itself from itself—it is fundamentally split. In this self-separation consists its freedom, its capacity to break with an all encompassing consciousness from which it had sprung.

Of-course it’s worth remembering that in the non-Western traditions we study in this course (Sikh, Kashmir Saivism, Buddhist) any self-awareness that is based on a fundamental splitting as described above, is not true self-awareness, nor is it free in any way. In fact the opposite is the case. Split consciousness implies dualism, and dualism implies bondage rather than freedom.

To return to the Western narrative, this split consciousness, secular consciousness, designates itself as the standpoint of reality and regards the holistic consciousness that came before it as primitive, or religious, which in turn is designated as the realm of illusion. Secularity occupies the present and is distanced from the past. In other words, to be self-conscious is to be able to distance oneself from the past, and this act by which the self distances the present from the past effectively becomes central to the modern practice of history. So secular consciousness is also historical consciousness. 

Clearly there is a lot going on here and it’s difficult to encapsulate it in a short blog such as this, so let me try and focus on the key point, which is that the birth of secularity is intrinsically bound to the development of the modern Western self. By the late 19th century, self consciousness becomes designated as a universal form of consciousness—in fact the only consciousness worth speaking of. In short, consciousness in mainstream Western thought is really the story of the ego and how it becomes the dominant psychic structure that rules over (by possessing) itself, the rest of the world, life and ‘God’. Freudian psychoanalysis is perhaps the best example of such thought.

AP:  Right, but how does this essentially European understanding of consciousness as self-consciousness become universal?

ASM: Well, that is perhaps the most insidious aspect of secularity and secular consciousness. The answer is language. Secular consciousness embeds itself into ordinary language, the language of common sense, of everyday discourse which we’re supposed to assume is a neutral medium through which self-consciousness expresses itself. And because language itself is assumed to reflect the natural rationality of the world, it is assumed to be a neutral medium that everyone with a rational mindset can assent to. Our everyday language simply reflects what is “out there” – in which case your mind is operating rationally. Basically it’s the narrative about self-consciousness as modern that is embedded into everyday language, it is taught in our educational systems (K-12 through College) and legally implemented by the modern state. And it also follows from all this that secular consciousness is an eternal feature of all other societies everywhere else in the world. If those (non-Western societies) don’t possess this secular consciousness, they are classified as primitive, religious, uncivilized. 

AP: Earlier in this dialogue you used the word “prison” to describe what Charles Taylor called the “Immanent Frame”—I think I’m more apt to agree with you now. What you say here really strikes a chord with me, a chord that echoes the dread in my heart. Growing up in my hometown of Dearborn, I found myself lost when it came to topics of “religion” because I didn’t want to pick a side and thereby (in my mind) imply that another world view could be incorrect or lesser. This anxiety led me to become a self-proclaimed secularist, an imagined position where I could avoid “picking a side” amongst different perspectives—a so-called neutral space. It is only after dissecting this history that I did pick a side, I had not escaped from my framework like I had hoped. 

What I mean to say is that I have direct experience with what you’re explaining here. The way in which secular consciousness, a very specific and historical form of consciousness, controls and hides within the ordinary, tricking folks into thinking it is neutral. It is the very essence of our language and at the axiomatic level of our form of rationality. There is certainly a daunting task implied within your post here: how do we make changes to our current framework of thought and what should those changes even look like? I’m eager to explore this further in the future.