Postsecular cities in an age of austerity: religion, spirituality, economic restructuring and urban change – a critical dialogue

Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers, New York City, NY (24-28 February 2012)

Conveners: Chris Baker (University of Chester, UK), Justin Beaumont (University of Grongingen, NL)

AAG Sponsorship – GORABS (Geographies of Religion and Belief Systems Speciality Group)

This session addresses a series of overlapping agendas that have emerged with growing force and significance in the early 21st century.

First, the global re-emergence of religion as a political and cultural force within the public domain has gained considerable attention across the social sciences and the humanities. Even within the ‘secular West’ the significance of religion as a tool of government social policy has increased, while patterns of immigration and the religious practices they bring to European cities problematize a straightforward ‘religion in decline’ thesis. Meanwhile, the growing re-enchantment of the West, as evidenced in the rise of spiritual practices and interest in non-material goods (such as wellbeing and happiness) has led to a vigorous debate about the emergence of a postsecular public space. Jurgen Habermas for example suggests the West has reached a point where ‘a postsecular understanding of society as a whole in which the vigorous continuation of religion in a continually secularising environment must be reckoned with’ (2005: 26). Charles Taylor amplifies Habermas’s ideas to the effect that the current secular age is characterized by the notion of choice. Although the main social and cultural frameworks in the West have moved from a Christian to a secular one, nevertheless religious belief persists and mutates but now within the context of multiplicity.

Second, the global recession affects everyone but clearly some parts of the world are adversely affected more than others. The escalating cost of essential commodities, the devastating impacts of climate change, competition for land and resources, and growing social and economic inequalities is placing huge strain on existing infrastructures of support, be they families, communities, the voluntary sector, local governments or nation states. Attention has therefore turned to alternative sources of resilience and values and the search is now on for sustainable, more just and more holistic forms of political economy within an age of austerity that creates the conditions for both human and non-human flourishing. The search for new partnerships based on more ethical forms of political economy and society clearly involve an increased role for religious individuals, institutions and communities to bend the public and urban agenda in this direction via practices and discourses that are both traditional but also groundbreaking.

Finally, when one reflects on these two drivers of public discourse (i.e. the postsecular and the age of austerity) then one observes that it is in urban spaces that the mutating relationships between the religious and the secular, the sacred and the profane, the public and the private and the growing inequalities between rich and poor are most starkly evidenced. There have also been, clearly, a number of spatial restructurings undergone by towns and cities since the early 1990s as the global economy shifts towards the production of knowledge, information, innovation and virtual forms of capital transfer and investment. Several of these religious, political and economic changes have been analysed in a number of recent publications (see Molendijk, Beaumont and Jedan 2010; Beaumont and Baker 2011; Atherton, Graham and Steedman 2010) in which the following features take a prominent role:

· The complexities of secularism as well as religion;

· The contested nature of religious space within secular jurisdictions (e.g. planning and urban management);

· New spaces of belonging, becoming and participation by religious groups within urban contexts;

· The new sacrality of the postmodern city;

· New practices of social care and justice by religious and spiritual groups;

· Theological critiques and visions for a better (or good or “just”) city;

· Crossovers (or rapprochements) between religious and secular discourses and practices on ideas of the common good, happiness and wellbeing and human/non-human flourishing.

Within this session we would therefore welcome papers from a range of interdisciplinary and critical perspectives on the following topics:

· Religion and political economy

· The role and form of religious buildings within urban space;

· Spiritual capital, moral freighting and neighbourliness;

· Resilience and addiction;

· Urban justice and social welfare;

· Symbolic representations of the sacred;

· Religious Identity and experiences of belonging;

· Counter-hegemonic spaces and alternative structures;

· Everyday religion in the mundane.

If you would like to participate in a session, please send a 200 word abstract (listing name, affiliation and contact details) as well as your PINs to both chris.baker@chester.ac.uk and j.r.beaumont@rug.nl by 15 September, 2011. You should consult the AAG website (www.aag.org) for online registration and abstract submission instructions.

References

Beaumont, J. and C. Baker (eds) (2011) Postsecular Cities: space, theory and practice, London and New York: Continuum.

Atherton, J. Graham, E. and I. Steedman (eds) (2010) The Practices of Happiness: political economy, religion and wellbeing, Abingdon: Routledge.

Habermas, J. (2005) ‘Equal treatment of cultures and the limits of postmodern liberalism’, Journal of Political Philosophy, 13(1): 1-28.

Molendijk, A., Beaumont, J. and C. Jedan (eds) (2010) Exploring the Postsecular: the religious, the political and the urban, Leiden: Brill.

Taylor, C. (2007) A Secular Age, Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press.

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About Chris

Scholar of religion/nonreligion... PhD Student (Lancaster University), blogger, singer, actor, thinker... Northern Irish living in Scotland. Co-founder of The Religious Studies Project. Director at the NSRN. Baritone masquerading as a tenor. Vegetarian for no particular reason.

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