Secularism as ideology: Exploring assumptions of cultural equivalence in museum repatriation

Christopher N. Matthews, Kurt A. Jordan

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

1 Scopus citations


The concepts sacred and secular are standard tools in contemporary social and cultural analysis. A secularist tendency that eschews overt pronunciations of religious faith is a particular hallmark of modern science, Marxism, multiculturalism, and most present-day archaeological analysis. Despite secularism's prevalence in the academy, it rarely has been analyzed as ideology. The concept of ideology is derived from the work of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1978); it links processes of consciousness production with the reproduction of social relations of domination. Ideology encourages persons to act based on taken-for-granted beliefs or assumptions that mislead them or mystify their conditions, in the process supporting the partisan agenda of others with different political-economic interests than their own. We draw on Talal Asad's (2003) critical assessment of secularism to offer an analysis of secularism as ideology in the context of the relationship between the United States mainstream and indigenous American Indian groups. Secularism can be shown to ideologically further the project of settler colonialism, by (1) assuming that all groups "own" their culture to the same extent that mainstream states do; (2) obscuring cultural interconnection and political-economic domination and resistance; and (3) obscuring the degree of the mainstream's use of Native American culture and objects in its own self-fashioning. In classic social-science definitions of ideology, secularism therefore acts as both a universalizing and a masking ideology (see Eagleton 1991; and archaeological applications in Leone 1984, 2005 and Matthews, Leone, and Jordan 2002).

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationIdeologies in Archaeology
PublisherUniversity of Arizona Press
Number of pages21
ISBN (Electronic)9780816502301
ISBN (Print)9780816526734
StatePublished - 2011


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