Is secularism anything more than books on a shelf?

The classic secularization narrative of the mid-20th century envisioned a progressive decline of religion as part of the advance of modernity. Charles Taylor has referred to this as the “subtraction story,” in which “religion” is a sort of artificial imposition that modifies a neutral intellectual-cultural landscape buried beneath the surface. But Talal Asad encourages us to think about “formations of the secular” as something more than just the emergence of universal reason. Secularism, in its many iterations across global history, is made, rather than found. This means that secularism, too, is embodied, felt, and the site of a full-fledged material culture, including objects, clothing, space, architecture, monuments, bodily practices, media, and more.

The Material Secularisms workshop was held at the University of Pennsylvania from Feb. 27-29, 2020. This permanent page is an archive of the event, and includes a set of reflections from student participants and attendees.


Donovan Schaefer | Jolyon Thomas

Student Liaison

Chijioke Azuawusiefe


The University of Pennsylvania Department of Religious Studies Boardman Fund

The University of Pennsylvania School of Arts and Sciences

The University of Pennsylvania University Research Fund

The American Academy of Religion Regional Development Grants Program

Social Media



The study of what Talal Asad calls “formations of the secular” is advancing across the humanities, creating an interdisciplinary subfield referred to as secularism studies or critical secularism studies. Within religious studies, a “materialist shift” has followed trends in subfields like material culture studies and new materialisms to call attention to the way that religion is made not just by frames of belief, but by bodies, practices, objects, places, and other material things. The proposed workshop will explore how this can be applied to the study of secularism, suggesting that formations of the secular, too, can be understood not just as belief or disbelief, but by attending to their material components.

The classic secularization narrative of the mid-20thcentury envisioned a progressive decline of religion as part of the advance of modernity. Charles Taylor has referred to this as the subtraction story view, in which “religion” is a sort of artificial imposition that modifies an essentially neutral intellectual-cultural landscape buried below. Asad points out that the secular is never a clean break from the past, nor is it ever neutral: it draws on an existing repertoire of concepts, narratives, dispositions, bodily practices, and material culture in order to fashion itself. This means that the secular, in its many historically and geographically local iterations, is made, rather than found. A new trend in this area has been to study how these formations can be understood as material.

Secularism is also, as Ann Pellegrini writes, a “structure of feeling” that organizes our bodily reactions and dispositions. And secularism is a full-fledged material culture encompassing objects, clothing, urban space, architecture, monuments, and media. These projects have, to date, been scattered across subfields and institutions. Material Secularisms will create a convergence point for these conversations.


Courtney Bender, Professor of Religion at Columbia University, is a sociologist and ethnographer. She is the author of Heaven’s Kitchen: Living Religion at God’s Love We Deliver and The New Metaphysicals: Spirituality and the American Religious Imagination. She is also the co-editor of several edited volumes, including with Pamela Klassen After Pluralism: Reimagining Religious Engagement. Bender is currently finishing a book-length study of a range of built and unbuilt architectural projects in order to better understand the shape and impact of secular American modernist’s visions of the future of religion in the twentieth century. She currently serves as a consultant for the Shaker Museum in Mt. Lebanon, New York, and as a member of the editorial board of the SSRC’s Immanent Frame. Twitter: @achtungbender

Matthew Engelke is an anthropologist with research interests in Christianity, secular humanism, media, materiality, semiotics. He has conducted fieldwork in Zimbabwe and in Britain. He is currently working on a book about secularity and death, based on research among humanist funeral celebrants in London.

Before joining the Columbia faculty in 2018, Engelke taught in the Department of Anthropology at the London School of Economics and Political Science for 16 years. He received his BA from the University of Chicago in 1994 and his PhD from the University of Virginia in 2002.

Engelke is the editor of Prickly Paradigm Press, a section editor at Public Books, former editor of the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, and former deputy editor of the Journal of Religion in Africa. Engelke has served on the board of trustees of both the Royal Anthropological Institute and the London School of Economics, as well as vice-chair of the LSE’s Ethics Policy Committee.

The author or editor of several books, Engelke has also published articles in many journals, including American EthnologistComparative Studies in Society and HistorySouth Atlantic Quarterly, and Current Anthropology. Beyond his scholarly writing, Engelke has written for the Guardian and Tate Modern.  

Mayanthi Fernando is Associate Professor of Anthropology at UC Santa Cruz. Her research interests include Islam and secularism; liberalism and law; gender, sexuality, and the body; and humanism and its others. She has held residential fellowships at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe. Her first book, The Republic Unsettled: Muslim French and the Contradictions of Secularism (2014, Duke University Press), examines the intersection of religion and politics in France. She is currently working on a second book on the secularity of post-humanism and the possibilities for thinking the nonhuman more capaciously and less secularly.

Heather Jaber is a doctoral student at the Annenberg School for Communication and a doctoral fellow at the Center for Advanced Research for Global Communication. In her work, she analyzes moral panics around the body in the Arab world, turning to cultural production as a way to understand the panic as a pleasurable form of knowledge production. She draws on theories of affect to understand the infrastructures of pleasure and shame which undergird these phenomena. Prior to joining Annenberg, she worked as a journalist and researcher in Beirut. 

Terrence Johnson is an Associate Professor of Religion and Politics in the Department of Government and a Senior Research Fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University. He is the author of Tragic Soul-Life: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Moral Crisis Facing American Democracy (Oxford 2012) and serves as co-editor of the Duke University Press Series Religious Cultures of African and African Diaspora People. His essays have appeared in a number of edited volumes and journals, including the Journal of Religious Ethics, Journal of Africana Religions, Reading Religion and the Journal of the Society Christian Ethics.  

Dana Lloyd is a postdoctoral research associate at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in Saint Louis. She holds a PhD in Religion from Syracuse University, an LLM from Tel Aviv Law School, and an MA in philosophy from Tel Aviv University. She is currently working on a book manuscript, entitled Arguing for this Land: Rethinking Indigenous Sacred Sites, on religious freedom and land rights in the U.S. Supreme Court case Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association (1988).

John Lardas Modern is Professor of Religious Studies at Franklin & Marshall College where he teaches classes on American religious history, literature, technology, and aesthetics.. Former Editor-at-Large for The Immanent Frame, he co-curated Frequencies and co-edits Class 200: New Studies in Religion (both with Kathryn Lofton). Modern is the author of Secularism in Antebellum America (University of Chicago Press) and The Bop Apocalypse: The Religious Visions of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs (University of Illinois Press). The Religion Machine; or, a particular history of the brain is forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press. Modern is also working on a long-term project that explores the end of the world through the lens of Akron, OH.

Sharday C. Mosurinjohn is an assistant professor of religious studies at Queen’s University. (PhD & MA Cultural Studies, Queen’s; BA Anthropology and Museum Studies, Western University). She is interested in ontology with respect to issues of meaning, agency, and experience. She also studies the making and uses of concepts like religion, nonreligion, spirituality, secularity, “new religious movements,” and ritual. Whenever she can, she can, she likes to think through these things using art.

Ann Pellegrini is Professor of Performance Studies & Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University.  Books include: Performance Anxieties: Staging Psychoanalysis, Staging RaceLove the Sin: Sexual Regulation and the Limits of Religious Tolerance (co-authored with Janet R. Jakobsen); Queer Theory and the Jewish Question (co-edited with Daniel Boyarin and Danial Itzkovitz); and Secularisms (co-edited with Jakobsen).  Pellegrini co-edits the “Sexual Cultures” book series at New York University Press (with Joshua Chambers-Letson and Tavia Nyong’o), and is a candidate in adult psychoanalysis at the Institute for Psychoanalytic Training and Research (IPTAR), in New York City.

Anthony Pinn is Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities and Professor of Religion at Rice University.  He is also Professor Extraordinarius at the University of South Africa.  At Rice, Pinn his the founding director of the Center for Engaged Research and Collaborative Learning, and the inaugural director of the Center for African and African American Studies.  He is also director of research for the Institute for Humanist Studies (Washington, DC).  His research interests include, African American religious thought, humanism, religion and popular culture, theories of African American religion, and constructive theologies.  He is co-editor of several book series, including Religion and Social Transformation (NYU Press), Bloomsbury Studies in African American Religion and Culture, and Routledge Studies in Religion and Hip Hop.  Pinn is the author/editor of 35 books, including Humanism:  Essays on Race, Religion, and Cultural Production (Bloomsbury), Embodiment and the New Shape of Black Theological Thought (NYU), and a novel titled The New Disciples.  His current projects include Cold Blooded:  Hip Hop and the Grammar of Death (under contract with Duke) and Presence Together:  Religion, Art, and the Interplay of Things (under review with Duke). Twitter: @anthony_pinn

Donovan O. Schaefer is Assistant Professor of Material Religion and Visual Culture at the University of Pennsylvania. He works on the relationship between affect, power, and religion, with a special interest in formations of the secular. His first book, Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power, was published by Duke University Press in 2015.

Monique Scheer is professor at the Department of Historical and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Tübingen, Germany, where she currently also serves as Vice-Rector. Previously, she was a research fellow at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin at the Center for the History of Emotions. Her recent publications include an edited volume (with Birgitte Schepelern Johansen and Nadia Fadil) titled Secular Bodies, Affects and Emotions: European Configurations (Bloomsbury 2019). Monique hosts Anneliese Maier Award winner Pamela E. Klassen in Tübingen, where they run the project “Religion and Public Memory in Multicultural Societies” together, which recently produced their edited volume The Public Work of Christmas: Difference and Belonging in Multicultural Societies (McGill-Queen’s 2019). Monique also just completed a monograph titled Enthusiasm: Emotional Practices of Conviction in Modern Germany (forthcoming with OUP, 2020).

Chad E. Seales is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. His research addresses the relationship between religion and culture in American life, as evident in the social expressions of American evangelicals, the popular practices of millennial capitalism, and the moral prescriptions of corporate managers and business leaders. He is the author of Religion around Bono: Evangelical Enchantment and Neoliberal Capitalism (Penn State University Press, 2019), and The Secular Spectacle: Performing Religion in a Southern Town (Oxford University Press, 2013), and has published articles on industrial religion, corporate chaplaincy, and secularism in the United States.

Victoria Smolkin is associate professor of history and Russian, East European, and Eurasian studies at Wesleyan University. A scholar of Communism, the Cold War, and Russia and the former Soviet Union, her work focuses on the intersections of politics with religion and ideology, including atheism, secularism, and nationalism. Smolkin’s recent book, A Sacred Space Is Never Empty: A History of Soviet Atheism (Princeton University Press, 2018; in paperback 2019), explores the meaning of atheism for Soviet religious culture, ideology, and politics. A Russian translation is forthcoming from New Literary Observer in Spring 2020. She is currently at work on two projects: “The Crusade Against Godlessness: Religion, Communism, and the Cold War Order” and “The Wall of Memory: Life, Death, and the Impossibility of History.” Twitter: @SmolkinVictoria

Jolyon Baraka Thomas is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. His first book, Drawing on Tradition: Manga, Anime, and Religion in Contemporary Japan, was published by University of Hawai‘i Press in 2012. His second book, Faking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan, was published by University of Chicago Press in 2019. With the generous support of a Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership/Social Science Research Council Abe Fellowship, he is now working on a third book, tentatively titled Difficult Subjects: Debating Religion and Public Education in Japan and the United States. Twitter: @jolyonbt

Darryl Wilkinson is an archaeologist whose research examines material religion in the indigenous Americas, covering both the ancient and colonial periods, and with regional interests in Peru and New Mexico. His work draws mainly on archaeological methods, but is also supplemented by ethnographic and ethnohistoric analyses. He is particularly concerned with developing critical perspectives on the Western category of “animism”, especially its application to non-human forms of personhood within indigenous metaphysical traditions. More recently, he has begun a study of the ways in which the European encounter with Inca material culture shaped Enlightenment discourses on religion. Darryl Wilkinson received his PhD in anthropology from Columbia University, and is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Religion at Dartmouth College.

Angela Xia is an anthropologist interested in the material and social dimensions of “non-religion” in North America. Her interpretation of “non-religion” is purposefully broad and brings together topics as diverse (and interconnected) as magic, atheism, scientific inquiry, mass entertainment, medicine, and statecraft. More recently, she has developed an interest in the histories and practices of rationality in the United States, especially after the Cold War–a period often identified as having a particular “brand” of rational thought and practice. Though her research is shaped in large part by debates in anthropology, the history of science, and STS (science and technology studies), her underlying aim is to show how “non-religion” and its many proxies are conditioned and co-produced by religion, and thus by religious studies. 

Angela Zito writes, teaches and curates at NYU as a member of the Anthropology and Religious Studies Departments, where she chairs the latter. She founded and directs the Center for Religion and Media and has co-produced the biennial documentary film festival Reel China for several years. She writes about media and mediation, starting with embodied gesture which has led her through footbinding and Chinese imperial ritual, to theology in TV series, and an ethnography and documentary called “Writing in Water,” produced in Beijing and featuring calligraphy in public places. Her current work is on “Filial China: Piety and Propaganda.” Twitter: @zanj


The goal of this workshop was to generate conversation and exchange. It featured five three-person panels in which speakers gave short talks on a theme, leaving most of the time for an open exchange of ideas. It also featured three research presentations from workshop participants providing focal points for further discussion.


Thursday, February 27
Venue: Claudia Cohen Hall

6:00 || Dinner for speakers in Cohen Hall (Classics Lounge)

7:30 || Opening remarks

Jamal Elias, Chair of Religious Studies, University of Pennsylvania

7:35 || Introducing Material Secularisms

Donovan Schaefer, University of Pennsylvania

7:45 || Research presentation I: Perspective (Cohen Hall 402)

Courtney Bender, Columbia University

Moderator: Jolyon Thomas, University of Pennsylvania

Friday, February 28
Venue: Amado Recital Hall, Irvine Auditorium

9:30 || Breakfast for panelists

10:30 || Welcome

Jeffrey Kallberg, Associate Dean of Arts and Sciences, University of Pennsylvania

10:35 || Panel I: Nature

Chair: Ken Koltun-Fromm, Haverford College

Mayanthi Fernando, UC Santa Cruz

John Modern, Franklin and Marshall College

Dana Lloyd, Washington University in Saint Louis

12:00 || Lunch for all registered participants

1:30 || Panel II: Structure/Infrastructure

Chair: Lindsay Reckson, Haverford College

Matthew Engelke, Columbia University

Victoria Smolkin, Wesleyan University

Chad Seales, University of Texas, Austin

3:00 || Coffee Break

3:30 || Panel III: Affect

Chair: Anthony Petro, Boston University/Institute for Advanced Study

Terrence Johnson, Georgetown University

Donovan Schaefer, University of Pennsylvania

Angela Xia, University of Pennsylvania

5:00 || Break

5:30 || Research presentation II: Blackness

Anthony Pinn, Rice University

Moderator: Anthea Butler, University of Pennsylvania

7:00 || Dinner for panelists

Saturday, February 29
Venue: Amado Recital Hall, Irvine Auditorium

9:00 || Breakfast for panelists

10:00 || Panel IV: Body

Chair: Projit Mukharji, University of Pennsylvania

Heather Jaber, University of Pennsylvania

Ann Pellegrini, New York University

Jolyon Thomas, University of Pennsylvania

11:30 || Lunch for registered participants

1:00 || Research presentation: Emotion

Monique Scheer, University of Tübingen

Moderator: Donovan Schaefer, University of Pennsylvania

2:15 || Coffee Break

2:30 || Panel V: Fetish

Chair: Vincent Lloyd, Villanova University

Sharday Mosurinjohn, Queens University

Darryl Wilkinson, Dartmouth College

Angela Zito, New York University

4:00 || Closing Remarks

Jolyon Thomas, University of Pennsylvania

6:00 || Dinner for panelists


Student attendees and participants at the Material Secularisms workshop offer their reflections on the event.

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