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Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: The Co-Dependency of Religion and the Secular

In our fifth editors’ pick, Marek Sullivan writes “Few questions are as meta-reflexive as the question ‘Is secularism a world religion?’ It’s now established that secularism and religion are co-constitutive terms: the history of the category ‘religion’ is inseparable from the history of secularisation. But what happens when secularism is rethought as a mode or sub-category of one of its core progenies, ‘world religion’? Donovan Schaefer brings his background in critical theory and material religions to bear on this mind-bending question, leading us through the history of the secularisation thesis, the idea of ‘world religions’, the Protestant genealogy of secularism, and the urgency of parsing the academic study of secularism into historically and culturally differentiated variants. Despite the broad sweep of the interview, I was left wanting more!”

During our “summer break”, various members of the RSP editorial team will be sharing their thoughts on some podcasts from the RSP archive that they think you should listen to (again). Editors’ Picks, if you will. These aren’t necessarily ‘favourites’, but just some podcasts that came to mind that the author has found useful for whatever reason. We hope you enjoy these musings, and that you’ll maybe share some of your own in the comments, on social media, or by sending us an audio or video clip. And we’ll be back with new content on 17 September! Thanks for listening.

Continuing the ‘series’ is our new features co-editor, Marek Sullivan.

Few questions are as meta-reflexive as the question ‘Is secularism a world religion?’ It’s now established that secularism and religion are co-constitutive terms: the history of the category ‘religion’ is inseparable from the history of secularisation. But what happens when secularism is rethought as a mode or sub-category of one of its core progenies, ‘world religion’? Donovan Schaefer brings his background in critical theory and material religions to bear on this mind-bending question, leading us through the history of the secularisation thesis, the idea of ‘world religions’, the Protestant genealogy of secularism, and the urgency of parsing the academic study of secularism into historically and culturally differentiated variants. Despite the broad sweep of the interview, I was left wanting more!

You can listen to the podcast below, view and download from the original post, or find it on iTunes and other podcast providers.

 

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Myth, Solidarity, and Post-Liberalism

With the rise of reactionary politics across the globe, it is arguably increasingly important for the academic community to give consideration to the prospects of developing and strengthening solidarity across apparent religious, political and economic differences. In this podcast, Chris speaks to Dr Timothy Stacey (University of Ottawa) about his forthcoming book, Myth and Solidarity in the Modern World: Beyond Religious and Political Division (Routledge, 2018), in which he asks how we can begin to imagine solidarity in the modern world, and challenges academics to be challenge the co-option of their work by being “better than those who seek to co-opt us.”

What is solidarity? What is liberalism? And post-liberalism? How does this relate to the problematic notion of post-secularity? To myth? To the ‘sacred’? And are we missing a trick by not paying attention to the mythic elements of secularity? These questions and more provide the narrative hooks throughout this interview, in which we hear some fascinating insights into Tim’s personal biography and his extensive field research in London, and challenge the aversion which some social scientists feel regarding normativity.

If you like what you hear, why not check out our previous podcasts on “The Sacred”, “The Post-Secular” and “Habermas, Religion and the Post-Secular”, as well as Tim’s ongoing Lived Religions Project with Fernande Pool, featuring many fascinating “interviews with ordinary people telling their unique story” livedreligionproject.com

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, banners, flags, teapots and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Myth, Solidarity and Post-Liberalism

Podcast with Timothy Stacey (9 April 2018).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Stacey_-_Myth,_Solidarity_and_Post-Liberalism_1.1

Christopher Cotter (CC): Welcome to another episode of the Religious Studies Project. It’s the start of 2018 as I’m recording – although who knows when this is actually going to go out, because we’ve got such a backlog! I am here in Reading, on my way to Oxford. And I’m joined by Dr Tim Stacey. Hi Tim!

Timothy Stacey (TS): Hi.

CC: Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. Tim is currently a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Ottawa, but has been in the UK for the festive period and our diaries and travel schedules managed to collide nicely! We’ll be hearing bout Tim’s research during the course of the interview, but the primary trigger for the interview is the forthcoming publication of his first monograph, with Routledge, later this year. That’s called, Myth and Solidarity in the Modern World: Beyond Religious and Political Division. And today we’re going to be talking a little bit about these notions of myth and solidarity, but also this key concept of post-liberalism. So, first of all, I’ve given a very brief introduction to you, Tim. But tell us, who are you? How have you got here?

TS: How have I . . . ?

CC: How have you got here? Why are you speaking to me?!

TS: Well, I guess I started off . . . I did my Masters at Nottingham, in Theology. And it was there – as I was listening to some really interesting arguments about virtue ethics, primarily from people like Alasdair Macintyre and Charles Taylor – that I felt very inspired by the stuff they were saying. But also, as an atheist myself, I kept asking, “How do I actually make this relevant to me, somebody who’s not actually a Christian?” And that was what triggered me moving from Theology into social scientific research. And so that triggered the PhD, which was about exploring possibilities for virtue ethics and notions of transcendence in a religiously plural society. And more recently the interest has turned to secular subjects, so that’s what I’m now in Vancouver exploring: what are the potentials for transcendence and solidarity amongst secular subjects?

CC: Fantastic! And we’ll be hearing more about that as this conversation ensues. So, set the scene for us then. The first couple of chapters of this book are exploring this notion of post-liberalism. But I don’t know that many of our listeners necessarily know what-on-earth that means! So perhaps you could, just for the sake . . . ? We know that we are in turbulent political times. There is a sort of reactionary politics happening all over the place. We’ve got these notions that there’s the political elites versus the ordinary masses, and everything. So, maybe, just take us through a chronological . . . . How have we got to this state? What is liberalism? And then, what is post-liberalism?

TS: Yes. Well, basically, the basic premise of the book is to follow this post-liberal argument. And the primary argument there is that, in a liberal secular society, we’ve lost a sense of the role of transcendence in forming social identity. So instead, we treat people as basically . . . both ideally, and also primarily motivated by rationality. And I suggest that we also tend to castigate those who appear to be irrational, whether that’s because of religion, ideology, parochialism, or simply a lack of education. And I think that comes up during the Brexit debate a lot as well. And the result, according to post-liberals, is two-fold. First: politics becomes technocratic and economics becomes instrumental. So, politics is less about building belonging and empowering people than it is about a university educated elite, delivering to social-scientifically construed need. And then, economics is less about reciprocity than it is about GDP. And then second: because of this, we increasingly see people retrenching in communities that they feel provide them with a sense of belonging and empowerment – communities of faith, race, nation, economic status. But then, kind of the . . . . (5:00) What inspired this book for me was that although post-liberalism gives, for me, a really exciting analysis of our current political problems, post-liberalism is itself as much a symptom of that as it is an analysis. By which I mean that it represents a retrenching in Christian notions of transcendence. And that simply doesn’t work for a society that is simultaneously – as I put it in the book – post-Christian, post-secular and religiously plural.

CC: Hmm.

TS: So that very long premise is actually the basis of this exploration, namely: to explore the relevance and role of transcendence in developing solidarity in the messy religious and non-religious landscape that we see before us, primarily in the western world. And I explored this by undertaking two years of ethnographic research with groups seeking to develop solidarity in London – which I kind-of identify as one of the most socially and economically liberal cities in the world, as well as being one of the most religiously and non-religiously diverse cities in the world. So, despite all that complexity, the actual answers the book provides I feel are quite simple. First, it says that despite the assumptions of liberal secularism and the dominance of this system within London for almost 300 years, the majority of people – both religious and non-religious – still do draw on transcendence in forming their social identity. In particular – and this is where I get to the notion of myth – they do this through myths. And that’s what I call stories of great events and characters that exemplify people’s ideals. And while for Christians that might be like the story of Christ or of the great Flood, for atheists that might be about, sometimes, Ghandi or Martin Luther King – figures who actually have some sort of religious background themselves – but also, just stories of their mum, or their dad, or their best friend, or a great heroic colleague that for them exemplified a virtuous way of living. And then the second point is that again – despite the assumptions of secular liberalism – actually, the role of the state doesn’t need to be this kind of principled distance from religion, or principled distance from ideology. Instead, we can actually imagine the role of the state less as an enforcer of a particular ideology – or else perhaps, in a liberal society, an enforcer of a lack of ideology – and instead we can think about it as a curator of the sharing of different ideologies. So that people can explore the virtues inherent in very different ways of living and see that, for instance, I might be somebody who is quite critical of Islam, but then I spend time trying to develop solidarity in a local setting with a Muslim. And it’s something as simple as seeing that they are good people that makes you realise, “Well, maybe Islam’s not so bad, either.” And then I began to see some really interesting processes of bricolage, like out-and-out atheists talking about how they were inspired by the story of Mohammed. And they would even talk about him as the “first community organiser”, for instance. So I found that really interesting. And then I get onto this idea of solidarity centres. So it’s actually the notion that the state will create these liberal spaces in which people of very different backgrounds come together to intentionally explore their ideas of how the world should be. And then, acting on that together: “Right. Ok, this is how the world should be. What are some policies, or things going on in our community that are stopping that from happening?” And that might be something like low wages, high house prices, or whatever, and then working together to solve those problems.

CC: Excellent. Well thanks for that fantastic introduction to the topic and, indeed, overview of the book. It really resonates with me, I can remember sitting with . . . you know there is this really common idea, particularly in the UK, that politics and religion don’t go together, you know. What was it? Alastair Campbell: “We don’t do God“. (10:00) And I can remember last semester, at Edinburgh, in a course on Religion in Modern Britain, sitting with my students in a tutorial and they were talking about whether a Muslim politician should be expected to act as a Muslim or to represent their constituents. And they all seemed to think that they shouldn’t be bringing religion into it, at all. And I tried to push and push: “But what other normative ways do we allow politicians to act” And they were: “gender”, “race”, “political party”, right? We have this conceit that they represent their whole constituency but they also have the sacred ideals of their political party that they hold higher than everything else. (Laughs).

TS: Absolutely.

CC: So, that’s just a little riff! So going right back to the beginning, then – in the book it was, maybe, 2011 when your research process was starting. How did you get into this massive area of research? And what pushed you?

TS: Well, yes. It was actually an incredibly strange and exciting journey for me. So, going back to Nottingham – I don’t know how well you know that university, but we’d have a lot of theological seminars in the staff club lounge, around leather armchairs. And that was my introduction to academia – talking about Alisdair Macintyre, and virtue ethics, and John Milbank, and theses radical critiques of modernity. And I was very excited by them. But as I said, I was troubled. And I wanted to work out, “Ok, is this relevant?” And I thought social science was the best way of working that out. But I was a theologian. So I arrived in London and my supervisor starts talking to me about this thing called “data”.

CC: (Laughs)

TS: “You need to go out and get data.” “Hmm, what is data, exactly?” And I spent a lot of time reading different kind of research methods books, and trying to understand exactly how I was going to explore this question of the link between transcendence and solidarity in a religiously plural society. But then, while that was happening – and this is a bit weird now! It kind-of matches with the personal: I’ve grown up all around the world, and I’ve never had any particular home. So when I was living in London for the first time, being in a place for more than a few years, I was thinking very hard to myself about what does it mean to be a part of my local community? And as I was simultaneously thinking about those two things – on the one hand data, and on the other my own desire to be involved in the community – the London riots happened. And I thought, “You know what? This is amazing. This is a great opportunity for me to be involved in the process of rebuilding Tottenham”, which is sort of where I was living – in response to this. So I came across this group called London Citizens, who wanted to do a citizens enquiry into the Tottenham riots. They basically do these things called “listening campaigns”, where they go out and basically ask members of the public: what is the main problem that you and your family face? That’s the first question. And the second question is always, what can you . . . and us – what can we together do about this? So it’s not like, “Ok what are your problems and shall we write to the local politician and tell them about it?” It’s “Let’s do something together. Let’s take direct action.” And it just suddenly clicked in my head. I was thinking about this word solidarity so theoretically. And then here were some people actually living it out, developing solidarity in a very real way, in my local area. And my first thought, really, when that happened was to say to myself, “Why am I even bothering to study this? I should just be doing it!”

CC: Yes.

TS: “I might as well just quit the PhD!” Then it occurred to me that actually taking action in this way could be my data. And I’d been reading stuff about post-secularity. And I realised London Citizens really is a kind of post-secular group. They’re a group that recognised the important role of religion in the public sphere. They, themselves, are somewhat inspired by a faith narrative, but the majority of the key organisers were non-religious. And so the way that they were able to so openly navigate faith and non-faith, and bring people together, was really exciting to me. (15:00) And then I thought, “You know what? The best way to explore the possibility for solidarity in this society that’s simultaneously Christian and secular and post-secular, is to work with a group that indicatively represents each one of those paradigms.” So then I started thinking, “OK, what are the key post-War paradigms for developing a sense of solidarity?” And you have, initially, the very strong connection between Christianity and the setting up of the welfare state. So I took one group that I felt represented that, which was at the time called the Christian Socialist Movement, but now is called Christians on the Left. Then I thought the next phase was secular ways of doing this, and in particular, a lot of money was being pumped into councils for voluntary service. So I started working with them, representing my secular organisation. Then in the ‘90s and early 2000s you had the multi-faith policy paradigm. So I thought, “OK, I need a group that represents that.” And then, going back to the start, London Citizens became my post-secular organisation. And that’s the story of how I got there.

CC: Excellent. And on the notion of post-secular, listeners, do check out our previous interview with Kevin Gray about that. I mean I think that you would agree with me as well, Tim, that it’s a problematic notion – the concept of post-secular.

TS: Absolutely, and indeed my current supervisor Lori Beaman insists that I stop using it! So . . .

CC: Well, it’s here to stay, perhaps! OK. And you organise the book then along these . . . you’ve got these three sections really, I guess, looking at pluralistic contexts, and then the state, these organisations, and then also capitalism. And any of those would be interesting to expand upon, but perhaps let’s think about this place of the notion of myth and transcendence. And then, maybe sort-of weave in these three strands.

TS: Mmm.

CC: So basically, one of your arguments is that these organisations all have varying relationships with the idea of transcendence and the construction of myth. So maybe you could just introduce the organisations there, to tell us about them and their relationship to this?

TS: Yes, OK. I mean the word myth, I primarily introduce – and I don’t know how helpful it really is . . . . What I was ultimately critiquing there was the sort of Habernasian notion that we are primarily motivated rationally. And, by introducing the term myth, I was trying to demonstrate the parity between religious and non-religious ways of relating to the world. So in doing that I then felt that I was able – by cutting through this kind of religious/secular binary – I was then able to start thinking about the role of the state as something very different: as not something that has to separate religion from politics, but instead can relate more reflexively towards the notion of myth.

CC: Yes. Throughout you use this phrase, “religious/secular, mythic/rational binary”. That’s your thing. So, yes, what’s going on there?

TS: Yes. So what I’m trying to say, basically, is that we end up having this notion that the religious is primarily mythic and the secular is primarily rational. And what I was trying to say is that both the religious and secular have very strong mythic elements to them. Primarily, I was not doing that as a means of . . . . There’s lot of research trying to demonstrate that religious belief can in fact be far more rational than we realise. I was, actually, trying to go the other way round and say that secularity can be a lot more mythic than we realise. And I wasn’t doing that in any way to put down secular people or secularity, but rather to say, “Well if we are primarily motivated through myth then we’re really missing a trick in how we motivate secular people.” (20:00) If we simply assume that they’re motivated by rationality alone, then we miss out on one of the most powerful ways of making people act in the world. And then you get back to the whole argument about Brexit and Trump and so on, which is that if we forget the role of mythic narrative in motivating people, then they become very vulnerable to just anyone who’s able to spin a good myth.

CC: And all you end up with is talking about economics and security, as you argue. Could give an example, maybe, of the kind of . . . . So we can all think of, I guess, a religion-related myth, perhaps. But what sort of – for want of a better word – secular myths are people motivated by?

TS: Well, one of these myths is actually the notion of the self-independent rational actor itself, right? Because that is a story that people are living by, primarily. It’s not actually this . . . In some sense, there’s this kind-of subtraction narrative to the understanding of secular identity that says: it’s an identity that is short of religious elements. But instead, what I’m trying to suggest is that secular people do live by myths, and rationality itself is one of those. And another one, for instance, is that of capitalism: the idea that says people are primarily motivated by financial incentive. So, basically, what the research seems to suggest is that there are clear secular myths, but these are primarily ones I feel that aren’t intentionally constructed by secular people. So they might be myths of rationality or myths of capitalism. And what I’m trying to explore now is: OK – but what are those deep, more intentionally constructed myths that can challenge a purely instrumental notion of politics or economics? In Vancouver it’s really interesting, because that’s coming from a lot of different places. So there’s myths of earth-based spiritualty – the sense that I, as a person, am intimately related to the world in the same way . . . there. This stuff wouldn’t necessarily work in London at all, but it’s very much derived from indigenous mythology as well. So the people don’t see themselves as any more important than the orca in the Pacific Ocean, for instance, or the salmon. So those myths – the telling of the stories of the orca and the salmon – actually become really important ways of challenging an instrumental approach to the land and the environment. So you have otherwise entirely secular people arguing against the construction of a pipeline, for instance, because of salmon. And at first, I have to say, I actually giggled a bit when I started getting these findings. Because it was just so out of context for what I’d grown up around in London and for what had come out of my previous research. But as I’ve been doing this ethnographic research there – and it’s always, as in this this book, very auto-ethnographic as well – I try and really immerse myself in the stories of people I’m studying. And, yes. Now I’ve come to be inspired by these stories of whales and salmon, and how they might be transformative in challenging a particular idea of, say, growth.

CC: Yes. And I imagine one could also, you know, even just thinking of what you get in the Marvel films – there’s a lot of myth in popular culture, as well, that you probably might easily and interestingly excavate.

TS: Absolutely. And people really do integrate that into their stories. It’s absolutely not out of place that people will talk to me about a Batman film, or something, when they’re trying to explain their belief in . . . I mean, one that comes up quite a lot in Spiderman is that: “With great power comes great responsibility”. And it seems almost laughable, in a way. But I think, the way that people sort-of suspend their disbelief in the cinema can be very similar to the way they might do in a church. (25:00) And those myths really do have power for people.

CC: And we’re already almost at the end of our time, which is excellent. I mean, not excellent – I just mean we’ve already covered a lot of ground! So, just to push on this – one of the key arguments I would see from your book is that rather than perhaps trying to find – you know, sitting people down and going “OK, you’re a Christian, you’re a Muslim, you’re an atheist, you’re a Buddhist. You’re never going to agree on these things, so it’s all pointless.” So, is the idea that everyone is constructing myths about, I don’t know, the better society, the greater good, the way they want things to progress and that by focussing on those, rather than the specifics, it might be a constructive way forward? Or . . . ?

TS: Yes, that’s true. But also there’s a very real sense in which I think, those settings need to be intentionally constructed in secular society. That’s a part of where my critique comes from. So you look at my analysis of Hackney CVS, for instance, I was suggesting that the secular people there had strong myths based on their parents who might be their heroes, or their colleagues. So their myths, in fact, were just telling the stories of their friends and family. And they were really inspiring and transformative for them. But what I noticed, what there was . . . there were a lack of intentional rituals within that organisation, for bringing those to the surface. And so they failed to really integrate them into their practice, and therefore failed to inspire much enthusiasm. And so, my feeling is that we need to actually deliberately create spaces where people can discuss these things. And so my example, when you talk about bringing Muslims and Jews and atheists together in a room, the best example I came across was the London Citizens. They would ask this very simple question: “We live in the world as it is – but there is a world as it should be. Please tell me some words that you associate with the world as it should be.”

CC: Mmm.

TS: So, that’s the first step – that you get people from these very different backgrounds together in a room, recognising: “Oh wow! That guy looks very different to me but, in fact, he seems to want the same idea of the perfect world that I want.” So that’s the first step. But then – once you’ve done that – you actually encourage people to draw on their own very different, idiosyncratic stories. So once they all recognise that this is the world as it should be, then they can, again, start talking about their particular myths – whether of Islam, or Christianity or of the more secular ones such as of a Socialist utopia, or . . . .

CC: Yes. And I’ve always found it . . . . I remember Craig Martin made this point in his Masking Hegemony, in 2010, I’ve always found it very strange that, yes – why would you expect people to be able to bracket off these aspects of their identity? Why not . . . we have this myth of the secular space that people enter and they bracket off . . . but, why not just everyone talk about it, talk about your myths, and talk about where you’re coming from? And then we can, maybe, move forward.

TR: Yes – the thing is though, it’s actually a much more honest way of being. Because if I understand where you’re coming from, I can actually hold you to account on the basis of that story that you’re telling.

CC: Yes. Just to indulge my curiosity here, listeners, this might go on slightly longer than usual. I’ve got three more questions I want to ask Tim.

TS: I’ll try and be brief in my answers.

CC: No, it’s good. First, the notion of the sacred here. So I know Gordon Lynch – in fact we spoke to Gordon Lynch a number of years ago about this concept – and Kim Knott and others have developed this notion of like the secular sacred, and things. So where does the role of the sacred – maybe it’s a non-ontological, non-religion inflected sacred – fit into the myths and into solidarity?

TS: Well, for one thing, I totally would have been happy to us the term sacred. (30:00) But I had two issues with that. One was that there was a lot of talk about it being non-negotiable. And I thought, “That’s exactly what I want to avoid with transcendence.” Because the very point is that we need people to negotiate. And the other issue is, I felt that a lot of that research was around what’s already sacred. It would be around pointing out some certain category had become a sacred one. Whereas, I was trying – rather than move backwards in that way – move forwards. So I got into discussions with people doing research around that, including Gordon Lynch and saying, “Well, actually, what I’m thinking about is: how do we develop a new sacred?” And I didn’t feel like people were all that interested in that, in those circles. And in that sense, alone, that word became tainted for me. And I wanted to try and think about it slightly differently. But otherwise, yes, it is very, very similar.

CC: Yes. They’re related. You can see clear overlaps. But clearly again, you’re stepping out into uncharted territory. On that note, then: “here at the Religious Studies Project”, our sort-of approach would probably map more onto the Critical Study of Religion, and when normativity comes up we tend to bristle a little bit. So, as we’ve been hearing there, you’re an engaged scholar. So, how do you personally navigate that sort of: “I’m doing this work which is – I guess – objective, but also trying to . . . .” You know.

TS: Well, yes. I think, the thing is that I have no qualms about saying that I am personally, and academically, fighting for a world in which there is more solidarity, in which people are willing to do things for one another without necessarily expecting something in return. I’m also quite happy to say that I was saddened by the rise of neoliberalism. And I saw that Christianity was very instrumental to the setting up of the welfare state, initially. And I was asking myself that question: what is that new metanarrative going to be, around which we can create more solidarity, and renew interest in social welfare? But the research itself is objective, in that sense that I’m totally open to what the answer to that may be. And that’s constantly evolving. And I think, in my current research, I would slightly challenge some of the assumptions that I had in the previous. But it’s all this objective, social scientific, critical research that interested me in religion in the first place. Because I’m only interested in religion incidentally. Because a lot of research seems to be demonstrating that something like religion, or the sacred, or whatever you want to call it, has a powerful effect on a sense of solidarity. So, for me, that’s my only very incidental interest in religion. It’s: “OK, if that’s true, then what does that look like in a society where none of us believe the same things anymore?”

CC: And my final question was going to be, what was the broader relevance of this to the academic study of religion? But I think you’ve just actually summarised that quite neatly in your final statement there. Unless you want to have a final push?

TS: Well the only thing I would say, without wanting to be preachy, is that I think there is a real danger that we can get stuck behind this social scientific lens that says, “I’m not allowed to be normative” when, in reality, we have to recognise the very things we choose to research are guided by our own normative principals. So I think, in the dangerous world that we currently live in, it’s time for academics to step up and say, “This is what I believe in, and I’m willing to work towards bringing it about.”

CC: Exactly. And in your own work as well, what you’re doing is not proposing a definitive: “This is the objective reality.” It’s: “We’re building . . . .” And you’ve expanded upon your own research. And you’ve changed your ideas. And we’re all part of a process, moving towards whatever . . . perfection – let’s say it!

TS: (Laughs)

CC: Well it’s been a pleasure speaking to you, Tim. Thanks, so much.

TS: (35:00) Thanks, so much, for having me on.

Citation Info: Stacey, Timothy and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “’Myth, Solidarity and Post-Liberalism”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 2 April 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 29 March 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/myth-solidarity-and-post-liberalism/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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On Reading Ralph Ellison Theologically

Ralph Ellison, famous for his 1952 novel Invisible Man, eschewed religiosity personally. His works mainly concerned race, artistry, and democracy in America. In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology (2017), Cooper Harriss seeks to uncover what he sees as the theological dimensions of Ellison’s secular conception of race. Because religion is a neglected topic in Ellison scholarship, Harriss’ reading presents an opportunity for fresh insights.[1]

Most scholars examining invisibility in Ellison’s novel consider it a social metaphor: the novel’s protagonist is made invisible by people’s refusal to really see him. Yet Harriss claims invisibility is also a theological trope, with roots in biblical materials, Protestantism, and Kongo traditions, antecedents that establish it as an unmarked religious category. More than the social marginalization of black bodies, Harriss contends invisibility is metaphysical, too.

To read Ellison as a theological thinker, which is also to read him theologically, Harriss calls upon Schleiermacher and Tillich, primarily, to expand the notion of religion. He explains that, to him, the terms “religion” and “religious” refer not to particular things but to “processes through which antagonistic cooperation between universals and particulars generates human quests for meaning” (16). Furthermore, “Ellison’s concept of race is foundationally religious because it is rooted in the relational, systematic interplay between, and the consequent aggregation of, the particular and the universal” (17).

Great authors like Ellison create characters and stories that are both particularized yet universal. The particularity gives a literary work its fully-fleshed characters and immersive world, while its universality connects it to readers’ own lives. In Invisible Man, after we hear the unnamed protagonist’s particular life story as a black man in America, he asks his famous universalizing final line, “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” This interplay between particular and universal, is religious, in Harriss’ terms. Ellison is thus a theologian because he makes meaning out of this particular-universal relation.

The heart of Harriss’ argument is his claim that Ellison’s secular conception of race is an “invisible theology.” For Harriss, theology refers not to “God-talk” but to “meanings and significances generated by religious negotiations of universals and particulars,” or “faith seeking understanding” (16). Ellison’s work is religious because it is “meaning-making” and it is theological because it offers practical import for human living (16). These elements are inseparably linked: “the religious and the theological” are “critically cofunctional—never segregated (as they have become in contemporary academic discourse) but absolutely dependent upon one another” (17). Here Harriss is not just making a descriptive claim about the history of these distinct discourses, but asserting his desire to “annihilate” the wall between theology and religious studies, as he says in this interview. He wishes to “dislocate theology as ‘mere’ belief, prescription, or data and refashion it as a critical apparatus” that can help us solve contemporary challenges (192). Accordingly, Harriss argues that “the religious aspects of Ellisonian conceptions of race as a secular property—its invisible theology—may help us” to assess today’s political contexts (179). There is a social prescriptivism in this theological claim-making; Harriss hopes the invisible theology he’s unveiling—and creating—might save us.[2]

There is good evidence, Harriss claims, for reading Ellison theologically. Ellison derided what he saw as racial essentialism in the Black Power and Black Arts movements of the 1960s-1970s, which relied on materialist conceptions of race. Harriss asserts Ellison’s critical project worked against such materialisms, opening space for metaphysical speculation. He also relies on the coincidental publication of major works by three Protestant intellectuals to place Ellison in their midcentury American theological context. Over two chapters, Harriss connects Ellison’s ruminations on racism as America’s “original sin” to American civil religion as a form of residual Calvinism in a post-Protestant society. In a critical chapter, he argues that Ellison’s long friendship with Nathan A. Scott, Jr., literature professor and canon theologian, was really a “theological apprenticeship” for Ellison (96).[3] Cooper uses previously unpublished material to shed light on Ellison at several points, and provides provocative interpretations throughout.

Harriss’s book stands in the tradition of Scott’s scholarship—called Theology and Literature, Christianity and Literature, or Religion and Literature—albeit augmented by recent critical studies of race, religion, and secularism. Relying on a Tillichian theology of culture, Scott explored how a “religious unconscious” permeates cultural productions, even avowedly secular ones, and provides insight into how we ought to live. Harriss admits his own “Tillichian orientation” and states that Scott’s earlier work on Ellison “anticipates the premise, if not the thesis, of this book” (88, 98). Like Scott, Harriss seeks to uncover hidden religious dimensions in Ellison’s secular work to help us navigate the modern world. Both scholars utilize liberal Christian definitions of religion to find exactly these kinds of religious articulations in Ellison.

Harriss employs scholarship showing the theological and Protestant production of concepts like race and the secular to justify framing Ellison as a Protestant theologian (3, 41). Ellison would not recognize himself as such. Despite Ellison’s critiques of social science and Marxist materialism, he did not turn toward supernaturalism. Harriss rejects Ellison’s naturalism by insisting that we need to take “certain religious and theological dimensions seriously in their contention with what believers understand to emanate from invisible, supernatural realms” (14). This approach distinguishes secular from religious, recognizes Ellison as secular, and then rewrites him as religious anyway. Such theological caretaking confuses categorical entanglements with their identity. By yoking religious studies with theology and the secular with the religious, Harriss erases any difference. Arguing that secular writers are really theologians in disguise enacts a theological agenda. At stake is what we do as religious studies scholars.

Outside theological contexts, I am not convinced that the category “invisible theology” provides us greater analytical purchase on Ellison’s work. As someone who loves Ellison and studies religion, I was excited to encounter Harriss’ ideas. As a religious studies scholar, however, I found Harriss’ insistence upon a theological reading of Ellison’s work forced and unnecessary. In a spirit of antagonistic cooperation, a favorite phrase of Ellison’s, I find myself both affirming and resisting Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology.

Notes

[1] Most recently, Josef Sorett locates Ellison’s Afro-Protestant racial aesthetics in the black church (2016, 141-149). Sorett and Harriss both claim religion underlies black secular artistic expressions, but their methods and conclusions differ.

[2] In Race and Secularism in America, Vincent W. Lloyd exhorts “the recovery of the religious, beyond secularism,” for its transformative potential (2016, 15). He adds that “remembering the religious—or the theological, as the unmanaged religious is sometimes called—points to traditions of imagining otherwise.” In Harriss’ work, I hear a similar normative voice, one that promotes Protestant theology as a useful mode for reading secular literature and for envisioning an “otherwise” that seems beyond our material reach.

[3] I found the evidence for such “instruction” to be thin (98). Harriss reads a lot into a letter Ellison wrote to Scott wherein Ellison laments the loss of the “sacred” in modern literature; Ellison saw that loss as muting moral assertion and forcing “depth and resonance” underground (97). Harriss repurposes Ellison’s “depth and resonance” as “shorthand” for religion (98-99, 116, 147).

References

Harriss, M. Cooper. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology. New York University Press, 2017.

Lloyd, Vincent W. “Introduction: Managing Race, Managing Religion.” In Race and Secularism

in America, edited by Jonathan Kahn and Vincent W. Lloyd, 1-19. Columbia University Press, 2016.

Scott, Jr., Nathan A. “Black Literature.” In Harvard Guide to Contemporary American Writing,

edited by Daniel Hoffman, 287-341. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1979.

—. “Ellison’s Vision of Communitas.” The Carleton Miscellany 18.3 (1980): 41-50.

—. “Ellison’s Vision of Communitas.” Callaloo 18.2 (1995): 310-318.

Sorett, Josef. Spirit in the Dark: A Religious History of Racial Aesthetics. Oxford University

Press, 2016.

 

Framing, Observing, and Exhibiting Yoga: A Response to Bruce Sullivan

Writing on the state of yoga in America today tends to frame discussions on the topic with statistics that attest yoga’s current popularity: the thousands of studios, the millions of practitioners, or the billions of dollars in annual revenue the yoga industry generates. The repetition of these figures runs the risk of rendering them trite, but ignoring this crucial context in which to place American yoga runs a greater risk of projecting one’s misrepresentative assumptions onto a much larger whole.

Where then does Bruce Sullivan’s research on the practice of yoga in museums— both in his interview for the Religious Studies Project and in his chapter on the subject in the edited volume Sacred Objects in Secular Places: Exhibiting Asian Religions in Museums— fit in this context? Yoga performance in museums is certainly novel and intriguing, and offers a potentially fruitful perspective to think about current understandings of yoga. Yet, it also becomes problematic to extend the transposition of an ordinary yoga class into a museum beyond novelty or intrigue, and perceive it as either a widespread practice, strange anomaly, or indicative of modern yoga’s drifting from a traditional center.

Sullivan describes these events as occurring with significant frequency in the United States (and to a lesser extent in Britain). He lards this observation with an impressive catalogue of museums hosting yoga events. Descriptors such as “diverse array,” “many,” “popular,” and “numerous” do the heavy lifting of reminding the reader how pervasive this practice has become.

Yet despite these efforts to quantify a growing and easily-discovered phenomenon, putting these numbers in their statistical contexts makes clear that this growing trend is a microcosm, dwarfed by traditional museum patronage and yogic practice. There are almost 35,000 museums in the United States alone, a number larger than the combined total locations of McDonald’s and Starbucks. When placed alongside the vast number of yoga practitioners, an honest assessment would see even the most complete accounting of yoga in museums as being a miniscule part of the whole of either. It is possible to go online as Sullivan did and create similar lists and descriptions of wine and beer tasting events at dozens of zoos around the country, but the presence of “Brew at the Zoo” and “Roar and Pour” events would not tell us much more beyond the fact that lots of people enjoy drinking alcohol and zoos have a vested interest in generating money and increasing the number of visitors.

The reasons for these yoga events, as Sullivan recognizes, are pragmatic and symbiotic. Like other public outreach, hosting yoga classes offers museums a range of benefits such as publicity, gift shop and café sales, and new visitors.  Surveys— such as the same frequent source for the size of the yoga industry in America, the large-scale 2016 “Yoga in American Study” conducted by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance—find the vast majority of people practicing yoga doing so in health clubs or gyms, community centers, or in the privacy of their own homes, rather than in dedicated yoga studios. Yet yoga devotees like the idea of performing their art in public places. One of every five practitioners surveyed attended a yoga event in a public place; three out of every four are interested in doing so in the future. It is simply a mutually beneficial exchange: museums gain new visitors and yoga practitioners get a desired change of scenery.

It is difficult not to see Sullivan’s preoccupation with yoga in museums as an example of what Catherine Albanese termed “show-and-tell scholarship”— work at the intersection of religious studies and popular culture that consists of “unearthing still one more custom, practice, belief, or piece of spiritual paraphernalia that no one yet among scholars had discovered.”[1] The originality and quality of this brand of scholarship, therefore depends on the novelty of the finding. The underlying assumption in both the interview for the Religious Studies Project and Sullivan’s chapter is that there is something incongruous, if not slightly absurd, about rows of people going through a Vinyasa class under the shadow of an art institution’s paintings and statuary. We would not expect a similar analysis of a wedding reception being hosted in the ballroom of a Freemasonic Lodge, or weekly Bingo night in the community center attached to a Catholic church, but something about yoga in museums seems to present a heightened contradiction between the perceived sacred and secular. The highpoint of the interview and the namesake of Sullivan’s chapter, the pair of New Age yoga students who believe that they are “reconsecrating the icons” of Buddhist images and Hindu statues that surround them in the museum through their yogic asanas, seem to embody this antinomy.

Yet the tension between sacred and secular that Sullivan finds so remarkable traffics in an overemphasis on the nature we want to attribute to both museums and yoga. Many of the features that make us assume museums are secular like their fundraising and promotion, or the commerce done within their walls, are shared by a large number of various religious institutions around the world. As Sullivan notes in the introduction to his edited volume by way of Carol Duncan’s work, museums often share much in common with religious sites. Museums are often spaces set apart from the mundane world, where singular objects of admiration can be encountered in a ritualistic fashion, and thus cultivate powerful experiences in their visitors. As Anne Murphy suggests in a description of the displaying of Sikh artifacts in the Sacred Objects in Secular Places volume, in some cases it is hard to tell where veneration begins and curation ends.

Further, studies suggest that no more than a small percentage of those who practice yoga see themselves as doing anything spiritual. Those familiar with Mark Singleton’s 2010 work Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice and the evidence it marshals to show the strong influence of Western bodybuilding, gymnastics, and physical culture on the formation of yoga as we now know it, would not be surprised to learn that three-quarters of American yogis practice other forms of physical exercise such as running, cycling, or weight-lifting. The closest thing to a spiritual motivation for yoga that we can find among the top five reasons for Americans who start yoga is “stress relief,” which is a factor for little more than one-half of respondents. A yoga class in a museum could be seen just as much as a secular practice in a quasi-religious space as a quasi-religious practice in a secular space.

Even the two “reconsecrators” in Sullivan’s interview and chapter are surrounded by other forms on the periphery of modern yoga— “vino yoga,” “acryo-yoga,” and the “yoga rave”— that are softly implied through their inclusion and descriptions to also “get yoga wrong” to lesser extents. Recently in the UK’s Independent, the scholar Jim Mallinson contended, “(Yoga’s) such a big multifarious tradition you can find precedents for almost anything.” The variety and complexity of yoga’s long history ensures there is almost nothing today— naked yoga, yoga with dogs, yoga paired with cannabis— without a possible, tentative analogue from the past. More importantly, there is also no single, stable core of authentic yogic tradition that can be used as a stable reference point to adjudicate the legitimacy of contemporary yogic practice.

While anecdotes can provide intriguing or illustrative examples, there is a danger in holding up a select few and taking them as representatives of a larger phenomenon. Anecdotal examples often say as much about who has chosen them as those who are chosen. Sullivan’s understanding of contemporary yoga seems to be built partially upon his personal experience with B.K.S. Iyengar and his style of yoga— which may explain his fascination and amusement with the variety of less austere and more experimental forms of practice he describes— but mostly upon older textual sources such as the Yoga Sutra, Hatha Pradipika, Bhagavad Gita, and Shvetashvatara Upanishad.

An example of this is one of the most intriguing parts of Sullivan’s work on yoga in museums— “the idea that yoga practice in a museum setting enables one more fully to appreciate an artwork or an object of religious significance,” (45) a concept that is mentioned by several museums and Sullivan contrasts with earlier texts such as the Yoga Sutra and Gita, in which yoga was associated with a withdrawal from the senses, not a heightening or relishing of them. Again, there is a risk in taking statements by professional promoters of museums at face value. In light of how much yoga has changed over millennia from those texts to its contemporary practice, there is also something a bit unfair in judging the latter by the standards of the former. While many serious yoga teachers like to imagine a link between their practice and ancient Indian traditions, and museum organizers want to present the yoga events they host in a flattering light by gesturing to the same mythic source, this maybe be for critics and participants alike an observation of something simply not there.

One link between yogic practice and museums may come from viewing yogis, yoga teachers, and yoga promoters as performing work comparable to museums in the nearly century and a half history of modern yoga’s global spread. As museums curate, exhibit, frame, spotlight, and annotate their works to an anticipated audience, yoga has similarly been consciously displayed and promoted. Modern yoga’s history can be emplotted through the way it has exhibited itself.

The yogis witnessed by early Europeans in India aggressively displayed themselves in public venues with exaggerated poses and dress to receive alms. As accounts of yogis made their way to the United States at the turn of the century, the understanding of yoga as mental and magical was mirrored in the ways it was staged to a range of audiences: Vaudeville stage magicians adopted exotic Indian personae, several American-born magicians alternated between performing mentalist routines and offering teachings on yoga, and several Indian-born yoga teachers accentuated their public lectures with displays of magic, most notably Yogananda, who employed a claimed  Polish count and an Egyptian wonder-worker (born and raised in Italy) to demonstrate the magical powers of yoga.

During the interwar decades, it was common for the dozens of yoga teachers who travelled across the country to shift their public persona by altering their names and places of origin, adding real and fictitious titles and degrees, and adjusting their claims for what their yoga was and what it could do for its practitioners. One was more likely to find notices for yoga classes and lectures at this time in the entertainment section of the newspaper than alongside the church notices.

By the time of the Second World War, the work of Swami Kuvalayananda in India retailed in his visually-rich medical journal Yoga Mimamsa had begun to shift American ideas of yoga itself by framing the physical practice of hatha yoga with demonstrable scientific reasoning and practical, worldly results.  The success of his venture set the stage for mass market paperback books and television programs by American yoga teachers such as Richard Hittleman and Lilias Folan. Perhaps even more significant in yoga’s development than its adoption by much of the late-1960s Counterculture was its embrace by popular fitness culture that was facilitated by television and later millions of VHS tapes and DVDs with figures like Baron Baptiste and Rodney Yee and allowed for yoga to be done at any time in one’s own home.

Today, yoga as individual physical practice— done through the body for the body— can be seen in the ubiquitous manner of exhibiting the toned yoga body through photographs and social media, and how still images and video can function as credentials for many practitioners and instructors. Perhaps the strongest testament to the popularity of yoga is the number and variety of venues it is practiced in. It has become so commonly practiced that it can be found in health clubs, community centers, parks, private homes–and even in the occasional yoga class on display at a museum.

References 

[1] Catherine Albanese, “Forum: How I Changed My Mind,” for Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation, Vol. 14, No. 1 (Winter 2004), pp. 3-10.

Against Freedom: A Response to Finbarr Curtis

Finbarr Curtis’s recent book, The Production of American Religious Freedom (2016), defies easy categorization. Melding social theory, interpretive biography, revisionist intellectual history, literary analysis, film analysis, and the study of discourse and rhetoric, the book issues a much needed social constructionist inquiry into the largely taken-for-granted concept of “freedom” that circulates in conversations about Americanness and religiosity.

In his interview with Brad Stoddard for the Religious Studies Project (RSP), Curtis describes his volume of case studies that span some 200 years of American history. The case studies correlate with the book’s eight chapters, including essays on either individuals (Charles Grandison Finney, Louisa May Alcott, William Jennings Bryan, D. W. Griffith, Al Smith, and Malcom X), theories of science (Intelligent Design), or legal rulings (Burwell v. Hobby Lobby). Early reviews of The Production have described the book as lacking a guiding thesis. But in Curtis’s own framing, and as stipulated in the introduction, “This book argues that there is no such thing as religious freedom, or at least no one thing.” Religious freedom “is a malleable rhetoric employed for a variety of purposes” (2016: 2).

Curtis advances an argument, but one framed as a definite negative. Corralling the eight stand-alone essays into conversation with one another, the thesis of the book is that no coherent or identifiable “religious freedom” exists in a singular sense. Freedom is a highly contested category of American discourse. Curtis astutely makes his case, weaving together studies of revivalist technique, character development in fictional narratives, populist rhetoric laced with racist undertones, filmic explorations mournful of white victimization, shrewd Catholic politicians in a Protestant arena, black activist rejection of American liberalism. He also examines alternative philosophies of science that exploit secular distinctions between scientific and religious truths, between public and private, and tactical sacralizations of both corporations and property in effort to normalize moral preferences.

As important as the book is, some readers may find The Production’s data selection somewhat arbitrary. The book showcases eight compelling microstudies. Indeed, the historical protagonists of The Production’s disparate narratives were formidably influential cultural figures. But Curtis cautions readers from imagining that the studies “tell the whole story of American religious freedom.” He continues (5): “The selected case studies do not offer a balanced, exhaustive, or inclusive coverage of American history.”

Curtis’s choices of study intend simply “to highlight different conceptual problems in the study of religion.” Fair enough. But why these particular orators, novelists, preachers, activists, and politicians? Why not others? Why a Finney, Alcott, or Malcom X and not a Joseph Smith, Aimee Semple McPherson, Annie Dillard, or Ta Nehisi Coates? The brilliance of these RSP podcasts is that the scholar-author interview platform serves as a behind-the-scenes snapshot of academic production. RSP interviews helpfully extend, clarify, or nuance research projects as well as plot books and publications within their own genealogies of development. In his discussion with Stoddard, Curtis confirms the arbitrariness of his foci, providing a fascinating window into the history of the production of The Production itself. Taken together, the case studies “do not add up,” Curtis expresses. “The center does not hold.”

No guiding logic determined the data selection as he wrote the chapters individually and over an extended period of time. Nonetheless, some readers will want to hold the author’s feet to the fire and to press him to more thoroughly defend why the cases are important and what they say about America when brought together. The chapters are, after all, published in one volume and under a unifying title. Borrowing Jonathan Z. Smith’s phrasing, we might ask Curtis, “why ‘this’ rather than ‘that’ was chosen as an exemplum” or to articulate in a more sustained manner how these specific examples “serve as exempli gratia” (Smith 1982: xi) of the issue of religious freedom in America. As academic works go, the book is not a lengthy one. Might it have been one, two, or four chapters longer? Might it have been shorter? What other conceptions of freedom are in circulation?

On the chameleonic construct of religious freedom, Curtis rejects “any one explanation for how religious freedom works” and instead documents “how freedom has been contested, challenged, and transformed” (5). He challenges the “underlying epistemic unity” guiding the analyses of Americanist historians such as Tracy Fessenden (2007) and John Lardas Modern (2011). Instead, Curtis counters, religious freedom is “something fragmented, in tension, and under duress” (6). Yet, the emphasis on the contested and fragmentary status of so-called free selves in The Production also evidences a significant tension.

In its analysis of “not fully formed persons” (6) who are shaped, socialized, and cultivated by leaders, publics, ideas, social forces, religions, institutions, and collectives, the book is a decidedly Foucaultian project. Curtis’s depiction of religious freedom as emerging from conflicting, disparate sources makes sense in light of Michel Foucault’s model of power as dispersed, diffused, non-binary, and multidirectional (see esp. 1990: 92-96). The author’s emphasis on contestation and disintegration will be unsatisfying for readers who prefer black-and-white conclusions. The Production does not feign to identify discrete bastions of power or clear-cut social hierarchies in terms of dominance and hegemony.

On this issue, the point about other circulating discourses about religious freedom—i.e., those voices not included in Curtis’s collection of essays—is not tangential. Might the addition of other discourses change the contour of the book as a whole? Would the inclusion of additional perspectives on freedom have evidenced any sort of overlap, similarity, or center, thus challenging the book’s thesis of fragmentation? If one were to expand Curtis’s data set and to think in terms of cohesion of agendas and goals, would a dominant perspective on religious freedom emerge? Cannot even fractured ideological positions suspend differences of opinion in colluding to affect political change? I concede that conflict exists “all the way down,” as Curtis adroitly puts the matter in the interview, but am also interested in how competing narratives might play down difference in order to accomplish certain types of social, political, religious, and economic goals. We do get hints of this, such as in the collusion between evangelicals and Catholics in the Hobby Lobby chapter, but not overt theorization. My question to Curtis would be whether or not loosely bounded “centers” or even “publics” can emerge over time or via discursive circulation, regardless of their internally dialogic productions and contested constitutions.

In short, The Production is a stimulating, provocative contribution and required reading not only the book’s most immediate audience, Americanists in Religious Studies, but anyone interested in the subjects of social theory, human agency and constraint, religion, freedom, the reconfiguration of public and private domains, individuals and collectives, the formation of ethical selves, race and racism, literary and filmic production, economies of contestation, secularism, and American culture. I, for one, plan on assigning it in the next American Religions course I teach.

References

Curtis, Finbarr. 2016. The Production of American Religious Freedom. New York: New York University Press.

Fessenden, Tracy. 2007. Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular, and Literature. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1990. The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction. New York: Vintage Books.

Modern, John Lardas. 2011. Secularism in Antebellum America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Smith, Jonathan Z. 1982. Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Is Secularism a World Religion?

Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will know that we are not the biggest fans of the World Religions Paradigm. Indeed, it was James Cox’s excellent introduction to the topic back in February 2013, and the accompanying response that asked what Religious Studies should do “After the World Religions Paradigm…?” that prompted David and Chris, with some encouragement from Steve Sutcliffe, Russell McCutcheon and Craig Martin, to co-edit the volume “published in February 2016 with Routledge. Listeners will also be relatively familiar with the concept of “secularism”, “the secular” and so on – particularly from our podcasts with Joseph Blankholm on “Permutations of the Secular” and with Phil Zuckerman and John Shook on “Understanding the Secular“. Today we thought it would be an interesting exercise to weave these two strands together and rhetorically ask “Is Secularism a World Religion?” Discussion starts with the entanglement of the concepts ‘religion’ and ‘secularism’, a brief discussion of the problems associated with the World Religions Paradigm, and then moves to the pedagogical merits and challenges of teaching ‘secularism/s’ within a World Religions model. We hope you enjoy this experiment!


A transcription of this interview is also available as a PDF, and has been pasted below.


(pssst…check out these podcasts below too!)

Is Religion Special? A Critical Look at Religion, Wellbeing, and Prosociality with Luke Galen

Is religion ‘sui generis,? with Russell McCutcheon

Secular Humanism with Tom Flynn

The Secularisation Thesis with Linda Woodhead

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Pulp Fiction memorabilia, astronaut ice cream and more.


Podcast with Donovan Schaefer (28th November 2016)

Interviewed by Christopher R. Cotter

Transcribed by Catrin J. Sawford

Audio and transcript available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/is-secularism-a-world-religion/

Christopher R. Cotter (CC): Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will know that we’re not the biggest fans of the “World religions” paradigm. Indeed, it was James Cox’s excellent introduction to the topic back in February 2013 and the accompanying response that asked what religious studies should do after the world religions paradigm that prompted David and I, with some encouragement from Steve Sutcliffe, Russell McCutcheon, and Craig Martin, to co-edit the volume ‘After World religions’, published in February 2016.  Listeners will also be relatively familiar with concepts of Secularism, the secular, and so on, particularly from podcasts with Joe Blankholm on Permutations of the Secular and with Phil Zuckerman and John Shook on Understanding the Secular.  Today we thought it would be an interesting exercise to weave these two strands together and rhetorically ask, ‘is Secularism a world religion?’ So I’m joined today to discuss this question by Donovan Schaefer at the British Association for the Study of Religion’s annual conference at the University of Wolverhampton. Dr Schaefer is departmental lecturer in science and religion, in the Faculty of Theology and Religion at Oxford University and his first book ‘Religious Affects, Animality, Evolution, and Power’ was published in November 2015 by Duke, and has current projects on the relationship between emotion, science, and Secularism. So Donovan, first off welcome to The Religious Studies Project.

Donovan Schaefer (DS): Thanks a lot Chris, thanks for having me.

(CC): It’s a pleasure. So first of all, in the spirit of rhetorically asking, why are we even asking this question? I mean, Secularism is surely as far removed from the category of world religions as we can get, I mean…why are you asking it?

(DS): Yeah, definitely. A lot of recent research has actually challenged that seemingly common-sensical argument that Secularism is the opposite of religion. This has come from a lot of different directions, historical analysis, cultural studies, even a lot of work in philosophy of religion has started to challenge this idea that there is a clear line between the secular and the religious.

(CC): Mm. And, because they’re so intertwined as concepts even if you were to accept they’re-

(DS): -Right.

(CC): opposites, you’ve always got the study…the opposites within…you know, you can’t know what religion is without studying it’s supposed opposite anyway.

(DS): Yeah, absolutely.

(CC): So, perhaps it would be best to start, I mean, we’ve covered the Secularisation Thesis and a lot of these topics in other podcasts but we should start with that, so let’s paint the context in which this question is being asked then.

(DS): Sure, so the Secularisation Thesis really gets off the ground in the 19th Century and it comes from a variety of different quarters in the sort of, early movements in sociology, some of the early conversations that are being asked in science and religion, late 20th Century, sorry, late 19th Century, philosophy of religion, all of these different conversations start to thematise this idea that religion is a specific thing in the world that is gradually going away.

(CC): Mmm.

(DS): Now, in the 20th century you have thinkers like Max Weber in sociology who formalise this, they make it, they make it even more of a kind of, article of social-scientific faith that religion is on a trajectory of decline. What happens though, is that, later in the 20th Century, you have these historical moments that start to challenge the Secularisation Thesis. So something like the rise of the religious right in the United States in the 1970s in reaction to things like the civil rights movement, or the (05:00) Roe V Wade Supreme Court ruling. The religious right by the mid to late 1970s has become an incredibly powerful force and of course in 1980 you have the election of Ronald Regan with a specifically Christian agenda backing him. Or even across the world, something like the Iranian revolution in 1978 to ’79 that creates a new Islamic Republic where previously there had been a secular state. Stuff like this, it’s just not supposed to happen according to the classical Secularisation narrative. There isn’t supposed to be a return of religion, religion is supposed to be evaporating. And that puts a, it puts pressure on the classical secularisation narrative. So scholars throughout the 1980s, 1990s and up to the present have started to ask questions about the secularisation narrative and have come up with a very robust dialogue about what went wrong with the classical secularisation paradigm and what will replace it.

(CC): Mmm. And that also sort of introduces an ideological element this sort of idea-

(DS): -Right.

 (CC): –that the notion of secularisation is itself a form of ideology, it’s a sort of…thinking of the way things should be-

(DS): Definitely, yeah.

(CC): -it’s not mirroring reality.

(DS): Right.

(CC): So we’ve already alluded to even if these things are dichotomous, obviously it’s studying them alongside each other so…many of us at Universities will be familiar with the standard introductory sort of  ‘here’s a survey of world religions’ like ‘Religion 101’ or something. So I think one of the questions you’re really asking is should… where’s the place of the secular in that sort of Religion 101 class?

(DS): Yeah, exactly.

(CC): Is it a World Religion, so if we’re going to segue into that, we’re going to need to talk about what is a world religion first of all, and then ask why we might want to try and fit the secular into that mould.

(DS): I mean I should really be asking you that but my take on it is that the idea of World religions again has its emergence in the 19th Century, it comes out of these 19th Century thinkers like Max Muller who are interested in making the study of religion into a science, they want to formalize the study of religion and turn it into something that moves away from the obviously supremacist classification scheme that had been used previously in Western Europe. That said though, Tomoko Masuzawa in her book ‘The Invention of World religions’ is actually…even though she spends a great deal of time sort of researching the archives, trying to find out where this paradigm comes from. Even she ultimately says she doesn’t know where it comes from. It emerges obviously through a sort of confluence of different conversations that are taking place throughout the 19th Century and early 20th century. Where precisely it comes from is…is a little bit opaque. Regardless, what we’re left with by the mid to late 20th Century is an understanding of religions as discrete objects that can be studied in the world that have particular histories, they’re often organised under a particular heading. Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, and they’re very often structured around a specific text and a specific set of practices. And that structure is something that has become, at least at the level of the dissemination of religious studies in terms of undergraduate teaching, central.

(CC): Yes.

(DS): How did I do?

(CC): You did well, Sir, you did well. And it’s…Yes, so it’s sort of ubiquitous in undergraduate teaching and it’s ubiquitous in society, you know-

(DS): -Right

(CC): –we think about ‘what is your religion’ as a question that makes sense to people and then we have these certain silos-

(DS): -Right

(CC): -that we try and put that into. So yes, this has been…regardless of the origins of it this has been subjected to a number of critiques right so, it’s very Protestant, for example –

(DS): -Yeah.

(CC): –that idea of a text and it being about belief, you can only have one faith and all that sort of thing. This seemingly objective model sort of becomes Oh…that’s a little bit Protestant.

(DS): Definitely. And also something that I think we can see as being a by-product of (10:00) a particular idiom of 19th Century science. 19th Century science it’s the age of classification, it’s the age of grand theories, and that prison divides up the world in a particular way, and I think we can see the World religions paradigm as being a product of that particular way of thinking about the world.

(CC): Mmm. And that particular way of thinking about the world is deeply connected with Colonialism as well.

(DS): Definitely.

(CC): We were encountering others and then classifying them.

(DS): Absolutely.

(CC): ‘Classify and conquer’ was, I think was Max Muller’s term. And then of course it encourages this notion that there is a thing called religion that is made manifest in various forms.

(DS): Right.

(CC): So Russ McCutcheon would take great issue with that.

(DS): Yeah.

(CC): So given all that problem with the World religions paradigm why would we want to try and fit Secularism into that model. What would be the point, shouldn’t we just be jettisoning it?

(DS): Yeah, right. Well, I mean, I have a few thoughts on that. I am not…I’m not blanketly hostile to the World religions paradigm. I think that …I would give it about a six out of ten or a seven out of ten in terms of a pedagogical tool for explaining religion to undergraduates, especially if we start from the assumption that many undergraduates are only going to take one religious studies class. Is the World religions paradigm the best way of doing that? I’m not sure. But I don’t think that it necessarily is evil. However, I do think that it needs to be deconstructed from within. I think that precisely as we’re teaching students within this framework we need to be calling attention to the limitations of this framework. And part of the reason why I think it’s important to talk about Secularism within that context is because I think that it sets the stage for conversation about the World religions paradigm in and of itself.

(CC): Mmm. Yes, and the paradigm, you know, I think it was my colleague Kate Daley-Bailey described it as, you know, it’s a useful way of getting people from one side of the road to the other-

(DS): Absolutely.

(CC):– and if that’s what you need to do, you get them there. But you can also along the way be explaining to them why you chose that why of doing it if it wasn’t the best…

(DS): Exactly. Yeah, right.

(CC): Okay, so… let’s do this then. Let’s take the World religions model and let’s take the notion of Secularism. So how are we going to go about answering the question is it a world religion?

(DS): Definitely. So this is where I want to get a conversation started. I don’t have clear answers to this but what I sort of see us doing is shuffling the deck of Secularism studies into the deck of the World religions paradigm and just seeing what comes out on the other end. So I think that, in terms of a kind of structure, an overall architecture to this, there would be two ways of doing it. So Secularism studies scholars have roughly speaking two ways of talking about Secularism. One of the ways of talking about it is to say that Secularism is itself a particular iteration of Protestant Christianity, that we have the version of Secularism that we have because we are an offshoot of a cultural historical context that defined religion in a particular way. This goes back to something you were saying earlier about the inextricability of the category of religion from the category of the secular. It’s precisely because we see religion as something that is potentially private, individualised, and belief orientated that religion is something that can be relegated to the private sphere and therefore… and therefore secularised, according to the conventional definition.

(CC): Yeah. So we can see that there’s sort of like a Hegelian dialectic there even-

(DS): -Right.

(CC): -look to Feuerbach, and even… you know that we produce the… yeah the… As Christianity secularized… As Catholicism changed to Protestantism that started-

(DS): -Right.

(CC): -started a transition.

(DS): Yeah, absolutely. Or even like, one thing that historians and especially intellectual historians like Jonathan Z. Smith, Talal Asad, when he’s wearing that hat, or someone like Craig Calhoun, they really liked to emphasize the beginning of modernity and the immediate aftermath of the Protestant reformation.

(CC): Yeah.

(DS): So you could look at it theoretically in the way that religion gets defined as something that is personal rather than corporate. (15:00) You could look at it historically and the way that the resolution to the wars of religion that emerge in the aftermath of the reformation. The political…the political compromises that are made in that wake tend to make religion into something that is detachable, it’s something that is sort of, as Locke puts it, can be kept in the private sphere rather than the public sphere. All of these…all of these…all of these details of Protestantism, whether they’re sort of, part of the DNA of Protestantism or whether they’re sort of historical accidents that shoot off from Protestantism, they make up the coordinates of what would eventually become Secularism.

(CC): Okay.

(DS): So one of the ways that I could see us potentially integrating Secularism into the World religions classroom would be to talk about it as an offshoot from Christianity.

(CC): Mmhmm.

(DS): When we teach Christianity we teach Secularism as something that Christianity does in exactly the same way as you know, depending on how many days you have for teaching Christianity, you would give a sort of capsule history where you would talk about the great schisms, orthodoxy from Catholicism, Protestantism from Catholicism and then could also locate Secularism as, in a sense, another schism, as another permutation of Christianity that is part of the story of Christianity as a World Religion.

(CC): Mmm. And indeed, some of the annoyance that some proponents of Secularism feel with that approach to my mind indicates the very importance of taking that approach-

(DS): Exactly.

(CC): –because people don’t feel annoyance unless there’s some sort of deep connection to the category that you’re talking about.

(DS): I think that’s right and especially building on that if we’re talking about teaching students in a Western/Anglo/Euro/American context, we’re going to be teaching students who are going to be coming from a variety of faith positions some of whom will be coming from a non-faith position and probably see their status as mutual. They probably see the religions they’re looking at as in a sense, under glass, as something that is disconnected from where they are. And I think it’s important for those students to recognise that even the liberal Secular idiom that they might see themselves located within, has a history. That it, even it, the agenda of that is set by a particular set of Christian coordinates. Saba Mahmood has done some really excellent work on this, talking about the way that these sort of ostensibly secular legal codes throughout Europe actually privilege a kind of ghost of Christianity, that they are marshalled in the service of defending a sort of Christian heritage and they suppress other ways of being religious.

(CC): Yeah.

(DS): Even when they…they give Christianity a special sort of protection. A perfect example of this would be like the Burkini ban-

(CC): –Yes.

(DS): -that’s been happening in the summer of 2016 where Burkinis, this article of clothing that seems like it would be inoffensive enough has actually become offensive to French Secularism. Precisely because it is encoding a set of Christian presuppositions about ways that you are Secular and religious.

(CC): On that note I saw that, it was in the Guardian, they were quoting sort of, the ruling and it said it might offend the people’s (non) religious (non) convictions.

(DS): Exactly.

(CC): So your non-religious non-conviction might be offended by it, there’s something interesting going on there.

(DS): Exactly. I think that that’s exactly…I think that that’s a really important pedagogical manoeuvre  with students is showing them how even our own liberal democratic structures have a sort of conserved Christian genetic coding in them. That’s not to create an equivalence, that’s not to say that the difference aren’t meaningful, it’s just to say that we need to…we need to take a critical eye on our own intellectual inheritance rather than presupposing it’s neutral. So all of that would be one way that I would see Secularism entering the World religions paradigm… structure. I think there’s another way though, which would be equally interesting.

(CC): Mhhmm.

(DS): So one of the ways that scholars working in the mode of critical Secularism studies have approached Secularism is to say there is not just one Secularism.

(CC): Yeah.

(DS): There are in fact multiple Secularisms. This is the title of a book, an anthology (20:00) by Janet Jakobsen and Anne Pellegrini, ‘Secularisms’, and this, as I see it, is coming out of these two sort of, kind of, guiding lights of the critical Secularism studies field.  Talal Asad and Charles Taylor. So Talal Asad is very interested in this idea that the Secularism that we have is a result of a particular history and he says that rather than assuming that Secularism is going to be the same everywhere we anticipate a multiplicity of what he calls ‘formations of the Secular’.

(CC): Yeah.

(DS): There are different Secularisms that correspond to different historical moments, and they have different priorities, they have different coordinates, they have different outcomes precisely because their starting points, the sort of ingredients out of, the landscape out of which they secularise is different. So his sort of cardinal example of this is the difference between Christianity, especially Protestant Christianity and Islam. Protestant Christianity de-ritualises religion so its version of Secularism is a version of Secularism that doesn’t pay a lot of attention to ritual, doesn’t pay a lot of attention to practices. Asad will say, you know, when we have formations of the secular emerging out of Islamic contexts we need to be attentive to the way that they are…that they are…that they always keep an eye on practices. And the version, the formations of the Secular that emerge in these other contexts will have a different configuration. Charles Taylor calls this…he calls this ‘the myth of the subtraction story’. The myth of the subtraction story is this idea that once you get rid of religion, you’re left with a neutral landscape.

(CC): Yeah. Indeed, yeah, I’ve always thought of using a quotation from my supervisor Kim Knott who just says that there is no neutral point from which to observe religion-

(DS): -Right.

(CC): -we’re participants in that discourse. So would the logical outcome of that then be that if you were incorporating that Secularism(s) into the World religions classroom that you would sort of pair off-

(DS): -Yeah.

(CC):- you would teach Christianity and Christian Secularism, Islam and Islamic Secularism.

(DS): That’s what I’m thinking of. I’m, again, I’m presenting this conversationally, this isn’t something that I’m, I’m at a point where I could publish it but I think that we need to consider this possibility that the best way to teach Secularism within the context of the World religions classroom would be exactly this pairing, to say that Buddhist secularisms, Christian Secularisms, Jewish Secularisms, even we might want to get more specific than that, like Jewish Secularism in the United States, very different from Jewish Secularism in Israel. Islamic Secularism in Saudi Arabia is very different from Islamic Secularism in Iran. To thematise this I think would be a really productive way of getting Secularism into the conversation, but also raising this idea which I think is one of the challenges that you’ve, that you’ve sort of discussed very ably in your own work with Secularism, which is the way it creates a sort of silo model as you said it-

(CC):- Mhhmm.

(DS):- of these religions being sort of ahistorical, sort of fixed compilations of ideas and practices that can be very easily, sort of clinically diagnosed as you know-

(CC):- Mhhmm.

(DS): -you know like, okay, you’ve got, you’ve got your five pillars, you’ve got Islam. That’s not actually adequate, that’s never been adequate for teaching what religion is, but it’s particularly inadequate in the context of a situation, a global situation now, of accelerating mediatisation and globalisation where transactions between different traditions are becoming more and more…more and more rich. They’re just more and more…the dynamic between different traditions is becoming deeper and deeper. And I think that emphasising that localism of Secularism would be a way of raising that to the surface.

(CC): Mhhm. And this is exactly the sort of thing that we should be discussing at this conference, the theme being ‘religion beyond the textbook’.

(DS): Exactly.

(CC): So, conclusion then. So, are you going to do this?

(DS): Yeah, I think I will. I’m not in a situation right now where I teach world religions but as I think about, as I think about that syllabus next time that that portfolio falls into my lap it’s something that I’m actually quite excited to do, precisely because of the way that I think (25:00) it, it reciprocally calls attention to the limits of both the world religions paradigm, which I think is a useful, if limited, pedagogical tool, and the Secularisation narrative.

(CC): And how do we avoid…one of the main problems with subversively employing anything, so subversively employing the world religions category, is that your critical intent isn’t really communicated to the students, again as you say if they’ve come for a one semester course and then they’re gone, they’ve gone in and they’ve done the world religions course and they’ve come out. So say they’ve come to this course and they do a world religions and Secularisms thing and then they come out with this sort of very strict siloed model on Islamic Secularism is this, Christian Secularism is that, what, is there a danger there, going down that route, you could be sort of reifying the very distinction that we…

(DS): Yeah. I think all discourses have dangers. All discourses are going to be provisional ways of organising the abundance of information that is the world. And they’re always going to have certain limitations attached to them. I think that the best that we can do is inhabit those discourses with a sort of deconstructive eye. And my hope is that among other things I think that there are lots of ways of sort of reciprocally critiquing the world religions paradigm while teaching it. I’ve tried to do that in the past when I’ve taught world religions. I think that this method of introducing Secularism as a legitimate object of study within the architecture of the religions, world religions paradigm could be a way of amplifying that technique.

(CC): Yeah. And, you know, you can only resist the dominant expectations of your students so much before they stop coming to your classes and also I can see this being a really good exercise perhaps for higher level students, just to pose the question that we’ve asked-

(DS):- Right.

(CC): –is Secularism a world religion, set it as an essay topic or something, I can see some really excellent discussions happening there.

(DS): That would be fascinating. I mean, I think too, like, I absolutely agree with what you’re saying, that pedagogically that, I mean, there’s only so much we can do to sort of…there’s only so much we can do to sort of destabilise the way that students think, but I’m also…I’m also a firm believer in the pedagogical value of inhabiting something from the inside in order to destabilise it.

(CC): Mhhm.

(DS): Rather than standing so far outside of it that students can’t necessarily see what you’re doing.

(CC): Yeah.

(DS): And my hope is, and again I mean, this is just an optimism, it’s not something that I’ve actually put into play, and really I see it more of just a conversation starter in pedagogy circles than anything, and my hope is that this practice of introducing Secularism as an object of study within the context of the world religions paradigm would be a way of inhabiting that paradigm from the inside and leaving students with a very vivid impression of its own limitations.

(CC): That is a wonderful way to end. Bang on half an hour, so thanks so much Donovan.

(DS): Thanks so much Chris, this was wonderful.

(CC): Well, I very much enjoyed recording that interview with Donovan and we both were in the session where he presented that paper at the BASR.

David Robertson: Yeah I was going to mention that, there was an odd moment there. It wasn’t the best attended of sessions, I don’t think it got the audience it deserves let’s put it that way, but I think there was eight or nine people in the room of whom two, two of, were myself and Chris. And he immediately showed a picture of our book, ‘The RSP Volume’ you know, After World Religions, which you should read if you haven’t, and started attacking our argument, which was-

(CC): He didn’t attack our argument!

(DR): I thought it was wonderful, I loved every minute of it [laughs].

(CC): But yeah, it was one of those lovely moments that was sort of the first proper one in my “career” in quotation marks. And so hopefully the catchy title there will have dragged in some listeners, you might have thought ‘what, what, that’s ridiculous!’ But hearing Donovan talk about it as an interesting thought experiment, as a way of dismantling in a way the hegemony of the paradigm itself.

(DR): Indeed, and problematizing the term and its application and the rest of it, and Chris and I have talked about an After After World Religions, be it a journal or a second volume of the book, and Donovan is going to contribute to that (30:00) hopefully, if and when it happens.

(CC): You hear that Donovan? You’re under contract now.

(DR): He gave me a verbal agreement and in Scotland that’s legally binding. It was in Helsinki.

(CC): And in Wolverhampton. Same difference.

(DR): Was it?

(CC): Yes.

(DR): Oh. Either way, I’m Scottish so that’s binding.

[they laugh].

(DR): I think we may be showing too much of the man behind the curtain this week.


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Podcasts

Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: The Co-Dependency of Religion and the Secular

In our fifth editors’ pick, Marek Sullivan writes “Few questions are as meta-reflexive as the question ‘Is secularism a world religion?’ It’s now established that secularism and religion are co-constitutive terms: the history of the category ‘religion’ is inseparable from the history of secularisation. But what happens when secularism is rethought as a mode or sub-category of one of its core progenies, ‘world religion’? Donovan Schaefer brings his background in critical theory and material religions to bear on this mind-bending question, leading us through the history of the secularisation thesis, the idea of ‘world religions’, the Protestant genealogy of secularism, and the urgency of parsing the academic study of secularism into historically and culturally differentiated variants. Despite the broad sweep of the interview, I was left wanting more!”

During our “summer break”, various members of the RSP editorial team will be sharing their thoughts on some podcasts from the RSP archive that they think you should listen to (again). Editors’ Picks, if you will. These aren’t necessarily ‘favourites’, but just some podcasts that came to mind that the author has found useful for whatever reason. We hope you enjoy these musings, and that you’ll maybe share some of your own in the comments, on social media, or by sending us an audio or video clip. And we’ll be back with new content on 17 September! Thanks for listening.

Continuing the ‘series’ is our new features co-editor, Marek Sullivan.

Few questions are as meta-reflexive as the question ‘Is secularism a world religion?’ It’s now established that secularism and religion are co-constitutive terms: the history of the category ‘religion’ is inseparable from the history of secularisation. But what happens when secularism is rethought as a mode or sub-category of one of its core progenies, ‘world religion’? Donovan Schaefer brings his background in critical theory and material religions to bear on this mind-bending question, leading us through the history of the secularisation thesis, the idea of ‘world religions’, the Protestant genealogy of secularism, and the urgency of parsing the academic study of secularism into historically and culturally differentiated variants. Despite the broad sweep of the interview, I was left wanting more!

You can listen to the podcast below, view and download from the original post, or find it on iTunes and other podcast providers.

 

Don’t forget about our Patreon appeal – if you can spare even $1 a month we could really do with your support. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Pulp Fiction memorabilia, astronaut ice cream and more.

Myth, Solidarity, and Post-Liberalism

With the rise of reactionary politics across the globe, it is arguably increasingly important for the academic community to give consideration to the prospects of developing and strengthening solidarity across apparent religious, political and economic differences. In this podcast, Chris speaks to Dr Timothy Stacey (University of Ottawa) about his forthcoming book, Myth and Solidarity in the Modern World: Beyond Religious and Political Division (Routledge, 2018), in which he asks how we can begin to imagine solidarity in the modern world, and challenges academics to be challenge the co-option of their work by being “better than those who seek to co-opt us.”

What is solidarity? What is liberalism? And post-liberalism? How does this relate to the problematic notion of post-secularity? To myth? To the ‘sacred’? And are we missing a trick by not paying attention to the mythic elements of secularity? These questions and more provide the narrative hooks throughout this interview, in which we hear some fascinating insights into Tim’s personal biography and his extensive field research in London, and challenge the aversion which some social scientists feel regarding normativity.

If you like what you hear, why not check out our previous podcasts on “The Sacred”, “The Post-Secular” and “Habermas, Religion and the Post-Secular”, as well as Tim’s ongoing Lived Religions Project with Fernande Pool, featuring many fascinating “interviews with ordinary people telling their unique story” livedreligionproject.com

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, banners, flags, teapots and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Myth, Solidarity and Post-Liberalism

Podcast with Timothy Stacey (9 April 2018).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Stacey_-_Myth,_Solidarity_and_Post-Liberalism_1.1

Christopher Cotter (CC): Welcome to another episode of the Religious Studies Project. It’s the start of 2018 as I’m recording – although who knows when this is actually going to go out, because we’ve got such a backlog! I am here in Reading, on my way to Oxford. And I’m joined by Dr Tim Stacey. Hi Tim!

Timothy Stacey (TS): Hi.

CC: Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. Tim is currently a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Ottawa, but has been in the UK for the festive period and our diaries and travel schedules managed to collide nicely! We’ll be hearing bout Tim’s research during the course of the interview, but the primary trigger for the interview is the forthcoming publication of his first monograph, with Routledge, later this year. That’s called, Myth and Solidarity in the Modern World: Beyond Religious and Political Division. And today we’re going to be talking a little bit about these notions of myth and solidarity, but also this key concept of post-liberalism. So, first of all, I’ve given a very brief introduction to you, Tim. But tell us, who are you? How have you got here?

TS: How have I . . . ?

CC: How have you got here? Why are you speaking to me?!

TS: Well, I guess I started off . . . I did my Masters at Nottingham, in Theology. And it was there – as I was listening to some really interesting arguments about virtue ethics, primarily from people like Alasdair Macintyre and Charles Taylor – that I felt very inspired by the stuff they were saying. But also, as an atheist myself, I kept asking, “How do I actually make this relevant to me, somebody who’s not actually a Christian?” And that was what triggered me moving from Theology into social scientific research. And so that triggered the PhD, which was about exploring possibilities for virtue ethics and notions of transcendence in a religiously plural society. And more recently the interest has turned to secular subjects, so that’s what I’m now in Vancouver exploring: what are the potentials for transcendence and solidarity amongst secular subjects?

CC: Fantastic! And we’ll be hearing more about that as this conversation ensues. So, set the scene for us then. The first couple of chapters of this book are exploring this notion of post-liberalism. But I don’t know that many of our listeners necessarily know what-on-earth that means! So perhaps you could, just for the sake . . . ? We know that we are in turbulent political times. There is a sort of reactionary politics happening all over the place. We’ve got these notions that there’s the political elites versus the ordinary masses, and everything. So, maybe, just take us through a chronological . . . . How have we got to this state? What is liberalism? And then, what is post-liberalism?

TS: Yes. Well, basically, the basic premise of the book is to follow this post-liberal argument. And the primary argument there is that, in a liberal secular society, we’ve lost a sense of the role of transcendence in forming social identity. So instead, we treat people as basically . . . both ideally, and also primarily motivated by rationality. And I suggest that we also tend to castigate those who appear to be irrational, whether that’s because of religion, ideology, parochialism, or simply a lack of education. And I think that comes up during the Brexit debate a lot as well. And the result, according to post-liberals, is two-fold. First: politics becomes technocratic and economics becomes instrumental. So, politics is less about building belonging and empowering people than it is about a university educated elite, delivering to social-scientifically construed need. And then, economics is less about reciprocity than it is about GDP. And then second: because of this, we increasingly see people retrenching in communities that they feel provide them with a sense of belonging and empowerment – communities of faith, race, nation, economic status. But then, kind of the . . . . (5:00) What inspired this book for me was that although post-liberalism gives, for me, a really exciting analysis of our current political problems, post-liberalism is itself as much a symptom of that as it is an analysis. By which I mean that it represents a retrenching in Christian notions of transcendence. And that simply doesn’t work for a society that is simultaneously – as I put it in the book – post-Christian, post-secular and religiously plural.

CC: Hmm.

TS: So that very long premise is actually the basis of this exploration, namely: to explore the relevance and role of transcendence in developing solidarity in the messy religious and non-religious landscape that we see before us, primarily in the western world. And I explored this by undertaking two years of ethnographic research with groups seeking to develop solidarity in London – which I kind-of identify as one of the most socially and economically liberal cities in the world, as well as being one of the most religiously and non-religiously diverse cities in the world. So, despite all that complexity, the actual answers the book provides I feel are quite simple. First, it says that despite the assumptions of liberal secularism and the dominance of this system within London for almost 300 years, the majority of people – both religious and non-religious – still do draw on transcendence in forming their social identity. In particular – and this is where I get to the notion of myth – they do this through myths. And that’s what I call stories of great events and characters that exemplify people’s ideals. And while for Christians that might be like the story of Christ or of the great Flood, for atheists that might be about, sometimes, Ghandi or Martin Luther King – figures who actually have some sort of religious background themselves – but also, just stories of their mum, or their dad, or their best friend, or a great heroic colleague that for them exemplified a virtuous way of living. And then the second point is that again – despite the assumptions of secular liberalism – actually, the role of the state doesn’t need to be this kind of principled distance from religion, or principled distance from ideology. Instead, we can actually imagine the role of the state less as an enforcer of a particular ideology – or else perhaps, in a liberal society, an enforcer of a lack of ideology – and instead we can think about it as a curator of the sharing of different ideologies. So that people can explore the virtues inherent in very different ways of living and see that, for instance, I might be somebody who is quite critical of Islam, but then I spend time trying to develop solidarity in a local setting with a Muslim. And it’s something as simple as seeing that they are good people that makes you realise, “Well, maybe Islam’s not so bad, either.” And then I began to see some really interesting processes of bricolage, like out-and-out atheists talking about how they were inspired by the story of Mohammed. And they would even talk about him as the “first community organiser”, for instance. So I found that really interesting. And then I get onto this idea of solidarity centres. So it’s actually the notion that the state will create these liberal spaces in which people of very different backgrounds come together to intentionally explore their ideas of how the world should be. And then, acting on that together: “Right. Ok, this is how the world should be. What are some policies, or things going on in our community that are stopping that from happening?” And that might be something like low wages, high house prices, or whatever, and then working together to solve those problems.

CC: Excellent. Well thanks for that fantastic introduction to the topic and, indeed, overview of the book. It really resonates with me, I can remember sitting with . . . you know there is this really common idea, particularly in the UK, that politics and religion don’t go together, you know. What was it? Alastair Campbell: “We don’t do God“. (10:00) And I can remember last semester, at Edinburgh, in a course on Religion in Modern Britain, sitting with my students in a tutorial and they were talking about whether a Muslim politician should be expected to act as a Muslim or to represent their constituents. And they all seemed to think that they shouldn’t be bringing religion into it, at all. And I tried to push and push: “But what other normative ways do we allow politicians to act” And they were: “gender”, “race”, “political party”, right? We have this conceit that they represent their whole constituency but they also have the sacred ideals of their political party that they hold higher than everything else. (Laughs).

TS: Absolutely.

CC: So, that’s just a little riff! So going right back to the beginning, then – in the book it was, maybe, 2011 when your research process was starting. How did you get into this massive area of research? And what pushed you?

TS: Well, yes. It was actually an incredibly strange and exciting journey for me. So, going back to Nottingham – I don’t know how well you know that university, but we’d have a lot of theological seminars in the staff club lounge, around leather armchairs. And that was my introduction to academia – talking about Alisdair Macintyre, and virtue ethics, and John Milbank, and theses radical critiques of modernity. And I was very excited by them. But as I said, I was troubled. And I wanted to work out, “Ok, is this relevant?” And I thought social science was the best way of working that out. But I was a theologian. So I arrived in London and my supervisor starts talking to me about this thing called “data”.

CC: (Laughs)

TS: “You need to go out and get data.” “Hmm, what is data, exactly?” And I spent a lot of time reading different kind of research methods books, and trying to understand exactly how I was going to explore this question of the link between transcendence and solidarity in a religiously plural society. But then, while that was happening – and this is a bit weird now! It kind-of matches with the personal: I’ve grown up all around the world, and I’ve never had any particular home. So when I was living in London for the first time, being in a place for more than a few years, I was thinking very hard to myself about what does it mean to be a part of my local community? And as I was simultaneously thinking about those two things – on the one hand data, and on the other my own desire to be involved in the community – the London riots happened. And I thought, “You know what? This is amazing. This is a great opportunity for me to be involved in the process of rebuilding Tottenham”, which is sort of where I was living – in response to this. So I came across this group called London Citizens, who wanted to do a citizens enquiry into the Tottenham riots. They basically do these things called “listening campaigns”, where they go out and basically ask members of the public: what is the main problem that you and your family face? That’s the first question. And the second question is always, what can you . . . and us – what can we together do about this? So it’s not like, “Ok what are your problems and shall we write to the local politician and tell them about it?” It’s “Let’s do something together. Let’s take direct action.” And it just suddenly clicked in my head. I was thinking about this word solidarity so theoretically. And then here were some people actually living it out, developing solidarity in a very real way, in my local area. And my first thought, really, when that happened was to say to myself, “Why am I even bothering to study this? I should just be doing it!”

CC: Yes.

TS: “I might as well just quit the PhD!” Then it occurred to me that actually taking action in this way could be my data. And I’d been reading stuff about post-secularity. And I realised London Citizens really is a kind of post-secular group. They’re a group that recognised the important role of religion in the public sphere. They, themselves, are somewhat inspired by a faith narrative, but the majority of the key organisers were non-religious. And so the way that they were able to so openly navigate faith and non-faith, and bring people together, was really exciting to me. (15:00) And then I thought, “You know what? The best way to explore the possibility for solidarity in this society that’s simultaneously Christian and secular and post-secular, is to work with a group that indicatively represents each one of those paradigms.” So then I started thinking, “OK, what are the key post-War paradigms for developing a sense of solidarity?” And you have, initially, the very strong connection between Christianity and the setting up of the welfare state. So I took one group that I felt represented that, which was at the time called the Christian Socialist Movement, but now is called Christians on the Left. Then I thought the next phase was secular ways of doing this, and in particular, a lot of money was being pumped into councils for voluntary service. So I started working with them, representing my secular organisation. Then in the ‘90s and early 2000s you had the multi-faith policy paradigm. So I thought, “OK, I need a group that represents that.” And then, going back to the start, London Citizens became my post-secular organisation. And that’s the story of how I got there.

CC: Excellent. And on the notion of post-secular, listeners, do check out our previous interview with Kevin Gray about that. I mean I think that you would agree with me as well, Tim, that it’s a problematic notion – the concept of post-secular.

TS: Absolutely, and indeed my current supervisor Lori Beaman insists that I stop using it! So . . .

CC: Well, it’s here to stay, perhaps! OK. And you organise the book then along these . . . you’ve got these three sections really, I guess, looking at pluralistic contexts, and then the state, these organisations, and then also capitalism. And any of those would be interesting to expand upon, but perhaps let’s think about this place of the notion of myth and transcendence. And then, maybe sort-of weave in these three strands.

TS: Mmm.

CC: So basically, one of your arguments is that these organisations all have varying relationships with the idea of transcendence and the construction of myth. So maybe you could just introduce the organisations there, to tell us about them and their relationship to this?

TS: Yes, OK. I mean the word myth, I primarily introduce – and I don’t know how helpful it really is . . . . What I was ultimately critiquing there was the sort of Habernasian notion that we are primarily motivated rationally. And, by introducing the term myth, I was trying to demonstrate the parity between religious and non-religious ways of relating to the world. So in doing that I then felt that I was able – by cutting through this kind of religious/secular binary – I was then able to start thinking about the role of the state as something very different: as not something that has to separate religion from politics, but instead can relate more reflexively towards the notion of myth.

CC: Yes. Throughout you use this phrase, “religious/secular, mythic/rational binary”. That’s your thing. So, yes, what’s going on there?

TS: Yes. So what I’m trying to say, basically, is that we end up having this notion that the religious is primarily mythic and the secular is primarily rational. And what I was trying to say is that both the religious and secular have very strong mythic elements to them. Primarily, I was not doing that as a means of . . . . There’s lot of research trying to demonstrate that religious belief can in fact be far more rational than we realise. I was, actually, trying to go the other way round and say that secularity can be a lot more mythic than we realise. And I wasn’t doing that in any way to put down secular people or secularity, but rather to say, “Well if we are primarily motivated through myth then we’re really missing a trick in how we motivate secular people.” (20:00) If we simply assume that they’re motivated by rationality alone, then we miss out on one of the most powerful ways of making people act in the world. And then you get back to the whole argument about Brexit and Trump and so on, which is that if we forget the role of mythic narrative in motivating people, then they become very vulnerable to just anyone who’s able to spin a good myth.

CC: And all you end up with is talking about economics and security, as you argue. Could give an example, maybe, of the kind of . . . . So we can all think of, I guess, a religion-related myth, perhaps. But what sort of – for want of a better word – secular myths are people motivated by?

TS: Well, one of these myths is actually the notion of the self-independent rational actor itself, right? Because that is a story that people are living by, primarily. It’s not actually this . . . In some sense, there’s this kind-of subtraction narrative to the understanding of secular identity that says: it’s an identity that is short of religious elements. But instead, what I’m trying to suggest is that secular people do live by myths, and rationality itself is one of those. And another one, for instance, is that of capitalism: the idea that says people are primarily motivated by financial incentive. So, basically, what the research seems to suggest is that there are clear secular myths, but these are primarily ones I feel that aren’t intentionally constructed by secular people. So they might be myths of rationality or myths of capitalism. And what I’m trying to explore now is: OK – but what are those deep, more intentionally constructed myths that can challenge a purely instrumental notion of politics or economics? In Vancouver it’s really interesting, because that’s coming from a lot of different places. So there’s myths of earth-based spiritualty – the sense that I, as a person, am intimately related to the world in the same way . . . there. This stuff wouldn’t necessarily work in London at all, but it’s very much derived from indigenous mythology as well. So the people don’t see themselves as any more important than the orca in the Pacific Ocean, for instance, or the salmon. So those myths – the telling of the stories of the orca and the salmon – actually become really important ways of challenging an instrumental approach to the land and the environment. So you have otherwise entirely secular people arguing against the construction of a pipeline, for instance, because of salmon. And at first, I have to say, I actually giggled a bit when I started getting these findings. Because it was just so out of context for what I’d grown up around in London and for what had come out of my previous research. But as I’ve been doing this ethnographic research there – and it’s always, as in this this book, very auto-ethnographic as well – I try and really immerse myself in the stories of people I’m studying. And, yes. Now I’ve come to be inspired by these stories of whales and salmon, and how they might be transformative in challenging a particular idea of, say, growth.

CC: Yes. And I imagine one could also, you know, even just thinking of what you get in the Marvel films – there’s a lot of myth in popular culture, as well, that you probably might easily and interestingly excavate.

TS: Absolutely. And people really do integrate that into their stories. It’s absolutely not out of place that people will talk to me about a Batman film, or something, when they’re trying to explain their belief in . . . I mean, one that comes up quite a lot in Spiderman is that: “With great power comes great responsibility”. And it seems almost laughable, in a way. But I think, the way that people sort-of suspend their disbelief in the cinema can be very similar to the way they might do in a church. (25:00) And those myths really do have power for people.

CC: And we’re already almost at the end of our time, which is excellent. I mean, not excellent – I just mean we’ve already covered a lot of ground! So, just to push on this – one of the key arguments I would see from your book is that rather than perhaps trying to find – you know, sitting people down and going “OK, you’re a Christian, you’re a Muslim, you’re an atheist, you’re a Buddhist. You’re never going to agree on these things, so it’s all pointless.” So, is the idea that everyone is constructing myths about, I don’t know, the better society, the greater good, the way they want things to progress and that by focussing on those, rather than the specifics, it might be a constructive way forward? Or . . . ?

TS: Yes, that’s true. But also there’s a very real sense in which I think, those settings need to be intentionally constructed in secular society. That’s a part of where my critique comes from. So you look at my analysis of Hackney CVS, for instance, I was suggesting that the secular people there had strong myths based on their parents who might be their heroes, or their colleagues. So their myths, in fact, were just telling the stories of their friends and family. And they were really inspiring and transformative for them. But what I noticed, what there was . . . there were a lack of intentional rituals within that organisation, for bringing those to the surface. And so they failed to really integrate them into their practice, and therefore failed to inspire much enthusiasm. And so, my feeling is that we need to actually deliberately create spaces where people can discuss these things. And so my example, when you talk about bringing Muslims and Jews and atheists together in a room, the best example I came across was the London Citizens. They would ask this very simple question: “We live in the world as it is – but there is a world as it should be. Please tell me some words that you associate with the world as it should be.”

CC: Mmm.

TS: So, that’s the first step – that you get people from these very different backgrounds together in a room, recognising: “Oh wow! That guy looks very different to me but, in fact, he seems to want the same idea of the perfect world that I want.” So that’s the first step. But then – once you’ve done that – you actually encourage people to draw on their own very different, idiosyncratic stories. So once they all recognise that this is the world as it should be, then they can, again, start talking about their particular myths – whether of Islam, or Christianity or of the more secular ones such as of a Socialist utopia, or . . . .

CC: Yes. And I’ve always found it . . . . I remember Craig Martin made this point in his Masking Hegemony, in 2010, I’ve always found it very strange that, yes – why would you expect people to be able to bracket off these aspects of their identity? Why not . . . we have this myth of the secular space that people enter and they bracket off . . . but, why not just everyone talk about it, talk about your myths, and talk about where you’re coming from? And then we can, maybe, move forward.

TR: Yes – the thing is though, it’s actually a much more honest way of being. Because if I understand where you’re coming from, I can actually hold you to account on the basis of that story that you’re telling.

CC: Yes. Just to indulge my curiosity here, listeners, this might go on slightly longer than usual. I’ve got three more questions I want to ask Tim.

TS: I’ll try and be brief in my answers.

CC: No, it’s good. First, the notion of the sacred here. So I know Gordon Lynch – in fact we spoke to Gordon Lynch a number of years ago about this concept – and Kim Knott and others have developed this notion of like the secular sacred, and things. So where does the role of the sacred – maybe it’s a non-ontological, non-religion inflected sacred – fit into the myths and into solidarity?

TS: Well, for one thing, I totally would have been happy to us the term sacred. (30:00) But I had two issues with that. One was that there was a lot of talk about it being non-negotiable. And I thought, “That’s exactly what I want to avoid with transcendence.” Because the very point is that we need people to negotiate. And the other issue is, I felt that a lot of that research was around what’s already sacred. It would be around pointing out some certain category had become a sacred one. Whereas, I was trying – rather than move backwards in that way – move forwards. So I got into discussions with people doing research around that, including Gordon Lynch and saying, “Well, actually, what I’m thinking about is: how do we develop a new sacred?” And I didn’t feel like people were all that interested in that, in those circles. And in that sense, alone, that word became tainted for me. And I wanted to try and think about it slightly differently. But otherwise, yes, it is very, very similar.

CC: Yes. They’re related. You can see clear overlaps. But clearly again, you’re stepping out into uncharted territory. On that note, then: “here at the Religious Studies Project”, our sort-of approach would probably map more onto the Critical Study of Religion, and when normativity comes up we tend to bristle a little bit. So, as we’ve been hearing there, you’re an engaged scholar. So, how do you personally navigate that sort of: “I’m doing this work which is – I guess – objective, but also trying to . . . .” You know.

TS: Well, yes. I think, the thing is that I have no qualms about saying that I am personally, and academically, fighting for a world in which there is more solidarity, in which people are willing to do things for one another without necessarily expecting something in return. I’m also quite happy to say that I was saddened by the rise of neoliberalism. And I saw that Christianity was very instrumental to the setting up of the welfare state, initially. And I was asking myself that question: what is that new metanarrative going to be, around which we can create more solidarity, and renew interest in social welfare? But the research itself is objective, in that sense that I’m totally open to what the answer to that may be. And that’s constantly evolving. And I think, in my current research, I would slightly challenge some of the assumptions that I had in the previous. But it’s all this objective, social scientific, critical research that interested me in religion in the first place. Because I’m only interested in religion incidentally. Because a lot of research seems to be demonstrating that something like religion, or the sacred, or whatever you want to call it, has a powerful effect on a sense of solidarity. So, for me, that’s my only very incidental interest in religion. It’s: “OK, if that’s true, then what does that look like in a society where none of us believe the same things anymore?”

CC: And my final question was going to be, what was the broader relevance of this to the academic study of religion? But I think you’ve just actually summarised that quite neatly in your final statement there. Unless you want to have a final push?

TS: Well the only thing I would say, without wanting to be preachy, is that I think there is a real danger that we can get stuck behind this social scientific lens that says, “I’m not allowed to be normative” when, in reality, we have to recognise the very things we choose to research are guided by our own normative principals. So I think, in the dangerous world that we currently live in, it’s time for academics to step up and say, “This is what I believe in, and I’m willing to work towards bringing it about.”

CC: Exactly. And in your own work as well, what you’re doing is not proposing a definitive: “This is the objective reality.” It’s: “We’re building . . . .” And you’ve expanded upon your own research. And you’ve changed your ideas. And we’re all part of a process, moving towards whatever . . . perfection – let’s say it!

TS: (Laughs)

CC: Well it’s been a pleasure speaking to you, Tim. Thanks, so much.

TS: (35:00) Thanks, so much, for having me on.

Citation Info: Stacey, Timothy and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “’Myth, Solidarity and Post-Liberalism”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 2 April 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 29 March 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/myth-solidarity-and-post-liberalism/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

 

 

On Reading Ralph Ellison Theologically

Ralph Ellison, famous for his 1952 novel Invisible Man, eschewed religiosity personally. His works mainly concerned race, artistry, and democracy in America. In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology (2017), Cooper Harriss seeks to uncover what he sees as the theological dimensions of Ellison’s secular conception of race. Because religion is a neglected topic in Ellison scholarship, Harriss’ reading presents an opportunity for fresh insights.[1]

Most scholars examining invisibility in Ellison’s novel consider it a social metaphor: the novel’s protagonist is made invisible by people’s refusal to really see him. Yet Harriss claims invisibility is also a theological trope, with roots in biblical materials, Protestantism, and Kongo traditions, antecedents that establish it as an unmarked religious category. More than the social marginalization of black bodies, Harriss contends invisibility is metaphysical, too.

To read Ellison as a theological thinker, which is also to read him theologically, Harriss calls upon Schleiermacher and Tillich, primarily, to expand the notion of religion. He explains that, to him, the terms “religion” and “religious” refer not to particular things but to “processes through which antagonistic cooperation between universals and particulars generates human quests for meaning” (16). Furthermore, “Ellison’s concept of race is foundationally religious because it is rooted in the relational, systematic interplay between, and the consequent aggregation of, the particular and the universal” (17).

Great authors like Ellison create characters and stories that are both particularized yet universal. The particularity gives a literary work its fully-fleshed characters and immersive world, while its universality connects it to readers’ own lives. In Invisible Man, after we hear the unnamed protagonist’s particular life story as a black man in America, he asks his famous universalizing final line, “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” This interplay between particular and universal, is religious, in Harriss’ terms. Ellison is thus a theologian because he makes meaning out of this particular-universal relation.

The heart of Harriss’ argument is his claim that Ellison’s secular conception of race is an “invisible theology.” For Harriss, theology refers not to “God-talk” but to “meanings and significances generated by religious negotiations of universals and particulars,” or “faith seeking understanding” (16). Ellison’s work is religious because it is “meaning-making” and it is theological because it offers practical import for human living (16). These elements are inseparably linked: “the religious and the theological” are “critically cofunctional—never segregated (as they have become in contemporary academic discourse) but absolutely dependent upon one another” (17). Here Harriss is not just making a descriptive claim about the history of these distinct discourses, but asserting his desire to “annihilate” the wall between theology and religious studies, as he says in this interview. He wishes to “dislocate theology as ‘mere’ belief, prescription, or data and refashion it as a critical apparatus” that can help us solve contemporary challenges (192). Accordingly, Harriss argues that “the religious aspects of Ellisonian conceptions of race as a secular property—its invisible theology—may help us” to assess today’s political contexts (179). There is a social prescriptivism in this theological claim-making; Harriss hopes the invisible theology he’s unveiling—and creating—might save us.[2]

There is good evidence, Harriss claims, for reading Ellison theologically. Ellison derided what he saw as racial essentialism in the Black Power and Black Arts movements of the 1960s-1970s, which relied on materialist conceptions of race. Harriss asserts Ellison’s critical project worked against such materialisms, opening space for metaphysical speculation. He also relies on the coincidental publication of major works by three Protestant intellectuals to place Ellison in their midcentury American theological context. Over two chapters, Harriss connects Ellison’s ruminations on racism as America’s “original sin” to American civil religion as a form of residual Calvinism in a post-Protestant society. In a critical chapter, he argues that Ellison’s long friendship with Nathan A. Scott, Jr., literature professor and canon theologian, was really a “theological apprenticeship” for Ellison (96).[3] Cooper uses previously unpublished material to shed light on Ellison at several points, and provides provocative interpretations throughout.

Harriss’s book stands in the tradition of Scott’s scholarship—called Theology and Literature, Christianity and Literature, or Religion and Literature—albeit augmented by recent critical studies of race, religion, and secularism. Relying on a Tillichian theology of culture, Scott explored how a “religious unconscious” permeates cultural productions, even avowedly secular ones, and provides insight into how we ought to live. Harriss admits his own “Tillichian orientation” and states that Scott’s earlier work on Ellison “anticipates the premise, if not the thesis, of this book” (88, 98). Like Scott, Harriss seeks to uncover hidden religious dimensions in Ellison’s secular work to help us navigate the modern world. Both scholars utilize liberal Christian definitions of religion to find exactly these kinds of religious articulations in Ellison.

Harriss employs scholarship showing the theological and Protestant production of concepts like race and the secular to justify framing Ellison as a Protestant theologian (3, 41). Ellison would not recognize himself as such. Despite Ellison’s critiques of social science and Marxist materialism, he did not turn toward supernaturalism. Harriss rejects Ellison’s naturalism by insisting that we need to take “certain religious and theological dimensions seriously in their contention with what believers understand to emanate from invisible, supernatural realms” (14). This approach distinguishes secular from religious, recognizes Ellison as secular, and then rewrites him as religious anyway. Such theological caretaking confuses categorical entanglements with their identity. By yoking religious studies with theology and the secular with the religious, Harriss erases any difference. Arguing that secular writers are really theologians in disguise enacts a theological agenda. At stake is what we do as religious studies scholars.

Outside theological contexts, I am not convinced that the category “invisible theology” provides us greater analytical purchase on Ellison’s work. As someone who loves Ellison and studies religion, I was excited to encounter Harriss’ ideas. As a religious studies scholar, however, I found Harriss’ insistence upon a theological reading of Ellison’s work forced and unnecessary. In a spirit of antagonistic cooperation, a favorite phrase of Ellison’s, I find myself both affirming and resisting Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology.

Notes

[1] Most recently, Josef Sorett locates Ellison’s Afro-Protestant racial aesthetics in the black church (2016, 141-149). Sorett and Harriss both claim religion underlies black secular artistic expressions, but their methods and conclusions differ.

[2] In Race and Secularism in America, Vincent W. Lloyd exhorts “the recovery of the religious, beyond secularism,” for its transformative potential (2016, 15). He adds that “remembering the religious—or the theological, as the unmanaged religious is sometimes called—points to traditions of imagining otherwise.” In Harriss’ work, I hear a similar normative voice, one that promotes Protestant theology as a useful mode for reading secular literature and for envisioning an “otherwise” that seems beyond our material reach.

[3] I found the evidence for such “instruction” to be thin (98). Harriss reads a lot into a letter Ellison wrote to Scott wherein Ellison laments the loss of the “sacred” in modern literature; Ellison saw that loss as muting moral assertion and forcing “depth and resonance” underground (97). Harriss repurposes Ellison’s “depth and resonance” as “shorthand” for religion (98-99, 116, 147).

References

Harriss, M. Cooper. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology. New York University Press, 2017.

Lloyd, Vincent W. “Introduction: Managing Race, Managing Religion.” In Race and Secularism

in America, edited by Jonathan Kahn and Vincent W. Lloyd, 1-19. Columbia University Press, 2016.

Scott, Jr., Nathan A. “Black Literature.” In Harvard Guide to Contemporary American Writing,

edited by Daniel Hoffman, 287-341. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1979.

—. “Ellison’s Vision of Communitas.” The Carleton Miscellany 18.3 (1980): 41-50.

—. “Ellison’s Vision of Communitas.” Callaloo 18.2 (1995): 310-318.

Sorett, Josef. Spirit in the Dark: A Religious History of Racial Aesthetics. Oxford University

Press, 2016.

 

Framing, Observing, and Exhibiting Yoga: A Response to Bruce Sullivan

Writing on the state of yoga in America today tends to frame discussions on the topic with statistics that attest yoga’s current popularity: the thousands of studios, the millions of practitioners, or the billions of dollars in annual revenue the yoga industry generates. The repetition of these figures runs the risk of rendering them trite, but ignoring this crucial context in which to place American yoga runs a greater risk of projecting one’s misrepresentative assumptions onto a much larger whole.

Where then does Bruce Sullivan’s research on the practice of yoga in museums— both in his interview for the Religious Studies Project and in his chapter on the subject in the edited volume Sacred Objects in Secular Places: Exhibiting Asian Religions in Museums— fit in this context? Yoga performance in museums is certainly novel and intriguing, and offers a potentially fruitful perspective to think about current understandings of yoga. Yet, it also becomes problematic to extend the transposition of an ordinary yoga class into a museum beyond novelty or intrigue, and perceive it as either a widespread practice, strange anomaly, or indicative of modern yoga’s drifting from a traditional center.

Sullivan describes these events as occurring with significant frequency in the United States (and to a lesser extent in Britain). He lards this observation with an impressive catalogue of museums hosting yoga events. Descriptors such as “diverse array,” “many,” “popular,” and “numerous” do the heavy lifting of reminding the reader how pervasive this practice has become.

Yet despite these efforts to quantify a growing and easily-discovered phenomenon, putting these numbers in their statistical contexts makes clear that this growing trend is a microcosm, dwarfed by traditional museum patronage and yogic practice. There are almost 35,000 museums in the United States alone, a number larger than the combined total locations of McDonald’s and Starbucks. When placed alongside the vast number of yoga practitioners, an honest assessment would see even the most complete accounting of yoga in museums as being a miniscule part of the whole of either. It is possible to go online as Sullivan did and create similar lists and descriptions of wine and beer tasting events at dozens of zoos around the country, but the presence of “Brew at the Zoo” and “Roar and Pour” events would not tell us much more beyond the fact that lots of people enjoy drinking alcohol and zoos have a vested interest in generating money and increasing the number of visitors.

The reasons for these yoga events, as Sullivan recognizes, are pragmatic and symbiotic. Like other public outreach, hosting yoga classes offers museums a range of benefits such as publicity, gift shop and café sales, and new visitors.  Surveys— such as the same frequent source for the size of the yoga industry in America, the large-scale 2016 “Yoga in American Study” conducted by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance—find the vast majority of people practicing yoga doing so in health clubs or gyms, community centers, or in the privacy of their own homes, rather than in dedicated yoga studios. Yet yoga devotees like the idea of performing their art in public places. One of every five practitioners surveyed attended a yoga event in a public place; three out of every four are interested in doing so in the future. It is simply a mutually beneficial exchange: museums gain new visitors and yoga practitioners get a desired change of scenery.

It is difficult not to see Sullivan’s preoccupation with yoga in museums as an example of what Catherine Albanese termed “show-and-tell scholarship”— work at the intersection of religious studies and popular culture that consists of “unearthing still one more custom, practice, belief, or piece of spiritual paraphernalia that no one yet among scholars had discovered.”[1] The originality and quality of this brand of scholarship, therefore depends on the novelty of the finding. The underlying assumption in both the interview for the Religious Studies Project and Sullivan’s chapter is that there is something incongruous, if not slightly absurd, about rows of people going through a Vinyasa class under the shadow of an art institution’s paintings and statuary. We would not expect a similar analysis of a wedding reception being hosted in the ballroom of a Freemasonic Lodge, or weekly Bingo night in the community center attached to a Catholic church, but something about yoga in museums seems to present a heightened contradiction between the perceived sacred and secular. The highpoint of the interview and the namesake of Sullivan’s chapter, the pair of New Age yoga students who believe that they are “reconsecrating the icons” of Buddhist images and Hindu statues that surround them in the museum through their yogic asanas, seem to embody this antinomy.

Yet the tension between sacred and secular that Sullivan finds so remarkable traffics in an overemphasis on the nature we want to attribute to both museums and yoga. Many of the features that make us assume museums are secular like their fundraising and promotion, or the commerce done within their walls, are shared by a large number of various religious institutions around the world. As Sullivan notes in the introduction to his edited volume by way of Carol Duncan’s work, museums often share much in common with religious sites. Museums are often spaces set apart from the mundane world, where singular objects of admiration can be encountered in a ritualistic fashion, and thus cultivate powerful experiences in their visitors. As Anne Murphy suggests in a description of the displaying of Sikh artifacts in the Sacred Objects in Secular Places volume, in some cases it is hard to tell where veneration begins and curation ends.

Further, studies suggest that no more than a small percentage of those who practice yoga see themselves as doing anything spiritual. Those familiar with Mark Singleton’s 2010 work Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice and the evidence it marshals to show the strong influence of Western bodybuilding, gymnastics, and physical culture on the formation of yoga as we now know it, would not be surprised to learn that three-quarters of American yogis practice other forms of physical exercise such as running, cycling, or weight-lifting. The closest thing to a spiritual motivation for yoga that we can find among the top five reasons for Americans who start yoga is “stress relief,” which is a factor for little more than one-half of respondents. A yoga class in a museum could be seen just as much as a secular practice in a quasi-religious space as a quasi-religious practice in a secular space.

Even the two “reconsecrators” in Sullivan’s interview and chapter are surrounded by other forms on the periphery of modern yoga— “vino yoga,” “acryo-yoga,” and the “yoga rave”— that are softly implied through their inclusion and descriptions to also “get yoga wrong” to lesser extents. Recently in the UK’s Independent, the scholar Jim Mallinson contended, “(Yoga’s) such a big multifarious tradition you can find precedents for almost anything.” The variety and complexity of yoga’s long history ensures there is almost nothing today— naked yoga, yoga with dogs, yoga paired with cannabis— without a possible, tentative analogue from the past. More importantly, there is also no single, stable core of authentic yogic tradition that can be used as a stable reference point to adjudicate the legitimacy of contemporary yogic practice.

While anecdotes can provide intriguing or illustrative examples, there is a danger in holding up a select few and taking them as representatives of a larger phenomenon. Anecdotal examples often say as much about who has chosen them as those who are chosen. Sullivan’s understanding of contemporary yoga seems to be built partially upon his personal experience with B.K.S. Iyengar and his style of yoga— which may explain his fascination and amusement with the variety of less austere and more experimental forms of practice he describes— but mostly upon older textual sources such as the Yoga Sutra, Hatha Pradipika, Bhagavad Gita, and Shvetashvatara Upanishad.

An example of this is one of the most intriguing parts of Sullivan’s work on yoga in museums— “the idea that yoga practice in a museum setting enables one more fully to appreciate an artwork or an object of religious significance,” (45) a concept that is mentioned by several museums and Sullivan contrasts with earlier texts such as the Yoga Sutra and Gita, in which yoga was associated with a withdrawal from the senses, not a heightening or relishing of them. Again, there is a risk in taking statements by professional promoters of museums at face value. In light of how much yoga has changed over millennia from those texts to its contemporary practice, there is also something a bit unfair in judging the latter by the standards of the former. While many serious yoga teachers like to imagine a link between their practice and ancient Indian traditions, and museum organizers want to present the yoga events they host in a flattering light by gesturing to the same mythic source, this maybe be for critics and participants alike an observation of something simply not there.

One link between yogic practice and museums may come from viewing yogis, yoga teachers, and yoga promoters as performing work comparable to museums in the nearly century and a half history of modern yoga’s global spread. As museums curate, exhibit, frame, spotlight, and annotate their works to an anticipated audience, yoga has similarly been consciously displayed and promoted. Modern yoga’s history can be emplotted through the way it has exhibited itself.

The yogis witnessed by early Europeans in India aggressively displayed themselves in public venues with exaggerated poses and dress to receive alms. As accounts of yogis made their way to the United States at the turn of the century, the understanding of yoga as mental and magical was mirrored in the ways it was staged to a range of audiences: Vaudeville stage magicians adopted exotic Indian personae, several American-born magicians alternated between performing mentalist routines and offering teachings on yoga, and several Indian-born yoga teachers accentuated their public lectures with displays of magic, most notably Yogananda, who employed a claimed  Polish count and an Egyptian wonder-worker (born and raised in Italy) to demonstrate the magical powers of yoga.

During the interwar decades, it was common for the dozens of yoga teachers who travelled across the country to shift their public persona by altering their names and places of origin, adding real and fictitious titles and degrees, and adjusting their claims for what their yoga was and what it could do for its practitioners. One was more likely to find notices for yoga classes and lectures at this time in the entertainment section of the newspaper than alongside the church notices.

By the time of the Second World War, the work of Swami Kuvalayananda in India retailed in his visually-rich medical journal Yoga Mimamsa had begun to shift American ideas of yoga itself by framing the physical practice of hatha yoga with demonstrable scientific reasoning and practical, worldly results.  The success of his venture set the stage for mass market paperback books and television programs by American yoga teachers such as Richard Hittleman and Lilias Folan. Perhaps even more significant in yoga’s development than its adoption by much of the late-1960s Counterculture was its embrace by popular fitness culture that was facilitated by television and later millions of VHS tapes and DVDs with figures like Baron Baptiste and Rodney Yee and allowed for yoga to be done at any time in one’s own home.

Today, yoga as individual physical practice— done through the body for the body— can be seen in the ubiquitous manner of exhibiting the toned yoga body through photographs and social media, and how still images and video can function as credentials for many practitioners and instructors. Perhaps the strongest testament to the popularity of yoga is the number and variety of venues it is practiced in. It has become so commonly practiced that it can be found in health clubs, community centers, parks, private homes–and even in the occasional yoga class on display at a museum.

References 

[1] Catherine Albanese, “Forum: How I Changed My Mind,” for Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation, Vol. 14, No. 1 (Winter 2004), pp. 3-10.

Against Freedom: A Response to Finbarr Curtis

Finbarr Curtis’s recent book, The Production of American Religious Freedom (2016), defies easy categorization. Melding social theory, interpretive biography, revisionist intellectual history, literary analysis, film analysis, and the study of discourse and rhetoric, the book issues a much needed social constructionist inquiry into the largely taken-for-granted concept of “freedom” that circulates in conversations about Americanness and religiosity.

In his interview with Brad Stoddard for the Religious Studies Project (RSP), Curtis describes his volume of case studies that span some 200 years of American history. The case studies correlate with the book’s eight chapters, including essays on either individuals (Charles Grandison Finney, Louisa May Alcott, William Jennings Bryan, D. W. Griffith, Al Smith, and Malcom X), theories of science (Intelligent Design), or legal rulings (Burwell v. Hobby Lobby). Early reviews of The Production have described the book as lacking a guiding thesis. But in Curtis’s own framing, and as stipulated in the introduction, “This book argues that there is no such thing as religious freedom, or at least no one thing.” Religious freedom “is a malleable rhetoric employed for a variety of purposes” (2016: 2).

Curtis advances an argument, but one framed as a definite negative. Corralling the eight stand-alone essays into conversation with one another, the thesis of the book is that no coherent or identifiable “religious freedom” exists in a singular sense. Freedom is a highly contested category of American discourse. Curtis astutely makes his case, weaving together studies of revivalist technique, character development in fictional narratives, populist rhetoric laced with racist undertones, filmic explorations mournful of white victimization, shrewd Catholic politicians in a Protestant arena, black activist rejection of American liberalism. He also examines alternative philosophies of science that exploit secular distinctions between scientific and religious truths, between public and private, and tactical sacralizations of both corporations and property in effort to normalize moral preferences.

As important as the book is, some readers may find The Production’s data selection somewhat arbitrary. The book showcases eight compelling microstudies. Indeed, the historical protagonists of The Production’s disparate narratives were formidably influential cultural figures. But Curtis cautions readers from imagining that the studies “tell the whole story of American religious freedom.” He continues (5): “The selected case studies do not offer a balanced, exhaustive, or inclusive coverage of American history.”

Curtis’s choices of study intend simply “to highlight different conceptual problems in the study of religion.” Fair enough. But why these particular orators, novelists, preachers, activists, and politicians? Why not others? Why a Finney, Alcott, or Malcom X and not a Joseph Smith, Aimee Semple McPherson, Annie Dillard, or Ta Nehisi Coates? The brilliance of these RSP podcasts is that the scholar-author interview platform serves as a behind-the-scenes snapshot of academic production. RSP interviews helpfully extend, clarify, or nuance research projects as well as plot books and publications within their own genealogies of development. In his discussion with Stoddard, Curtis confirms the arbitrariness of his foci, providing a fascinating window into the history of the production of The Production itself. Taken together, the case studies “do not add up,” Curtis expresses. “The center does not hold.”

No guiding logic determined the data selection as he wrote the chapters individually and over an extended period of time. Nonetheless, some readers will want to hold the author’s feet to the fire and to press him to more thoroughly defend why the cases are important and what they say about America when brought together. The chapters are, after all, published in one volume and under a unifying title. Borrowing Jonathan Z. Smith’s phrasing, we might ask Curtis, “why ‘this’ rather than ‘that’ was chosen as an exemplum” or to articulate in a more sustained manner how these specific examples “serve as exempli gratia” (Smith 1982: xi) of the issue of religious freedom in America. As academic works go, the book is not a lengthy one. Might it have been one, two, or four chapters longer? Might it have been shorter? What other conceptions of freedom are in circulation?

On the chameleonic construct of religious freedom, Curtis rejects “any one explanation for how religious freedom works” and instead documents “how freedom has been contested, challenged, and transformed” (5). He challenges the “underlying epistemic unity” guiding the analyses of Americanist historians such as Tracy Fessenden (2007) and John Lardas Modern (2011). Instead, Curtis counters, religious freedom is “something fragmented, in tension, and under duress” (6). Yet, the emphasis on the contested and fragmentary status of so-called free selves in The Production also evidences a significant tension.

In its analysis of “not fully formed persons” (6) who are shaped, socialized, and cultivated by leaders, publics, ideas, social forces, religions, institutions, and collectives, the book is a decidedly Foucaultian project. Curtis’s depiction of religious freedom as emerging from conflicting, disparate sources makes sense in light of Michel Foucault’s model of power as dispersed, diffused, non-binary, and multidirectional (see esp. 1990: 92-96). The author’s emphasis on contestation and disintegration will be unsatisfying for readers who prefer black-and-white conclusions. The Production does not feign to identify discrete bastions of power or clear-cut social hierarchies in terms of dominance and hegemony.

On this issue, the point about other circulating discourses about religious freedom—i.e., those voices not included in Curtis’s collection of essays—is not tangential. Might the addition of other discourses change the contour of the book as a whole? Would the inclusion of additional perspectives on freedom have evidenced any sort of overlap, similarity, or center, thus challenging the book’s thesis of fragmentation? If one were to expand Curtis’s data set and to think in terms of cohesion of agendas and goals, would a dominant perspective on religious freedom emerge? Cannot even fractured ideological positions suspend differences of opinion in colluding to affect political change? I concede that conflict exists “all the way down,” as Curtis adroitly puts the matter in the interview, but am also interested in how competing narratives might play down difference in order to accomplish certain types of social, political, religious, and economic goals. We do get hints of this, such as in the collusion between evangelicals and Catholics in the Hobby Lobby chapter, but not overt theorization. My question to Curtis would be whether or not loosely bounded “centers” or even “publics” can emerge over time or via discursive circulation, regardless of their internally dialogic productions and contested constitutions.

In short, The Production is a stimulating, provocative contribution and required reading not only the book’s most immediate audience, Americanists in Religious Studies, but anyone interested in the subjects of social theory, human agency and constraint, religion, freedom, the reconfiguration of public and private domains, individuals and collectives, the formation of ethical selves, race and racism, literary and filmic production, economies of contestation, secularism, and American culture. I, for one, plan on assigning it in the next American Religions course I teach.

References

Curtis, Finbarr. 2016. The Production of American Religious Freedom. New York: New York University Press.

Fessenden, Tracy. 2007. Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular, and Literature. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1990. The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction. New York: Vintage Books.

Modern, John Lardas. 2011. Secularism in Antebellum America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Smith, Jonathan Z. 1982. Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Is Secularism a World Religion?

Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will know that we are not the biggest fans of the World Religions Paradigm. Indeed, it was James Cox’s excellent introduction to the topic back in February 2013, and the accompanying response that asked what Religious Studies should do “After the World Religions Paradigm…?” that prompted David and Chris, with some encouragement from Steve Sutcliffe, Russell McCutcheon and Craig Martin, to co-edit the volume “published in February 2016 with Routledge. Listeners will also be relatively familiar with the concept of “secularism”, “the secular” and so on – particularly from our podcasts with Joseph Blankholm on “Permutations of the Secular” and with Phil Zuckerman and John Shook on “Understanding the Secular“. Today we thought it would be an interesting exercise to weave these two strands together and rhetorically ask “Is Secularism a World Religion?” Discussion starts with the entanglement of the concepts ‘religion’ and ‘secularism’, a brief discussion of the problems associated with the World Religions Paradigm, and then moves to the pedagogical merits and challenges of teaching ‘secularism/s’ within a World Religions model. We hope you enjoy this experiment!


A transcription of this interview is also available as a PDF, and has been pasted below.


(pssst…check out these podcasts below too!)

Is Religion Special? A Critical Look at Religion, Wellbeing, and Prosociality with Luke Galen

Is religion ‘sui generis,? with Russell McCutcheon

Secular Humanism with Tom Flynn

The Secularisation Thesis with Linda Woodhead

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Pulp Fiction memorabilia, astronaut ice cream and more.


Podcast with Donovan Schaefer (28th November 2016)

Interviewed by Christopher R. Cotter

Transcribed by Catrin J. Sawford

Audio and transcript available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/is-secularism-a-world-religion/

Christopher R. Cotter (CC): Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will know that we’re not the biggest fans of the “World religions” paradigm. Indeed, it was James Cox’s excellent introduction to the topic back in February 2013 and the accompanying response that asked what religious studies should do after the world religions paradigm that prompted David and I, with some encouragement from Steve Sutcliffe, Russell McCutcheon, and Craig Martin, to co-edit the volume ‘After World religions’, published in February 2016.  Listeners will also be relatively familiar with concepts of Secularism, the secular, and so on, particularly from podcasts with Joe Blankholm on Permutations of the Secular and with Phil Zuckerman and John Shook on Understanding the Secular.  Today we thought it would be an interesting exercise to weave these two strands together and rhetorically ask, ‘is Secularism a world religion?’ So I’m joined today to discuss this question by Donovan Schaefer at the British Association for the Study of Religion’s annual conference at the University of Wolverhampton. Dr Schaefer is departmental lecturer in science and religion, in the Faculty of Theology and Religion at Oxford University and his first book ‘Religious Affects, Animality, Evolution, and Power’ was published in November 2015 by Duke, and has current projects on the relationship between emotion, science, and Secularism. So Donovan, first off welcome to The Religious Studies Project.

Donovan Schaefer (DS): Thanks a lot Chris, thanks for having me.

(CC): It’s a pleasure. So first of all, in the spirit of rhetorically asking, why are we even asking this question? I mean, Secularism is surely as far removed from the category of world religions as we can get, I mean…why are you asking it?

(DS): Yeah, definitely. A lot of recent research has actually challenged that seemingly common-sensical argument that Secularism is the opposite of religion. This has come from a lot of different directions, historical analysis, cultural studies, even a lot of work in philosophy of religion has started to challenge this idea that there is a clear line between the secular and the religious.

(CC): Mm. And, because they’re so intertwined as concepts even if you were to accept they’re-

(DS): -Right.

(CC): opposites, you’ve always got the study…the opposites within…you know, you can’t know what religion is without studying it’s supposed opposite anyway.

(DS): Yeah, absolutely.

(CC): So, perhaps it would be best to start, I mean, we’ve covered the Secularisation Thesis and a lot of these topics in other podcasts but we should start with that, so let’s paint the context in which this question is being asked then.

(DS): Sure, so the Secularisation Thesis really gets off the ground in the 19th Century and it comes from a variety of different quarters in the sort of, early movements in sociology, some of the early conversations that are being asked in science and religion, late 20th Century, sorry, late 19th Century, philosophy of religion, all of these different conversations start to thematise this idea that religion is a specific thing in the world that is gradually going away.

(CC): Mmm.

(DS): Now, in the 20th century you have thinkers like Max Weber in sociology who formalise this, they make it, they make it even more of a kind of, article of social-scientific faith that religion is on a trajectory of decline. What happens though, is that, later in the 20th Century, you have these historical moments that start to challenge the Secularisation Thesis. So something like the rise of the religious right in the United States in the 1970s in reaction to things like the civil rights movement, or the (05:00) Roe V Wade Supreme Court ruling. The religious right by the mid to late 1970s has become an incredibly powerful force and of course in 1980 you have the election of Ronald Regan with a specifically Christian agenda backing him. Or even across the world, something like the Iranian revolution in 1978 to ’79 that creates a new Islamic Republic where previously there had been a secular state. Stuff like this, it’s just not supposed to happen according to the classical Secularisation narrative. There isn’t supposed to be a return of religion, religion is supposed to be evaporating. And that puts a, it puts pressure on the classical secularisation narrative. So scholars throughout the 1980s, 1990s and up to the present have started to ask questions about the secularisation narrative and have come up with a very robust dialogue about what went wrong with the classical secularisation paradigm and what will replace it.

(CC): Mmm. And that also sort of introduces an ideological element this sort of idea-

(DS): -Right.

 (CC): –that the notion of secularisation is itself a form of ideology, it’s a sort of…thinking of the way things should be-

(DS): Definitely, yeah.

(CC): -it’s not mirroring reality.

(DS): Right.

(CC): So we’ve already alluded to even if these things are dichotomous, obviously it’s studying them alongside each other so…many of us at Universities will be familiar with the standard introductory sort of  ‘here’s a survey of world religions’ like ‘Religion 101’ or something. So I think one of the questions you’re really asking is should… where’s the place of the secular in that sort of Religion 101 class?

(DS): Yeah, exactly.

(CC): Is it a World Religion, so if we’re going to segue into that, we’re going to need to talk about what is a world religion first of all, and then ask why we might want to try and fit the secular into that mould.

(DS): I mean I should really be asking you that but my take on it is that the idea of World religions again has its emergence in the 19th Century, it comes out of these 19th Century thinkers like Max Muller who are interested in making the study of religion into a science, they want to formalize the study of religion and turn it into something that moves away from the obviously supremacist classification scheme that had been used previously in Western Europe. That said though, Tomoko Masuzawa in her book ‘The Invention of World religions’ is actually…even though she spends a great deal of time sort of researching the archives, trying to find out where this paradigm comes from. Even she ultimately says she doesn’t know where it comes from. It emerges obviously through a sort of confluence of different conversations that are taking place throughout the 19th Century and early 20th century. Where precisely it comes from is…is a little bit opaque. Regardless, what we’re left with by the mid to late 20th Century is an understanding of religions as discrete objects that can be studied in the world that have particular histories, they’re often organised under a particular heading. Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, and they’re very often structured around a specific text and a specific set of practices. And that structure is something that has become, at least at the level of the dissemination of religious studies in terms of undergraduate teaching, central.

(CC): Yes.

(DS): How did I do?

(CC): You did well, Sir, you did well. And it’s…Yes, so it’s sort of ubiquitous in undergraduate teaching and it’s ubiquitous in society, you know-

(DS): -Right

(CC): –we think about ‘what is your religion’ as a question that makes sense to people and then we have these certain silos-

(DS): -Right

(CC): -that we try and put that into. So yes, this has been…regardless of the origins of it this has been subjected to a number of critiques right so, it’s very Protestant, for example –

(DS): -Yeah.

(CC): –that idea of a text and it being about belief, you can only have one faith and all that sort of thing. This seemingly objective model sort of becomes Oh…that’s a little bit Protestant.

(DS): Definitely. And also something that I think we can see as being a by-product of (10:00) a particular idiom of 19th Century science. 19th Century science it’s the age of classification, it’s the age of grand theories, and that prison divides up the world in a particular way, and I think we can see the World religions paradigm as being a product of that particular way of thinking about the world.

(CC): Mmm. And that particular way of thinking about the world is deeply connected with Colonialism as well.

(DS): Definitely.

(CC): We were encountering others and then classifying them.

(DS): Absolutely.

(CC): ‘Classify and conquer’ was, I think was Max Muller’s term. And then of course it encourages this notion that there is a thing called religion that is made manifest in various forms.

(DS): Right.

(CC): So Russ McCutcheon would take great issue with that.

(DS): Yeah.

(CC): So given all that problem with the World religions paradigm why would we want to try and fit Secularism into that model. What would be the point, shouldn’t we just be jettisoning it?

(DS): Yeah, right. Well, I mean, I have a few thoughts on that. I am not…I’m not blanketly hostile to the World religions paradigm. I think that …I would give it about a six out of ten or a seven out of ten in terms of a pedagogical tool for explaining religion to undergraduates, especially if we start from the assumption that many undergraduates are only going to take one religious studies class. Is the World religions paradigm the best way of doing that? I’m not sure. But I don’t think that it necessarily is evil. However, I do think that it needs to be deconstructed from within. I think that precisely as we’re teaching students within this framework we need to be calling attention to the limitations of this framework. And part of the reason why I think it’s important to talk about Secularism within that context is because I think that it sets the stage for conversation about the World religions paradigm in and of itself.

(CC): Mmm. Yes, and the paradigm, you know, I think it was my colleague Kate Daley-Bailey described it as, you know, it’s a useful way of getting people from one side of the road to the other-

(DS): Absolutely.

(CC):– and if that’s what you need to do, you get them there. But you can also along the way be explaining to them why you chose that why of doing it if it wasn’t the best…

(DS): Exactly. Yeah, right.

(CC): Okay, so… let’s do this then. Let’s take the World religions model and let’s take the notion of Secularism. So how are we going to go about answering the question is it a world religion?

(DS): Definitely. So this is where I want to get a conversation started. I don’t have clear answers to this but what I sort of see us doing is shuffling the deck of Secularism studies into the deck of the World religions paradigm and just seeing what comes out on the other end. So I think that, in terms of a kind of structure, an overall architecture to this, there would be two ways of doing it. So Secularism studies scholars have roughly speaking two ways of talking about Secularism. One of the ways of talking about it is to say that Secularism is itself a particular iteration of Protestant Christianity, that we have the version of Secularism that we have because we are an offshoot of a cultural historical context that defined religion in a particular way. This goes back to something you were saying earlier about the inextricability of the category of religion from the category of the secular. It’s precisely because we see religion as something that is potentially private, individualised, and belief orientated that religion is something that can be relegated to the private sphere and therefore… and therefore secularised, according to the conventional definition.

(CC): Yeah. So we can see that there’s sort of like a Hegelian dialectic there even-

(DS): -Right.

(CC): -look to Feuerbach, and even… you know that we produce the… yeah the… As Christianity secularized… As Catholicism changed to Protestantism that started-

(DS): -Right.

(CC): -started a transition.

(DS): Yeah, absolutely. Or even like, one thing that historians and especially intellectual historians like Jonathan Z. Smith, Talal Asad, when he’s wearing that hat, or someone like Craig Calhoun, they really liked to emphasize the beginning of modernity and the immediate aftermath of the Protestant reformation.

(CC): Yeah.

(DS): So you could look at it theoretically in the way that religion gets defined as something that is personal rather than corporate. (15:00) You could look at it historically and the way that the resolution to the wars of religion that emerge in the aftermath of the reformation. The political…the political compromises that are made in that wake tend to make religion into something that is detachable, it’s something that is sort of, as Locke puts it, can be kept in the private sphere rather than the public sphere. All of these…all of these…all of these details of Protestantism, whether they’re sort of, part of the DNA of Protestantism or whether they’re sort of historical accidents that shoot off from Protestantism, they make up the coordinates of what would eventually become Secularism.

(CC): Okay.

(DS): So one of the ways that I could see us potentially integrating Secularism into the World religions classroom would be to talk about it as an offshoot from Christianity.

(CC): Mmhmm.

(DS): When we teach Christianity we teach Secularism as something that Christianity does in exactly the same way as you know, depending on how many days you have for teaching Christianity, you would give a sort of capsule history where you would talk about the great schisms, orthodoxy from Catholicism, Protestantism from Catholicism and then could also locate Secularism as, in a sense, another schism, as another permutation of Christianity that is part of the story of Christianity as a World Religion.

(CC): Mmm. And indeed, some of the annoyance that some proponents of Secularism feel with that approach to my mind indicates the very importance of taking that approach-

(DS): Exactly.

(CC): –because people don’t feel annoyance unless there’s some sort of deep connection to the category that you’re talking about.

(DS): I think that’s right and especially building on that if we’re talking about teaching students in a Western/Anglo/Euro/American context, we’re going to be teaching students who are going to be coming from a variety of faith positions some of whom will be coming from a non-faith position and probably see their status as mutual. They probably see the religions they’re looking at as in a sense, under glass, as something that is disconnected from where they are. And I think it’s important for those students to recognise that even the liberal Secular idiom that they might see themselves located within, has a history. That it, even it, the agenda of that is set by a particular set of Christian coordinates. Saba Mahmood has done some really excellent work on this, talking about the way that these sort of ostensibly secular legal codes throughout Europe actually privilege a kind of ghost of Christianity, that they are marshalled in the service of defending a sort of Christian heritage and they suppress other ways of being religious.

(CC): Yeah.

(DS): Even when they…they give Christianity a special sort of protection. A perfect example of this would be like the Burkini ban-

(CC): –Yes.

(DS): -that’s been happening in the summer of 2016 where Burkinis, this article of clothing that seems like it would be inoffensive enough has actually become offensive to French Secularism. Precisely because it is encoding a set of Christian presuppositions about ways that you are Secular and religious.

(CC): On that note I saw that, it was in the Guardian, they were quoting sort of, the ruling and it said it might offend the people’s (non) religious (non) convictions.

(DS): Exactly.

(CC): So your non-religious non-conviction might be offended by it, there’s something interesting going on there.

(DS): Exactly. I think that that’s exactly…I think that that’s a really important pedagogical manoeuvre  with students is showing them how even our own liberal democratic structures have a sort of conserved Christian genetic coding in them. That’s not to create an equivalence, that’s not to say that the difference aren’t meaningful, it’s just to say that we need to…we need to take a critical eye on our own intellectual inheritance rather than presupposing it’s neutral. So all of that would be one way that I would see Secularism entering the World religions paradigm… structure. I think there’s another way though, which would be equally interesting.

(CC): Mhhmm.

(DS): So one of the ways that scholars working in the mode of critical Secularism studies have approached Secularism is to say there is not just one Secularism.

(CC): Yeah.

(DS): There are in fact multiple Secularisms. This is the title of a book, an anthology (20:00) by Janet Jakobsen and Anne Pellegrini, ‘Secularisms’, and this, as I see it, is coming out of these two sort of, kind of, guiding lights of the critical Secularism studies field.  Talal Asad and Charles Taylor. So Talal Asad is very interested in this idea that the Secularism that we have is a result of a particular history and he says that rather than assuming that Secularism is going to be the same everywhere we anticipate a multiplicity of what he calls ‘formations of the Secular’.

(CC): Yeah.

(DS): There are different Secularisms that correspond to different historical moments, and they have different priorities, they have different coordinates, they have different outcomes precisely because their starting points, the sort of ingredients out of, the landscape out of which they secularise is different. So his sort of cardinal example of this is the difference between Christianity, especially Protestant Christianity and Islam. Protestant Christianity de-ritualises religion so its version of Secularism is a version of Secularism that doesn’t pay a lot of attention to ritual, doesn’t pay a lot of attention to practices. Asad will say, you know, when we have formations of the secular emerging out of Islamic contexts we need to be attentive to the way that they are…that they are…that they always keep an eye on practices. And the version, the formations of the Secular that emerge in these other contexts will have a different configuration. Charles Taylor calls this…he calls this ‘the myth of the subtraction story’. The myth of the subtraction story is this idea that once you get rid of religion, you’re left with a neutral landscape.

(CC): Yeah. Indeed, yeah, I’ve always thought of using a quotation from my supervisor Kim Knott who just says that there is no neutral point from which to observe religion-

(DS): -Right.

(CC): -we’re participants in that discourse. So would the logical outcome of that then be that if you were incorporating that Secularism(s) into the World religions classroom that you would sort of pair off-

(DS): -Yeah.

(CC):- you would teach Christianity and Christian Secularism, Islam and Islamic Secularism.

(DS): That’s what I’m thinking of. I’m, again, I’m presenting this conversationally, this isn’t something that I’m, I’m at a point where I could publish it but I think that we need to consider this possibility that the best way to teach Secularism within the context of the World religions classroom would be exactly this pairing, to say that Buddhist secularisms, Christian Secularisms, Jewish Secularisms, even we might want to get more specific than that, like Jewish Secularism in the United States, very different from Jewish Secularism in Israel. Islamic Secularism in Saudi Arabia is very different from Islamic Secularism in Iran. To thematise this I think would be a really productive way of getting Secularism into the conversation, but also raising this idea which I think is one of the challenges that you’ve, that you’ve sort of discussed very ably in your own work with Secularism, which is the way it creates a sort of silo model as you said it-

(CC):- Mhhmm.

(DS):- of these religions being sort of ahistorical, sort of fixed compilations of ideas and practices that can be very easily, sort of clinically diagnosed as you know-

(CC):- Mhhmm.

(DS): -you know like, okay, you’ve got, you’ve got your five pillars, you’ve got Islam. That’s not actually adequate, that’s never been adequate for teaching what religion is, but it’s particularly inadequate in the context of a situation, a global situation now, of accelerating mediatisation and globalisation where transactions between different traditions are becoming more and more…more and more rich. They’re just more and more…the dynamic between different traditions is becoming deeper and deeper. And I think that emphasising that localism of Secularism would be a way of raising that to the surface.

(CC): Mhhm. And this is exactly the sort of thing that we should be discussing at this conference, the theme being ‘religion beyond the textbook’.

(DS): Exactly.

(CC): So, conclusion then. So, are you going to do this?

(DS): Yeah, I think I will. I’m not in a situation right now where I teach world religions but as I think about, as I think about that syllabus next time that that portfolio falls into my lap it’s something that I’m actually quite excited to do, precisely because of the way that I think (25:00) it, it reciprocally calls attention to the limits of both the world religions paradigm, which I think is a useful, if limited, pedagogical tool, and the Secularisation narrative.

(CC): And how do we avoid…one of the main problems with subversively employing anything, so subversively employing the world religions category, is that your critical intent isn’t really communicated to the students, again as you say if they’ve come for a one semester course and then they’re gone, they’ve gone in and they’ve done the world religions course and they’ve come out. So say they’ve come to this course and they do a world religions and Secularisms thing and then they come out with this sort of very strict siloed model on Islamic Secularism is this, Christian Secularism is that, what, is there a danger there, going down that route, you could be sort of reifying the very distinction that we…

(DS): Yeah. I think all discourses have dangers. All discourses are going to be provisional ways of organising the abundance of information that is the world. And they’re always going to have certain limitations attached to them. I think that the best that we can do is inhabit those discourses with a sort of deconstructive eye. And my hope is that among other things I think that there are lots of ways of sort of reciprocally critiquing the world religions paradigm while teaching it. I’ve tried to do that in the past when I’ve taught world religions. I think that this method of introducing Secularism as a legitimate object of study within the architecture of the religions, world religions paradigm could be a way of amplifying that technique.

(CC): Yeah. And, you know, you can only resist the dominant expectations of your students so much before they stop coming to your classes and also I can see this being a really good exercise perhaps for higher level students, just to pose the question that we’ve asked-

(DS):- Right.

(CC): –is Secularism a world religion, set it as an essay topic or something, I can see some really excellent discussions happening there.

(DS): That would be fascinating. I mean, I think too, like, I absolutely agree with what you’re saying, that pedagogically that, I mean, there’s only so much we can do to sort of…there’s only so much we can do to sort of destabilise the way that students think, but I’m also…I’m also a firm believer in the pedagogical value of inhabiting something from the inside in order to destabilise it.

(CC): Mhhm.

(DS): Rather than standing so far outside of it that students can’t necessarily see what you’re doing.

(CC): Yeah.

(DS): And my hope is, and again I mean, this is just an optimism, it’s not something that I’ve actually put into play, and really I see it more of just a conversation starter in pedagogy circles than anything, and my hope is that this practice of introducing Secularism as an object of study within the context of the world religions paradigm would be a way of inhabiting that paradigm from the inside and leaving students with a very vivid impression of its own limitations.

(CC): That is a wonderful way to end. Bang on half an hour, so thanks so much Donovan.

(DS): Thanks so much Chris, this was wonderful.

(CC): Well, I very much enjoyed recording that interview with Donovan and we both were in the session where he presented that paper at the BASR.

David Robertson: Yeah I was going to mention that, there was an odd moment there. It wasn’t the best attended of sessions, I don’t think it got the audience it deserves let’s put it that way, but I think there was eight or nine people in the room of whom two, two of, were myself and Chris. And he immediately showed a picture of our book, ‘The RSP Volume’ you know, After World Religions, which you should read if you haven’t, and started attacking our argument, which was-

(CC): He didn’t attack our argument!

(DR): I thought it was wonderful, I loved every minute of it [laughs].

(CC): But yeah, it was one of those lovely moments that was sort of the first proper one in my “career” in quotation marks. And so hopefully the catchy title there will have dragged in some listeners, you might have thought ‘what, what, that’s ridiculous!’ But hearing Donovan talk about it as an interesting thought experiment, as a way of dismantling in a way the hegemony of the paradigm itself.

(DR): Indeed, and problematizing the term and its application and the rest of it, and Chris and I have talked about an After After World Religions, be it a journal or a second volume of the book, and Donovan is going to contribute to that (30:00) hopefully, if and when it happens.

(CC): You hear that Donovan? You’re under contract now.

(DR): He gave me a verbal agreement and in Scotland that’s legally binding. It was in Helsinki.

(CC): And in Wolverhampton. Same difference.

(DR): Was it?

(CC): Yes.

(DR): Oh. Either way, I’m Scottish so that’s binding.

[they laugh].

(DR): I think we may be showing too much of the man behind the curtain this week.


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