Secularism And Its Discontents – On Charting Pathways With A Phenomenology Of Religion, Part 1 (Ludger Hagerdorn and Michael Staudigl)

The following is the introductory article for the Spring 2018 issue (Vol. 17, No. 2) of the Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory.  It is published in two installments.  The whole .pdf version can be found here.  The article was conceived and written with the generous support of two research grants from the Austrian Science Fund (FWF). It was conceived in framework of the project ‘Religion beyond Myth and Enlightenment’ [grant number P 23255], and concluded in the project ‘The Return of Religion as a Challenge for Thinking’ [grant number I 2785].

It was in Vienna where, nearly 90 years ago, Sigmund Freud’s groundbreaking critique of modern civilization appeared.  Civilization and Its Discontents, as it was entitled in the English translation, became one of the 20th century’s seminal books and indeed has significantly shaped the modern worldview and self-understanding.  The discontents—in plural form—about which it speaks can easily be reduced to one single finding: modern man is unhappy.

Unhappiness is the consequence of man’s life within the constraints of society and the enforced renunciation of his instinctual desires.  The original German title Das Unbehagen in der Kultur, literally to be translated as “The unease in culture,” i.e. the uncomfortableness, and unhomeliness of living in the “iron cage” (Weber) of  civilizational constraints, adequately transmits the core issue of this enforced unhappiness.

Even though the striving for happiness and individual fulfillment has become the main task or rather obsession of many in the contemporary world, Freud’s book still maintains its diagnostic validity today.  Neil Postman’s famous slogan “Amusing Ourselves to Death” has set the tone for a debate that offers variation on the same topic: does modern Western civilization, technology, media, etc., help us to facilitate and enrich our lives to the point that we become happier?

However, the unanimous proliferation of this Western “life-form”—be it an aspired ideal or as the hated enemy image par excellence—also generates manifold new constraints, addictions, and discontents, with globalization epitomizing this ambiguous tendency.  Today, without a doubt, its maelstrom-like character, the inequities, insecurities and threats that it engenders, also appear to shake the deeply felt boredom and depression that became structural attributes of our modern individualist social imaginaries.  In the wake of this development, ideas of cosmopolitan justice, inter-religious hospitality, post-growth, and other instruments of long-distance empathy recently have been reanimated or even newly coined, emphasizing the pressing necessity to mediate the ambiguous side-effects of mankind’s latest civilizational achievements.

The abyssal dialectics of technology and the systemically embellished violences of neoliberalism in the age of late globalization clearly attest to this basic ambiguity.[1]  It is becoming more and more intelligible that the pursuit of individual happiness is tied to the structural boredom and indifference of a perfectly wired but socially dysfunctional society. Yet this clearly reveals that the “maker-mind” is caught in the nihilist dream of finally coming to an end—something that our contemporary scientistic visions of human enhancement, “post-humanism,” and algorithmic governance indeed seem to promise—or perhaps, one rather should say, foreshadow.

Yet such ambiguity has arisen not only as a consequence of the various and often spectral processes of so-called “globalization.”  Freud’s earlier view of the civilizational process and the all too palpable negative socialities of its progress already bore the mark of such inherent ambiguity.[2]  What forces man, according to Freud, to fight and suppress his innermost instincts and therefore to become (more or less) unhappy[3] is at the same time also regarded as a necessary step for the taming of the “human beast within,” i.e., a kind of sacrifice is necessary to assure the “good life” in human community. “Outward peace causes permanent inner discord,” would be the shortest characterization of this process.

Transposed onto the societal level, the formula epitomizes an intellectual position that does not reiterate simply a Hobbesian social contractualism, but also perfectly reflects the normative costs it entails for the individual.  Yet this is not all.  With its focus on the lasting discontents of this process, with the deification of man figuring prominently in this regard, it also presages the later movement: it is the sting of the “prosthetic God’s” unhappiness that will undo the relegation of religious sentiments—due to their potential inclination to irrationality, fanaticism, and violence—to the merely private realm, something for which Hobbes already had explicitly argued.

Yet it is exactly in this context that religion has re-entered the game more recently with remarkable verve.  In this regard, one might recall that Freud considered religion the oldest and probably most forceful tool to cope with both the unrelenting and unpredictable tendencies of the civilizational process.  Freud, however, was not the first or only one to describe religion as a cardinal form of the cultural molding of human life-worlds.

This of course is an insight that, for instance, also is integral to classical French social theory and the way its proponents linked the integration of the social bond to the appropriation of mankind’s “affective fragility,”[4] thus ensuring the transformation of dangerous, animalistic affects (perturbatio animi) into the malleable social orchestration of our genuinely human “moral sentiments.”[5]  In this context, the significance of Freud’s assessment derives from its insight into the reflective and expressive potential of religious systems of knowledge.  As most forcefully demonstrated in his last book, Moses and Monotheism, religion indeed works not only as a trigger for, but also is itself the critical expression of such historical developments.

Monotheism, in this sense, due to its sublime potential of abstraction and greater intellectual achievements undoubtedly testifies to a “progress” of mankind—ambivalent as this development may be.[6]  This view of religion as the historical shaper of mankind does not, however, point to a one-way route but is inherently ambiguous.  As to Freud’s conviction, religion’s place in the contemporary world and its future is deeply questionable, if not negligible.  He indeed harbored a clear preference for a more ‘rationalized’ solution concerning the ardent questions of the world as he knew it over the “straight jacket” of old religion.  Yet the question still remains: why does this rationalized approach turn out to produce at least as many “discontents” as the older “mythological” worldview?

Even though Freud insisted on this preference, he still was not willing to relegate religion wholesale to the realm of the mythological. In line with his general reassessment of the human condition, he rather demonstrated a great deal of sensibility to the always possible “return of the repressed,” the extraordinary, or non-everyday as that which innervates the fabrics of social life.  An all too rationalist exclusion of religion would itself call for a critique of reason as neo-mythic.

It is exactly at this intersection that our volume begins and, in a way, continues along the same lines of questioning as Freud.  Yet it proceeds from a different, perhaps even opposite angle.  Its idea is not at all simply to “recover the sacred,”[7] to re-establish, re-gain or retrieve (original intuitions or normative potentials of) religion for (the sake of redeeming) the Western, secularized world.  In our view, such a gesture still amounts to the idea that “the religious” and “the secular” were two clearly demarcated regions and that a broadened brand of reason will in the long run be able to assimilate religion’s yet unthought cognitive potentials[8] and instrumentally integrate its irrationality, obscurity, opacity, etc. into one unified and objective world-view.

Opposing such an integrationist (and hegemonic if not imperialist) vision, our task is not to explore what kind of extrinsic challenge this “return” poses to the so-called “secular worldview”; as if a new rhetorics of the sacred simply were pouring the old wine into new skins, thus reminding us of our still unfinished attempts to reshape reason in the hermeneutic age of manifold difference and diversity.  Following up on Derrida’s hypothesis that the two sources of faith and knowledge intersect in constitutive ways[9], we rather hypothesize that this “return”—the return of indeed novel and unprecedented religious expressions—is related intrinsically to the crisis of secularism and “secular reason.”

Religion, thus viewed, not only returns as the “repressed,” as the “other” of reason, as an “opaque core” or “mysterium.”  Quite to the contrary, religion appears exactly in its transformation and “dispersion” into modern societies that creatively apply religious motifs, symbolisms, and semantics.[10]  And furthermore even “authentic” religious practices for their part adopt and incorporate the assumedly expropriating means of tele-techno-scientific rationalism, finally to the extent of recovering in the very medium of performance and attestation of the “transcendent,” “holy,” etc., religion’s “originary supplement,” to use Derrida’s terms.

More recently, this enigmatic situation has been reflected in terms of the “ambivalence” or “dialectics of secularization.”[11]  As a disconcerting variety of phenomena subsumed under this header indicates, secular or “disengaged reason” has rested self-assured about its liberating, “salvific” qualities and its near “deification of the human.”  And even if it still is highly disputed whether the “return of the religious” amounts to a sociological fact, a philosophical artifact, or a theological phantasma, the disconcerting historical evidence cannot but attract our attention with utmost acuity: secularism is not the clear cut solution to the problems of modern mankind, as many might have hoped, including probably Freud.  The reign of secular reason rather makes us experience unprecedented discontents—this time indeed in the plural form.  Even though many societies have profited enormously from a regulative orientation toward collective emancipation and personal autonomy, deep cutting fault lines constitute their flip side.

This is especially true for the engulfing maelstrom of globalization that appears in the wake of these developments.  A variety of troubling phenomena comes to mind: the revival of “tribalisms” and “identity politics”; the unpredicted return of extreme collective violence and the political usage of cruelty; a “new war on the poor” in neocolonial economic settings; the closely related flight and migration movements that recently came to affect the “old World”; the surge of ever growing precarious classes in the post-industrial states; the hazardous exploitation of natural resources and the creation of deserted wastelands heralding the anthropocene; the affective collapse of whole societies unified solely by the idols of instrumental reason and neoliberal efficacy; or the related spiritual pauperization and “transcendental homelessness” of exhausted ego-start-ups.

All this, to name but some recent developments and problems, attests to a widespread feeling of profound unease that haunts our contemporary situation, self-understanding, and increasingly fragile social imaginaries.  As these disconcerting developments demonstrate, the often referenced “disenchantment of the world”[12] (which has been understood as perhaps the most important step in the history of man’s rational self-empowerment and the related technological conquest of the world) has resulted, as Jean-Luc Nancy put it, in the creation of a “wasteland of sense.”[13]  In this “wasteland,” to quote Nietzsche, a “great hunt” for the “still unexhausted possibilities”[14] of life is unleashed again and again.

Thus viewed, the “great hunt” contributes to the constitution of a “spectacular society”[15] that appears doomed to chase its ever fading sense in a never-ending proliferation of images and performances.  According to Michel Henry, this dynamic embodies the archetype of globalization and results in the systemic reign of a truly life-negating inner “barbarism” that relegates the meaning of life to its ecstatic expressions.[16]  With the related categories of progress, popularity, and commodification converting into sacrosanct social values, the relentless pursuit of the project called modernity reaches its peak, perhaps also its transition point.

The so-called “dialectics of secularization” testifies to this abyssal condition of late modernity:  it points at a condition that compels us to navigate between the Scylla of a disillusioned individualism with its moral sources drying out, and the Charybdis of an “impossible community,” which is repelled for its totalizing dynamics.

Ludger Hagerdorn is a permanent fellow at the Institute für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen (Institute for the Human Sciences) in Vienna, Austria and head of IWM’s Patočka Archive and Program. He studied Philosophy and Slavic Languages in Berlin at the Technical University (TU) and the Free University (FU). He obtained his doctoral degree from TU Berlin in 2002. For many years he has been actively involved in Patočka-Research at the IWM, where he was appointed as a Junior Fellow in 1997 and later became a Research Associate and Research Director. From 2005 to 2009, Hagedorn was holder of the Purkyne-Fellowship awarded by the Czech Academy of Sciences. As a lecturer, he has worked at Gutenberg-University Mainz and, for a number of years, at Charles University in Prague. He has also been a Guest Lecturer at Södertörns Högskola (Stockholm) in 2010 and in recent years at NYU Berlin. 

Michael Staudigl is head of the research group in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Vienna, where he is currently also running two grants. From 2000-2002 he worked as a scientific assistant at a psycho-traumatological ambulance in Vienna.  From 2003-2010 he was a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM), Vienna; since 207 he has been conducting several research grants funded by the FWF, the Austrian Science Fund.  His major areas of competence are phenomenology, especially Husserl and contemporary French phenomenology, phenomenology of the body, non-foundational phenomenologies of the social world, which he altogether seeks to apply productively on questions of violence and, most recently, religious violence.


[1] See e.g. J. L. Stiglitz, Globalization and its Discontents (London and New York: Penguin Books, 2003); A. Appadurai, Fear of Small Numbers. An Essay in the Geography of Anger.(Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2006); J.-L. Nancy, The Creation of the World or Globalization, trans. P. Raffoul and D. Pettigrew (New York: SUNY Press, 2007); N. Chomsky, Global Discontents. Conversations on the Rising Threats to Democracy. Interviews with David Barsamian, New York: Metropolitan Books, 2017).

[2] The same also holds, by the way, for Norbert Elias’ conception of the “process of civilization” which borders, as several among his scholars have shown, also upon related various processes of “de-civilization.” See N. Elias, The Civilizing Process, trans. E. Jephcott  (New York: Urizen Books, 1978); critical against Elias is H.-P. Duerr in his extensive work Der Mythos vom Zivilisationsprozess, 5 vols. (Frankfurt on the Main: Suhrkamp, 1988-2002); see also S. Fletcher “Towards a Theory of Decivilizing Processes.” Amsterdams Sociologisch Tijdschrift 22(2): 283–96; S. Mennell, “Decivilising Processes: Theoretical Significance and Some Lines of Research.” International Sociology 5(2): 205–223.

[3] See S. Freud, Civilization and its Discontents (New York: Norton 1961), 39. The related passage, which is of importance for our overall argument, reads as follows: “Long ago [man] formed an ideal conception of omnipotence and omniscience which he embodied in his gods. To these gods he attributed everything that seemed unattainable to his wishes, or that was forbidden to him. One may say, therefore, that these gods were cultural ideals. Today he has come very close to the attainment of this ideal, he has almost become a god himself. Only, it is true, in the fashion in which ideals are usually attained according to the general judgment of humanity: not completely, in some respects not at all, in others only half way. Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God. When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown on to him and they still give him much trouble at times … Future ages will bring with them new and probably unimaginably great achievements in this field of civilization and will increase man’s likeness to God still more. But in the interests of our investigations, we will not forget that present-day man does not feel happy in his Godlike character.” (Ibid.)

[4] This concept is introduced in P. Ricœur, Fallible Man, trans. C. A. Kelbley (New York: Fordham University Press, 1986).

[5] T. Arppe, Affectivity and the Social Bond. Transcendence, Economy, and Violence in French Social Theory (Farnham: Ashgate, 2015).

[6] This ambivalence becomes focal in accounts that discuss the intrinsic relationship between religion,  esp. monotheism, and violence; cf. ,e.g., J. Assmann, Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1997); P. Sloterdijk, God’s Zeal. The Battle of the Three Monotheisms (New York: Polity, 2007).  That violence can be “inherent” to religious traditions, narrative semantics, and systems of knowledge, but as for its actualization is dependent upon inherently contingent conditions, is demonstrated forcefully by  H. Kippenberg, Violence as Worship: Religious Wars in the Age of Globalization, trnas. B.  McNeil (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011).  Assmann himself has more recently also explicitly opted for such an understanding of the relationship between religion and violence, thus correcting one-sided interpretations of his early work, see J. H. Tück, Monotheismus unter Gewaltverdacht: Zum Gespräch mit Jan Assmann, Freiburg, Vienna: Herder, 2015).

[7] To cite an easily misleading title by C. Taylor, “Recovering the Sacred.” Inquiry 54/2(2007): 113-125.

[8] This is the tenor of Habermas’ post-secularist inclusion of the religious other, cf. Between Naturalism and Religion: Philosophical Essays, trans. C. Cronin (Cambridge: Polity, 2008).

[9] J. Derrida, “Faith and Knowledge: The Two Sources of ‘Religion’ at the Limits of Reason Alone.” In Acts of Religion, ed. G. Anidjar (New York & London: Routledge, 2002 ),  40–101.

[10] The idea of such a constitutive “dispersion” has been proposed by theologian H.-J. Höhn,  Postsäkular. Gesellschaft im Umbruch – Religion im Wandel (Paderborn: Schöningh.2007).

[11] Most prominently, this title has been chosen by J. Habermas and J. Ratzinger (at that times Pope Benedict XVI) for their book, The Dialectics of Secularization:  On Reason and Religion (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006).

[12] Here we reference M. Gauchet’s The Disenchantment of the World: A Political History of Religion, trans. O. Burge  (Princeton: Princeton University Press 2007); on his account, the disenchantment of the world and the development of autonomy that it leads to, does not at all close the door to religion—since it would never have been possible without it and, thus, does not forsake “religious truth;” cf.  also Charles Taylor’s foreword to the English version.

[13] J.-L. Nancy, Dis-Enclosure. The Deconstruction of Christianity (New York: Fordham University Press 2008), 4.

[14] F. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil. Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, trans. J. Norman  (Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press 2001), 43.

[15] Following G. Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, trans. K. Knabb (Detroit: Black and Red, 2000).

[16] See M. Henry, Barbarism, trans. S. Davidson (London, New York: Continuum Press, 2004). Interestingly, Henry himself alludes to Nietzsche’s metaphor of the “great hunt” in his attempt to distinguish the knowledge (and culture) of life from “scientistic knowledge” (ibid., 69-70): “The original truth is historical in a mind and body as the flesh of the Individual and because this truth alone matters—the truth that is its own criterion and expresses what it is on its own goes without any ‘interpretation’ and, a fortiori, any discussion—and this marks the beginning of what Nietzsche calls “the great hunt.” This is the hunt for all the inner experiences of humanity and all the truths that can be demonstrated and tested in life, as a modality of this life and that can be proved to the extent that it will provide this proof. This is what differentiates experimentation in life from what usually goes by this name: the experimentation of knowledge or science.”

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