Recently I am struck by the ambiguity of the concept of the religious. Reading Linda Heuman’s review of Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution, and then turning to Bellah’s book itself, after having been reading Ernst Kantorowicz’s The King’s Two Bodies, I feel as I have before how uncertain it is that we who write about religion in history are all writing about the same thing! Bellah’s book is an attempt to factor that uncertainty into the equation, for sure. In one part of Bellah’s overall reconstruction of “axial transitions” (including the birth of monotheism), he considers three case studies, two Native American and one Aboriginal Australian, with scrupulous care. The idea is to get a picture—before the shift to the ecumenical story, when the forces of the axial age change everything—of developmentally prior, not to say primordial, religions, without adopting anything as distortive as a model or a linear theory.
Posts Tagged ‘definition of religion’
To this stimulating and learned series of posts I cannot add much about the genealogy of religious freedom or its fate in the US courts, never mind predict the consequences of judicial decisions, or even address a larger question raised by Winni Sullivan and others which, I take it, has to do with the general effects of submitting questions of religious practice to a particular kind of legal system, one that works by means of precedents, binding decisions, etc. I make two comments as an anthropologist.
Religious freedom and religious establishment have come to mean many things to many people. This is, in part, because of the shifting contours of the definition of religion itself (as has been pointed out by others in this series, including Winnifred Fallers Sullivan and Elizabeth Shakman Hurd). But it is also because the nature of freedom is contested ground. The shifting nature of these two concepts makes normative assessment—religious freedom is good, religious freedom is bad—extremely difficult to carry out in any meaningful way. Further, when people advocate for or against religious freedom they are often talking about very different things. Similarly, the measurement of establishment is equally nebulous.
The first thing that strikes you when looking at Frequencies is the scope of the project and the breadth of contributions it includes. The breadth of the essays is truly amazing—people, events, places, books, a CD, ideas. The project covers a lot of ground. And just for the pleasure of reading some of these essays, I’m grateful and moved. I wonder, however, about two things. One is about form and one is about content. First, the question about form: Is this a genealogy? Second, the question about content: What are the avenues of spirituality that the project maps?
I want to start with a paradox. In the secular age, as Charles Taylor has amply illustrated, religious belief no longer structures our social imaginary. Instead, it has become one option, one possibility, among others: one of the ways in which we give meaning to our lives. The secular age, then, is characterised by the fact of pluralism—an irreducible pluralism of beliefs, values, commitments. Yet we secular moderns also give special primacy to freedom of religion. Freedom of religion is standardly presented as the archetypical liberal right. So the paradox is this: how (and why) do we protect freedom of religion in an age where religion is not special?
I love the story about Shakeela Hassan. I just told it again last night, in fact. In the late 1950s, Shakeela Hassan arrives in the U.S. from Lahore, to begin a medical internship at Northwestern University. She is greeted at the airport by Malcolm X, a young minister in the Nation of Islam, who was sent to meet her because of a chance encounter between her brother-in-law and the NOI prophet, Elijah Muhammad. Her husband’s family is related to the Pakistani publishers of the most widely read English-language translation of the Qur’an, and although Shakeela Hassan never joins the Nation of Islam, she becomes a regular dinner guest at Elijah Muhammad’s home, a great admirer of his wife, Clara, and the improbable designer of the hats which become Elijah Muhammad’s trademark. As readers of Frequencies: A Collaborative Genealogy of Spirituality will know, this is a much-too-short version of the story Winnifred Sullivan recounts in her eponymous entry.
Like a good movie, the story of international religious freedom offers something for everyone. It pits cowardly oppressors against heroic saviors. It is a story of the triumph of international law over those who fail to adhere to global norms and standards. It is a story of secular tolerance versus violent religion. And today especially, it is a story of the need for the U.S. government and its friends to “convince” others—particularly Muslims—that they should endorse a particular model of religious liberty as a template for organizing and democratizing their politics and societies.
In its Room for Debate forum, The New York Times recently published a debate on the state of religious freedom in the United States.