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

“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


Nina M. Flores is an educator and activist living in Southern California. Her writing and research explores connections between gender, empowerment, education, and the politics of community development. Follow her on twitter: @bellhookedme.