Rethinking secularism

March 7th, 2014

“After the Shipwreck”: Interpreting religion in international relations

posted by

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.

March 4th, 2014

Beyond religious nationalism

posted by

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.

February 25th, 2014

Beyond religio-secularism: Toward a political critique

posted by

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.

February 18th, 2014

Religion in European migration studies

posted by

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.

February 13th, 2014

The theology blind spot

posted by

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.”

February 11th, 2014

The secular in non-Western societies

posted by

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.

February 5th, 2014

Three approaches to the study of religion

posted by

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.

December 20th, 2013

Modernity, enchantment, and Fictionalism

posted by

The stern visage of Max Weber looms over discussions of modernity and enchantment, as does the sunnier countenance of Charles Taylor. Perhaps they should be joined by the open faced, bluntly spoken, and allegedly poker wielding Ludwig Wittgenstein. This choice might seem counter-intuitive. Wittgenstein did not write much about enchantment, and is more often considered a disenchanter who used the tools of philosophy to dispel illusions brought about by linguistic misuse. As he wrote, “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.”

July 1st, 2013

Is absolute secularity conceivable?

posted by

Is absolute secularity conceivable? The question arises from the paradoxical intuition that the secularization thesis is simultaneously both right and muddled. Perhaps the most fundamental problem with the broader secularization thesis (which I take to claim that, over the past half-millennium or so, Western society has undergone a systemic diminution of religious practice) is that it isn’t clear what the non-secular is. After all, it can be extended from those beliefs and practices that avowedly depend on religious revelation to those that affirm some form of transcendentalism, though they may make no room for God as such. But for a long time both radical atheists and Christian apologists have argued that what looks as if it is secular through and through may not, in fact, be secular at all.

June 10th, 2013

Occupy Gezi, beyond the religious-secular cleavage

posted by

Photo by Deniz DemirThe protests in Turkey started on May 27 with a modest resistance movement against the destruction of Istanbul’s Gezi Park and the planned construction, in its place, of a replica of the Ottoman artillery barracks that formerly stood there (which, however, was also to include a shopping mall). The Occupy Gezi movement has since grown exponentially and spread to other Turkish cities, largely in response to police brutality and to the inflammatory speeches of Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The unprecedented scope and duration of the protests—and, even more importantly, the emergent movement’s pluralistic composition and inclusive political style—make it a genuinely new phenomenon in the ninety-year history of the Republic.