Religion as Legitimate Identity

One of the reasons why Fairclough has distanced himself from his earlier work is the sole emphasis on class as a difference marker. Even if Marx set the scene for analysing religion's contribution to class domination, the same domination applies to other areas of social life as well. Race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality have all emerged as central topics of analysis during the previous couple of decades. As long as secularisation was accepted as the hegemonic narrative about the fate of religion in the modern world, less attention was paid to the role of religion as a difference marker. Historically, of course, religion has been the dividing issue in many contexts, but relegated to the margins of modern identity formation. That is, until at least the post-Cold War awakening to a globalised world where religion still mattered. Now, of course, eminent sociologists write books about religion - without any reference to the sociology of religion - because reality seems to defy the indifference of the past 40 years or so. Secularisation certainly still happens, but there is no denying that religion has re-emerged as an identity marker in the modern world.

A less-discussed aspect of this re-emergence is that religion seems to be increasingly represented as a social problem (Hjelm 2011a). While there is grand talk about 'post-secularity', and the need to acknowledge religion in the public sphere, what is at stake is the legitimacy of religion and religions in modern society. Thus, instead of looking at how religion legitimates inequality, the other side of the coin is to look at how the legitimacy of religion and religions is constructed discursively. Again, the obvious example would be Islam, but other minority and alternative religions are also struggling to define themselves as legitimate all around the world (see e.g. Hjelm 2006, 2011a, 2012a; Poole and Richardson 2006).

The Discursive Dialectics of Secularisation

If there is one major 'paradigmatic' change in recent sociology of religion, it is the near-complete abandonment of the secularisation thesis in favour of 'desecularisation', or even more fashionably 'post-secularity'. While initially sceptical of 'desecularisation' (Hjelm 2012b), I have come to think that - from a CDA perspective at least - it is a preferable term to the now-hegemonic 'post-secularity' and its variants. Goldstein (2009) has usefully pointed out that the 'common-sense' vision of 'old paradigm' theories of secularisation as linear and inevitable is not fully justified, but that many contain dialectical elements. My aim is to complement this idea of secularisation as a dialectical process with a focus on discourse.

On the one hand, a CDA approach to secularisation challenges vulgar interpretations of the 'diminution in the social significance of religion' (Wilson 1982: 149) - 'vulgar' in the sense that they assume a rigid linear progress (Bruce 2011: 3-4). Recent years have shown that public discourse - surely part of the 'social significance' of religion - can be desecularised in the sense that religion is back on the agenda. On the other hand, the discursive dialectics of secularisation challenges 'post-secularism' when that is presented as a 'state of things': firstly, desecularisation implies a process that is dialectical and reversible. There is nothing inevitable about the current prominence of religion in public discourse and prominence as such tells us little. Secondly, a CDA of the public discourse on religion in Western societies can reveal that the fact that religion is back on the agenda quantitatively is not a sufficient measure for abandoning the secularization thesis as such. Quite contrary, it might reveal that, yes, religious communities are reasserting themselves as public actors, but that their discourse is increasingly secular - a point that Bruce (2011: 171) makes in reference to the 'culture wars' in the United States. I think he is absolutely right in saying that '[S]ince Jürgen Habermas popularized talk of a "post-secular Europe", there has been much confusion between religion becoming more troublesome and people becoming more religious' (Bruce 2011: 203; see Beckford 2012).

In addition, studies such as Wohlrab-Sahr et al. (2008) suggest that discursive conflict can also explain the subjective appropriation of a (in their case) secularised habitus. Their argument (in a nutshell) is that communicating a conflict between a scientific worldview and religion, and the incompatibility of politics and religion, had a secularising effect on individuals in their case study of the GDR. What CDA could offer to this theory is, firstly, a methodological toolkit enabling a close analysis of how the conflict was communicated, defined and interpreted, key terms that almost beg for methodological refinement. Secondly, conflict alone is not sufficient to explain why people appropriate particular beliefs; a theory of hegemony (see above) is needed to answer the question why people choose one of the conflicting options, not the other.

The CDA approach to secularisation is, therefore, a modest approach. It provides refined tools for analysing the dynamics of public discourse on religion. However, when understood to include both text analysis the study of production and reception of texts, it offers a powerful complement to more demographic and quantitative analyses.

 
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