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March 27th, 2015

Is ISIS Islamic? Why it matters for the study of Islam

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Recent months have witnessed considerable angst in the academy over what is and isn’t Islam(ic). Spurred by events from the attacks in Paris to Graeme Wood’s Atlantic article on ISIS, scholars of Islam have agonized over whether and how to apply the label “Islamic” or “Muslim” to characterize recent events. Reviewing various commentaries, there is a limited range of arguments that, by proffering competing positivist accounts of the Islamic, thereby play into a climate of moral panic about the threat Islam poses to domestic and international orders. By playing into the moral panic, such arguments, in the aggregate, preclude both critical interrogation of the scholarly production on Islam and Muslims and reflection on the possible contribution Islamic studies can make to advanced research more broadly.

I suggest that the study of Islam holds out the promise of a two-pronged capacity for critique. On the one hand, and as scholarship has already shown, the study of Islam allows critique of Muslim elites of varying political persuasions who claim an Islamic mantle. On the other hand, and most salient for North American producers and consumers of Islamic scholarship, the study of Islam offers a powerful vehicle for both interrogating the questions and parochializing the assumptions that inform North American scholarly production on Islam and much more.

Recent arguments on whether ISIS is Islamic reveal two approaches to defining and studying Islam and “the Muslim”: (a) an originalism that runs the risk of pushing Islam out of history, and (b) a representative liberal-cum-protestantism that, by reading the Muslim subject both atomistically and representatively, either upholds or subverts an aggrandizing state.

Rather than asking whether ISIS is Islamic or not, the better question is why it matters so much and to whom. To ask this question, though, requires that “we” (i.e. producers of knowledge on Islam) interrogate our understandings of religion, politics, law, reason, and the state, and the consequences that follow when we encounter others whose different understandings appear to be the inverse of our own. At its most provocative, the study of Islam, as Dipesh Chakrabarty might say, allows us to provincialize categories that we take for granted, and even to recognize the “us” in the “them.”

Is ISIS Islamic? A typology of arguments

The typology of arguments offered in response to Wood’s article might best be understood as Weberian “ideal types,” such that any actual argument will traverse the neat categories delineated below. But as Anthony Kronman reminds us, even in their unreality, ideal types illuminate what is at stake.

“ISIS is Islamic” I

One version of the claim that ISIS is Islamic focuses on their invocation of pre-modern Islamic scriptural and legal texts and concepts; this is what many claim is Wood’s principal argument. ISIS’s own leadership would probably make this argument. In its decree on the Christians of Raqqa, for instance, ISIS invoked pre-modern rules on the dhimmi (non-Muslim permanent residents) when it imposed the jizya (historical poll tax).

One cannot deny that ISIS’s language, concepts, and intertextual references have a pedigree in the Islamic tradition; to suggest, however, that the authentic meaning of Islam is captured by (literal) references to texts unduly reduces the dynamism of Islam across time and space and reflects an Orientalist predisposition to view and construct Islam solely by reference to texts and their demands upon the believer. As Naomi Davidson has brilliantly shown in her book Only Muslim, to reduce Islam—and thereby Muslims—to the ritual requirements that the Islamic textual tradition places on them saturates the Muslim with an exclusive “Muslimness” that can be seen as an analog to how some perceive race (e.g. natural, self-evident, unyielding), thus subjecting Muslims to the all-too-familiar dynamics of state regulation amid racialized politics.

“ISIS is Islamic” II

The second argument for considering ISIS Islamic relies on the fact that some Muslims support ISIS and consider it Islamic. Media accounts are rife with stories about young Muslims leaving North America and Europe to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq; the Atlantic story, in fact, features an interview with such a person. In the study of Islam, this focus on the experience of individual Muslims resonates with a turn in North American religious studies in general, and Islamic studies in particular, toward the anthropological and, more specifically, the ethnographic. Ethnographers, trained in participant-observer methods, increasingly dominate the study of Islam in North America. While ethnography offers important insights, it also has its own politics, such as an implicit (if not explicit) reaction against both the Orientalist priority of philology and an older style of anthropology that treated its subjects as primitive and unmodern. If the first argument is premised on the centrality of an Islamic textual tradition, this second argument is premised on the centrality of the voices of ethnographic Muslim subjects, as documented in field notes, and from which generalizations are made to construct “Muslim” as a group identifier.

Importantly, though, the ethnographization of the Islamic or the Muslim reveals a representative liberal-cum-protestant mode of analysis. Representative, in that the views of individual subjects are generalized as applicable to a group. Liberal, in that the ethnographic subject, before being ethnographized, maps neatly onto the atomized rights-holder subjected to state law. Protestant, in that what counts as Islamic is what any given believer says or does, without reference to an institutional or clerical authority. According to this approach, religion is analyzed atomistically, but is made to represent something more collective; given this, when Muslims in North America and Europe—however few they may be—claim that ISIS is Islamic, their claim is taken as authoritative, representative of a more general or widespread consensus. And when individual Muslims espouse ISIS-like ideology, or commit lone-wolf acts of aggression (as in Ottowa and Paris), they are viewed as anything but individuals. These Muslims represent, in their embodied performances and utterances, the threat of more violence to come, thereby providing support for those political elites who demand policies that would expand and enhance the already securitized state.

“ISIS is not Islamic” I

The first type of skeptical argument is simply the mirror image of the first “ISIS is Islamic” position: it defines Islam by reference to historical pedigree and replicates many of the same assumptions about where and what the Islamic is, but focuses on the various ways in which ISIS departs from the norms contained in an Islamic textual tradition that is presumed to capture the full normative content of Islam. According to this argument, whether something is or isn’t Islamic depends largely on its fidelity to (as opposed to simple invocation of) the textual tradition; ISIS is not Islamic, because it departs from an accepted literary canon of authoritative texts, misconstrues that canon, or cherry-picks from that canon without regard to the whole.

“ISIS is not Islamic” II

These skeptics vehemently distance Muslims and/or Islam from ISIS; their argument relies on the fact that Muslims around the world have condemned ISIS. Given the sheer number of Muslims who disavow ISIS’s brutal practices, so the argument goes, it is outrageous to suggest that ISIS is Islamic. But this reference to what Muslims do or say is, again, the mirror image of the second “ISIS is Islamic” argument—a representative liberal-cum-protestant approach, except that, in democratic fashion, the majority rules. A slightly different version of this argument asserts that Muslim scholars around the world have condemned ISIS. These authorities on Islam presumably embody a professional training (and thereby an intellectual elitism), which makes their voices count far more than ordinary Muslims and ISIS leaders, let alone untrained media pundits. Their voices, so the argument goes, carry considerable weight in defining what is and is not Islamic. This is more akin to a representative liberal-cum-high church approach that invokes the voice of certain Muslims who presume representative authority by virtue of their scholarly credentials, though without occupying a formal institutional office, such as the Vatican or Lambeth Palace.

These four arguments offer important insights into how scholars frame their understanding of “Islam” and the “Muslim.” But they also betray a missed opportunity to reflect on the value of studying Islam as a mode of critique in the North American academy. The first version of both conclusions associates the “Islamic” with the historical and textual. What counts as Islamic today (and thereby, as Muslim) are those acts and people who manifest some continuity with or loyalty to that earlier tradition. Discontinuity (or disaffection), on this mode of analysis, implies that one falls outside the ambit of the Islamic. As a historian I am not convinced that separating continuity from discontinuity is possible because attention to both necessarily situates Islam in history rather than out of history. If the study of Islam is to be more than antiquarianism, then one cannot discount the discontinuities with the past as having a claim on the label “Islamic” without running the risk of treating Islam as an artifact.

The second versions of both conclusions draw upon a view of religious experience in which the voices of individuals (whether many or few) stand on their own and are made to stand for the group, thereby collapsing the individual and the group. But analytically reading the Muslim subject as the collective “Muslim” precludes the possibility of answering definitively whether or not ISIS is Islamic, given the epistemic implications of sample size. The ethnographized account of the Muslim is made at a time when Muslims are under increased surveillance and scrutiny. For the political right, that surveillance and scrutiny reflects a view of Muslims as potential threats, based on what a limited sample of Muslims have said or done. For the political left, that surveillance and scrutiny are palpably unfair, again, based on what a limited sample of Muslims have said or done. To characterize these two arguments as representative liberal-cum-protestant is thereby to reveal their underlying politics about the state. Ethnographizing particular Muslims’ experiences to generalize about Muslims as a group or Islam as a religion can either uphold or subvert the securitization narrative that has informed so many states since the events of 9/11.

From Moral Panic to Islamic Studies as Critique

After the tragic events of 9/11, some universities and colleges immediately expanded their institutional capacity to teach and research about Islam and Muslims. Given this, it is not surprising that the stakes in the scholarly debate on ISIS and Islam concern the haunting specter of security and/in the state. Indeed, the arguments noted above either create moral panic (“ISIS is Islamic”) or refuse moral panic (“ISIS is not Islamic”) at a time when North American and European states are deciding courses of action in Iraq. But the moral panic principally provides cover to real-time decision-making processes that would otherwise have to account for a much more complex—and less flattering for all sides—political, economic, and social history of dispossession of those who now live in ISIS’ shadow. This dispossession has taken various forms, such as colonial administration in the service of an industrializing Europe hungry for natural resources; or the authoritarian nightmares that took the place of wishful anti-colonial dreams.

For the study of Islam to be a vehicle for expanding the scope of advanced scholarship, scholars of Islam might find greater intellectual payoff by focusing on the contest over definition, why it matters as much as it does, and to whom. Arguably, this contest over definition has everything to do with managing the borders between “us” and “them,” and determining what those borders imply about international aid, security and torture, and of course, war.

For instance, suppose instead of asking whether ISIS is Islamic, we were to say that ISIS is as much Islamic as it is a product of broken promises at the end of the British and French mandates; ISIS is as much Islamic as it is a product of the American interventions in Iraq; ISIS’s brutality is as Islamic as the Ku Klux Klan’s lynching of Black Americans was Christian, both Islam and Christianity having been used to justify violent brutality. To baldly pose these claims is to reveal the parochialisms that frame debates on Islam and Muslims, that inform certain politics of belonging and difference (read, Fox News), and that bolster the state policies that flow therefrom (e.g. Shari’a legislative bans).

To reveal these parochialisms illuminates how the arguments for and against moral panic artificially reduce the debate on ISIS to an unhelpful zero-sum game of Islamic/unIslamic. The label of “Islam(ic)” in the case of ISIS might be better appreciated as what James Scott in Domination and the Arts of Resistance would call a “hidden transcript” that is now made public. Scott writes about how the oppressed hew to “public transcripts” that might appear as their contented resignation to the status quo. But when they are able to avoid detection, the dominated employ “hidden transcripts” (like dragging one’s feet) to quietly subvert that same status quo.

But what happens when the dominated no longer want their hidden transcript to remain hidden? Unlike Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Manwhere the main character retreats from the public to find solace in a space all his own—perhaps ISIS’s followers either could not yield the public sphere to the status quo, or could not (in the wake of US invasions, the humiliations of Abu Ghraib, or the trauma of torture) find solace in a private space of their own. Suffering from domination, humiliation, and/or trauma—or co-opting others’ suffering to dramatize their own middling discontent—their invocation of Islam offers the language by which they can now transform their hidden, grumbling dissatisfaction about the status quo (whether in the Arab world or in the West) into an explosively subversive public transcript.

But by transforming their hidden transcript into a ferociously successful public one, ISIS has become the oppressor. Drawing again upon Scott’s “transcripts,” dominant powers both employ and often define the terms of the public transcript to which the oppressed must yield if they are to survive. ISIS’s public transcript of an Islam that sanctions violent spectacle has certainly created sufficient compliance for purposes of (per)forming its state.

ISIS’s violent spectacles in the name of Islam remind us that religiously justified violence is part of our shared history. As another Atlantic article recalled, Confederate leaders in the US Civil War invoked Christian justifications for slavery to legitimate the South’s utterly violent pursuit of secession. As much as we tell ourselves (hi)stories about nationalism and the self-determination of peoples, we cannot ignore how they—just like the question about ISIS and Islam—distract us from the unrepentant, spectacularly violent birth of a state. In the case of ISIS, though, the violence retorts the violence that preceded it. The history of ISIS is a history of political violence. And some of it was ours, which is presumably what ISIS, through its public transcript, wants us to repent.

If Islam is the language of ISIS’s public transcript, though, Scott notes that even oppressors have hidden transcripts. ISIS’s intentional and deliberate use of social media ought to alert us precisely to the likelihood that there is much we are not permitted to see. To dispute whether ISIS is or is not Islamic assumes the exclusiveness of ISIS’s public transcript as the only transcript. ISIS’s hidden transcript, though, will remain hidden for as long as we remain focused on whether ISIS is Islamic or not.

March 23rd, 2015

Religious freedom at Religion Dispatches

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As part of a joint project between The Immanent Frame and Religion Dispatches, RD contributing editor Austin Dacey has written a series of posts on religious freedom in the United States. His latest piece tackles Winnifred Fallers Sullivan’s “The impossibility of religious freedom” and potential alternate regimes for legislating religious freedom in the United States:

For those opposed to the regime of religious freedom, the question is what could replace it. Is there a system that would be morally preferable yet also administratively implementable? Although her recent article doesn’t address it, Sullivan’s 2005 book of the same name closes by gesturing towards an alternative.

Under this legal regime, religious individuals and communities would “have to make arguments for the special legal accommodation of difference to legislative bodies.” Those making a case for “differential treatment would be required to make a very strong showing, as in race cases, of past discrimination or present need, to justify special legal treatment.” While these remarks are promising and suggestive, they do not constitute a workable theory. Attempts to construct such a theory—and attempts to show that there could be no such theory—presently preoccupy much legal scholarship. Insofar as there is no feasible alternative to a regime of “religious freedom,” Koppelman’s larger challenge remains in force: Religious freedom may be impossible, but compared to what?

Dacey has also written about the impact of the Holt v. Hobbs and Hobby Lobby decisions, the concept of corporate personhood, and the differences between religious non-profit and for-profit companies.

This collaboration with Religion Dispatches is made possible by funding from the Henry Luce Foundation.

March 10th, 2015

CFP: Freedom of (and from) Religion

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The Department of Religious Studies at the University of California-Santa Barbara, with support from the Cordano Endowment in Catholic Studies, will host a conference on “Freedom of (and from) Religion: Debates Over the Accommodation of Religion in the Public Sphere” from April 30 to May 2, 2015. The keynote speaker will be Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, Professor and Chair, Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University-Bloomington, and Affiliated Professor of Law, Maurer School of Law. Full details in the call below:

Accommodation of religion in the public sphere has often been a source of contention in the American context. Historically the Supreme Court of the United States has made clear that the separation of church and state must be preserved at almost all cost. However, this position has been increasingly challenged over the last thirty years. Since the Equal Access Act was legislated in 1984 –which guaranteed public school student groups, whether religious or secular, equal access to meeting spaces and school publications — the practice of public accommodation has burgeoned. And the very legislation that Christian groups lobbied for in order to insure that high school students could hold after-school Bible study groups on public school property was subsequently also used to insure the right to form gay student alliances and to form campus groups that focused on any religion or on secularism. In a similar vein, laws guaranteeing religious freedom have been used to demand accommodations of religious objections to, and exemptions from, valid public policy (e.g., the Affordable Care Act). These and many other examples suggest that accommodation has become a new front in the culture wars and implicate important questions about freedom from religion as well as the freedom to act on the basis of religious beliefs.We invite papers that engage with the theme of public accommodation of religion, particularly as it comes into conflict with the values of equality and/or nondiscrimination. The conference will explore this topic from various disciplinary standpoints, such as history, law, political science, religious studies, sociology, ethics, public policy, or others. Possible topics may include, but are not limited to:

  • the projected effects of the Hobby Lobby decision for RFRA laws at federal and state levels
  • how religious freedom is represented through various types of media, including social media
  • how a variety of religions and denominations have been understood in legal cases
  • critical perspectives on concepts of religious freedom, freedom of conscience and accommodation
  • ramifications for health care, public safety, the workplace and other issues we’re facing today
  • the various ways in which law intersects with religion and health care.

We welcome proposals from established scholars, graduate students, and independent researchers.

The deadline is rapidly approaching so please send an abstract of 300 words to Kathleen Moore at kmoore@religion.ucsb.edu by March 13, 2015. The PDF of the full call for papers can be found here.

February 23rd, 2015

Religion in Britain: Demography, identity, and the public sphere

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At Public Spirit, to coincide with the publication of the second edition of Grace Davie’s Religion in Britain, Tariq Modood comments on three significant changes in demography, identity, and the public sphere that are going to characterize the next few decades and perhaps beyond:

…when historians look back at the post-war Commonwealth immigration they will note of course the ethnic transformation…but also note the religious transformation of this country that no one at the time foresaw. These two transformations are working their effects across so many features of social, economic and political life but one which I think we have been slow to recognise is what it means in terms of the place of religion and belief in British public life. Unfortunately, for too many politicians and others this question is too dominated by issues of extremism, violence and terrorism. Such phenomena are exceptional and it is a great mistake to judge religion, not to mention Muslims and Islam, in such fearful terms. We need to think of not just the harm that some militants can do but about the good that religion has to offer, not just to individuals but to communities and society as a whole; not just about religious minorities as fringe movements but about their place in the mainstream.

Read the full article here.

February 22nd, 2015

Frequencies

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Some readers may have recently returned to Frequencies only to find that its spiritual focus had radically shifted. Due to hijinks (perhaps predictable) relating to transitory labor, scholarly ignorance, and the virtualization of just about everything, the original site has experienced foreclosure. Its contents will soon be reconstituted in new http territory.

Which is to say that the original Frequencies domain is now in the hands of a self-described “growth hacker” who has replaced our “collaborative genealogy of spirituality” with the “mejores webs de porno en español,” so we’re setting up an archival edition at a new URL. As soon as the site is settled in at its new location, we will let you know. Stay tuned for the resurrection.

We apologize for any inconvenience.

Yours,
The Frequencies Collective

February 20th, 2015

The ISIS shock doctrine

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The rapid and shockingly violent establishment of a self-declared Islamic Caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq by The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), rebranded in 2014 as The Islamic State (IS), has led to what Issam Eido describes as an explosion of narratives about ISIS, many of which seek a doctrinal basis for its beliefs and behavior from within the Islamic tradition.

Given the emphasis that ISIS places on promoting its austere brand of Islam, symbolized by the stark black and white of its ubiquitous flag, it is not surprising that many accounts subsume ISIS under the doctrines of Salafism, a backward-looking reformist current within Sunni Islam hostile to perceived deviations from the Islam allegedly practiced by the Prophet Muhammad and his successors. ISIS’s emphasis on a purified Islam and its hostility to Shia Islam and other allegedly “apostate” traditions have led others to link its Salafism with Wahhabism, the conservative eighteenth century Islamic revival movement that is the foundation of the modern Saudi State. The New York Times asserts that ISIS has “clear roots” in Wahhabism and British diplomat Alastair Crooke contends that ISIS shouldbe seen as a corrective movement within Wahhabism due to its revolutionary rejection of the offiial Wahhabism of the Saudi State.

But as Alireza Doostdar points out, any account of the ambitions and behavior of ISIS cannot end with the doctrines of Salafism or Wahhabism because actors labeled Salafi or Wahhabi frequently promote opposing political agendas and have diverse orientations towards action and violence. His reasoning is that Salafism is at root more a theological orientation than a blueprint for action, particularly when it comes to organized violence. Thus, Doostdar concludes: “Focusing on doctrinal statements would have us homogenizing the entirety of ISIS’S military force as fighters motivated by an austere and virulent form of Salafi Islam. This is how ISIS wants us to see things, and it is often the view propagated by mainstream media.”

By contrast, when one considers what ISIS is actually doing in practice—waging a protracted and violent insurgency in various locations and phases that aims to undermine existing authorities and establish zones of control—it becomes clear that the ambitions and behavior of ISIS have less to do with doctrines derived from the Qur’an or the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad than with the strategic doctrines of Mao Zedong, Che Guevara and the tradition of revolutionary insurgent warfare in the twentieth century, dressed up for the information age. While ISIS may have a Salafist orientation, they are also a revolutionary insurgent organization. As the political scientist Stathis N. Kalyvas notes, “There is nothing particularly Islamic or jihadi about the organization’s violence. The practices described above have been used by a variety of insurgent (and also incumbent) actors in civil wars across time and space.” In other words, the twenty-first century Sunni Salafist insurgents of ISIS may have added a new chapter to the modern theory and practice of insurgent warfare; a hybrid blend of the sacred and profane.

Insurgent Genealogies

As a growing number of analysts have pointed out, the doctrinal basis for the insurgent ambitions and behavior of ISIS, including its use of spectacular and shocking violence, can be traced to the jihadist military strategy text entitled The Management Of Savagery (Idarah al-Tawahhush) first posted on-line in 2004 under the pseudonym of “Abu Bakr Naji”. Since then, this text has become a doctrinal touchstone of many Sunni jihadists involved in insurgencies, including the al-Shabaab in Somalia and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Close observers of radical Islamist movements such as Lawrence Wright, Michael Ryan, and Alastair Crooke have all noted a strong correlation between ISIS actions and behaviors in Iraq and Syria and the strategic doctrine prescribed in The Management of Savagery.

The Management of Savagery is a distillation of writings and postings that compose what could be referred to as the emergent field of “jihadi security studies,” which arose in response to Al-Qaeda’s chief strategist and current leader Ayman Zawahiri’s call for new strategic and military thinking after the fall of Al-Qaeda’s safe haven in Afghanistan in 2002. As Michael Ryan explains in his useful book Decoding Al-Qaeda’s Strategy, the writings of a distinctive genealogy of jihadist military thinkers such as Abu Ubayd al-Qurashi, the military tactician Abd al-Aziz al-Muqrin; and broader strategists like Abu Bakr Naji and Abu Musab al-Suri, among others, increasingly inform the practice of militant Islamist groups and fighters.

While these authors situate themselves and their work within a broadly Salafist vision of Islam, their core assertions primarily draw upon the strategic doctrines of communist and leftist insurgents such as Mao, Che and Western theorists of insurgent warfare, the most consistently cited of which is Robert Taber’s The War of the Flea. This work counsels revolutionary actors to develop unconventional forms of protracted political-military conflict that include guerrilla warfare, psychological warfare, and political mobilization designed to weaken government control and legitimacy while increasing insurgent control and legitimacy. In addition, they reference heterodox American military thinkers such as William S. Lind and Thomas X. Hammes and their concept of Fourth Generation War (4GW), which prescribes using information-age media networks to convince opponents that their strategic goals are unachievable or too costly.

In order to legitimate their reliance upon communist and atheist traditions of revolutionary and insurgent warfare, many of these writers make a distinction between “time tested” principles or “universal laws” (sunan kawniyyah) of military or political behavior and “divine laws” based on sacred texts or traditions. Abu Bakr Naji, for example, urges successful jihadists to embrace the latest writings on military science, administrative science, and economics drawn from Western and non-Western sources. Naji implies that, provided they do not contradict the sharia and are used to establish a purified Islamic state, every rule of warfare and politics does not need a specific justification in the sharia.

Naji’s Savage Shock Doctrine

In its particular contribution to “jihadi security studies,” The Management of Savagery provides what Will McCants and Jarret Brachman call the “playbook” for what is referred in these writings as “regional jihad”: the attempt to seize territory within the Muslim world and establish a self-governing Islamic state in a sea of hostile opponents backed by the West.

In order to do this, Naji’s strategic doctrine echoes Mao’s familiar three-phase theory of revolutionary warfare in which the insurgent organization can be in one or all phases simultaneously. In the first phase, the Islamist insurgent actor seeks to create or exploit “regions of savagery” through violent or shocking actions that collapse central authority or state control via “damage and exhaustion.” The second phase establishes primitive forms of government to “manage” such “regions of savagery,” which he claims would be accepted by shell-shocked people desperate for security. These forces would gradually expand government services while engaging in even more shocking violence in order to extend the “regions of savagery” and defend them. The final phase is the transition from the “administration of savagery” in various regions to a fully governed Islamic state under a Salafist version of Islamic law.

What is distinctive in Naji’s doctrine is his emphasis on shocking and spectacular violence as an asymmetric warfare strategya jihadist shock doctrine. One of most important lessons of Robert Tabler’s The War of the Flea is that insurgent actions must always mobilize a population to side with their cause. In a chapter dedicated to “Using Violence,” Naji emphasizes that shocking violence is not only effective for recruitment and instilling fear, but that it is the primary means to create a society-wide crisis that will polarize the population and drag everyone into the battle. Naji contends that, “We must make this battle very violent, such that death is a heartbeat away, so that the two groups will realize that entering this battle will frequently lead to death. That will be a powerful motive for the individual to choose to fight in the ranks of the people of truth in order to die well, which is better than dying for falsehood and losing both this world and the next.”

From the perspective of Naji’s strategic framework, then, in parts of Syria and Iraq today ISIS is in the process of moving from the first phase of creating or exploiting “regions of savagery” to the second phase of crudely administering these “regions of savagery” and has even taken the initial step of declaring the caliphate in Mosul. In this second phase, ISIS is engaging in the process of internal pacification, providing basic services and establishing Islamic justice as well as “plundering the financial resources” for the purposes of becoming financially self-sufficient. This second phase of “managing savagery” is also characterized by even more shocking violence in order to deepen chaotic conditions, especially in response to its opponents. Naji argues that countries who bomb or attack the Islamist insurgents should be made to “pay the price” — meaning some form of retribution — which we are seeing today in such gruesome acts as beheading hostages or attacking opponents abroad.

Syncretic Insurgents

This novel blending of doctrinal orientations and prescriptions from both the Salafist tradition of Islam and twentieth century communist and leftist traditions of revolutionary warfare, updated for the information agea hybrid combination of divine law given by God and the allegedly universal laws of revolutionary politics and warfare—has led some observers to see ISIS as an incongruous comingling, more contradiction than consequence.

Some like Brian Fishman, for example, cast doubt on the compatibility of blending these two traditions“Che Guevara warmed over for jihadis”while Hussein Ibish highlights the ideological contradiction between communist and Salafist ideals, in a useful article accusing ISIS of plundering Mao’s playbook. The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek argues that despite their claims to religious purity, ISIS actually embodies a very modern form of nihilism in which their zealous embrace of brutality even up to their own violent self-destruction reveals a lack of true conviction or faith, making them, in his words, a “disgrace to true fundamentalism.”

But rather than constituting a lack or contradiction, it may be the case that the hybrid doctrine at the root of ISIS simply reflects what Navid Karmani in an earlier discussion of al-Qaeda calls the “explosive synchronicity of non-synchronous elements” in a world where no space remains untouched by hypermediated and globalized information-age capitalism. Like other many other syncretic actors in contemporary global society, both violent and not, ISIS has taken “isolated features from one’s own tradition” and “combined them with foreign as well as with modern elements, images and structures of thought” to construct a tradition “combined with borrowings from a past which isn’t even their own, plus elements which are completely and utterly contemporary.” Paraphrasing Karmani, the hybrid doctrines of ISIS may actually represent a form of belief and action that can spring up anywhere today, given a set of violent conditions and grievances to work with.

In this sense, then, the search for the doctrinal roots of ISIS must also locate its origins in what Alireza Doostdar refers to as the “ecology of cruelty” in Iraq over the past decade resulting from the neoconservative Bush administration’s implementation of what Naomi Klein has described as its own “Shock Doctrine”: exploiting the public’s disorientation following massive collective shockswars, terrorist attacks, or natural disastersto impose unpopular policies. Klein contends that the Bush administration adopted a year zero strategy when invading Iraq that deliberately collapsed the Iraqi state and society and created what Naji would term “zones of savagery” that it sought to “manage” through the likes of Paul Bremer, Ahmad Chalibi and the U.S. military. But as Klein observes, this strategy “has transformed Iraq into the mirror opposite of what the neocons envisioned: not a corporate utopia but a ghoulish dystopia, where going to a simple business meeting can get you lynched, burned alive, or beheaded.” More than any text or doctrinal tradition, this is the fertile ground that is at the root of the shocking doctrines of ISIS.

February 18th, 2015

CFP: Secularism and Secularity

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Now entering its third year, the Secularism and Secularity Program Unit of the American Academy of Religion is going strong and looking forward to another great set of proposals. The call for papers for the 2015 meeting in Atlanta is now available, and the deadline for submissions is March 2nd.

In its first two years, the Secularism and Secularity Group has explored the secular and its precarious, shifting boundary with religion. We now aim to take stock of its lacunae. Our group is especially interested in papers that investigate the secular’s complicated relationship with race and sex/gender. What new spaces has the secular opened up for women and people of color, and what new barriers has it created? What forms of activism does the secular enable that are not available in spaces governed by religious norms, and what forms does it foreclose? How does the divide between secular and religious map onto different kinds of feminism and struggles for rights and recognition? In turn, how do critical analyses of race and sex/gender disrupt that divide? And why are self-avowed nonbelievers disproportionately white and male? We invite paper and session proposals that engage these and related questions through original historical or social scientific research.

We also welcome papers that explore any of the following areas:

Humanisms, religious and secular, historical and contemporary.

The role of the secular in effecting a distinction between economic and religious spheres. For instance, how do “private” and “public” become constructed as religious and secular in the discourse and practice of economic development? And how does law work to disrupt or reinforce these distinctions?

The spiritualization of the secular and the secularization of the spiritual in the context of health, healing, and medicine. For instance, how are certain “spiritual” practices being integrated into “secular” medical settings, and how has secular medical research influenced spiritual and religious practice?

For more information, or to be added to the group’s email list, contact the group’s co-chairs, Joseph Blankholm and Jonathan VanAntwerpen, at secularism.secularity@gmail.com.

February 10th, 2015

Keeping sex sexy: American evangelicalism and the problem of sexuality

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Do Christians have the best sex? What kind of sex is best? And what does sex have to do with salvation?

If you have ever wondered how evangelicals seek to answer these questions, then Amy DeRogatis’s recently published book Saving Sex: Sexuality and Salvation in American Evangelicalism is for you. In Saving Sex, DeRogatis meticulously documents how American evangelicals talk about sex and sexuality. Her primary argument is that evangelicals have long attempted to use sexual practice as a marker of distinction from “secular” American culture. In particular, proper sexual practice becomes a symbol of Christian salvation and is imbued with eternal and spiritual significance, which is intended to testify, or serve as a witness, to a broader public. Despite this, evangelicals are not disconnected from popular American culture. Evangelical authors are eager to prove their cultural relevance, even as they claim the authority of scripture to differentiate themselves from one another and American culture at large.

DeRogatis convincingly shows the seriousness with which evangelicals since the 1970s have set out to prove that Christian sex—that is, sex ordered by “biblical principles”—is the best kind of sex. To do this, evangelical authors and leaders are extremely engaged with wider conversations and social trends, debating and discussing issues such as sexual surrogacy, sexually transmitted diseases and sexual health, reproductive rights and contraception, and the gendered dynamics of sexual desire and pleasure. While reading her text, I was struck by the degree to which evangelicals have long sought to convince themselves and others that their lives, in all dimensions—including sex or lack thereof—differ qualitatively (for the better) from the lives of “secular” others. The irony, of course, is that the sheer volume of evangelical popular literature on sexuality suggests that, when it comes to the mechanics and meaning of sex, believers need extra guidance and support in order to materialize the promise of better sex in their own lives.

Sex and Salvation treats evangelical belief and practice with nuance and seriousness. The book is intended to be accessible to a general audience, and DeRogatis delivers. Her tone is even-handed and sympathetic to the internal contradictions, dilemmas, and desires of evangelicals, as she helps to make sense for outsiders of what might be considered strange or retrograde evangelical beliefs. DeRogatis does an exceptional job of breaking down and analyzing several different streams of evangelical literature, teaching the reader much about the desires, practices, and ideals that shape a significant number of American lives. Chapters deal with purity literature, which promotes an ideal of chastity; Christian sex manuals that extol the benefits of marital sexual pleasure; charismatic “deliverance” literature that warns of the invisible negative effects of illicit sex; and Christian Patriarchy/Quiverfull literature, which focuses on sex for reproduction and teaches total submission (including sexual) of wives to their husbands. The final chapter deals with how these ideas are reframed by African American evangelicals who emphasize themes of sexual redemption and healing.

The inclusion of a final chapter on African American evangelical views, after four chapters of predominantly white evangelical discourse, is important: it underscores the diversity of the evangelical movement, which is often treated as homogeneous, but it also serves to highlight the role of race in American evangelical thought. Careful reading of Saving Sex reveals how American evangelicalism is insidiously wrapped up with the production of whiteness—the cultural processes that work to hold up white practices, beliefs, and ideals as superior, natural, and normal. As many critical race scholars have argued, ideas about sexual propriety cannot be divorced from race. Sexual practices have long been used to differentiate and maintain the lines between white Americans and their racial “others.” Sex and Salvation illustrates how white and black evangelical discourses indirectly reinforce a binary whereby white evangelicals are able to define and police the proper boundaries of respectable sexuality, and African Americans continue to be represented (and to understand themselves) as hypersexual and in need of reform. For example, DeRogatis notes white evangelical obsession with metaphors of purity—the spoken desire for unmarried daughters to remain “lily-white” by practicing self-restraint and marrying a suitable spouse—as well the dominance of military metaphors of attack and defense. By contrast, black evangelical leaders affirm many of these ideals, but tend to assume that their unmarried audience has been, or will be, sexually active. Unlike white evangelicals, they acknowledge complicated sexual histories and work with their audience to remove stigmas associated with sexual impropriety. In short, they preach redemption rather than perfection.

However, the book fails to consider the degree to which white evangelicals might obscure their own investment in racial purity by making “secular” culture their primary point of distinction. Much could also be said, for example, about how an extreme focus on fertility and reproduction by white evangelicals might be tied to broader cultural anxieties regarding the collapse of Western civilization and a white “Christian” America.

White evangelical teachings on sex, sexuality, and gender not only reproduce ideas of racial purity, they also reproduce ideas of the heterosexual nuclear family as normative, and they communicate much about American ambivalence towards things like feminism and science. DeRogatis discusses, for example, how the Christian Patriarchy/Quiverfull movement is almost exclusively white and promoted by self-publishing women who are outside the evangelical mainstream and remain skeptical of male “experts” and science. These women extol the benefits of large families, natural birth, and strict, traditionally defined roles for men and women. This made me wonder how the Quiverfull movement might be understood in relation to other social movements, such as the more secular “New Domesticity” movement, which DeRogatis does not explore. Like Quiverfull writers, the New Domesticity movement also extols the “natural” role of women as caregivers and homemakers. Both movements position themselves as critiques of second wave feminism and appropriate feminist language of empowerment and control to describe their beliefs and values, though an explicit emphasis on patriarchy is unique to Quiverfull thought.

When it comes to the role of gender in evangelical sex talk, DeRogatis’ text raises difficult questions regarding consent and abuse. Just as Sex and Salvation was published, the news was filled with stories of the collapse of Mars Hill church in Seattle and the downfall of its high-profile pastor Mark Driscoll, whom DeRogatis writes much. Driscoll is notorious for his views on sex, marriage, gender, and family. Though Driscoll is best known for his “Christian hedonistic” approach to sex, Sex and Salvation reveals how he is also indebted to many of the ideas and beliefs found in purity and deliverance literature, including the idea of literal “sexual demons.” Many former members of Mars Hill have started to speak out about the destructive impact of the church’s teachings and Driscoll’s leadership.

It is worth noting here that there is a growing “post-purity” discourse among evangelicals that focuses on experiences of trauma and shame tied to evangelical teaching on sex, sexuality, and gender, and psychologists who work in the evangelical world are starting to raise significant questions about the long-term effects of Christian purity movements on adult sexuality. At the same time, many of these reform attempts follow the familiar evangelical model of focusing on (heterosexual) marital sex as the ultimate and most fulfilling form of sexual practice. To extend DeRogatis’ argument, post-purity discourse might be seen as a new way for those identified with evangelicalism to once again define a “Christian” ethic that resonates with broader conversations about sexual health, wellness, and pleasure.

I approached this text curious to learn not just what evangelicals teach and believe about sex, but how their beliefs and teachings are shaped by American culture. DeRogatis shows how Christian sex manuals build on earlier historical material and are influenced by outside events, such as the rise of the sexual liberation and equality movements. The fact that Mark Driscoll and his wife Grace were, in 2011, writing about anal sex, masturbation, and cybersex speaks to the anxiety that evangelicals feel about proving that their vision of biblical sexuality can accommodate a multiplicity of desires, albeit always within a heterosexual marital frame. At the same time, the evangelical focus on the pleasure-giving, unitive, and mystic dimensions of sex is not particular to evangelicals, and DeRogatis makes some fascinating links to the broader therapeutic and wellness culture that began in the 1960s. A next step would be to theorize how secular and evangelical American discourses on sex are related to a shared cultural, political, and historical horizon. I suspect that the desires, ideals, and themes promoted by secular American culture might not always be as far removed from evangelical ideas as evangelicals themselves imagine them to be.

To be fair, DeRogatis is clear in her introduction about what the book is and what it is not: it is primarily a study of evangelical discourse as it is articulated by key figures and not a study of believers’ lived realities. Thus, it would be impossible to expect her to explore all of the issues raised here. But Saving Sex could easily be the starting point for a broader scholarly investigation of contemporary American evangelicalism and sexuality, which could include historical, literary, and ethnographic studies. What is clear from Saving Sex is that popular evangelical literature (formal and informal) is meant to instruct Christians on proper sexual practice, to place shifting notions of sexuality in a theological frame, and to warn believers about the dangers of illicit sexual activity. Evangelical writers take very different approaches to what is considered godly and illicit sex, and herein lies the value of DeRogatis’s work. In showing the diversity of thought within American evangelicalism, she allows evangelicals to emerge as a complex social category whose views on sex have local and global implications.

February 5th, 2015

Norse pagan temple to be built in Iceland

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Roughly a millennium after Christianity overtook Norse paganism, there will soon be a new temple devoted to Odin, Thor, and Frigg overlooking Reykjavík. Ásatrúarfélagið, a religious organization devoted to a contemporary form of Norse paganism, will be building the temple. From The Guardian:

Worship of the gods in Scandinavia gave way to Christianity around 1,000 years ago but a modern version of Norse paganism has been gaining popularity in Iceland.

“I don’t believe anyone believes in a one-eyed man who is riding about on a horse with eight feet,” said Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, high priest of Ásatrúarfélagið, an association that promotes faith in the Norse gods.

“We see the stories as poetic metaphors and a manifestation of the forces of nature and human psychology.”

Membership in Ásatrúarfélagið has tripled in Iceland in the last decade to 2,400 members last year, out of a total population of 330,000, data from Statistics Iceland showed.

Read more about the actual design and building of the temple here.

February 4th, 2015

Conference: Why Prayer? A Conference on New Directions in the Study of Prayer

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January 29th, 2015

CFP and fellowship opportunities

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The Religion Network of the Social Science History Association has announced a call for papers, panels, and book sessions for the 40th annual meeting of the Social Science History Association in Baltimore, Maryland, November 12-15, 2015. The deadline for submissions is February 14th, 2015.

We welcome and encourage papers and panel proposals on a wide array of issues related to the historical study of religion and society. While complete panel proposals (consisting of 4-5 individual papers, a chair, and a discussant) are preferred, we also seek out high-quality individual paper submissions. Panels and papers may address the topics below, or any other relevant and related topic examining religion in a historical context:

Religious Pluralism and Community

Religion, Ethnicity, and Nationalism

Empire, Missions, and Global Religious Encounters

Religious Minorities and the Public Sphere

Religion, Education, and Diversity

Secularization and Secularism

Religious Identities

Religion, Science, and Medicine

Religion and Law

Religion and Genocide

For more information, including contacts and requirements, read more here.

Two full-time Ph.D. research fellowship positions are also available at The Faculty of Theology, University of Oslo. Tentative starting date is April 15, 2015.

1. One research fellowship positions is specifically related to the project The Ambigous Memory of Nordic Protestantism (MEMORY)

The MEMORY project shall take advantage of a comparative Nordic approach, ready at hand, but too seldom applied when studying Nordic religious history. In the project, priority is given to a spatial perspective for analysing and interpreting the specific character of Nordic Protestant tradition, with a focus on three Nordic countries: Denmark, Sweden and Norway.

Theories from Cultural studies on “lieux de mémoire” (Erinnerungsorte) will serve as a point of departure for analysing a) the reformation of religious topography in the 16th and 17th centuries, and b) elite and popular uses of Medieval and Reformation holy places especially in the 19th and 20th centuries in a Nordic context.

The sub-project of a PhD fellowship applicant has to be related to the overall comparative MEMORY research aims, and should have a main research focus on the reformation of religious topography in the Nordic Countries in the 16th and 17th centuries.

For further information, see the project homepage (http://www.tf.uio.no/english/research/projects/memory/) and contact the project manager Tarald Rasmussen

2. One research fellowship positions is specifically related to the project “Good Protestants, bad religion?” (GOBA)

Norwegian debates on religion are often characterized by simple dichotomies. On the one hand, there is a well-established majority Protestant religion which has dominated culture and society for centuries and contributed to the general values of society. On the other hand, Norway (and especially the Oslo region) now also is a society more and more characterized by religious diversity, and in an international media-transmitted perspective religion very often is presented as a negative force, contributing to conflict and challenging common social and political values.

Taking observations like these as a point of departure, the research project “Good protestants, bad religion?” shall take a closer look at ways in which religion is formatted in Norwegian society, and also compare the Norwegian situation to the situation in some other (mainly Protestant) countries in order to better understanding the Norwegian case, but also in order to contributing to the general discussion of religion in modern Protestant societies.

The sub-project of a PhD fellowship applicant is expected to be explicitly related to these overall GOBA research aims and contribute to a better understanding of the specific dynamics of formatting of religion in a Norwegian/North European context. At the same time, the sub-project of an applicant is expected to contribute to the specific research aims of GOBA-Project 1: “Private Religion, Public Affairs“ or GOBA-Project 2: “Formatting Religion beyond the State“.

For more information, including contacts and requirements, read more here.

January 20th, 2015

Opportunity at Connecticut College

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The Department of Religious Studies at Connecticut College has an opening for a visiting assistant professor:

The Department of Religious Studies at Connecticut College seeks a Visiting Assistant Professor in the “Religious Histories of the Americas,” with a focus on Africana/African American religions and/or Latin@/Latin American religions.  The visiting faculty member in Religious Histories of the Americas should have the Ph.D. or equivalent degree completed by the beginning of the Fall of 2015 semester.   The Department seeks candidates with training in interdisciplinary fields, innovative methodologies, critical approaches, and advanced training in religious studies, history, anthropology, American studies or other area studies, global studies, cultural studies, or other comparable units.

Read the full job description here.

January 16th, 2015

A new year at The Immanent Frame

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TIFvatarHappy New Year from The Immanent Frame!

The end of 2014 saw us kicking off a new series on religious freedom in the United States, in response to questions raised by guest editor and contributor Winnifred Fallers Sullivan. Contributions so far have included Sarah Imhoff, Andrew Koppelman, Finbarr Curtis, Amanda Porterfield, Isaac Weiner, and Ronit Y. Stahl, with more to come.

In the book blog, we wrapped up our forum on Thomas Pfau’s Minding the Modern, with contributions from Thomas Joseph White, Borja Vilallonga, Victoria Kahn, Mark Alznauer, Elizabeth Pritchard, Paul Silas Peterson, Charly Coleman, Brad S. Gregory, and a multipart response from Pfau.

Our here & there section continues to feature relevant events, news, essays, and reviews.

As we move into the new year, we are excited to announce a new discussion series on religion and digital culture, which has started with Kathryn Lofton’s “The digital is a place to hide,” Jason Anthony’s “Religion: The Game,” and Austin Dacey’s “How to make someone famous for the wrong reason.” Finally, in addition to new content, we look forward to a site-wide redesign, which is currently in the planning phase.

To keep up with The Immanent Frame in 2015, be sure to follow us on Twitter or subscribe to our RSS feed. You can also find us on Facebook.

January 13th, 2015

The Charlie Hebdo shootings

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On Wednesday, January 7th, two masked assailants stormed the Paris headquarters of the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdokilled 12 people, and wounded 11 others. Police quickly identified 3 suspects—the shooters and a suspected getaway driver. The following day, in a suburb of Paris, a masked gunman (later linked to the brothers suspected of carrying out the magazine massacre) fatally shot a policewoman. By Friday, all three gunmen had been killed in separate hostage situations, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula had claimed responsibility for the attacks, saying that they were intended to teach the French “that the freedom of expression has limits and boundaries.”

For The New Yorker‘s Philip Gourevitch, the attack affirmed the necessity of Charlie Hebdo‘s “loud, lewd, provocative, blasphemous” caricatures and satires.

Ideally, it would never require great courage and commitment to make puerile doodles mocking those whom one perceives to be making a mockery of the things that they purport to hold sacred. But those dead French cartoonists were braver by far than most of us in going up against the deadly foes of our civilization, armed only with a great talent for bilious ridicule. On any given day, we might have scoffed at the seeming crudeness of their jokes, rather than laughing at their jokes on crudity. But the killers proved the cartoonists’ point with ghastly finality: theirs was a necessary, freedom-sustaining, and therefore life-giving, form of defiance. Without it, they knew, we—humankind—are less.

At New York Magazine, Jonathan Chait writes what he sees as the hypocrisy of many who defend “the right to commit blasphemy“:

On the one hand, religious extremists should not threaten people who offend their beliefs. On the other hand, nobody should offend their beliefs. The right to blasphemy should exist but only in theory. They do not believe religious extremists should be able to impose censorship by issuing threats, but given the existence of those threats, the rest of us should have the good sense not to risk triggering them.

The line separating these two positions is perilously thin. The Muslim radical argues that the ban on blasphemy is morally right and should be followed; the Western liberal insists it is morally wrong but should be followed. Theoretical distinctions aside, both positions yield an identical outcome.

The right to blaspheme religion is one of the most elemental exercises of political liberalism. One cannot defend the right without defending the practice.

On a similar note, Emma-Kate Symons, at Quartz, writes:

There can be no compromising on freedom of speech. For the killers there is no compromise.

Now, all we can do is say #JeSuisCharlie.

However, David Brooks has suggested that “it is inaccurate for most of us to claim, Je Suis Charlie Hebdo, or I Am Charlie Hebdo,” since “most of us don’t actually engage in the sort of deliberately offensive humor that that newspaper specializes in.” Still others, like Teju Cole, emphasize that “it is possible to defend the right to obscene and racist speech without promoting or sponsoring the content of that speech,” and call attention to other threats to the freedom of expression.

The Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were not mere gadflies, not simple martyrs to the right to offend: they were ideologues. Just because one condemns their brutal murders doesn’t mean one must condone their ideology.

Rather than posit that the Paris attacks are the moment of crisis in free speech—as so many commentators have done—it is necessary to understand that free speech and other expressions of liberté are already in crisis in Western societies; the crisis was not precipitated by three deranged gunmen. The U.S., for example, has consolidated its traditional monopoly on extreme violence, and, in the era of big data, has also hoarded information about its deployment of that violence. There are harsh consequences for those who interrogate this monopoly. The only person in prison for the C.I.A.’s abominable torture regime is John Kiriakou, the whistle-blower. Edward Snowden is a hunted man for divulging information about mass surveillance. Chelsea Manning is serving a thirty-five-year sentence for her role in WikiLeaks. They, too, are blasphemers, but they have not been universally valorized, as have the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo.

The killings in Paris were an appalling offense to human life and dignity. The enormity of these crimes will shock us all for a long time. But the suggestion that violence by self-proclaimed Jihadists is the only threat to liberty in Western societies ignores other, often more immediate and intimate, dangers. The U.S., the U.K., and France approach statecraft in different ways, but they are allies in a certain vision of the world, and one important thing they share is an expectation of proper respect for Western secular religion. Heresies against state power are monitored and punished. People have been arrested for making anti-military or anti-police comments on social media in the U.K. Mass surveillance has had a chilling effect on journalism and on the practice of the law in the U.S. Meanwhile, the armed forces and intelligence agencies in these countries demand, and generally receive, unwavering support from their citizens. When they commit torture or war crimes, no matter how illegal or depraved, there is little expectation of a full accounting or of the prosecution of the parties responsible.

In the midst of these debates, and the anti-Muslim violence that has followed the shootings, Dilshad Ali, writing at Patheos, gives voice to the frustration of trying to live “lives as good Muslims, good humans,” while attacks like the one on Charlie Hebdo are committed in the name of Islam:

There are so many of us trying so hard to just live our lives as good Muslims, good humans, the way our faith teaches us, the way we learned from the example of the Prophet Muhammad. Peacefully, lovingly, faithfully. In the coming days there will be a rush to opine on the tragedy in Paris, to send prayers, to make the same arguments made a thousand times before, to condemn, to be silent in our sorrow (which doesn’t mean that we don’t condemn), to be vocal in our outrage.

Even now I’m wondering what good there is in writing this, in throwing this out there into the cacophony of screaming voices. Better live my life like I’ve always done – with as much dignity, class, faith, joy and even-handedness as possible. Raise my kids, help my eldest son manage his autism as best possible, be a good mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend, human. Be a living example as best possible for what I know to be good and true. Pray for those whose lives were so violently snuffed out, pray for God’s mercy, pray for His justice to be rained down on those who commit such horrors, pray for humanity.

On Sunday night, millions in Paris and other cities around the world rallied in a show of unity.

Charlie Hebdo will print 3 million copies of Wednesday’s special edition.

December 18th, 2014

Church of England has its first female bishop

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Following a July 2014 vote to allow female bishops, the Church of England has named the Reverend Libby Lane as its first female bishop. Speaking on her appointment, Lane said:

I am grateful for, though somewhat daunted by, the confidence placed in me by the Diocese of Chester. This is unexpected and very exciting. On this historic day as the Church of England announces the first woman nominated to be Bishop, I am very conscious of all those who have gone before me, women and men, who for decades have looked forward to this moment. But most of all I am thankful to God.

The church faces wonderful opportunities, to proclaim afresh, in this generation, the Good News of Jesus and to build His Kingdom. The Church of England is called to serve all the people of this country, and being present in every community, we communicate our faith best when our lives build up the lives of others, especially the most vulnerable. I am excited by the possibilities and challenges ahead.

Over at The Guardian, Haroon Siddique has a short profile of Lane’s life in the clergy:

Libby Lane, who has been chosen by the Church of England as its first female bishop, has long been one of the most influential women in the church.

She is one of eight clergywomen from the church elected as participant observers in the House of Bishops, as the representative from the dioceses of the north-west, and has been a bishop’s selection adviser for 10 years, making recommendations to the church about candidates offering themselves for ordination.

Meanwhile, Alan Cowell at The New York Times highlights some of the divisions that the issue of female bishops has caused within the Anglican Communion:

The halting process toward her consecration reflected deep divisions between liberals and conservatives in the Church of England that are likely to be cemented rather than resolved by the move.

“Without prayer and repentance, it is hard to see how we can avoid some serious fractures,” said the Most Rev. Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, who backed the push for female bishops, after a final vote on the matter last month.

Read the Church of England’s full statement on Bishop Lane’s appointment here.

December 9th, 2014

Why Prayer? A Conference on New Directions in the Study of Prayer

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New Directions in the Study of PrayerThe Social Science Research Council’s program on Religion and the Public Sphere announces Why Prayer? A Conference on New Directions in the Study of Prayer (February 6-7, 2015). This two-day gathering will showcase the work of over 30 scholars and journalists exploring what the study of prayer can tell us about a range of topics.

Please join us February 6-7, 2015, for panels and presentations on topics including religious technologies, embodiment, material culture, language, politics, and the mind. Beginning Friday afternoon, the conference will also feature the Prayer Expo—a pop-up installation of multi-media presentations and material objects that call attention to the myriad representations of prayer shaping discourse and practice. On Saturday, two plenary events will highlight the multiple registers of engagement occasioned by new, transdisciplinary research on the practice of prayer.

For more information on the conference and how to register, please click here. Registration is free, but space is limited.

December 4th, 2014

CFP: The Psychology of Religion/The Religion of Psychology

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On Friday, March 6th, 2015, the University of Chicago Divinity School and the Martin Marty Center will host “The Psychology of Religion/The Religion of Psychology,” a conference exploring the relation between two problem children of modernity.

Both to the discomfort and excitement of psychologists, scholars of religion, and religious practitioners, the overlap between the histories of psychology and religion is rather significant. Like philosophy, psychology was once pegged, in the words of Frank E. Manuel, as the “newest handmaiden of true religion.” However,with the emergence of new experimental methods in the late nineteenth century and of psychoanalysis (an inherently anti-religious discipline, according to its founder) in the early twentieth, psychology attempted to distance itself from religion, though with mixed results. Although psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals today understand their respective disciplines to have grown increasingly scientific and thus less “religious,” the various ways in which psychology and religion were interrelated in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries could be used to tell a different story.

The conference will be keynoted by a roundtable discussion by Jeffrey Kripal, Jonathan Lear, and Tanya Luhrmann. Proposals for this conference are due by January 5th, 2015. Read the full call for papers here.

December 3rd, 2014

Book launch for Queer Christianities

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TONIGHT at 6PM, Eugene Lang College will host a book launch party for Queer Christianities: Lived Religion in Transgressive Forms, edited by Kathleen T. Talvacchia, Michael F. Pettinger, and Mark Larrimore. The event will feature a brief discussion with remarks from Pettinger and Talvacchia, followed by a reception. About the book:

Queerness and Christianity, often depicted as mutually exclusive, both challenge received notions of the good and the natural. Nowhere is this challenge more visible than in the identities, faiths, and communities that queer Christians have long been creating. As Christians they have staked a claim for a Christianity that is true to their self-understandings.  How do queer-identified persons understand their religious lives? And in what ways do the lived experiences of queer Christians respond to traditions and reshape them in contemporary practice?

Read the full announcement here.

November 24th, 2014

The Devil: A New Biography

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A great deal of ink was spilled in the medieval and early modern period on the nature of demonic copulation. Could demons engage in sodomy and other “perverted” sexual practices with human beings? No, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) opined, because demons retained a residue of their original angelic nature, which prevented them from engaging in sexual acts against nature. Why was sex with demons so pleasurable for women? Because, the philosopher Francesco Pico Della Mirandola (1470-1533) suggested, their “virile members were uncommonly large … and stimulate something very deep inside the witches” (104). The jurist Pierre de Lancre (1553-1631), who had interrogated a number of accused women during the witch hunts he conducted in Bordeaux, disagreed: Satanic sex was not pleasurable, he wrote, because the Devil’s organ was covered in scales that tightened and pinched the skin during intercourse.

What do these seemingly bizarre inquiries into the nature of Satanic sexuality tell us about Christian thought in the pre-modern period? Far from being the delusional products of over-sexed minds, these accounts remind us that for the greater part of Christian history, the Devil was seen as a tangible, active agent in the natural world. Handling a textual canon spanning nearly two and half millennia, Philip C. Almond’s new book The Devil: A New Biography reconstructs the evolution of this idea of an embodied, interventionist Devil, from its inception in Jewish Biblical and extra-biblical sources in the sixth century BCE, to its decline at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Almond shows that the story of Satan, emerging in its definitive form in the second-century BCE, provided a solution to a paradox that was at the heart of the Christian tradition: how to explain the persistence of evil within a world that was governed by a just and benevolent God?

In the Satanic story inherited from the early Church Fathers, Satan and his demons were fallen angels who retained their free will despite their rebellion against God. They were thus tacitly sanctioned by God to intervene in human affairs. Yet questions about the nature and extent of demonic power remained, eventually giving rise to the theological subfield of demonology in the Middle Ages. For Saint Augustine (354-430), demons had subtle corporeal bodies made of thin air that gave them extraordinary mobility and allowed them to enter the bodies of human beings. Peter Lombard (1100-1160) believed that demons possessed bodies made of thick gloomy air, derived from the dark layer of the atmosphere beneath heaven within which they resided. Thomas Aquinas, for his part, denied the corporeality of demons, but wrote that they were capable of condensing air into visible shapes and bodies. In Aquinas’s influential account, demons were spiritual beings with preternatural powers: only God possessed the power to create miracles, but demons had the power to create visible and marvelous effects through their sophisticated knowledge of the occult laws of nature.

Far from being a matter of sterile academic debate, demonology provided the intellectual foundations for the great witch hunts of the early modern period. The possibility of demons that could assume the shape of visible bodies, engage in copulation with witches to seal Satanic pacts, leave physical marks on the bodies of sorcerers and witches, and take control over human bodies through possession crucially depended upon the reality of their corporeal interactions with human beings. Determining the boundaries of demonic agency within the physical world thus became essential to adjudicating the trials of men and women accused of invoking the power of demons. It is not coincidental that the most influential of Catholic demonologies of the period, the 1486 Malleus Maleficarum [The Hammer of Witches], was penned by a Dominican inquisitor, Heinrich Kramer, in the course of a career spent persecuting witches in the Holy Roman Empire.

If the period between 1450-1700 marked the “golden age” of the demoniac, Almond notes, it also produced the first currents of open skepticism about the reality of Satanic intervention. Paradoxically, the juridical criteria developed to try accused witches and sorcerers were eventually turned against the edifice of demonological thought itself. Physicians, increasingly called upon to investigate such cases during the 16th and 17th centuries, played an important role in developing secular, naturalistic explanations for apparent cases of demonic possession. While few medical men in the 16th and 17th centuries denied the possibility of demonic possession outright, a firm distinction was drawn between symptoms produced by illness and by satanic intervention. Physicians thus developed a secular etiology of demonic possession that unwittingly opened the door for the “medicalisation of demonic possession” (150).

Yet the most decisive challenge to the idea of a corporeal devil, Almond argues, came from new forms of Christianity that appeared in the early modern period. His account thus provides more weight to the now-familiar claim that the origins of secularization are to be found principally within Christianity itself, rather than in currents of skepticism, materialism, and atheism. Protestant theologians in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries increasingly denounced exorcisms and cases of demonic possession as Popish superstitions in their promotion of rational forms of Christianity that emphasized individual faith over divine revelation. The Protestant interiorization of spirituality, arising out of the doctrine of sola scriptura, eventually relocated the devil from the natural world to the minds of men. Yet if Protestantism provided the escape from a world besieged by demons, one wonders why Puritans in New England and Calvinist Scots continued to persecute witches so vigorously into the late seventeenth century. Almond would likely argue that these forms of Christianity were already being marginalized by the liberalizing impulse of natural theology, which relegated the idea of a corporeal devil to the “distant corners of the educated European mind” (196). There would be no place for the demonic in the disenchanted world of Enlightened natural theologians, deists, and liberal Protestants who grounded their faith in the rational contemplation of a predictable, orderly universe.

By attributing the “death of the devil” to changing theological and spiritual sensibilities, Almond casts further doubt on the once-canonical narrative of the Enlightenment as a period of secularization spurred on by declining faith and atheism. Nevertheless, much like the standard secularization narratives that he jettisons, Almond insists too strongly on the monolithic, metaphysical unity of Enlightenment religion and thought. As a result, Almond is at pains to explain the purportedly anomalous persistence of belief in the demonic from the likes of the Newtonian mathematician and natural theologian William Whiston (1667-1752). Almond rather unconvincingly attempts to explain away Whiston’s belief in the immanence of the Antichrist’s reign on earth, by claiming that he was “something of a scholarly anachronism” (168). Yet one wonders, given the plurality of metaphysical positions in Enlightenment philosophy and theology, and the popularity of supposedly irrational forms of thought like hermeticism and mysticism, to what extent such beliefs were indeed anachronistic anomalies. We get no indication from Almond’s book, for his account abruptly ends with a discussion of the Dutch Calvinist Balthasar Bekker’s (1634-1698) The World Bewitched, a controversial text that, he claims, definitively expelled the demonic, and spiritual entities more generally, from the domain of the secular natural world. Given how embedded Satan and his demons were within the Christian tradition, one would expect this expulsion to have been fraught with far more difficulties and contestations than Almond allows.

The road to the disenchanted world of modern liberal Protestantism and Catholicism seems unusually smooth in Almond’s account. It is perhaps slightly churlish to criticize this book for failing to engage with the complex field of Enlightenment theology and natural philosophy, given the breathtaking chronological sweep of the rest of the book, yet one cannot help but feel that Almond has “killed off” the Devil in all too unceremonious of a fashion. The Vatican’s recent pronouncements on the threat posed to Catholics by the Devil and the occult and its formal recognition of the International Association of Exorcists, not to mention the persistence of belief in an interventionist devil by millions of Catholics and Protestants around the world, should force us to consider such pronouncements with a degree of skepticism.

November 18th, 2014

Political backlash and the rise of “nones”

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In an article that appears in the open access online journal Sociological Science, sociologists Michael Hout and Claude Fisher take a look at the relationship between religious disaffiliation and backlash against right-wing religio-political movements. Like David E. Campbell and Robert D. Putnam in American Grace, the authors find that the rise of “nones” can partially be explained by changing political preferences. They update the argument with additional data and analysis:

Twenty percent of American adults claimed no religious preference in 2012, compared to 7 percent twenty-five years earlier. Previous research identified a political backlash against the religious right and generational change as major factors in explaining the trend. That research found that religious beliefs had not changed, ruling out secularization as a cause. In this paper we employ new data and more powerful analytical tools to: (1) update the time series, (2) present further evidence of correlations between political backlash, generational succession, and religious identification, (3) show how valuing personal autonomy generally and autonomy in the sphere of sex and drugs specifically explain generational differences, and (4) use GSS panel data to show that the causal direction in the rise of the “Nones” likely runs from political identity as a liberal or conservative to religious identity, reversing a long-standing convention in social science research. Our new analysis joins the threads of earlier explanations into a general account of how political conflict over cultural issues spurred an increase in non-affiliation.

Read the full article here.

November 7th, 2014

David Gushee shifts on homosexuality

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On November 8, David P. Gushee, Distinguished University Professor at Mercer University, leading evangelical ethicist, and TIF contributor, will give the keynote speech at The Reformation Project Conference (which “seeks to reform church teaching on sexual orientation and gender identity”) and affirm his support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues. Over at Religion News Service, Jonathan Merritt notes that given his role in the evangelical movement, it “is difficult to overstate the potential impact of Gushee’s defection.” In a draft obtained by RNS, Gushee’s prepared remarks state:

I do join your crusade tonight. I will henceforth oppose any form of discrimination against you. I will seek to stand in solidarity with you who have suffered the lash of countless Christian rejections. I will be your ally in every way I know how to be… Traditionalist Christian teaching produces despair in just about every gay or lesbian person who must endure it…It took me two decades of service as a married, straight evangelical Christian minister and ethicist to finally get here. I am truly sorry that it took me so long to come into full solidarity with the Church’s own most oppressed group.

Gushee’s transformation is not a particular surprise given his changing views over the last few years. Over at Religion Dispatches, Sarah Posner elaborates further on what this means, including Gushee’s new book that makes a biblical and philosophical case for LGBT affirmation, as well as the evangelical response to his shift on homosexuality:

Reaction, Gushee says, has ranged from “predictable invectives from people who are fixated on the sexual question” to “extraordinary outpourings of gratitude.”

Indeed Gushee has been the target of harsh, dismissive criticisms from fellow evangelicals. Robert Gagnon, a professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, writing in the Christian Post, called Merritt’s article “a tendentious puff piece” and contested Merritt’s description of Gushee’s “intellectual heft” with the accusation that “Dr. Gushee has ignored nearly all the major arguments against his embarrassingly bad exegesis.” Denny Burk, a professor of biblical studies at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, charged Gushee with “adopting the rhetoric of Christianity’s fiercest critics who routinely accuse us of being bigoted and hateful simply for believing what the Bible says about sexuality,” saying that he could not “understand why Gushee would stake-out such an uncharitable and intolerant stance against Christians who hold the very same views that he once held.”

Read the full articles here and here.

November 6th, 2014

Faith as an Option

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Hans Joas’s Faith as an Option is concerned with debunking two myths: first, the idea that modernization—advances in technology and the sciences—renders religious belief obsolete; second, the argument that secularization leads to moral decay. Joas, a leading European social theorist, is more than aware that criticisms of these claims are hardly new—contemporary scholars no longer prove keen to establish a law or rule connecting modernization and secularization, and there seems to be little or no correlation between societies with higher rates of atheism and moral decline. Joas’s study aims to provide a series of illuminating explanations for why these views captured the imaginations of so many for so long.

Yet Faith as an Option is much more than a descriptive attempt to explain a longstanding scholarly misnomer. Joas also provides an alternative conceptual framework for how modernity and faith can now facilitate and enrich one another. On this reading, the modern secular world does not signify religion’s demise, but rather speaks to the emergence of new challenges and ever-changing conditions that push faith traditions to adapt or evolve. This does not at all mean, suggests Joas, that modernity is hostile to faith; in fact, they can benefit one another. Ultimately, Joas’s exhortation for greater ecumenism is inseparable from his desire to secure and revitalize transcendent and universal sources of meaning. This is where Faith as an Option enters controversial territory: Joas does not believe secular reason alone is capable of providing adequate solutions for today’s biggest political challenges.

Who invented the thesis that modernization inevitably leads to secularization? The answer, according to Hans Joas, remains unclear. At the end of the eighteenth century the idea that Christianity would eventually die out had only scattered supporters throughout Europe. Just a century later, argues Joas, “everybody who was anybody in philosophy, the humanities, and the social sciences supported the thesis of secularization.” The luminaries of the age—Max Weber, Émile Durkheim, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche, etc.—all expected modernization to weaken religion. In believing so, Joas argues, they—and their twentieth century ilk—made an assumption that history has now proven wrong.

This does not mean the idea of secularism should be rejected. Joas seeks to provide an understanding that is less ideologically driven and more empirically based. The old model of secularization, he maintains, has failed to provide compelling answers for why religious belief persists in the United States—the most modernized country in the world. Moreover, religious faith seems to be increasing alongside so called “modernizing processes” in South America and Africa.

Joas even argues that if Europe remains the world’s “secular exception,” it is simply because proponents of the secularization thesis have failed to recognize that Europe was only “superficially and imperfectly Christianized in the first place.” The ultimate shortcoming of the secularization thesis, suggests Joas, is that it overlooks a crucial consideration: that secularization can occur without modernization.

But before putting forward his alternative model of secularization, Joas aims to shoot down another myth: the longstanding belief that secularization wrecks incentives for behaving morally. Nineteenth century advocates of this view did not live to see actual secularism, but examples of secularized societies today—Germany, the Czech Republic, Sweden, etc.,—show little sign of moral decline. In fact, Joas, cites the comparative study conducted by the paleontologist, Gregory S. Paul, who suggests that nations which boast  higher percentages of belief in God also have higher rates of “homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection, teen pregnancy, and abortion than nations in which belief in God is relatively low.”

Joas provides two responses for why sources of morality are not weakened by secularization. First, he claims that social reciprocity is a non-religious source of morality that can be learned—by children, for example—through the observation of games and shared play. Second, and more substantially, Joas suggests that secular societies, specifically Europe, are living on borrowed capital by affirming that “even under conditions of secularization an older imagination may continue to guide morality.” Clearly, the “imaginary” that Joas is most interested in is Christianity. He believes that Christianity possesses a certain feature that its rivals—whether religious or philosophical—cannot match: “the strongest imagination of universalism ever bestowed upon humanity.”

What Europe needs to secure itself from moral decline is not Christianity per se, but universal imaginaries, which by default makes Christianity, according to Joas, vitally important for the well-being of Europe. Clearly Europe’s dark history of nationalism hangs over Joas’s analysis—alongside his silent dialogue with Jürgen Habermas’s idea of post-secular societies. Yet Joas’s position also appears difficult to square with his previous argument that Europe has only ever been superficially Christian, which undermines, to some degree, the ghostly role that Joas sees Christianity still playing in secular Europe. But, as we will see, there are clear reasons for why Joas makes this move.

Joas’s constructive task is to articulate a model of secularism that reflects reality and is empirically plausible. Therefore, a critical understanding of secularism will reject the teleological underpinnings that the secularization thesis presumes without sufficient evidence. What history does demonstrate about secularization and modernization, suggests Joas, are their “highly conflictual, heterogeneous, contingent” histories. For this reason Joas sees secularization as occurring in historical waves—such as the French Revolution, the Revolutions of 1848, and the student protest movements of the 1960s—and for entirely different reasons. In turn Joas, who is very much influenced by Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, stresses that these secular waves were followed by religious rip currents that often revitalized religious traditions or facilitated new religious options.

Joas’s rather brief historical snapshot of secularism acts as subterfuge for his main thesis: that there is no uniform process of modernization. This “Age of Contingency,” as Joas calls it, is marked by an increase in “individual action options and the growing number of experiences that result from this massive increase.” These increased action options give rise to new forms of social life, which are anything but clear and distinct. Our “secular age,” then, is really an amalgam of impulses derived from religious and non-religious sources that constantly take on novel shapes and forms.

In this reading, religion will never die out, because increased action options facilitate novel conditions that allow religion to constantly evolve in creative ways. But this is exactly where Joas’s Taylorian inspirations take a back seat to his Habermasian anxieties. Increased action options, Joas observes, allow for decisions that run the gamut between universal and anti-universal discourses. Having multiple options thus seems to weaken universalist commitments, since they can so easily be fused with anti-universal sentiments and ideas.

This is problematic, Joas observes, since the foundation for human rights and the liberal democratic state is moral and legal universalism. Hence Joas’s observation that the “most important front running through moral and political disputes today is not that between believers and non-believers but that between universalists and anti-universalists, and both of these groups include both religious and nonreligious people.” What, then, asks Joas, can provide a bulwark against anti-universalism, which is once again rearing its head via the anti-immigrant and Islamophobic platforms of emerging European nationalist parties?

Joas borrows a line from Habermas but takes it in a different direction. Like Habermas, he calls for greater dialogue between religious and secular adherents of moral and legal universalism in their mutual fight against racism and other forms of anti-universalism. But this conversation must not—contra Habermas—reduce religious dialogue simply to a means for benefiting public discourse.

As far as Europe is concerned, Joas is clear that Christianity should have pride of place in this dialogue. This is because he agrees with Habermas that secular universalisms are limited by their tendency to be too rational, individualistic or utilitarian. What Joas calls “the essence of the superiority of the Christian ethos of love” can help check egocentric and utilitarian limitations of secular thought. More importantly, suggests Joas, Christian love enriches notions of justice—the key concept of moral and legal universalism. Of course, Joas is quick to acknowledge that the superiority of Christian universalism is not cause for boasting.

Joas recognizes that some “dogmatic secularists” will view his argument as a religious apologia. In rejecting this idea, Joas states that he has no desire to defend religion and is only interested in opening a space for a conversation. A few sections of Faith as an Option make it clear that part of this dialogue is aimed at Joas’s fellow Christians. In one revealing section, Joas exhorts them to remember that Christianity failed to issue an adequate response to National Socialism and Fascism because its message of love and peace has been weakened by secularism.

This and many other examples reveal a tendency throughout Faith as an Option to separate the supreme message of Christian universality from the secular, tribal and nationalist influences that potentially corrupt or weaken it. Doing so allows Joas to make a distinction between his idealized Christian universalism and the injustices of Christianity as it actually existed, which dovetails nicely with Joas’ insistence that Europe has never really been Christian. Hence the ease by which theology’s political baggage can be downplayed for the purposes of inventing a political theology made safe for democracy and human rights; two concepts whose Christian reception is long and complicated. One need not be a dogmatic secularist to see in such analytic maneuvering a religious apologia of sorts.

October 30th, 2014

Pope Francis reaffirms belief in evolution

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Addressing the plenary assembly of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on October 27, Pope Francis stated that the Big Bang and evolution are not only consistent with God and creation, but in fact require a divine presence. Over at The Independent, Adam Withnall reports:

“When we read about Creation in Genesis, we run the risk of imagining God was a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything. But that is not so,” Francis said.

He added: “He created human beings and let them develop according to the internal laws that he gave to each one so they would reach their fulfilment.

“The Big Bang, which today we hold to be the origin of the world, does not contradict the intervention of the divine creator but, rather, requires it.

“Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve.”

Writing at Religion News Service, Josephine McKenna notes:

Unlike much of evangelical Protestantism in the U.S., Catholic teaching traditionally has not been at odds with evolution. In 1950, Pope Pius XII proclaimed there was no opposition between evolution and Catholic doctrine. In 1996, St. John Paul II endorsed Pius’ statement.

Some wondered if Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wanted to change that when he and some acolytes seemed to endorse the theory of intelligent design, the idea that the world is too complex to have evolved according to Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn of Vienna, a close associate of Benedict, penned a widely noticed 2005 op-ed in The New York Times that said “Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense — an unguided, unplanned process … is not.”

Francis’ speech is in line with Catholic doctrine, established since Pius XII’s 1950 encyclical Humani generis, and extended further by John Paul II’s 1996 speech, also before the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, in which he noted that “new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than an hypothesis.” Even Benedict XVI, who has been characterized as less accommodating towards evolution, said in 2007 that the debate between creation and evolution was an “absurdity” since the two can coexist.

Read the full reports on Francis’ speech here and here.

October 24th, 2014

CFP: Religion, Gender and Body Politics

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The “Interdisciplinary Innovations in the Study of Religion and Gender: Postcolonial, Post-secular and Queer Perspectives” project has announced its final conference, initiated and coordinated by Anne-Marie Korte (Utrecht University) and Adriaan van Klinken (University of Leeds). This conference on “Religion, Gender and Body Politics” will take place February 12-14, 2015 at Utrecht University, The Netherlands. Keynote speakers will include Minoo Moallem, Yvonne Sherwood, Ulrike Auga, Scott Kugle, and Sarojini Nadar.

From the call for papers:

In this conference we want to explore why and how the gendered body has become a highly contested and constitutive site of dynamic secular and religious (identity) politics, ideologies and practices in contemporary societies worldwide. In this we suggest to regard the body as simultaneously an empirical entity (e.g., the human or animal body), a discursive practice (e.g., the body politics or the body of Christ), and a focus of technologies of the self (e.g., ecstatic or ascetic bodies). The body as a contested site in contemporary societies is often the body of a gendered, sexual, religious or ethnic other (e.g., women, LGBT’s, migrants, or colonial others). These discursive practices of “othering” presuppose a clearly defined “we” superior to the “other”, thereby reinforcing related dichotomies (e.g., West-East, male-female, religious-secular, straight-gay) and their power relations. The disciplining of bodily practices appears to take place mainly at the level of institutionalised religion and secularism where ideologies and politics of gender, sexuality and ethnicity are imposed. However, when we look at how people live their bodies, creative and non-normative body practices can be identified that question, resist or inform these ideologies and politics. The deconstruction of the normative regulation and representation of the body should therefore not be investigated along the lines of the public-private divide, but in a manner that questions this divide and that is attentive to the ways in which lived religion and lived secularism permeate the until recently virtually uncontested boundaries between the visible, public and institutional on the one hand and the invisible, private and personal on the other. We aim to question the ways in which intersecting ideologies of religion, secularism and gender materialise through individual and collective body-politics drawing from a range of contemporary critical perspectives in the humanities and qualitative social sciences, such as postcolonial criticism, post- secularism and queer theories. With these critical perspectives, we want to challenge persisting dichotomies in the study of religion and gender, like the public/private and religious/secular binaries, and Western and heteronormative dominant models of knowledge.

Click here for the full CFP and information on how to submit paper titles and abstracts.

October 22nd, 2014

Futures of the American Religious Past

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On January 3, 2015, as part of the winter meeting of American Society for Church History, four interlocutors will speak on TIF contributor John Lardas Modern‘s book Secularism in Antebellum America, and Mark Noll’s book America’s God, with comments from both authors.

Why now? In her 2013 ASCH presidential address, Maffly-Kipp described the field of church history in the midst of a “transitional moment.” Tensions are mounting between more traditional ecclesiastical paradigms and the theoretical developments of religious studies. Readers of this blog know that American religionists feel these tensions especially strongly. New works like Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America, among others, put pressure on many of the commitments and conventions of our discipline.

Yet though American religionists may greet the arrival of Secularism with caution, they cannot easily ignore it. Modern responds directly—if not always affectionately—to church historians and to Mark Noll in particular. The book is deliberately provocative, posing all sorts of challenges to the central paradigms of our field.

The event will be held at the New York Hilton from 10:30 AM to 12:00 PM. Read more about the panel here.

October 21st, 2014

Conference: Toward a Critique of Secular Reason?

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LeuvenOn December 10-11, 2014, the Institute of Philosophy (KU Leuven) will host the international conference Towards a Critique of Secular Reason? in Leuven, Belgium. The conference aims to explore the meaning of the concept of secularization in 20th and 21st century thought.

The notion of secularization has often been used to define or characterize the nature of modern culture. Today, however, the validity of this concept is questioned ever more radically. The conference wants to take a step back from these recent discussions by examining the history and philosophical scope of the concept of secularization itself: What does secularization actually mean? More specifically, what does it mean for societies, theories, ideas or concepts to be secularized? Although secularization is often reduced to a political or sociological concept – designating the separation between church and state or the decline of religious belief – this conference aims to explore its meaning from a much broader and decidedly interdisciplinary perspective. In this regard, secularization appears as a theoretical concept with important implications for the study of intellectual history, metaphysics, religion, literature and politics alike.

Participation is free, but registration is required. For the program and further details on the conference read more here.

October 20th, 2014

Millennial storytelling

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The Immanent Frame editor-at-large Nathan Schneider recently talked to radio host Krista Tippett for her Peabody Award-winning show “On Being.” In the interview, the fourth in a series on “The American Consciousness,” Tippett and Schneider discussed Schneider’s writing; the intersections of technology and religion; the Occupy movement’s legacy; and the growing influence of “nones”—Americans who don’t identify with any religious group.

“Could the growing number of non-religious young people be a force for the renewal of spiritual traditions?” Tippett asks. “How might the Internet of the future look utterly different from the Internet of now? And what did the Occupy movement really tap into—and what has it become below the radar?”

Listen to the podcast or read a transcript, and check out the rest of Schneider’s work for TIF here.

October 17th, 2014

A “pastoral earthquake” in Rome?

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On October 13th, the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family, an assembly convened by Pope Francis, released a relatio post disceptationem—a snapshot of the discussion thus far—that has triggered much coverage and debate across the media landscape. As church leaders try to determine what exactly makes a Catholic family, the document seems to signal a softening stance on, among others things, divorce, homosexuality, and unmarried cohabitation. While reasserting Catholic doctrine that proclaims the “irregular” nature of such relationships and families, the document also acknowledges their “positive elements,” and frames the pastoral challenge as follows:

It is necessary to accept people in their concrete being, to know how to support their search, to encourage the wish for God and the will to feel fully part of the Church, also on the part of those who have experienced failure or find themselves in the most diverse situations. This requires that the doctrine of the faith, the basic content of which should be made increasingly better known, be proposed alongside with mercy.

Longtime Vatican journalist John Thaviswho called the document’s release a “pastoral earthquakehas an excellent breakdown and summary of the relatio on his blog. He notes in particular the document’s emphasis on the gradualness which advocates patience and understanding for individuals to walk their own paths towards salvation.

In particular, the section of the relatio initially titled “Welcoming homosexual persons” has caused a stir. It originally reads:

Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community: are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?

Without denying the moral problems connected to homosexual unions it has to be noted that there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners. Furthermore, the Church pays special attention to the children who live with couples of the same sex, emphasizing that the needs and rights of the little ones must always be given priority.

The shift in tone on homosexuality (though not in doctrine or teaching) has been greeted with enthusiasm by some observers, such as GLAAD and the Reverend James Martin, who called the document “a stunning change in the way that the Catholic church speaks about gay people.” But not all responses have been positive. Critics have described the language of the document as confusing—how can Catholicism avoid “any language or behavior which might be construed as discrimination” (section 46) if biblical and doctrinal teachings are very clear on some of these issues? R. R. Reno, the editor of religion journal First Things, describes such framing as a “route to the dictatorship of relativism,” while other commentators have stated that the document “[dilutes] Church teaching.”

The unofficial English translation of the document from the Vatican has added another complication. The synod, which was conducted in Italian instead of Latin, first created controversy by translating the word valutando as “valuing,” as opposed to “considering” or “weighing.” Then just yesterday, the translation underwent new edits, changing “Welcoming homosexual persons” to “Providing for homosexual persons,” and replacing “fraternal space” with “fellowship” and “precious support” with “valuable support.” It should be noted that the original Italian remains unaltered.

Many media outlets have highlighted the document’s section on homosexuals, including The New York Times (“At the Vatican, a Shift in Tone Toward Gays and Divorce”) and BBC (“Catholic synod: Vatican family review signals shift on homosexuality”). Given that the document is not so much a formal statement on theology as the minutes of a meeting, writers such as George Weigel at The National Review and Tim Stanley at The Daily Telegraph have criticized the coverage of the relatio as overstating its significance.

Meanwhile, church leaders themselves, including those at the synod, disagree about the document’s content. Some clergy have pressed for clarification on specific sections. Cardinal Raymond Burke, prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, has said that the relatio was “[lacking] a solid foundation in the Sacred Scriptures and the Magisterium,” while Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, emphasized that it is a “draft document,” one that would need “major reworking.” Indeed, on October 14th, the Vatican released a statement emphasizing the relatio‘s status as a “working document,” saying that it does not want to create “the impression of a positive evaluation” of same-sex relationships or cohabiting couples.

Pope Francis looms large in discussions over the relatio, as he convened the synod and picked many of the committee members. Perhaps not surprisingly, the document largely calls for dialogue, listening, and understanding, in keeping with Francis’ policy of more discussing pastoral care and less affirming doctrinal puritysee his “who am I to judge” or “shepherds living with the smell of sheep” comments. Popes can choose what teachings to emphasis and what issues to downplay, and Francis’ papacy has been different in image and tone from his predecessor. But without any meaningful changes to catechism on these sensitive topics, it remains to be seen whether Francis will actually usher in a “Vatican Spring.”

October 16th, 2014

A response to Borja Vilallonga

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Over at his Academia.edu page, Thomas Pfau responds to Borja Vilallonga’s review of his book Minding the Modern:

In the 1,745 words that comprise his “response” to Minding the Modern, Vilallonga does not once engage or contest my various accounts of any of these figures. Neither does he pay attention to (or, perhaps, summon the requisite intellectual generosity and acumen) to identify my book’s conceptual architecture. He thus fails the most elementary standards of what it means to offer a critical and considered response to intellectual work done by someone else. For to do so one must begin by restating the book’s objectives, identifying and appraising its methodological procedures, its organization, and its various claims. Only when these steps have been taken in clear and dispassionate form may one proceed to articulate whether the book succeeds or, if not, how it may be said to fail on its own terms, rather than those that the reviewer happens to have espoused.
Read the full response here.
October 15th, 2014

Mapping “American values”

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PRRI-logoThe Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and Social Science Research Solutions (SSRS) have recently teamed up for a foray into “digital religion,” in the form of an ambitious mapping project called the “American Values Atlas” (AVA). The PRRI and SSRS conducted 50,000 telephone interviews in 2013, and built their results into an interactive map that they promise will “deliver an unprecedented level of detail about the United States’ cultural and religious landscape.”

The map is designed to show the connections between three “topics”—religious affiliation, demographics, and politics. Users can compare:

Religious affiliation, by religious tradition or Christian denominations

Demographic information, by traits such as race and ethnicity, age, gender, marital status, educational attainment, household income, and health insurance status,

Political information, by party identification, political ideology, and voter registration status

Searching by the religious tradition category (under the topic religious affiliation)  in Ohio, for example, reveals that while the largest single religious group is “White evangelical Protestant” (21%), an equal percentage of respondents described themselves as religiously “unaffiliated.”

The AVA also offers a “Highlights” section, with summaries of particularly interesting or noteworthy survey findings. We learn, for example, that a full third of American Muslims live in the South:

Thirty-four percent of American Muslims reside in the South, mostly in just two cities: Atlanta (4 percent) and Washington, DC (6 percent). In contrast, fewer than 1-in-5 Muslims live in the Midwest (17 percent) and the West (18 percent). Nearly one-third (32 percent) of Muslims live in the Northeast, predominantly in New York City (23 percent).

We also learn that marriage rates vary widely among religious groups:

If you’re single, you may want to try visiting your local Buddhist center; more than half (54 percent) of Buddhists are single. This may be because Buddhists are, on average, much younger than other Americans. At the other end of the spectrum are Mormons. Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of Mormons are currently married, 16 points higher than the national average (48 percent).

The AVA is particularly noteworthy for its wealth of data on minority religious groups in the United States—Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists, for example—which the team contends are often excluded from broad narratives about religious change in America. In addition, data collection for the project is ongoing: PRRI and SSRS expect to conduct 50,000 new interviews each year, in order to provide an up-to-date portrait of changing American values.

October 2nd, 2014

In whose name? ISIS, Islam, and social media

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Commentators routinely remark on the sophisticated use of media by the organization that calls itself the Islamic State, but in the past few weeks many Muslims have been using the Twitter hashtag #NotInMyName to offer a counter-narrative about Islam. The campaign began earlier this month with a video released by the London-based Active Change Foundation, featuring British Muslims speaking out against the organization (variously known as ISIS and ISIL), which, they say, does “not represent Islam or any Muslim.” A recent tweet using the hashtag stated that, “ISIS is not a representation of Islam. My religion is based upon principles of respect, love and harmony.”

Response to the #NotInMyName campaign has generally been positive, but some Twitter users have expressed reservations. A few suggested that the social media response to ISIS atrocities was too muted: “A mild rebuke, all things considered,” tweeted New Yorker staff writer Jon Lee Anderson, who went on to compare the campaign to the “Ice Bucket Challenge.”

Others objected to what they perceived as background presumptions of collective guilt that oblige Muslims—but not, for example, non-Muslim U.S. or British citizens—to repeatedly publicly disavow violence: “I do & don’t like the #NotInMyName campaign. It’s right to speak out but it sends out the message we are to be held accountable every time.” The latter sentiment has since spawned a rival Twitter meme of Muslims satirically “apologizing” for such cultural achievements as algebra using the hashtag #MuslimApologies: “I’m sorry that we gave to the world Algorithms through which PCs, FB, Twitter etc are built on!”

Still others used the phrase “Not In My Name”—popularized among objectors to the last Iraq war—to denounce another military intervention in the Middle East: “Sickened that we’re going to war again. Actually, am furious.” Nevertheless, the campaign won plaudits from President Barack Obama, who referred to it in a speech before the U.N. last week: “Look at the young British Muslims who responded to terrorist propaganda by starting the Not in My Name campaign, declaring, ‘ISIL is hiding behind a false Islam.’”

Reactions were ambivalent, though, when, on September 10, the White House tweeted the following remarks from the president’s speech promising military action: “ISIL is not ‘Islamic.’ No religion condones the killing of innocents.” “Psst. . . I think that’s what the ‘I’ stands for!” one user replied. Another wrote, “Always amusing to watch non-Muslims lecturing Muslims on what Islam is and isn’t.” Why was the message better received when delivered by young British Muslims than when echoed by the president of the United States?

Presumably part of the answer is that the #NotInMyName campaign appears to represent a grassroots intervention by self-identified Muslims in the normative debate over what constitutes true Islam, whereas the President’s message came across as a strategic political maneuver by an outsider. By denying that the Islamic State is Islamic (or, for that matter, a state), Obama sought to fend off the potentially damaging perception that the U.S. is engaged in a war against Islam, or that Muslims as such are the enemy—perceptions that would not only have played into ISIS’s propaganda campaign but also put Muslim Americans at risk of hate crimes. The claim that no religion condones the killing of innocents is no doubt tendentious—who is truly innocent is often in dispute—but the rhetoric allowed the president to position the United States as religiously tolerant, and ISIS as “a terrorist organization, pure and simple.”

But on what authority—in whose “name”—does Obama, the president of a country whose constitution has long been interpreted to prohibit government from interfering in religion, speak when he enters into the debate over what constitutes Islam or religion? Is he not only the country’s “commander in chief” but also its “theologian in chief”? Though a minor footnote in the history of American civil religion, the affair serves to remind us that terms like religion are invested with political significance, and that states, even (or perhaps especially) when they claim to be religiously neutral, have an interest in how such language is deployed. The struggle against ISIS is, among other things, a struggle over definitions, which is to say that it is a struggle over the authority to control meanings. Moreover, the comparatively open space of social media is increasingly a site of conflict in that struggle. Is ISIS Islamic? What is at stake is not a factual question but a normative one with global political implications.

A German-language version of this article will appear in the Fall 2014 issue of the Bulletin des Zentrums für Religion, Wirtschaft und Politik.

September 30th, 2014

Religious exemption in the National Football League

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During last night’s victory over the New England Patriots, Kansas City safety Husain Abdullah, a practicing Muslim who once missed the entire 2012 season for the pilgrimage to Mecca, intercepted Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and returned it for a touchdown. After scoring, he was penalized for unsportsmanlike conductspecifically excessive celebration in the form of “going to the groundfor sliding to his knees and praying. Or in GIF form:

The National Football League has been disparagingly called the “No Fun League” for its policing of celebrations over the years, such as the recent ban on dunking over the goal posts. However, the “going to the ground” rule actually has a religious exemptionnamely for “praising the Lord.” One such example came during Super Bowl XLV, where Green Bay Packers receiver Greg Jennings knelt down in prayer after a touchdown and was not penalized.

Multiple commentators from across the web have highlighted the inconsistency in penalizing Abdullah, noting in particular former quarterback Tim Tebow’s outspoken Christianity and his practice of genuflecting. But while the treatment of Islam (and other faiths) compared to Christianity certainly deserves an extended discussion, bringing up Tebow’s actions (and his lack of punishment) perhaps misses the point. His prayers always occurred on the sidelines when he was not on the playing field, meaning that they were not covered by the excessive celebrations rules. Abdullah, for one, believed that his penalty was for his slide and not his prayer.

Instead of a statement about different religious beliefs, the penalty was more likely the result of the NFL’s complex rule book as the league attempts to regulate everything about the game and its players, from celebrations to player conduct. At a time when the NFL is already under heavy scrutiny, the league reacted quickly, as NFL Vice President of Football Communications, Michael Signora, released a statement on Twitter, saying that Abdullah should not have been penalized, and reaffirmed the religious exemption: “Officiating mechanic is not to flag player who goes to ground for religious reasons.”

September 26th, 2014

Egypt’s uncertain future

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Since the resignation of former president Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Egypt has experienced significant turmoil, from temporary rule by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to the military coup that led to the election of current president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Mounting chaos in the region —including unrest in Egypt and fighting in Gaza-Israel, Iraq, Libya, and Syria—has forced Egypt to the forefront of the conflict with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), as US Secretary of State John Kerry emphasized during a recent visit to Cairo. As a report in Al-Monitor attempts to explain, the “Islamic Caliphate” model touted by ISIS poses problems for Sisi’s plans for a hypernationalist, secular state. As he attempts to consolidate power at home, President Sisi also finds himself playing a key role as mediator of the resurgent conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. A Foreign Policy analysis described the “Sisi Doctrine” as “based on repression and stability,” an “outgrowth of [Egypt’s] own domestic concerns about Islamism, militancy, terrorism, and instability.”

In the recent series on “The future of Egyptian democracy,” contributors to The Immanent Frame have tackled the various complexities of this situation. Many of our authors argued against the simplistic framing of Egyptian political forces as “Islamist vs. secularist.” Others highlighted the role of divine intervention and religious legitimacy in Egyptian politics, analyzed and critiqued democracy as a form of government, and reported on disturbing events in the aftermath of Sisi’s election, including the rise of the “deep state” and attempts to control mosques and pulpits. As part of a joint project with Religion Dispatches, contributing editor Austin Dacey has raised additional issues, including the exact role of secularism in the ongoing unrest and the Egyptian government’s crackdown on nongovernmental organizations.

September 10th, 2014

CFP: Religious and Political Values

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On November 26-28, 2014, Adyan and the Lebanese American University will host a conference on “Religious and Political Values” in Byblos, Lebanon. The conference builds on Adyan’s last international conference on “Religion and Democracy in Europe and the Arab World,” where participants emphasized the need for a paradigm shift in the role of religions in the public domain.

Adyan’s International Conference for 2014 attempts to respond to this intuition by providing a forum for different sectors of society to reflect on how to actualize definitions of political values and norms in Muslim and Christian discourse on the one hand, and to explore and promote dialogue about these values based on different worldviews on the other hand. This exploration is meant not only from an interfaith perspective but also from a public and scholarly perspective, where religions are invited to operate a shift from a normative discourse, and to endorse a dialogical role as part of the diverse society.

In doing so, the Conference seeks to put recent scholarship in social and political philosophy in more direct conversation with social and political theology, in Christianity and Islam specifically, and to confront both with questions and recommendations from leaders and policy makers active in the public domain.

A 300-word abstract and a 200-word bio should be sent to conference@adyanvillage.net by September 14th, 2014. For further details on the conference, and on the submission of proposals, read more here.

August 23rd, 2014

White House announces new women’s healthcare rules

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In the wake of this summer’s Hobby Lobby decision and Wheaton College order, the White House has announced a new regulation designed to reconcile recent accommodations for nonprofits and closely-held for-profits with the requirements of the Affordable Care Act.

Today, the Administration took several steps to help ensure women, whose coverage is threatened, receive coverage for recommended contraceptive services at no additional cost, as they should be entitled to under the Affordable Care Act.  The rules, which are in response to recent court decisions, balance our commitment to helping ensure women have continued access to coverage for preventive services important to their health, with the Administration’s goal of respecting religious beliefs.

—US Department of Health and Human Services

Read the full press release at HHS.gov.

Read more at MSNBC.

August 15th, 2014

On Religious-Secular Alliances

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In the most recent issue of The Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study (NDIAS) Quarterly, TIF contributor Slavica Jakelić, in an excerpt from her book manuscript The Practice of Religious and Secular Humanisms, argues that in order to understand the moral foundation and democratic potential of religious-secular alliances, it is important to move beyond the discourse of power.

Although religious-secular alliances transformed the political and social landscapes of the contemporary world, they are still mostly shrouded in a veil of silence. What are the reasons for that silence? Why don’t we talk more and know more about the collaboration between socialist and Catholic labor union leaders, between [Martin Luther] King and Asa Philip Randolph, between Father Józef Tischner and Adam Michnik in Poland, between Bishop Desmond Tutu and Chris Hani in South Africa?

One of the important reasons for the lack of discussions about such collaborations is the focus on conflict that has long defined our thinking about religions and secularisms. The emphasis on conflict, it is important to underline, is not without foundation. Historically, it highlights the real events in which religions and secularisms confronted each other—from various religious rejections of the secularizing aspects of modernity (liberalism and revolutions, religious freedom, and even democracy) to the anti-religious policies of the Soviet communist states (ranging from direct religious persecutions to more sophisticated modes of religious oppression and control). Sociologically, the view of religious-secular relations as defined by confrontation mirrors growing doubts about the secular states’ ability to address the challenges of pluralism. This view also stems from the persisting suspicions that some secularists and some believers have toward religious organizations and communities that demand a place and voice in public life.

Read the full essay here.

August 6th, 2014

Now broadcasting: Atheist TV

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Penn Jillette's Pink Mini Cooper with Nevada Atheist vanity plates | Image via Flicker user  Thomas AndersonStarting last week, atheists and nonbelievers everywhere now have a new station to add to their television lineup: Atheist TV. The channel, available online and through the Roku streaming service, is a project of American Atheists, an organization that dedicates itself to “fighting for the civil liberties of atheists and the total, absolute separation of government and religion.”

The organization’s president, David Silverman, has big dreams for the little channel, which he hopes will “provide a breadth of content, from science to politics to comedy, all centered around our common freedom from religion.”

As the New York Times reports, at a party celebrating Atheist TV’s launch, Mr. Silverman focused particular ire on Discovery Communications. The company has produced shows such as “Finding Bigfoot” on Animal Planet and the History Channel’s miniseries “The Bible.”

The channel, Mr. Silverman said in the first streamed broadcast, will have no psychics, no ghost hunters, no “science fiction presented as science fact,” and will be “a place we can call our own, where we can speak the truth as frankly as we want.” It intends, he said, “to promote the idea that religion can and should be criticized.” … “The TV networks kowtow to the liars who make money off of misinformation,” he said, singling out for special contempt outlets that mix silly supernatural gunk with more serious science and nature shows.

“The Discovery Channel treats ghosts like they’re real,” he said, adding later, “Bigfoot, psychics, aliens, ghosts, spirits, gods, devils — all bunk, all pushed by the so-called truthful and scientific stations in an effort to placate the waning religion segment at the expense of the growing segment of atheists who should be, but are not, their target audience.”

To counter, as they see it, this kind of content, Atheist TV currently hosts interviews with prominent atheists, footage from atheist meetings and conventions, and broadcasts of long-running cable show “Atheist Viewpoint.” As it is currently funded solely by donations, its content is limited. However, Silverman hopes Atheist TV will eventually host original programming, and he’s brought Liz Bronsteina veteran TV producer who also happens to be a veteran of Discovery Communicationsaboard.

As the BBC reports, atheists and nonbelievers in the US and Canada face high rates of discrimination, especially in comparison to other minority groups.

A recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Centre shows Americans would rather have a president who was either in their 70s, or openly gay, or who had never held any public office than one that was atheist.

One of Atheist TV’s new phone-in programmes, The Atheist Experience, has already had a taste of how many Americans perceive “non-believers”.

“So you were studying to be a minister, and now you don’t believe in God? You’re the devil,” one caller tells the host. “You’re a Marxist, you’re an atheist and you’re from Russia,” says another. …

The new TV channel is part of atheist groups’ own civil rights movement. But real acceptance, particularly for those serving in public office, in a country where no serving congressman or woman is openly atheist, could still be some way off.

Read more about Atheist TV via the American Atheists’ website.

July 31st, 2014

The renaissance of political theology

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When it comes to political theology, everything old is new again. At least that is the impression given by the growing interest in political theology within early modern literary studies—a dynamic relationship between past and present that often blurs our conventional delineations of what is new and what is old. Although political theology is traditionally recognized as a distinct problem of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries—often understood as a stubborn and pervasive entanglement between the philosophical roots of religion and modern statecraft—early modern literary scholars have extended the boundaries of such a dilemma back into the early modern age, demonstrating the historical reach and enduring urgency of the fraught and fecund intersections of theology and political theory. Victoria Kahn’s The Future of Illusion: Political Theology and Early Modern Texts (2013), reviewed here on The Immanent Frame, is only the most recent example in a spate of studies dedicated to questions of political theory, theology, and the literary imagination in early modern England. Such work includes Debora Kuller Shuger’s Political Theologies in Early Modern England (2003), Julia Reinhard Lupton’s Citizen-Saints: Shakespeare and Political Theology (2005), Graham Hammill’s The Mosaic Constitution: Political Theology and Imagination from Machiavelli to Milton (2012), Joseph Jenkins’s Inheritance Law and Political Theology in Shakespeare and Milton (2014), and edited collections by Adrian Streete, Early Modern Drama and the Bible (2012), and Hammill and Lupton, Political Theology and Early Modernity (2012). With fourteen contributors included in the latter collection, the early modernist interest in political theology only seems to be increasing.

Such an outpouring of scholarship on early modernism and political theology raises the question: what does Renaissance London have to do with Athens and Jerusalem—or, as the case may be, twentieth-century Germany? To be fair, political theology is not entirely new to early modern studies. Ernst Kantorowicz’s 1957 study, The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology, has long been regarded as a classic among early modernists. Previous early modern scholars, however, have mined Kantorowicz’s work primarily for its insights into sacred kingship—less interested in its theological content per se than in using such content to translate religion into more comfortable social, economic, and political terms.

But the subject of political theology has taken on new direction and urgency in the past decade. Recent work takes as its starting point the global political crises and eruptions of the twenty-first century. This scholarship historicizes such crises, tracing these same fissures, gaps, and frictions between religion and politics to the divisive theologico-political environment of post-Reformation England. Nevertheless, such scholars eagerly step outside the chronological boundaries of the Renaissance, engaging twentieth- and twenty-first-century theorists of political theology such as Carl Schmitt, Leo Strauss, Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, and Giorgio Agamben.

This approach to political theology conceives of its enterprise as a “form of questioning that arises precisely when religion is no longer a dominant explanatory or life mode”; such a framework “finds its questions rather in the moments where religion is not working—but neither are the secular solutions designed to replace it.” Accordingly, it is the religiously fractured moment of post-Reformation England—precipitating the wars of religion on the continent; the execution of Catholics, Protestants, and Catholics again; and, later, the overweening divine right of Charles I—that undoes easy alliances between the religious and the political and instead produces the modern problems that plague their relation.

But if these events have always been evident to early modernists, why has political theology become of interest now? What shifts and re-orientations within early modern literary studies have cleared the way for such a focus? It would be natural to see this interest as a corollary to the oft-mentioned religious turn. Certainly the recent openness toward religion in early modern studies has enabled greater attention to the theological component of the political theology dynamic. Yet while some scholars have without hesitation seen their work in political theology as an extension of the turn to religion, others have tried to distance themselves from purely religious approaches. In what feels like an opening salvo, for example, the first sentences of the introduction to Hammill and Lupton’s edited collection declare, with a hint of exasperation: “Let’s get this straight. Political theology is not religion.” That the authors felt this distinction warranted attention in their opening sentence suggests that this newer coterie of scholars is made uncomfortable by a too-easy association with religion; Hammill and Lupton later admit that their political theology seeks to critique the religious turn as much as it draws inspiration from it. No doubt a portion of these scholars seem decidedly more interested in political theory than theology, while Kahn’s book goes so far as to seek an adequate secularism that can supersede religious models altogether. But if the turn to religion did not entirely propel the recent scholarly early modernist interest in political theology, then what other factors are at play?

Perhaps another appeal of the political theology approach emerges from a growing discontent with the field’s dominant framework of historicism. Since the 1980s, the “New Historicism,” inaugurated by Stephen Greenblatt, has been the lingua franca of early modern literary criticism. Such an approach insists on the otherness of the past; scholars working in this vein approach literary texts as shaped by and shapers of a robust yet foreign historical milieu, the recovery of which is crucial to making sense of a culture and its literature. Over the course of three decades, the successes of this approach have been made eminently clear, but other implications have begun to sit uneasily with early modern critics—especially the assumption that literature, ideas, and humanist inquiries can be explained by, and thus reduced to, their participation in a particular and ephemeral historical moment. Such an assumption does little to explain the purchase that authors like William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and John Milton have had over time and on us today.

In turn, scholars have started to look in many new critical directions, inciting, among other trends, a tenuous “return to theory.” Political theology was one of many such approaches, for example, included in Paul Cefalu and Bryan Reynolds’ edited collection The Return of Theory in Early Modern English Studies (2011). By engaging a chronological range of thinkers extending from St. Paul to Giorgio Agamben, political theology turns away from new historicist assertions of the otherness of the past, insisting instead that the relation of the political to the religious is not simply a local phenomenon; that questions of their relation are enduring and transhistorical; and that the tensions they embody are, as Lupton writes, “born out of historical traumas and debates, but not reducible to them.” While historicism certainly isn’t going anywhere, the interest in political theology indulges a growing critical desire to attend to broader questions of meaning that persist beyond and outside the circumscribed borders of a local environment or period.

Despite this general transcending of chronological boundaries, one troubling implication of the more recent recourse to political theology is its endorsement—sometimes tacit, sometimes explicit—of a categorical “break” separating the early modern period from the Middle Ages. Because this particular brand of political theology takes as its premise that religion is no longer compelling or explanatory, it often seems to assume that the Reformation is the primary font of such a phenomenon, and that political theology was thus an invention, or symptom, of the early modern age.

But, as with other histories of modernity, this formulation implicitly characterizes the Middle Ages as a monolithically Christian, harmonious theocracy and thus unfairly disqualifies it from consideration. Such an assumption was certainly not shared by Kantorowicz, whose historical study reaches deeply into the Middle Ages and characterizes political theology as a “quid pro quo” that “had been going on for many centuries, just as, vice versa, in the early centuries of the Christian era the imperial political terminology and the imperial ceremonial had been adapted to the needs of the Church.” More broadly, such scholars silently consent to the myth that modernity radically springs from the dull, aching head of the premodern past.

Despite this tendency, the pursuit of political theology in early modern literary studies tends to be more oriented toward gathering and including rather than limiting and excluding. Indeed, because this work so deliberately engages the realms of philosophy, theology, and political theory—allowing Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Milton to converse not only with Niccolò Machiavelli, Baruch Spinoza, and Thomas Hobbes but also with Schmitt, Arendt, and Agamben—it recognizes literature as an equal interlocutor with these other realms, a form of thinking unto itself and not simply an illustrative aid for more rigorous disciplines. Work that continues to affirm this truth can only be beneficial for literary studies and the disciplines it interacts with.

July 18th, 2014

Church of England votes to allow women bishops

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On July 14th, the General Synod of the Church of England voted to allow women to become bishops, taking a step toward resolving a long-running controversy that has divided traditionalist and progressive Anglicans all over the world, and caused friction between the church and the British government.

The Church of England is recognized by law as the country’s official church and enjoys special privileges. But the church’s decision in 2012 to continue barring women as bishops threatened relations between the church and the government, led by Prime Minister David Cameron, who supported the change, as did the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg.

“This is a watershed moment for the Church of England and a huge step forward in making our society fairer,” Mr. Clegg said in a statement. “Allowing women to become bishops is another long overdue step towards gender equality in senior positions.”

The governing body, which consists of a House of Bishops, a House of Clergy, and a House of Laity, voted in 1992 to ordain women priests. A previous attempt to admit women to the bishopric failed in 2012, when the House of Laity rejected the changes by a small margin.

The Most Reverend Justin Welby, who as Archbishop of Canterbury is the spiritual head of the church, said he was “delighted” with the “hugely exciting” decision in an interview with the BBC. He acknowledged the role of changing attitudes toward gender in the broader society, but insisted that the church’s decision was “essentially about theology, more than about culture.…It was a question of, what is right? Before God, in obedience to Jesus Christ, to be the church that he wants us to be, loving one another, and above all loving the society in which we live.”

Traditionalists like Susie Leafe, an member of the House of Laity, expressed discomfort with the decision. “I believe that the Bible teaches us that men and women are equal, and they’re different,” she explained. “And therefore, within the Church and within the family, we have different roles to play. I think women will be undermined by this, rather than freed.”

In a concession to opponents of the move, parishes that refuse to accept a woman bishop will be permitted to request a man instead.

The first women bishops could be appointed by the end of this year.

July 15th, 2014

Blood: A Critique of Christianity

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The starting point for Gil Anidjar’s ambitious and daring new book, Blood: A Critique of Christianity, is that modern concepts such as capital, state, and nation have entirely Western-Christian origins. Or as Anidjar—borrowing an analogous line from the German jurist Carl Schmitt—puts it: “All significant concepts of the history of the modern world are liquidated theological concepts. This is so not only because of their historical development but also because of their systematic fluidity, the recognition of which is necessary for a political consideration of these concepts.”

But how can Christianity, asks the curious reader, account for all significant concepts of the history of the modern world, especially in cases where no obvious correlation exists between such concepts and the historical teachings of Christianity?

Without reducing Christianity down to an essence, the answer for Anidjar is clear: Christianity extends beyond its theological and religious dimensions; “[it] ebbs and flows between spheres and across them…[it] circulates through, over, and beyond a number of other spheres, and ultimately as law and culture, from economics to sciences, and beyond.” Christianity, so the argument goes, thus persists as something entirely different than what it calls itself.

Perhaps Christianity’s liquidity best explains Anidjar’s surprising suggestion that nation, state, and capital became “available, sustainable, and readable in their multifarious structure and historical development” by way of Christian blood. Anidjar’s aim, then, is to formulate what he calls a “political hematology” sensitive to the presence—or absence—of blood “through the realms and collectives that have constituted the modern state, from law to society, from economy to class, and from nation to science.” By attending to Christian blood, Anidjar believes he can account not only for the political form of western modernity, but also the emergence of scientific racism, embryology, modern medicine, the one-drop rule, and so forth.

But let us take a step back and ask the simple question: What is Christian blood? In Anidjar’s rendering, Christian blood takes on apophatic proportions: it is not a thing, an idea, a concept, an object, or a subject, and it possesses no identity. Anijdar wisely refuses to offer a precise definition of blood, since this would make his argument for the Christian origins of all significant concepts of modernity seemingly impossible—although blood does sound a lot like an invisible god who created a visible world. It is for this reason that blood becomes for Anidjar the “privileged figure” or “element” by which Christianity could engender new notions of politics, kinship and race.

If Christian blood is as slippery and seemingly undefinable as Anidjar claims, locating its emergence in history would seemingly present challenges. Anidjar, in fact, states that his book does not offer a history of blood. Yet this does not prevent Anidjar from making a historical argument for when and how blood became Christian. The medieval period, suggests Anidjar, marks the advent of an entirely new way of understanding community and kinship—one that bases identity and lineage entirely on bloodlines.

In defending this claim Anidjar first offers a number of engrossing rebuttals to the anticipated argument that blood lineages have either Semitic or ancient origins. Nowhere in the Hebrew Bible, Anidjar maintains, does blood constitute the elementary basis of the communal bond. The Hebrew Bible is, of course, filled with violence and blood sacrifices, and there is an undeniable link between blood and covenant. Yet its basis for kinship, affirms Anidjar, is to be found in the notion of “flesh and bone.” Hence Adam’s statement after the creation of Eve: “this at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh (Genesis 2:23). For Anidjar, flesh and bone do not signify continuity across generations, but rather imply contemporaneous equality (see for example 2 Samuel 19:13; Nehemiah 5:5). Names and memory—not blood—act as the material bases for kinship in the Hebrew Bible.

Things, however, are a bit trickier for Anidjar when it comes to the association of blood and kinship in ancient Greek philosophy and literature. Anidjar readily admits, for instance, that Homer depicted blood as—among myriad other associations and functions—an element constitutive of kinship, especially in the Odyssey. Moreover, Aristotle explicitly invoked blood when stating “the same person is called ‘my son’ by one man and ‘my brother’ by another . . . whether of blood or by affinity of marriage.” Anidjar cites other ancient authors that confirm similar affiliations of blood and kinship in Greek antiquity. Yet instead of seeing any potential connection between Greek views of blood and kinship and “Christian blood,” Anidjar argues that they are categorically different.

In making this move Anidjar sidesteps the Aristotle text he has cited—and other similar ones—by stating that the connection it makes is “beyond simple.” Instead a series of unanswered questions are raised over what such statements could even mean. Anidjar presumably makes this rhetorical move for one reason: He does not think the relationship between blood and kinship in ancient Greece can connect with “any contemporary or near contemporary medical and, more precisely embryological views.” Blood meant a lot of things for the Greeks. But most importantly for Anidjar, its association with kinship did not entail individual or group superiority, even if the Greeks did understand themselves to be collectively superior to barbarians.

But what, then, about the New Testament? The idea of flesh and blood are famously present in Paul the Apostle’s letters. For instance, Paul remarks that Christians are justified by Christ’s blood (Romans 5:9). Yet Anidjar is clear that Pauline references to the blood of Christ are at best a prefiguration of the Christian blood to come. Paul emphatically denied any connection between genealogical standing and salvation: “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable (1 Corinthians 15:50). Hence Anidjar’s conclusion that Paul’s genealogical understanding is rooted in spirit rather than in blood.

Nevertheless, Anidjar does seem to think that something new with blood is happening in the New Testament. After all, did Jesus not command his followers to consume his blood (John 6:53-56)? Moreover, 1 Peter 1:19 associates purity with “the precious blood of the lamb.” Hence Anidjar’s conclusion that such innovations constitute the essential building blocks of a “peculiar history” that will require a few more centuries to “fully coagulate.”

This occurred during the medieval period, when blood becomes, according to Piero Camporesi, “thick with magical significations, mystical claims, pharmacological prodigies, alchemisterical dreams,” where “the torments of Christ, along with the cult of his body and blood” all become a “collective passio.” It is here that Anidjar detects a watershed moment where for the first time biology and soteriology became inseparable.

Anidjar makes two major arguments for this claim. Citing Carolyn Walker Bynum’s Wonder Blood, Anidjar suggests that partaking in the Eucharist had become “a relation of the body and blood of Christ to each other and to his person, and on the other hand, a question of how Christians gain access to the sanguis Christi that saves.” From this vantage point, the Eucharist seems to involve something more than spiritual purification: it also equates the believer’s blood with the blood of Christ.

The implications seem clear enough: Christianity is becoming a biological division between those who do and do not possess the right blood.

Anidjar’s second argument is connected to his claims about the medieval “Eucharist matrix.” With its emergence the idea of the church as a mystical body alters. The body of Christ is now no longer invisible, but embodies the visible members of the Church who are unified by blood. To what degree someone is socially excluded or embraced is determined by the purity and origins of their blood lineage. Such concerns were explicitly implemented into canon law so that the Church could authorize or forbid marriage alliances. It is in this manner, claims Anidjar, that the “nobility could be reinvented as a “social category” grounded in blood as genealogy or lineage, along with others.” This reconceptualization of blood is also on display in the Iberian limpieza de sangre (“cleanliness of blood”) statutes, which distinguishes Old Christians—those without Muslim or Jewish ancestry—from New Christians. Thus the ease by which Anidjar can explain the bio-theological origins of the Spanish Inquisition.

Yet strangely, Anijdar’s argument is devoid of any substantial interaction with how medieval theologians actually viewed blood. Rather there is a great deal of discussion on the medieval politicization of blood and its social, historical setting. Unlike with his analysis of ancient texts, however, Anidjar’s remarks on blood in the medieval period are heavily reliant on secondary works of social, intellectual and cultural history. There is, for instance, no serious engagement with medieval views on the doctrine of transubstantiation. But why would a book that stresses the theological origins of modernity actually spend so little time discussing theology proper in the medieval era? Is it not strange that Thomas Aquinas’s views on transubstantiation are nowhere mentioned in a text that roots modernity in medieval understandings of the Eucharist? Perhaps Anidjar would suggest this line of inquiry misses the point. Such an omission, however, is undoubtedly a curious one.

Anidjar’s main aim is to challenge the position that modern scientific racism, and racism in general have secular origins. But recall, Anidjar wants to claim something much more ambitious, namely that all significant concepts of the modern world emerged out of the “Eucharistic matrix” of medieval political theology. Not only is proving this no easy feat, but it also suggests that a significant portion of Europe and the entire Western Hemisphere are fundamentally Christian; Anidjar excludes the Eastern Orthodox Church from his analysis because the concepts he is interested first emerged in the West.

The argument for such a bold position, which is much more nuanced than can be presented here, seems to be the following: the medieval Eucharist cult established the language of blood ties, which must inform any understanding of political modernity. As put by Anidjar, blood is “the substance, site, and marker of collective identity…that binds us still to the “Middle Ages.” In this reading, the rise of nationalism becomes inseparable from theologico-political context that bases collective identity on blood divisions; the modern state—with its long history of racism—is conceived as a metamorphosis of the medieval body politic; while the circulation of Christ’s blood is linked with the circulation of modern capitalism.

Note, however, that Anidjar has not either reduced Christianity to some essence or to a theological doctrine. Rather he is trying to articulate “real existing Christianity,” which has left an indelible mark on law, culture, science, and economics. In this way Christianity can be stretched and reconfigured to account for a long list of modern notions. Said differently, for Anidjar the “secular age” is a profoundly Christian one.

Blood is bound to provoke heated discussion, perhaps most notably by those critics who deny that Western Christendom is ultimately responsible for the greatest evils of the age, not to mention those who play up the secular origins of modernity. What Blood does represent, at least for this reader, is the revival of an older way of approaching the debate over Christianity and political modernity, something analogous to a Marxist critique of political theology as presented in On the Jewish Question; yet with the caveat that Anidjar believes the young Marx should have been raising the Christian question. At the same time, Anidjar accepts the thesis of Carl Schmitt, which reduces all significant modern concepts of the state to secularized theological notions. How then can blood, as Anidjar describes, ever be overcome? There seems to be only one obvious solution to this problematic: a revolutionary project of de-theologizing the modern world.

June 12th, 2014

With Cantor loss, only Christian Republicans in Congress

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Lecture by Congressman Eric Cantor | Image via Flickr user Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan's PhotostreamThe unexpected primary defeat of Virginia Representative and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor on Tuesday is already having seismic effects on the Republican leadership and Congress as a whole. (Cantor has just announced he’ll step down from the Majority Leader post, prompting an immediate effort to reorganize.) But Cantor’s exit will also likely prove an interesting demographic marker for the 114th Congress. The Representative, who is Jewish, is the only non-Christian Republican on the Hill. As Aaron Blake pointed out over at the Washington Post, it looks like Republican Christian dominance will soon be complete:

According to data collected by the Pew Forum at the start of the 113th Congress last year, the GOP conference was 69 percent Protestant, 25 percent Catholic, 4 percent Mormon and 1 percent Orthodox Christian.

Cantor (Va.) was the only member of any other faith on the Republican side in either the House or the Senate — out of 278 members. There are no non-religious Republicans in Congress either.

That last statistic represents a stark departure from the preferences of the nation as a whole. According to the Pew data, “about one-in-five U.S. adults describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular.’”

The Democratic delegation is much more religiously diverse—including 32 Jewish members, three Buddhists, two Muslims, a Unitarian Universalist, a Hindu, an “unaffiliated” member, and 10 delegates who didn’t specify any particular denomination.

The primary loss dashes Cantor’s dreams of becoming the first Jewish Speaker of the House. As Michelle Boorstein reports in The Washington Post, Jewish figures in both parties are reacting to his defeat with some disappointment:

Much of Cantor’s conservative domestic politics are anathema to Jews, 70 percent of whom say they are Democrats or lean that way. But he played a unique role by advocating in the areas where many Jews are more conservative, particularly around the security of Israel and in public support for Jewish institutions.

“The partisan in me can’t help but be amused,” said Steve Rabinowitz, a Democratic media strategist who worked in Bill Clinton’s White House and now serves many Jewish organizations. “But the Jewish communal professional in me thinks it’s not a good thing for the community.”

Read more The Immanent Frame coverage on religion in Congress here, and check out Blake’s and Boorstein’s pieces over at the Post.

June 2nd, 2014

Jesus, religion, and revolution in the South African elections

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In 2004 and 2008, South African president Jacob Zuma notoriously declared that his party, the African National Congress, will “rule until Jesus comes back.” The recent national election results favor his prediction, with the ANC winning its fifth national election since 1994.

To outsiders, the audacity of President Zuma’s statement can seem puzzling. The truth is that the ANC has managed to win election after election since 1994 because it continues to be seen by the majority of citizens as the political organization that ended apartheid, the party of heroic leaders like Nelson Mandela, and the party of black liberation and freedom. However, this narrative is becoming more complex, in part because new stories of discontent and resistance are emerging. In fact, the real surprise this election season was not the ANC’s victory, but rather the increasing number of black opposition voices who leveled stinging moral critiques at the ANC. Moreover, religion dramatically re-entered the political sphere. Critics deployed religious rhetoric in the service of radical leftist politics, and religious leaders embarked on protest campaigns aimed at holding the ANC (rather than the apartheid government) accountable, prompting President Zuma to assert: “bishops and pastors are there to pray for those who go wrong, not to enter into political lives.”

Certainly, religion has not been absent from politics over the last twenty years. Because the majority of black South Africans identify as Christian, churches frequently attract the attention of ANC leaders, especially during election season. But compared with heightened mobilization under apartheid, the noticeable political withdrawal of Christian churches and other religious bodies since 1994 has been a constant source of anxiety for progressive clergy and theologians. During the course of my fieldwork, I have heard many religious activists express frustration about the complacency of religious institutions in comparison with the “prophetic” role that religiously-affiliated organizations like the South African Council of Churches played during apartheid.

This election season, however, saw religious leaders from all sectors, including those from evangelical, charismatic, and Zionist churches, increasingly comfortable speaking out against the ANC government. The issues of concern? Poverty, unemployment, violence, police brutality, corruption, labor rights, land distribution, education, racial inequalities, and the ever-rising gap between the rich and the poor. While linked to South Africa’s tortured past, the persistence of these problems also implicates the current ANC leadership. For example, in an incident reminiscent of apartheid era violence, 34 striking miners were shot dead by police in 2012. The “Marikana Massacre” shocked the nation and the world, but to date no one has been held accountable for the decision to use lethal force.

Shocking events like Marikana help explain why founding Barney Pityana, black liberation theologian and member of the Black Consciousness Movement, lent his public support to the “Vote No” campaign, which encouraged the public to vote against the African National Congress in protest. In a scathing opinion piece, Pityana wrote, citing Hannah Arendt, that “South Africa under the Zuma ANC has all the makings of a descent into an authoritarian one-party state.” With crime and corruption rising, Pityana reminded his readers that “the overwhelming victims of this state of insecurity are the poor, women and black people.” For Pityana, the ANC has failed to create a compelling vision of transformation and instead pushed the poor into greater dependency and dehumanization. He goes on to suggest that the ANC has systematically undermined “the vision of a new South Africa” founded on values of human dignity, equality, and social justice.

I was particularly struck by the high level of political activity that took place in churches, or that involved clergy, over Easter weekend. This weekend proved an opportune time for activism because it fell just prior to Freedom Weekend, when the country celebrated twenty years of democracy, just two weeks before the national election on May 7, 2014.

In Durban, the ecumenical Diakonia Council of Churches used its annual Good Friday service to demand that “things must change.” Citing inequality, greed, violence, poverty, and corruption, over 3,000 people marched to City Hall. The tone of the day’s address mirrored that of the 1980s. Participants were called to confront “the powers” of this world and encouraged not to “lose sight of the real choices to be made.”

On Easter Saturday, April 19, Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town emeritus Desmond Tutu and current Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, along with Jewish and Muslim leaders, marched to Parliament in a “Procession of Witness.” The procession saw a wide range of ecumenical and inter-religious support, once again recalling anti-apartheid activism of the 1980s. The aim of the march was to send a direct message to President Zuma and the ANC. In his statement, Archbishop Makgoba called on political leaders to “live up to the national values established by the Constitution.” He further asked those with influence and power to “return to Nelson Mandela’s way of governance and leadership”—a style not threatened by social debate and mindful of the marginalized. Makgoba’s words gesture towards two widespread critiques of the “ruling” party: its autocratic leadership and neoliberal economic policies, both perceived to be at odds with Nelson Mandela’s vision of a democratic and transformed South Africa. Perhaps most significant was a public confession that faith communities had lost sight of their moral responsibilities to the poor and remained silent for far too long.

Occurring on the same day, Pastor Xola Skosana of Way of Life Church organized his own march called “Welcome to Hell – SA Townships.”

The march, based on an “out of body” vision Skosana says he received, is now in its fourth year. Skosana has made it his life’s mission to draw attention to what he calls the “gruesome violence of township life.” Townships are residential areas originally designed to provide racially segregated labor to urban centers. Many townships have large sections of middle class homes, but overcrowded living conditions and lack of sanitation remain the norm. Skosana does not mince words about the current state of affairs:

“Townships are nothing but glorified refugee camps, rat infested hellholes that must be exposed for what they really are. In many parts of South Africa, townships exist as readily available hubs of cheap labour to keep labour intensive industries going for the benefit of the few. Let it be known across the breath and length of this country that the continuation of separate development, and integration based on affordability, is the perpetuation of the notorious Group Areas Act of yesteryear.”

This is not the first time Skosona has used controversial tactics to draw attention to the plight of the poor. In 2011, he went on a month-long hunger strike. The march began in the township of Gugulethu and ended in Khayelitsha, both near Cape Town. Throughout the 11.5 K march, Pastor Skosana carried a large wooden cross.

While much smaller than the “Procession of Witness,” the “Welcome to Hell” march is especially noteworthy because it attracted the support of a newly formed political party—the Economic Freedom Fighters. Formed by expelled ANC youth leader Julius Malema, the EFF views itself as a “revolutionary” movement in the tradition of Frantz Fanon and Steve Biko. Known for their red berets and militant discourse, its supporters have been instrumental in provoking national debate about economic policies that continue to favor white elites. Their agenda includes land redistribution without compensation and the nationalization of all mines. Although their message is directed towards the poor, many middle-class black South Africans and intellectuals are also attracted to their urgent call for social change. The EFF received over a million votes this year, an impressive showing for the renegade party, making it now the second largest opposition party in South Africa.

Perhaps the most shocking challenge to the ANC came on Easter Sunday, when Bishop Barnabas Lekganyane, the main leader of the Zionist Christian Church, appeared to use his sermon to encourage millions of members to vote against the ANC. Though the ZCC is often considered apolitical because of its emphasis on African self-reliance, its massive Easter service occupies a special place in South Africa’s political landscape. Nelson Mandela delivered a rousing Easter address in 1992, and President Zuma was an invited guest of honor in 2012. In this year’s sermon, the Bishop urged members to elect “smart and intelligent” leaders who do not “confuse public funds” with their own. This can be interpreted as a double swipe at President Zuma, who is often derided for his lack of formal education and has been accused of corruption. A recent report by Public Protector Thuli Madonsela found that President Zuma improperly used public funds for a $25 million dollar upgrade to his private Nkandla estate—all while unemployment hovers at 25 percent.

As a result of this report, Madonsela gained recognition from Time magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential people. The profile praised her “ability to speak truth to power and to address corruption in high places.” But her office has become the site of intense spiritual struggle. An unknown group called the Concerned Pastor Organization sought to cast out the “demons” in her office, prompting statements of condemnation from the Evangelical Alliance of South Africa and Archbishop Thabo Makgoba. Religious leaders in Cape Town, including Desmond Tutu, also held a silent protest in support of the Public Protector’s Office and her Nkandla report.

The resurgence of dramatic and symbolic forms of protest in South Africa, and the active presence of religious leaders in the public sphere, underscores the complexities of postcolonial “liberation” in one of the most unequal societies in the world. While ghosts of apartheid and colonialism continue to haunt, new specters of repression loom on the horizon.

In response, a renewed emphasis on moral and political struggle by religious leaders and activists suggests that the principles of anti-apartheid activism are increasingly being recalibrated for a post-Mandela era. In a public message on Facebook, posted on Good Friday, resident ideologue and EFF leader Andile Mngxitama shared a message from a follower: “We remember Jesus the communist who walked into the temple and unleashed an armed struggle on the exploiters!” This sounds not too different from the statement made by Black Consciousness activists on trial in 1973, when Jesus was named “the first freedom fighter to die for the oppressed.” Whether Jesus, the armed communist, will be a rallying cry in the future remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that Jesus no longer simply serves as the ANC’s election barometer. The fact that those once heralded as liberators are now considered exploiters will certainly have political reverberations for years to come.

May 28th, 2014

The imaginary “war on religion”

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Over at The Atlantic, Peter Beinhart recounts the results of a new survey on religious observance in America. Unsurprisingly, he reports, Americans across the political spectrum tend to lie about how often they attend services.

However, perhaps counterintuitively, American liberals are actually more likely to inflate their religious attendance than American conservatives:

Over the past few decades, liberals have—far more than conservatives—turned away from religious affiliation, though not necessarily belief in God. But while they may feel proud of their views on religion-informed issues like evolution and gay marriage, they’re not particularly proud of their lack of religious observance per se. Indeed, they’re aware that they’re violating a cherished social norm. Asking liberals to admit that they are disproportionately secular is like asking conservatives to admit that they are disproportionately white. It’s a truth they find embarrassing.

The point, says Beinhart, is that the liberal “war on religion” trumpeted by the likes of Rick Perry and Ann Coulter turns out to be imaginary. Far from scorning religious Americans, as conservatives charge, liberals seek to appear more religious than they are.

Beinhart suggests that secular liberals are right to be cautious about expressing their lack of faith. A 2006 study found that atheists are one of the least accepted of American society’s “marginalized” groups—and furthermore, tolerance for atheists has barely increased over the past several decades:

Americans are today more likely to say they would vote for a Muslim or a gay or lesbian for president than an atheist. In a recent Pew study, even nonreligious Americans said they wanted their presidential candidates to be believers—regardless of what faith they profess. Seven states still officially bar atheists from holding office.

Read the full piece at the Atlantic, and read more about the “social cost of atheism” here.

May 21st, 2014

Free religion and free markets in Guatemala

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Is freedom of religion really “good for business”? The Immanent Frame contributor Elizabeth Shakman Hurd has a new essay at Al Jazeera America exploring the problems with the idea that neoliberal economics and religious freedom go hand in hand. Hurd tells the story of the K’iche’, a Maya ethnic group living in western Guatemala, whose cultural and religious life depends on access to the highlands where they live. A community organization representing the K’iche’ has been fighting to stop mining and hydroelectric projects that would affect their land. As Hurd explains,

Part of that story involves what counts as religion. Those who tie religious freedom and free markets fail to recognize the K’iche’ people’s relationship to their land (and their associated cultural and religious practices) as religious, so the fact that the changes associated with economic liberalization make it impossible for the K’iche’ to continue their cultural and religious life does not register as depriving them of anything of significance. Neoliberal advocates convince governments to accept the property and resource rights of companies, and then religious freedom advocates reassure the indigenous population and others that they haven’t suffered a religious setback. Both moves ensure that indigenous people lose their culture and capacity to carry on the lives they were living — as well as any claim to harm.

Moreover, Hurd writes, most legal protections for religious rights have a limited and partial understanding of what constitutes religious practice, “reflecting and privileging particular understandings of religion and particular conceptions of freedom.”

Read the full essay at Al Jazeera America. Read our extensive discussion on the politics of religious freedom here.

May 15th, 2014

The complicated case of Narendra Modi’s visa

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Monday, May 12th, marked the ninth and final phase of India’s general elections, and the results announced in coming hours will likely declare Narendra Modi as India’s prime minister. Modi, the candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance, would then lead the world’s largest democracy—one with a staggering 814.5 million registered voters—but has been denied entry into ours: for almost a decade, the Department of State has banned Modi from entering the United States. Looking back at how this came to be highlights the uneven history of religious freedom as part of American foreign policy.

In 2005, Modi applied for a diplomatic visa to travel to the United States for a conference sponsored by the Asian American Hotel Owner’s Association. David C. Mulford, US Ambassador to India at the time, issued a statement that rejected Modi’s visa application as he was “not coming for a purpose that qualified for a diplomatic visa.” Additionally, the Department of State revoked Modi’s tourist/business visa, citing section 212 (a) (2) (g) in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), which “makes any foreign government official who ‘was responsible for or directly carried out, at any time, particularly severe violations of religious freedom’ ineligible for a visa to the United States.” The provision was added to the INA in 1998, as a result of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA); Modi remains the only person ever to have been banned under this clause.

The “severe violations” in question refer to his actions (or lack thereof) during the 2002 Gujarat riots, a three-day period of sectarian violence triggered when a train caught fire. Both the causes of and the circumstances surrounding the train incident and the widespread violence that followed have been contested. The train was carrying Hindu activists and pilgrims when it was attacked by a mob; it went up in flames and eventually killed 59 people. Further attacks, destruction of property, and looting soon followed, causing the death of more than 1,000 people, most of whom were Muslim.

Modi was (and remains) Chief Minister of Gujarat at the time, and was accused by multiple human rights activists and organizations of allowing—and possibly fostering—the anti-Muslim violence that occurred under his watch. However, the Gujarati commission of inquiry into the events has concluded that “there is absolutely no evidence to show that either the Chief Minister and/or any other Minister(s) in his Council of Ministers or Police offices had played any role in the Godhra incident or that there was any lapse on their part in the matter of providing protection, relief and rehabilitation to the victims of communal riots.” Later, a 2012 Supreme Court-appointed special investigation team probe found no “prosecutable evidence” against Modi, who has expressed sadness over the events, but has denied culpability. Human Rights Watch, in their 2002 report, directly implicates state officials in the violence against Muslims, and the Department of State, in its 2005 decision to revoke Modi’s existing visa, cited the Indian National Human Rights Commission report, which stated that Modi and the Gujarati government clearly failed to act to protect its people from the violence.  The ban has been in place ever since.

Why the Immigration and Nationality Act includes a provision that punishes foreign officials for violations of religious freedom goes back to 1998, when the IRFA was passed by Congress. The issue of religious persecution abroad gained momentum throughout the 1990s among Jews, Catholics, and human rights activists, and especially among Evangelical Protestants. Members of Congress took notice, and the issue took legislative shape when congressmen Frank Wolf and Arlen Specter introduced The Freedom from Religious Persecution Act in 1997. A modified version of that bill would eventually become the IRFA, which in Section 604 details the “inadmissibility of foreign government officials who have engaged in particularly severe violations of religious freedom,” and amends the INA to include the clause that would later be used to ban Modi.

Since its passage, the IRFA has been subject to criticism for its perceived Christian bias, and skepticism about its diplomatic potential. Modi’s visa application, then, was a chance for the IRFA and the newly created United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) to show their effectiveness. In the words of Felice D. Gaer, chair of the USCIRF at the time: “I wanted to turn this around, to make our focus broader.” Additionally, it may have helped that Modi was not a national figure at the time—perhaps the Department of State did not see his ban as a big deal. But India’s placement on USCIRF’s “Watch List” (for the 2002 riots, as well as for its anti-conversion laws) has not been without dissent (even from Gaer herself), and the denial of Modi’s visa has been called misguided.

Narenda Modi is running on a platform of economic growth and clean government, emphasizing his humble beginnings (and downplaying his Hindu nationalism). This stands in stark contrast to his main rival, Rahul Gandhi of the Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance and heir to the Nehru–Gandhi political dynasty, whose party has been criticized for corruption and poor governance. But while Modi has many supporters, others, like Amartya Sen, have come out against him for his record on religious minorities and his style of rule.

In the likely case that Modi does indeed become India’s prime minister (you can follow live results through Google), it is unlikely he would be kept out of the United Sates; leaders with far more questionable histories have entered the country, without issue, for official visits. House Resolution 417 reaffirms the denial of Modi’s visa, but a new Congressional Research Service report indicates that a head of state is automatically eligible for a A-1 diplomatic visa and welcome to apply. Modi’s ban may soon be over, but the history behind the ban illuminates the inconsistencies and tensions of religious freedom as a foreign policy objective, a subject discussed at length elsewhere on the site.

May 9th, 2014

Pope Francis and liberation theology

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One year into Francis’s papacy, many observers—both inside and outside the Catholic community—are still holding their breath. He has certainly made a good first impression. Yet it is still very early in the unfolding of Francis’s legacy, and we are only just beginning to understand how his papacy will affect some of the deeper tensions facing the Catholic Church today.

From the beginning, commentators have identified Francis’s relationship to liberation theology as a window into one of those deeper tensions. The Vatican’s critiques of Latin American liberation theology have often been interpreted, fairly or not, as exemplifying a more general mistrust of critical politics. Would the election of a Latin American pope change that posture? Francis might bring with him a sharper awareness of and sensitivity to the realities of poverty and oppression. But early rumors suggested that as Provincial Superior of the Argentinian Jesuits he had been no friend of liberation theology.

It should be said that the relationship between the Vatican and liberation theology has never been as absolutely antagonistic as it is often portrayed. To be sure, church officials have worried—consistently and publicly—about liberation theology’s use of Marxist categories, and about the specific ways that some liberation theologians have integrated solidarity with the poor into their theological method. But with one exception, their interventions have come in the form of “instructions” and “notifications” rather than direct condemnations. And at the same time, magisterial documents have adopted (and adapted) key elements of liberationist language—most importantly, the idea of a “preferential option for the poor,” the idea that, as Gustavo Gutiérrez puts it, “God demonstrates a special predilection toward those who have been excluded from the banquet of life” and therefore so should we. (Despite sensationalist declarations to the contrary, Pope Francis is not bringing the preferential option “back,” nor does his Evangelii Gaudium bring it “close to becoming official doctrine.” The preferential option for the poor is already doctrine.) Moreover, liberation theologians themselves draw deep inspiration from the Second Vatican Council and from the tradition of papal social teaching.

Still, Pope Francis clearly has begun to open new doors for liberation theologians. To begin with, in a papacy that puts great stock in symbols and gestures, it is important to acknowledge Francis’s overtures towards founding figures of liberation theology—meeting with Gustavo Gutiérrez, re-opening the canonization process for Oscar Romero, and tapping Leonardo Boff, once silenced, for help with an encyclical on the environment.

But there have also been more substantial rapprochements. Francis not only affirms, like his predecessors, that the poor have a special claim on our love; he also suggests that the poor have a special kind of wisdom and therefore authority within the Christian community. “I want a Church which is poor and for the poor,” he writes in Evangelii Gaudium. “They have much to teach us… We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them.” With many liberation theologians, Francis thus affirms what is sometimes called the hermeneutical dimension of the option for the poor, the idea that seeing God and the world rightly requires seeing from the vantage of the poor. It is precisely this hermeneutical dimension of the preferential option that some have argued is missing from earlier magisterial documents. Francis, by contrast, seems to be making it a pillar of his papacy, just as he has taken visible steps to foreground the voices of Christians outside Europe and North America.

It would be too much, however, to claim total reconciliation. One of the pathbreaking elements of early Latin American liberation theology was its argument for the use of the social sciences in theology. The dependency theory of Andre Gunder Frank and Theodonio dos Santos was particularly influential, along with a more generically Marxist account of the class struggle within capitalism, but their dependence on non-theological social analysis came to be seen as an Achilles’ heel. The main critique, put most polemically perhaps by John Milbank, was that the social sciences depend implicitly on a set of normative and even theological commitments that theologians must examine. John Paul II and Benedict XVI were much more open to the use of social sciences than someone like Milbank, but they still always emphasized the ultimate inadequacy of analytical tools that bracketed transcendence.

Francis’s comments on contemporary politico-economic realities, fiercely perceptive though they often are, have so far relied much more on a kind of ad hoc cultural phenomenology than on any engagement with the social sciences. He thus sidesteps a major concern of liberation theology’s critics, but only by scaling back one of liberation theology’s most important contributions. It will be worth watching whether he continues to shy away from directly engaging the social sciences in his future writings. If he does, what will be the cost?

One crucial consequence may be seen in the way Francis deals with the deceptively simple question of who exactly belongs to “the poor.” More recent liberation theologians—and it is important to be clear that liberation theology has continued to grow and change since the 1960s and ’70s—have critiqued some of the movement’s founders for thinking about “the poor” too monolithically. Latin American reality, they argue, is shaped by various intersecting forms of oppression that require different forms of critical attention. An all-encompassing critique of capitalism is not enough. Pope Francis similarly argues in Evangelii Gaudium that “it is essential to draw near to new forms of poverty and vulnerability,” and calls special attention to refugees and migrants, indigenous peoples, and women, among others. Yet it is not clear whether Francis believes that these “new forms of poverty” require differentiated lines of social analysis. If he keeps his distance from the social sciences, he may oversimplify patterns of power and recognition of which he is less immediately aware.

How, for example, will Francis follow up his own call for “a profound theology of the woman”? The singularity and abstractness of that reference is disconcerting: it suggests that Francis will continue to insist on the essentializing and alienating phenomenology of gender articulated by his predecessors. In keeping with his own hermeneutical option for “the poor,” will Francis let himself be evangelized by women describing their own challenges and their own aspirations? Will he be open to empirical descriptions of the specific vulnerabilities, the specific patterns of violence, that women face across the globe? Such questions are integral to any discussion of Francis’s relationship with liberation theology.

We should avoid treating either magisterial thought or liberation theology as a fixed and exclusive point of reference. Both are complex, and the two are intertwined—now more than ever. Pope Francis is a kind of liberation theologian; it would be hard to argue otherwise. His theology is defined by the question of how to speak good news to the poor. And it is good news for the Catholic world, no doubt, to have a liberation theologian sitting on Peter’s chair. For that matter, it is good news for everyone: Francis will help keep the poor at the center of public discourse. What we need to watch now is how we will work through the difficult questions he brings with him from that tradition.

May 6th, 2014

Churches and public schools

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On April 3rd, 2014, The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld (by overturning the judgment of a lower court) the decision of the New York City Board of Education to exclude groups (in this case, churches) from using school facilities outside of school hours “for the purpose of holding religious worship services.” The decision (PDF) follows a long legal battle. It is a defeat for churches that wanted to submit applications to use school buildings for church services and pay the schools accordingly. The decision did not pass unanimously. Judge Pierre N. Leval and Judge Guido Calabresi ruled in favor of the exclusion, and Judge John M. Walker Jr. ruled against it. The majority opinion endorses the following conclusion: “permitting religious worship services in its [the Board’s] schools might give rise to an appearance of endorsement in violation of the Establishment Clause, thus exposing the Board to a substantial risk of liability.”

In his dissenting opinion, Judge Walker states: “In my view, the Board of Education’s policy that disallows ‘religious worship services’ after hours in public schools—limited public fora that are otherwise open to all—violates the Free Exercise Clause because it plainly discriminates against religious belief and cannot be justified by a compelling government interest.” In Walker’s judgment, “This case presents substantial questions involving the contours of both religion clauses and the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment, the resolution of which are ripe for Supreme Court review.” He cites Epperson v. Arkansas (1968), which states: “First Amendment mandates governmental neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion.” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, a new hopeful candidate for the left wing of the U.S. Democratic Party, has expressed support for the religious groups and their paid use of the school buildings after fair application. Those churches that cannot afford their own buildings will be affected by this decision.

The recent decision brings a few important sentences to memory from the 1948 “Statement on Church and State.” It was published in the journal Christianity and Crisis. Twenty-seven professors and clergy members signed the statement, including Harry Emerson Fosdick and Reinhold Niebuhr. The signers declared that they favored “the separation of church and state in the sense which we believe to have been intended in the First Amendment. This prohibited the state from giving any church or religious body a favored position, and from controlling the religious institutions of the nation.” They held that “cooperation, entered into freely by the state and church and involving no special privilege to any church and no threat to the religious liberty of any citizen, should be permitted.”

The idea of the “appearance of endorsement,” as opposed to actual endorsement, is very complex. It requires significant hermeneutical deliberation to determine whether an action gives the “appearance of endorsement” or not. For example, do swearing on the Bible in court or the pastoral invocation at Presidential inauguration services give the “appearance of endorsement”? Do politicians going to church provide the “appearance of endorsement”? When school boards permit churches to do volunteer work at public school facilities, like helping with grounds-keeping and painting, are they effectively giving the “appearance of endorsement”? Of course, in none of these cases is there any actual endorsement, in the sense of a legal agreement on the part of the politicians or public institutions.

The desire to avoid an “appearance of endorsement” may spring from an idealized conception of society in which public institutions operate from the standpoint of a supposedly objective worldview. This does not reflect the reality of the everyday work of public institutions and political figures, who often give the “appearance of endorsement” by working with religious groups. The old tradition of American church-state policy is not built upon conceptions of an idealized society of worldview neutrality; it is rather concerned with rejecting a specific political order in which the state designates a religion for the country and thus establishes it with formal institutional backing. Free cooperation between religious communities and public institutions was a reality in the eighteenth century, as it is today.

Judge Leval and Calabresi’s decision could be interpreted as encouraging public institutions to free themselves from any “appearance of endorsement” in order to avoid the “substantial risk of liability.” Because of the vacuity of the term “appearance,” this would be a virtually impossible task. It also lacks a solid constitutional basis. Apart from these arguments, the decision has unfortunate practical consequences. At a time when American schools need more financial support and volunteers, the court has sent the wrong signal to the churches and to the members of religious communities who often provide money, time and volunteers to their communities. It diminishes the spirit of cooperation which is essential to American’s diverse civil society. This principle of cooperation was affirmed in the New York City Department of Education’s “Citywide Standards” (PDF) from 2013. There pupils are encouraged to establish “positive relationships,” for this is one of the “fundamental skills for life effectiveness.” Of course, developing positive relationships is not only an aim of pupils and employees of public schools. It is also one of the important tasks of both public and ecclesial institutions. Such a task should not require a compromise in core values or guiding principles. On the contrary, the spirit of cooperation calls for a deepening of the commitments to these foundations and maxims and a rediscovery of their basic constitutions. This is because cooperation is most effective when it is grounded in the specific ethos of the different institutions involved, and when there is an elementary agreement about some general shared goals and a common good.

April 29th, 2014

How (Not) to Be Secular

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In a forthcoming book, James K. A. Smith offers readers what the author calls a “hitchhiker’s guide to the present.” Engaging with Charles Taylor’s monumental A Secular Age, Smith makes a daunting but influential piece of work accessible to a wider audience. From the publisher:

Even more, though, Smith’s How (Not) to Be Secular is a practical philosophical guidebook, a kind of how-to manual on how to live in our secular age. It ultimately offers us an adventure in self-understanding and maps out a way to get our bearings in today’s secular culture, no matter who “we” are — whether believers or skeptics, devout or doubting, self-assured or puzzled and confused. This is a book for any thinking person to chew on.

To read more about the book, please click here. Read our extensive discussion of A Secular Age here.

April 21st, 2014

Christianity grows in China

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Over at The Telegraph, Tom Phillips writes about the rapid growth of Christianity in China. The end of the Cultural Revolution has seen religiosity grow rapidly among the Chinese population; The Immanent Frame contributor Fenggang Yang calculates that China will become the most numerous Christian nation by 2030. Reporting from a newly built megachruch in Liushi, Zhejiang, Phillips talks about the change and growth in its Christian congregation over the last 50 years:

It was founded in 1886 after William Edward Soothill, a Yorkshire-born missionary and future Oxford University professor, began evangelising local communities.

But by the late 1950s, as the region was engulfed by Mao’s violent anti-Christian campaigns, it was forced to close.

Liushi remained shut throughout the decade of the Cultural Revolution that began in 1966, as places of worship were destroyed across the country.

Since it reopened in 1978 its congregation has gone from strength to strength as part of China’s officially sanctioned Christian church – along with thousands of others that have accepted Communist Party oversight in return for being allowed to worship.

Today it has 2,600 regular churchgoers and holds up to 70 baptisms each year, according to Shi Xiaoli, its 27-year-old preacher. The parish’s revival reached a crescendo last year with the opening of its new 1,500ft mega-church, reputedly the biggest in mainland China.

“Our old church was small and hard to find,” said Ms Shi. “There wasn’t room in the old building for all the followers, especially at Christmas and at Easter. The new one is big and eye-catching.”

The Liushi church is not alone. From Yunnan province in China’s balmy southwest to Liaoning in its industrial northeast, congregations are booming and more Chinese are thought to attend Sunday services each week than do Christians across the whole of Europe.

This comes on the heels of a recent informal Foreign Policy study of Sina Weibo (China’s microblogging platform) that indicated searches for “God” or “Jesus” far outnumbered those for “Mao Zedong” or “Xi Jinping.” Read the full Telegraph article here. Read our discussion on the state of religion in China, as well as a historical survey of religion in China.

April 16th, 2014

The Charter of Quebec Values derailed

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On April 7th the Quebec Liberal Party won a majority government in the 41st Quebec general election, with incumbent Parti Québécois, and its controversial Charter of Quebec Values, finishing second. The principal architect of the bill, Bernard Drainville, noted that “It’s over, the Charter. We did what we could to get there. Unfortunately, things ended rather abruptly.” Over at Religion Dispatches, Jeremy Stolow writes further on his contribution to our “off the cuff” on the topic and explains how issues over religious identity and inclusion will continue to exist in Québécois politics, despite the collapse of the bill.

However, a longer view of the debate surrounding Bill 60, and of the social factors that fueled this debacle, suggest that the Charter’s underlying politics of religious identity and inclusion have far from subsided.  What follows is a closer analysis of some of the terms on which the previous government sought to regulate religious difference in the public sphere.  It remains to be seen how the newly elected Liberal government in Quebec will manage these questions of religious identity and diversity, and whether they will end up entangled in the very same language of ‘liberal tolerance’ one finds at the root of previous government’s Charter initiative.

Read the full essay here. For more on the Charter of Quebec Values, read our “off the cuff.”