Forthcoming Issue: FRAME 32.1 – Religion and Secularism


In 2017, Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) experienced a huge surge in popularity when the television series based on the novel first aired. The dystopian, misogynist, fundamentalist Christian society portrayed in the novel and series resonated with many people’s concerns about (women’s) reproductive rights, as evident from the demonstrations all over the world by women wearing the handmaids’ red cape and hood. These laws can be seen as remnants of a time before the separation of church and state, but are also defended by many neo-conservative parties that are on the rise in the United States and Europe and that call on the “Judaeo-Christian” foundations of Western society. This example shows that, despite the growing number of non-religious people in Europe and North-America, religion is still at the forefront of political and social debates. These debates are complicated further by the fact that these neo-conservative parties, such as the Fidesz party in Hungary and the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV), portray the other major monotheistic religion, Islam, as their enemy, based on recent terrorist attacks by Islamic extremist groups and the influx of migrants and refugees from predominantly Muslim countries. In general, the left-wing opposition is more open to migration, which leaves one wondering what overlap there is between the people that protest restrictive reproduction laws and demonstrate for admittance of migrants (or refugees) in their countries.

Tensions between religion and secularism underlie many ongoing issues in today’s society. They divide not only the West and the East, or the global North and the global South, but also the urban and the rural, the young and the old. Yet the oppositions do not seem to be absolute: atheist churches have been established and secular leftists are taking over the anti-vaccination movement from orthodox Christians. The question therefore arises to what extent we are now living in what Jürgen Habermas has called a “postsecular” society. Habermas argues that, although “people’s religious ties have steadily or rather quite dramatically lapsed” in Western societies over the course of the twentieth century, this development does not seem to be approaching completion. Instead, he finds that religion has regained prominence in the public debate and current Western society could as such be called postsecular. According to Habermas, the precarious relations between faith and reason call for a new, peaceful dialogue between religious and secular members of society. To what extent is modernism’s secular programme indeed unsuccessful, as Habermas argues, and to what extent might discussions such as those surrounding The Handmaid’s Tale become part of this new dialogue between religion and secularism?

Literary studies, itself born out of the study of religious texts, may provide new insights into these questions, as many recent literary publications, such as Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (2005), Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000), and Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things? (2014) reflect on the issues at stake here. In this issue, we invite you to consider the various ways in which literature over the past decades has reflected on the tensions and connections between religion and secularism. What is the place of holy books in a time in which paper books seem to be losing prevalence? How do the ethical problems surrounding technological developments represented in works of science fiction such as Octavia Butler’s Earthseed novels relate to religious concerns about these issues? How do recent representations of Christianity in literature compare to recent representations of Islam in literature? What can explain the recent popularity of books about myths from ancient polytheistic religions, such as Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology (2017) and Stephen Fry’s Mythos (2018)?

More details soon to be announced. Meanwhile, please browse our earlier issues in the archive.