Reflection by Kathleen Frederickson

Cultivating Belief suggests that there are problems with understanding secularized religion exclusively as a domain “that valorizes personal privacy, freedom of conscience, and negative liberty” (27). Instead, Sebastian Lecourt argues, scholars should attend to the versions of Victorian secularism that emphasize “hybridity, heterogeneity, and the ability to keep multiple values in play” (27). Rather than a fiercely delimited zone of interiorized conscience, the religious life imagined by this latter kind of secularism refuses a split between public and private, and advocates for a tight relationship between individual conscience and an ethnicized spiritual heritage. This is a view, Lecourt maintains, that developed (among other places) in the anthropological writings of the mid- to late-nineteenth century. Lecourt asserts that, through this second version of secular religion, “embodied or inherited identity could be deployed toward a number of ends” (22)—“ends” that might include “asserting European civilizational superiority and/or a relativizing move to “dismantle the idea of a single civilizational narrative” (22).

Lecourt pitches his argument as an intervention into religion’s place in Victorian liberal philosophy, with its advocacy of pluralist ethics and interest in practices of self-cultivation. The book, though, offers terms that could usefully open up discussion about liberal economic praxis as well. What are the consequences of interpreting secular anthropological knowledge for the financial machinations of empire? If the economic historian Marc Flandreau is right in claiming Victorian anthropologists and ethnologists had “roots in the stock exchange” (275), then we would do well to think through the relationship between religion, secularism, and finance capital too. For Flandreau, not only were some members of the Anthropological and Ethnological societies directly involved in the financial manipulations around debt speculation and foreign loan investments, but these markets also partially determined which anthropological works were cited and circulated. By this line of reasoning, future scholars could develop the Lecourt’s deft account of liberal philosophy and secularism in the terms of liberal political economy as well. Doing so might invite further questions about the different disciplinary organizations that circulated knowledge about religion in the nineteenth century. Does anthropological writing orient itself differently to the political economies of empire than other kinds of prose writing? Are there different stakes for nineteenth-century readers of Eliot than there are for nineteenth-century readers of Tylor?

Future scholarship might also find Lecourt’s work useful for reexamining religion and gender. Against the view that religion and gender both occupy a privatized realm concerned with the social reproduction of conscience and moral life, Leonore Davidoff and others have argued that women’s participation in religious activity was a “mixed area” of private, public, and semipublic activity (19-20). Lecourt’s book might invite further attention to feminist criticism’s turn away from analyses based on the clunky notion of separate spheres, offering instead ways of understanding religion as, to adopt Lauren Berlant’s terminology, an intimate public. What might a move from interiority to a public “hybridity, heterogeneity, and the ability to keep multiple values in play” offer to a theory of religion and gender in the nineteenth century? Is gender an enabling condition or a constitutive feature of this kind of secularized religion?

Davidoff, Leonore. “Gender and the “Great Divide”: Public and Private in British Gender History.” Journal of Women’s History. 15(1). Spring 2003, 11-27.

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