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On the Dark Side of the “Secular”: Is the Religious-Secular Distinction a Binary?

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AbstractRecent scholarship claims to have revealed the problematic nature of the religious-secular distinction: (1) the distinction is slippery or fluid; (2) the meanings of the words “religious” and “secular” have changed over multiple historical contexts; (3) the distinction is a binary; (4) it is essentialist in nature. Analyzing these objections, the article shows that it is very difficult to find a clear problem statement. To whom is the religious-secular distinction a problem and why? The distinction was originally made within Christian theology, where it concerned a triad rather than a binary: true religion, false religions, and the secular. The notion of the secular always required the presence of the opposition between truth and falsity in religion, because it was the sphere that remained after true and false religion had been demarcated. In this sense, the secular had a “dark side,” namely, idolatry or false religion. To a Christian believer, there is no conceptual problem involved in making the religious-secular distinction, because his or her theology helps him specify what true and false religion are and, as a consequence, what the secular is. However, because of its neutrality in religious matters, the liberal state has tried to reduce the theological triad to a binary opposition between religion and the secular. The inevitable failure of this attempt has created a formless secular sphere that is haunted by its dark side: the notion of false religion.

Affiliations: 1: Ghent University, Research Centre Vergelijkende CultuurwetenschapApotheekstraat 5, B-9000


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