There will be no church bells for us, no hymns, no doting vicar to join us together, and tell us when we are allowed to kiss. Because no church would have us. Too many miles on the clock, you see. Too much life lived.
I thought that I would regret that too. The lack of the sanctified. I thought that would be a definite damper on the proceedings.
But when she takes my hand, somehow it doesn’t matter anymore, because I can sense something sacred in the small secular room with the women in their hats, the men in their suits, the children in what my mum would call their Sunday best.
Everybody smiling, happy for us, white lilies everywhere, their scent filling the air.
There’s no place more sacred than this place.
And if anyone is blessed, then we are blessed …
And to tell the world – the best is yet to come. What could be more hopeful than that? What could be more right? More sacred? …
Just a simple ceremony joining together two complicated lives.
(Tony Parsons, Man and Wife, 2003, p. 5)
Functionally Secular / Substantively Nonreligious: Scottish Students, their Secular Sacreds, and the Sacred Secular
The next batch of conferences are coming up… and I am finally attempting to really push the boat out with my material. I have just had the following abstract accepted for the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network‘s Conference in London, 4-6 July 2012:
Functionally Secular / Substantively Nonreligious: Scottish Students, their Secular Sacreds, and the Sacred Secular
The academic study of religion and related categories is populated with reified, mutually constitutive, and superficially synonymous dichotomies – religion/secular, sacred/profane, sacred/secular, religion/nonreligion – yet each serves a distinct, contextually dependent purpose. In this presentation I shall utilise a case study amongst notionally ‘nonreligious’ undergraduate students, in combination with a discussion of these dichotomies, to problematise the complex relationship between nonreligion and the secular.
When asked about their beliefs and ‘religious’ identities, many of these students were substantively nonreligious (utilising Lois Lee’s understanding of nonreligion as defined primarily by the way it differs from religion). This nonreligiosity manifested itself in divers ways, dependent upon idiosyncratic interpretations of ‘religion’, and always linked to particular ‘secular sacreds’, which corresponded to five distinct-yet-overlapping nonreligious types. Individual narratives exemplify pragmatic negotiation of nonreligious identities, ‘fluctuation’ in nonreligious beliefs, and the rhetorical creation of religious ‘others’ against which substantive nonreligiosity was constructed.
In terms of salience and practice, many of these students appeared functionally secular i.e. ‘being nonreligious’ was generally unimportant and had little impact upon day-to-day life. However, the interaction of religion with personal sacreds precipitated the recognition and reaffirmation of subjective nonreligiosity. In many cases, the sacred in question was the ‘secular’ itself, which was profaned by the incursion of religion into individual narratives.
This overview of the complex dynamics between these terms provides empirical clarification of the relationship between nonreligion and the secular, and demonstrates that nonreligion is a substantive phenomenon in its own right and, as such, an important component of secular society.
I have yet to (as promised) present a blogged version of my presentation on New Atheism, Open-Mindedness and Critical Thinking (Lancaster University, 3 April 2012; University of Edinburgh, 25 April 2012). This WILL happen… in fact, I am in discussions with a colleague regarding developing this presentation as a book chapter… watch this space.
For now, here’s a picture of me just about to deliver that presentation:
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 firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com by 15 September, 2011. You should consult the AAG website (www.aag.org) for online registration and abstract submission instructions.
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.
I would totally be attending this conference if I weren’t on my way to present at another conference in the US. For those in the UK, it will definitely be worth checking out!
According to a report in yesterday’s New York Times that is making its way around the internet this morning, this fall Pitzer College will become the first institution to create a department of secular studies and offer a major in secularism. Phil Zuckerman, a sociologist of religion, proposed the department as a way of concentrating study on modern society’s shift away from religion as its primary organizational structure. The Times quotes Zuckerman as saying that “There are hundreds of millions of people who are nonreligious. I want to know who they are, what they believe, why they are nonreligious. You have some countries where huge percentages of people—Czechs, Scandinavians—now call themselves atheists. Canada is experiencing a huge wave of secularization. This is happening very rapidly.”
At HUP over the last handful of years we’ve developed an essential little list of books on this very topic. Consider this our pitch for course adoption.
Our list on secular studies is anchored by Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, published in 2007. The book begins with a simply phrased question that captures the spirit of inquiry behind Pitzer’s new endeavor: “What does it mean to say that we live in a secular age?” More simply asked than answered, of course.
Taylor notes three senses in which modern Western society could be said to have become secular. One applies to public spaces or social spheres, where behavior and interactions were once guided by religious principles but have now been ostensibly emptied of God. As Taylor notes, this sense of secularization is not incompatible with a continued individual belief in God and embrace of religion. So, a second sense he then identifies is that of a falling off of religious practice and belief.
A Secular Age mostly concerns itself with a third sense, which for Taylor consists of “a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace.” To Taylor this entails a fundamental shift in what it means to believe, which occurs when belief itself becomes merely an option. From the Introduction:
So what I want to do is examine our society as secular in this third sense, which I could perhaps encapsulate in this way: the change I want to define and trace is one which takes us from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others. I may find it inconceivable that I would abandon my faith, but there are others, including possibly some very close to me, whose way of living I cannot in all honesty just dismiss as depraved, or blind, or unworthy, who have no faith (at least not in God, or the transcendent). Belief in God is no longer axiomatic. There are alternatives. And this will also likely mean that at least in certain milieux, it may be hard to sustain one’s faith. There will be people who feel bound to give it up, even though they mourn its loss. This has been a recognizable experience in our societies, at least since the mid-nineteenth century. There will be many others to whom faith never even seems an eligible possibility. There are certainly millions today of whom this is true.
The book can fairly be said to have galvanized scholarly inquiry into secularism, and any new work on the subject must reckon with Taylor. One we published ourselves is a collection called Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age, which we’d informally considered something of a user’s manual for A Secular Age. Edited by Michael Warner, Jonathan Vanantwerpen, and Craig Calhoun, and with contributions from Robert Bellah, Wendy Brown, Taylor himself, and nearly a dozen others, it’s another volume that should make it into the hands of Pitzer’s majors.
We also recently published Steven D. Smith’s The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse. Smith argues that public discourse has been drained of force and authenticity because religion was formally forced out but is then usually “smuggled” right back in. If we’re to remain a society that engages in profitable open discussion, Smith says, we’ll have to figure out a way to free discourse from the constraints imposed by secularism.
Forthcoming this fall we have two new books that will surely find a place within any serious curriculum on secularism. One is Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society. The book was meant to be a new history of the Reformation, but instead became a much larger examination of its unintended consequences. All of the pluralism that we see in society today, much of which is evoked by the word “secular,” traces back five hundred years to the late Middle Ages, says Gregory. More on this one in the coming months.
Also this fall we’ll publish Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution. Like Gregory’s, this book might seem more suited to a traditional religion department than one devoted to studying secularism, but surely that line will prove itself to be one not easily drawn. As Zuckerman told the Times, part of the impetus for creating Pitzer’s new department was the now-huge number of people who consider themselves atheists. Though atheism and secularism aren’t exactly the same thing, clearly the growing embrace of the one leads us to a society more characterized by the other.
The surge in Atheism owes much to the writing of the so-called “New Atheists,” among them Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens. Where the New Atheists cast religion as a war-mongering belief system that should be disproven and then discarded, Bellah synthesizes biological, historical, and sociological research to offer an understanding of what religion actually is and how it developed and changed over time. What’s unique about the book is its focus on human evolution and the development of capacities like storytelling, dance, and mythmaking, which evolved nearly simultaneously around the world into systems we’d now recognize as religion. So, at this world historical moment when so much of Western society seems in a rush to leave religion behind, Bellah, one of our greatest sociologists of religion, has taken the time to reexamine where it came from. So much of what he finds will challenge the very foundations of today’s Atheism that, like A Secular Age, Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution will be critical for understanding the West’s relationship with religion today.
So, secularism studies… surely there’s a syllabus to be made in here somewhere, no?
A lengthy post on the terminology behind ‘postsecular’…
Recently, a somewhat opaque term found its way onto the front page of The Immanent Frame in the title of <a title=”Post-secular development <Daromir Rudnyckyj’s pieceon “post-secular development.” This term, “postsecular,” also came up a few months ago in Nathan Schneider’s <a title=”Endgame capitalism: an interview with Simon During <interview with Simon Duringas well as <a title=”postsecular <a string of other entriesin this blog over the past few years. A group of contributors to The Immanent Frame, including its founding editor Jonathan VanAntwerpen and editor-at-large David Kyuman Kim, are even involved in editing a volume called The Post-Secular in Question. Apparently the term is quickly becoming a keyword for scholars of religion and public life. So, what is it all about?
The concept is not just all over The Immanent Frame. It has also appeared in the titles of about forty books, most in English and German, the majority of which were published within the past five years. Additionally, the concept features prominently in seventeen dissertations indexed by ProQuest, which largely reflects dissertations completed at North American universities. More than half of these dissertations were deposited after 2007. And that is to say nothing of the dozens of articles in scholarly journals that are an important part of the discussion of the postsecular, or the approximately half-dozen academic conferences held on both sides of the Atlantic in the last three years. These numbers indicate that both established and emerging scholars are staking their work on the concept of the postsecular. Finally, illustrating a broader trend in intellectual debate, significant interventions in the discussion have also appeared online, especially at Eurozine, ResetDOC, and on this very blog…. <Continue>
A massive, thought-provoking quotation from Timothy Fitzgerald, with which I couldn’t agree more:
“From our own postcolonial standpoint, it should be easier for us to question the idea that, whereas other, less-advanced peoples are permeated with ritualism and therefore with a ‘religious’ worldview, we in Anglophone cultures do not ‘do’ ritual, except minimally in church. I ask, rhetorically, but with serious theoretical intent, why should the legal procedures and taboos surrounding our courts and ideals of justice, our separation of the branches of government, our concept of private property, the practices of the stock exchange and the capital markets, the traditions of the civil services, be considered ‘nonreligious’, but the practices of divination, or the Islamic Shari’a, or the generic potlatch of various indigenous American peoples, or Buddhist meditation be assigned to the ‘religion’ basket? Why are transcendental values such as the belief in progress, or individualism, or nationalism, or the democratic virtues of ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’, the practice of secret ballots and elections of governments, which many millions of people died to establish and institutionalise, not included in books on ‘religion’? Why should state institutions that defend the freedom of Americans such as the Pentagon, the White House, and the Congress be treated as nonreligious rather than ‘religious’ or ritual institutions? Is the queen of England, who is supposedly head of a secular state, but who is also the head of a national religion, to be treated as a religious or a secular functionary? Is the raising and lowering of a national flag of religious or secular significance? It seems we are trapped by language when we consider these issues. For, arguably, they are all both religious and secular, and in that sense neither, for they undercut this grand dichotomy. We need to dissolve these reified binaries if a new paradigm is to have a chance to get articulated in public discourse.”
Fitzgerald, Timothy, 2007. Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 38.