Beyond critique

Over the last two decades, debates on secularism and religion have become a central topic in disciplines ranging from post-colonial studies, political, and social theory to international relations and international and comparative law. The starting point for this exchange is the observation that, while “the secular” has been subjected to thorough conceptual critique, the concept of religion has remained remarkably vague. Depending on the scholar, discipline, and topic, religion features as a form of community, a type of comprehensive doctrine, a particular sort of claim in front of a court, another word for culture, a particular lived experience and practice, a position from which to critique the “enlightenment projects” secularism and liberalism, or post-modernism and post-structuralism.

But what are the implications of these different modes of operationalizing religion, and how do they determine research-agendas within and particularly across disciplinary boundaries?

Guest edited by Maria Birnbaum and Kristina Stoeckl in conjunction with the research-project ReligioWest at the European University Institute in Florence (financed by the European Research Council), this ongoing discussion invites contributors to reflect on the theoretical and methodological choices in their study of religion and the secularand on the state of the study of religion in their discipline through and beyond critique.

May 30th, 2014

The specific order of difficulty of religion

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In a recent essay on equality and citizenship in a multi-religious Sudan, Noah Salomon describes a commitment among development experts to equality before the law as a “non-ideological” solution to the problems of post-conflict societies. Salomon disagrees with the consensus, suggesting rather that “law, the institutions which promote it, and our relationship to them enfold deep ideological and political commitments which require a whole host of presumptions about justice and how best to achieve it.” While the rule of law is assumed to govern from a neutral public space that has transcended ideological and political particularities, the hegemony of rule of law discourse should not be taken as a mark of neutrality. It would be a mistake to remove the rule of law from conversations about power, history, difference, and governance.

The same may be said of secularism.

Read The specific order of difficulty of religion.
March 7th, 2014

“After the Shipwreck”: Interpreting religion in international relations

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Having been invited to reflect upon the themes of this forum, first raised during the European University Institute (EUI) workshop “Beyond Critique,” I hope the reader will not mind if I begin my essay with a story about shipwrecks.

In a now-famous talk, the Columbia University historian Carol Gluck suggestively argued that history finds itself, temporally and conceptually, “after the shipwreck.” The “shipwreck,” for Gluck, stands as a metaphor for the destruction of the major metanarratives (scientific objectivism, progress, modernity, chronological linearity, historical materialism, the nation) and paradigms (Marxism, Liberalism, Nationalism) that have underpinned much of modern historiography. The deconstruction of such metanarratives is inseparable from the scholarly turn to critical theory, post-structuralism, and post-colonial approaches to the study of history starting in the late 1980s.

Read “After the Shipwreck”: Interpreting religion in international relations.
March 4th, 2014

Beyond religious nationalism

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When Pope John Paul II visited Poland in 1979, he used his addresses and homilies to speak of faith and the moral renewal of the country, and of human dignity and religious freedom. Millions of Poles responded to his words with hymns and prayers. But aside from carrying crosses, they also waved Polish flags. For them, the pope’s appeals to the dignity of the human person did not resonate in an abstract theological sense, but within concrete historical experience: their opposition to Marxist atheism and Russian control, and their commitment to preserving the Catholic identity of the Polish nation.

Read Beyond religious nationalism.
February 25th, 2014

Beyond religio-secularism: Toward a political critique

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On July 24, 2013, a “Letter to the Prime Minister of Turkey” was published as an ad in the British newspaper The Times. It was signed by an illustrious group that included showbiz celebrities, such as Sean Penn, Ben Kingsley, and David Lynch; popular academic writers, such as Andrew Mango, known for his Ataturk biography; and notorious secularists, such as the Turkish composer Fazıl Say. The letter was part of the international contestation over the correct interpretation of the Gezi protests, which began in the last days of May 2013. After likening a government-organized rally against the Gezi protests and in support of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to the Nazis’ Nuremberg rally, even calling Erdoğan’s rule “dictatorial”, the letter continues as follows: “[Y]ou described these protesters as tramps, looters and hooligans, even alleging they were foreign-led terrorists. Whereas, in reality, they were nothing but youngsters wanting Turkey to remain a Secular Republic as designed by its founder Kemal Ataturk.” As exemplified in this letter, public reactions in the West tended to emphasize the purportedly secularist motivation behind the protests in opposition to a government whose authoritarianism was supposedly connected to its religious views.

Read Beyond religio-secularism: Toward a political critique.
February 18th, 2014

Religion in European migration studies

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In recent years, religion has come back to the research agenda of the European social sciences with full strength. Important authors such as José Casanova, Timothy A. Byrnes, and Peter J. Katzenstein have identified this renewed interest in the topic, both in politics and in academia, as a “return of religion” to European public spheres. One of the chief reasons for the return of religion in the view of these sociologists is the large influx of non-secularized populations to Europe through immigration. In particular, conflicts surrounding Islam and the practices of Muslim immigrants have attracted enormous attention both in the media and in academia.

Read Religion in European migration studies.
February 13th, 2014

The theology blind spot

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I have always been puzzled by the fact that Charles Taylor starts his book A Secular Age with a long quote from Bede Griffith in order to describe a religious type of experience. It is the description of a scene experienced by the author as a school-boy: trees are blossoming, birds are singing, the author has the sensation that angels are present and that God is looking down on him. My question is: Why this quote? Why choose an image and a language of sunset, trees and birds in order to describe something for which the different languages of theology have worked out precise and elaborate codifications? I understand, of course, that in the context of the introduction to A Secular Age, Taylor uses this quote in order to make a soft claim to the human openness to experiences of transcendental nature. He uses the rest of the eight-hundred pages of the book to explore why it has become increasingly rare and difficult in our secular age to live these kinds of experiences, let alone to look for them in the context of an organized religious tradition. Most of us, he says, live our lives in an “immanent frame” and religious belief “has become one option among many.”

Read The theology blind spot.
February 11th, 2014

The secular in non-Western societies

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The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the wider Islamist movement of which it is an instance, are in many ways a secular phenomenon. If we define “secularity” not only as the weakening of religious belief, but also as the idea that faith becomes one option among others; and “secularization” as the process of institutional and functional differentiation of modern state structures and the resultant marginalization of religious authority, then the Brotherhood, similarly to other Islamist entities, can be seen as a product of modernity and the “secular age.” This transpires in two ways. First, for the Brotherhood, “Islam” is an identifiable set of beliefs that can be actively implemented and used as guidelines to reform society. Second, the parameters of the political order it proposes are defined by the context of the secular, modern nation-state.

Read The secular in non-Western societies.
February 5th, 2014

Three approaches to the study of religion

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Is religion a valid category of scholarly inquiry? In this post, I briefly set out three distinct approaches to the study of religion: criticizing religion, upholding religion and disaggregating religion. Although I cannot make the full case here, I sketch a preliminary defense of the third approach, in the context of recent debates in political theory.

By “criticizing religion,” I mean not the critique of the beliefs or practices of self-described religious individuals or groups but rather the critique of the concept of religion as a scholarly category. According to a number of scholars (often influenced by Foucauldian or post-colonial thought), the category of religion is deeply implicated in the history and practice of western statism and imperialism. The only appropriate scholarly stance towards this object is one that is critical and skeptical.

Read Three approaches to the study of religion.