Beyond the “Secularism Tic” – An Interview with Feminist Philosopher Sandra Harding

image_normal“You have to put your ideas out in public. Realize you’re never going to be 100 percent right, and trust that for now you are the least wrong you could manage to be.”

When you listen to Sandra Harding speak, everything comes into focus. Her words are inspiring, empowering, an invitation to move conversations forward in new ways. As a philosopher of science who has dedicated her career to feminist and postcolonial scholarship, Harding is perhaps best known for her contributions to standpoint theory and her critiques of value neutrality in science.

A professor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and in UCLA’s gender studies department, Harding is also the former co-editor of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. She has more than a dozen books to her name, including Sciences From Below: Feminisms, Postcolonialities and Modernities. Her forthcoming book, Objectivity and Diversity, shows how social diversity and research objectivity can promote each other. One chapter is on secularism and feminism.

In this interview for Ms. Blog, Harding reflects on her new work and revisits standpoint theory.

Ms. Blog: As a philosopher of science, how did you come to be interested in secularism?

Sandra Harding: Science is supposed to be value neutral, and it has been positioned against religion again and again, from Galileo’s day to recent debates over creationism and intelligent design. Moreover, Western scientists refuse to recognize the reliability and value of indigenous knowledge because it’s often embedded in religious and spiritual cultures and experiences, and thus supposedly unreliable. However, I study indigenous knowledge as part of my work on postcolonialism, and it is often very reliable. According to our Western “value-neutral” commitments to secularism, this can’t be, and that is a problem for the advance of science and for democratic social relations.

Religion and science are almost always seen in opposition to one another. Where does secularism fit in this binary?

First, there are multiple secularisms– many different ways of being non-practicing. What it is to be a non-practicing Jew is very different from what it is to being a non-practicing Catholic, Methodist or Muslim. And so there is not just one secularism, there are many.

Next, there’s also the issue of what I call the “secularism tic” in educated Westerners and non-Westerners: this absolute resistance to recognizing the deep and valuable meanings that religious and spiritual experience have to so many people. This has a number of unfortunate consequences. Disrespecting religious meanings is to dismiss the very important home the civil rights movement had in black churches, or ignoring how liberation theology has been a powerful pro-democratic force in Latin America. It means ignoring the powerful positive effect of such experiences on the advance of modern Western sciences themselves, as so many historians have pointed out–from Max Weber’s “Protestant work ethic” to Joseph Needham’s recognition of belief in the good match between God’s mind, nature’s order and human minds–that is, science.

Since 2001 it has been a challenge to counter the anti-Islamic rhetoric that appeared after 9-11. The post-2001 discourse on secularism raises a powerful question about how democracies hosting many cultures should engage with the religious commitments of their citizens. This is not a new issue in American history. When Kennedy was elected, people feared the Pope would direct state policy, and recall the anxiety around Mormonism in the recent election. The new return of religion to the public sphere, and how we understand secularism, forces scholars and the public to reconsider what we can and should mean by our multicultural democracies.  Are we placing limits to the religious toleration on which we have so prided ourselves?

In your new work, you look to women in these new discussions of religion and secularism.

Yes, the women question is always entangled with religion and secularism. Women are often required to embody the moral values of religious  traditions in ways that their brothers are not. For instance, at the airport you see men from all over the world in Western clothes with women in traditional dress. Yet, in the past, religious women have used their special relationship with religion in progressive ways. Of course they have also been party to the racism and colonialism that accompanies disrespect for other culture’s religions. [And] during the 1970s powerful feminist tendencies emerged in many  religions, including U.S. Catholicism, Protestantism and Judaism. Lately, Muslim feminisms have emerged … developed within Islamic frameworks. In each of these cases, women are using their distinctive relationship to religion to do two feminist things: 1) improve their own conditions and 2) transform their religions.

What are your thoughts on secularism and the state, particularly in light of the return of religion to the public sphere around the globe?

The separation of church and state is certainly necessary. Democratic states shouldn’t favor citizens of one religion over those of others. Yet as some critics point out, Western liberal democracy is distinctly Protestant. Its Protestantism sinks in and disappears into the structure of American government–think about the Protestant work ethic. As a result, Catholicism and Judaism are visible as religions in kinds of ways that Protestantisms, such as Methodism or Lutheranism, are not.

But there has been a shift in how we think about these issues. Rather than either assimilation, or siloed cultures with their different religious antagonisms toward each other, we’re beginning to see many groups creating shared ways of being together. Of course this is what assimilation tried to do, but without respect for the cultural differences that people wanted to preserve in the public sphere. So the question is how to maintain our differences (those that don’t harm others) and still have public spaces where we can together respectfully, figure out how we want to live. Finding commonalities should not be regarded as the only challenge. Also important is making them, and it’s through working together on projects with people who are not like us, and whom we might not like, that we create these communities.

Can you give us a one-minute introduction to standpoint theory for readers who may be unfamiliar with it?

Standpoint theory is a theory of knowledge, but in most disciplines it is regarded as a methodology, a way to do research. Standpoint approaches use the differences between a dominant group’s values and interests and those of subordinate groups to provide research that is for the subordinate group–that answers the kinds of questions they want answered. Standpoint is a logic of research that seems to emerge every time a new group steps on the stage of history. For instance, ex-colonized groups, the civil rights movement, the LGBTQ movement and other groups ask similar kinds of questions. They may not use the language of standpoint theory, but they tend to say, “Well, from the perspective of our lives things look different.”

Feminist standpoint asks why what is regarded in disciplines as the very best research so often ends up making sexist, racist, heteronormative, classist or abled claims. What does it tell us about research processes and standards for objectivity when the very best research produces these results? Well, when the whole research community is androcentric, it has no way to detect those androcentric assumptions shaping its research–it’s like a fish trying to see the water it swims in. Feminist standpoint proposes starting research from the daily lives of women (or others who didn’t design the dominant frameworks) for three reasons: first, to understand women’s lives through concepts and terms that come from those lives. Sociologist Dorothy Smith says the term “housework” would never be coined by people who do it–it clearly comes from the lives of people who work outside the home, for whom the household is not a place of work. Secondly, to “study up”: to critically analyze the dominant institutions, their cultures and practices through the lens of people who receive few benefits from those institutions. Third is to understand how the assumptions and practices of those institutions–such as the Pentagon, the Department of Education, the State Department, Wall Street–shape the daily lives of women, and how does what women do shape those institutions?

Revisiting your contributions to standpoint theory, what would you add today? What limitations do you see?

For one thing, it is clearly a Western enlightenment theory with the goal of an onward and upward approach to knowledge production. Yet other cultures may well have similar projects that have emerged from their own histories.

Furthermore, the theory can seem stuck in a binary. It originated as an “us versus them” theory, as bespeaks its glorious political history coming out of democratic revolutions. It’s oppositional and that can be problematic. Most women don’t want to be opposing men continuously. It’s exhausting! To seem to ask women to criticize men–their fathers, partners, their sweet little sons–shouldn’t be the main focus. After all, it’s the social institutions that are the main problem. Moreover, standpoint approaches must not mistakenly homogenize each oppositional position, thereby missing all the important differences within them and hybrid positions. After all, the world isn’t constructed in binary ways, thankfully.

Photo from UCLA


  1. David Arnold says:

    This woman is a professor??? Incredible. She doesn’t seem to understand the difference between atheism and secularism. She should learn the difference before she starts talking. And to equate criticising religion with racism, which she comes very close to doing, is just plain silly and insulting.

    And I note when she says: “the reliability and value of indigenous knowledge because it’s often embedded in religious and spiritual cultures and experiences, and thus supposedly unreliable. However, I study indigenous knowledge as part of my work on postcolonialism, and it is often very reliable”- she fails to give even ONE example. Does she mean herbs and medicine? Does she mean hacking at and mutilating the genitals of indigenous children? Does she mean theories of creation, of the sun and the moon? What does she mean?

    • Janmejay Singh says:

      This is a good interview. I wouldn’t say great.

      My reply would be to the previous two comments here.

      Yes dear David Arnold, herbs and medicines known to and prepared and used by tribal women in India being patented and sold back to them by pharmaceutical giants from USA, among other places.

      You are unable to imagine nations spread over huge areas which would naturally have huge population, which would then naturally have huge diversity. Add to that, government sponsored monolithic concepts of multiculturalism which suited capitalist societies and economies, because they imported migrants. Now, of course it’s becoming a problem, so you will find some literature on ‘interculturalism’ there too.

      Have you heard of the term pseudo-secularism, for instance? It is used by the religious bigots in India to differentiate between this secularism and guess what, that secularism. And then you throw this joke of a difference between atheism and secularism.

      • David Arnold says:

        Janmejay Singh I have no idea what on earth you are talking about.

        you ask: “Have you heard of the term pseudo-secularism?” No, but i have heard of pseudo english. You’re good at it.

  2. The Epoch Of Change says:

    Whoooa, hang on here half a moment. Both the (over-gushing) interviewer and this “philosopher” are trying to hitch the waggon of (liberation) and feminism to the horses of reactionary religion. This is not wise. Take care.

    Authoritarian and patriarchal (and often close to fascist) religions and indigenous cultures don’t bear much comparison to western liberal/socialists notions of freedom. This really is a situation where you have to choose between one or the other, shades of grey don’t work, because how do you decide on issues? EG Do you support gay teenagers or do you support their indigenous culture that demands they be hung for having sex? Do you support a woman’s right to sleep with whomsoever she chooses or do you suppor the men of the village who demand she be stoned to death?

  3. Yes we know that literature is all just made up. So what? It’s people who insist that there is something beyond stories, satires, parodies and allegories. Oh, I forgot, there is pointless allegory. This is what we refer to as spiritualism. All religious dogma is so utterly meaningless that as allegory it sounds ridiculous: hence the rise of fundamentalism and literalism.

  4. Indigenous American cultures don’t tend to want gay teens to be hanged, nor to stone women who are sexually free. In fact, the existence of “two-spirit” people and the relative sexual freedom in Native American cultures horrified those white Protestants who first came here centuries ago. Also, not all indigenous cultures are authoritarian or patriarchal, as Epoch of Change implies. I would have liked some examples of the reliability of indigenous knowledge, too, but it’s not hard to imagine what Harding may have had in mind. (The spelling “waggon” implies a British writer, who may not be very familiar with Native Americans.)

    But that being said, I found this interview to be a bit unclear and jargon-heavy. I would not like to be among Harding’s students, struggling to figure out what she’s talking about. Useful ideas, daunting packaging. A word like “postcolonialities,” it seems to me, simply should not exist!

  5. Newton A Mines says:

    Just for a bit of context, Sandra Harding is the writer who achieved a sort of fame when she referred to the “rape themes” in Isaac Newton’s “Principia Mathematica, and wrote: “Why is it not as illuminating and honest to refer to Newton’s laws as ‘Newton’s Rape Manual,’ as it is to call them ‘Newton’s Mechanics’?” She also declared that Einsteinian relativity is “gender-biassed.”

    When you want to push ideas that wooly, you have to pad them in wooly verbiage. Clarity is not your friend, when your ideas are, let’s face it, kind of silly. But by contrast to Harding’s writing, a lot of secular writing deliberately sets out to be as clear as possible, so that the ideas being expressed have to stand or fall based on the quality of arguments and evidence presented. I think Harding thinks this kind of clarity is kind of cruel and heartless to waffly “spiritual” thinking, and this may be her key objection to secularism, and scepticism in general.

    The Sokal hoax, the deliberately nonsensical essay “Transgressing the Hermaneutics”, that was published by “Social Text”, cited a lot of Sandra Harding’s writing. Because if you’re doing a parody of bad philosophy pretending to comment on “science”, Harding is one of the absolutely key sources. Honestly, Ms Magazine, clarity may be no friend of “spirituality”, but Google is your friend.

  6. Another Sandra says:

    Re: the comment critiquing Harding’s use of jargon -there is nothing jargonish about articulating so succinctly the heterogeneity of schools of thought such as feminism and postcolonial studies. In other words, they are not monolithic as commonly assumed – there is not one postcoloniality, but multiple. Harding does a phenomenal job of giving voice to forces that tend to get disqualified in mainstream science. Such as spiritual practices. I always turn to her for inspiration on why it’s so important to fight for the underdog.

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