John L. Modern, "Secularism in Antebellum America" (U Chicago Press, 2011)


The notion of secularism is something that has a ubiquitous presence in contemporary society. And while there is a general everyday use of this term, meaning 'not religious,' the understanding of this term has shifted throughout time. In Secularism in Antebellum America (University Of Chicago Press, 2011) we are presented with a complex narrative that examines the vocabularies, styles of reasoning, and imaginings of social life that enabled people to engage "True Religion." John L. Modern, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Franklin & Marshall College, employs secularism as an analytical lens to examine different aspects of modernity, especially whether people defined themselves as religious or not. Rather than seeking the causes of secularism, Modern offers a thick genealogical investigation of "novel experiences" or the local effects of secularism, which he found in evangelicalism, Unitarianism, phrenology, spiritualism, early anthropology, and prison reform. This rich book about nineteenth century U.S. religious history is too expansive to try to summarize and in our conversation we barely scratched the surface of the amazing history Modern offers. During the interview we discussed Herman Melville's Moby Dick, metaphors, ghosts, spirituality, machines, ethnographic inquiry, Sing Sing Penitentiary, personal agency versus structural power, technology, storytelling, Vinyl Prayers, and John Murray Spear's sexual encounter with the New Motive Power.

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Kristian Petersen

Kristian Petersen is an Associate Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies at Old Dominion University. You can find out more about his work on his website, follow him on Twitter @BabaKristian, or email him at

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