Elizabeth Shakman Hurd’s Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion is notable for its subtlety and intellectual generosity, as well as its breadth and depth of engagement with contemporary scholarship and public affairs. This is also a book with a big, hard-hitting idea of its own. Its primary thesis is crystal clear, timely, and provocative: “religion” cannot serve as the basis for scholarly analyses or the formation of policy. I agree with that: individuals, communities, and events are more complex than the idea of religion can capture; indeed, the very idea of religion often gets in the way of understanding how those things work.
Posts Tagged ‘epistemology’
At the core of contemporary secularism is the denial of the existence of deities and the supernatural. There is only the natural, as described by our best sciences. This ‘disenchantment’ of the world seems to leave no place for value, and this exclusion of value from the world is, Akeel Bilgrami argues in his essay “What is Enchantment?” one of the central and damning failures of contemporary secularism.
How does secularism crowd values out of our picture of the world? If we accept a secularist metaphysics, then a necessary condition for the existence of values is that they can be accommodated by our best sciences. But our best sciences do not seem to have any room for values. Values make demands on human beings as actors—for instance, we ought to pursue the good, we ought to avoid the bad, and so on—but science describes no such free-standing “oughts.”
Three cheers for Kahn et al., on the occasion of their bold ride into the heart of liberal arts territory, where they will wrest the definition of secular away from religion-banishing secularists and invite all voices, including theological ones, to a free-wheeling conversation about the nature of liberal arts education. Pointing to the collapse of the secularization thesis and the agreement of diverse philosophers that a secular space “scrubbed free of religion” is impossible, Kahn et al. believe not only that they will accomplish their purposes, but that the time is ripe for a truly inclusive conversation about the liberal arts. I applaud their optimism and respect their daring, but I caution Kahn to keep his riders together and enter only those colleges that invite them. Not all colleges ripen for difficult conversations at the same pace, and in many the inhabitants carry out their business oblivious to postmodern philosophical convergences or to the crumbling of secularization theory.
Perceptions of the environment, however intensively managed that environment may in fact be, turn into experiences of nature, self, and god. The political dimension of such experience is largely unspoken. But in its particular embodied characteristics, such experience is structurally dependent on a certain exercise of state power. In this way the politics of spirituality may have little to do with thoughts about elections or particular government officials. But it has much to do with creating a space for significant governmental presence in both personal and collective life.
In a 1956 text on ethics and literature, Emmanuel Levinas offered the following diagnosis of the philosophical trends of his time: “Contemporary thought holds the surprise for us of an atheism that is not humanist. The gods are dead or withdrawn from the world; concrete, even rational man does not contain the universe.” This atheism that is not humanist, the sense that certain strands of contemporary philosophy had abandoned secularism’s central ethical and political investment in humanism, poses the motivating question behind the book I am presenting for discussion here, An Atheism that Is Not Humanist Emerges in French Thought. In twentieth-century French thought, particularly in the period from the end of World War I through the late 1950s, a new form of atheism, and with it, a new conception of man, emerged and crystallized. What historians and critics of French thought, literature, and intellectual culture have, since the 1960s, called “antihumanism,” I argue, can be best understood in terms of this development, which is at once theological, epistemological, and political.