Rethinking secularism:

Rethinking religious pluralism

posted by Courtney Bender

Alongside the ongoing discussion of A Secular Age, I would like to consider another important nexus in modern life—religious pluralism. As is clear from recent immigration debates, conflicts over the legitimacy of religious legal systems within secular states, and a variety of other flashpoints from comic strip controversies to family law issues, religion, or rather religions in plural, are at the center of debates about modern democracies and their futures. In our increasingly global and transnationally connected world, many of our contemporary anxieties about our futures have come to focus on a welter of issues and debates where religious diversity is a key problematic. We live in societies where religious diversity seems to be a new issue, or at least a qualitatively different issue than what nations like ours confronted in even the recent past.

In recent years, studies of religious pluralism in the United States and Canada have worked with dual purposes: first, to identify the shifts in the types of religious actors active in America and to map a newly diverse religious terrain, and second to use such knowledge to promulgate practices of tolerance and respect. One of the most effective and widely-cited practitioners and proponents of such efforts is Diana Eck, director of the Pluralism Project at Harvard, a multi-year endeavor to map America’s diverse religious landscape. This project was one of the first to mark out the scope of post-1965 “multi-religious America” by charting the presence of religious groups from a wide range of religious traditions in contemporary American cities, towns, and suburbs. The Pew Charitable Trust’s recent Gateway Cities Initiative sponsored similar research analyzing religious diversity among new immigrant communities in ten American cities. Ongoing research in cities in Europe, Africa, and Asia extend the model of mapping and articulating religious differences around the globe.

These projects of mapping the territories of religious diversity are frequently coupled with normative prescriptions about how modern citizens should engage religious others. Professor Eck argues that pluralism, defined as “the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference” is best understood as an “energetic engagement with diversity” achieved through a dialogue rooted in the encounter of commitments. Similarly, sociologist Robert Wuthnow worries over the lack of religious interchange between religious communities in his recent volume, America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity. He calls for religious leaders to teach their faithful about the theologies and the beliefs of neighbors to better foster understanding and, ultimately, integrated social life.

Recent conferences at Columbia and Toronto began by questioning the types of religiousness that are imagined within these normative projects. Each of the initiatives contains a strong tendency to identify religions as encompassing discrete and recognizable communities and traditions with explicit boundaries across which interchange or conflict occurs. And, while the normative goals of religious pluralism may be debated endlessly (and we certainly hope that such debate will continue), the conversations among scholars gathered at these conferences reflected a broader concern that the blending of descriptive and prescriptive assessments of religious pluralism is problematic. Our question then becomes: To what degree does the view of “religions” as discrete groups occupying clearly marked terrain make sense?

The impetus for these conferences grew out of conversations between my colleague Pamela Klassen at the University of Toronto and myself. We are both completing books in which interreligious interaction diverges radically from the types of dialogue exchange associated with models of “religious pluralism.” In our respective historical and ethnographic research with American Protestants and post-Protestants, we find not borders and exchange, but poaching and appropriation, confusion or lack of clarity about the origins, ownership, and authenticity of various religious ideas, practices, and identities. “Religious diversity” and “exchange” is messy business, often full of conflict and lacking clearly defined lines or boundaries. At other times it takes place via structures that unwittingly shape the possibilities for interaction in ways that demand multiple translations and recalibrations among groups and individuals.

The work of our colleagues in religion, law, anthropology, sociology and history likewise demonstrates the manifold ways in which our understandings about interreligious exchange and conflict can be expanded, sometimes in provocative ways. Institutions in our modern world inevitably privilege certain forms of religiosity and elide or occlude others under the sign of the secular. These processes make certain kinds of “pluralistic exchange” possible and others unthinkable or dangerous. As an example, a recent op-ed in the pages of The New York Times suggests one such process at work. Slavoj Zizek, noting the Chinese government’s new law that prohibits Tibetan Buddhist monks from reincarnating without its permission, finds opportunity to criticize presumably non-religious Times readers for what he imagines to be their tendency to envision religious difference as cultural difference, a translation that mutes and dampens certain truth claims in order to acknowledge, tolerate, or even celebrate difference. The structures and practices that translate the religious into the cultural and back again are one part of our inquiry into the experience, expression, and future of religious engagement.

Overall, our joint aim at the University of Toronto and Columbia conferences was to place the projects of pluralism and exchange in historical and contemporary context to better understand where we are and where we might yet go. We note (and indeed share) a growing sense of urgency among scholars and public figures to “understand” the religious pluralism that appears to be a central and incontrovertible condition of modern global realities. Yet part of that understanding involves taking stock of the ways that religious differences have been shaped in public debate, scholarly work, secular institutions, and in the daily practices and public claims of various religious actors. In this undertaking, religious pluralism loses its natural qualities, and we begin to look more closely at the religious and secular institutions that manage, celebrate, condition, and exclude various forms.

After Pluralism: Reimagining Models of Interreligious Engagement
Toronto conference (with abstracts)
Columbia conference (with abstracts)

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