The Orfalea Center for Global & International Studies, Santa Barbara
Rethinking Secularism – A Seminar Discussion
Friday, November 18, 2011 – 12:00 noon, Orfalea Center seminar room – 1005 Robertson Gym
Craig Calhoun, President, Social Science Research Council, and Prof of Sociology, NYU
Jonathan Van Antwerpen, Editor-in-Chief, The Immanent Frame, SSRC online magazine
Mark Juergensmeyer, Director, Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies
Benjamin (Jerry) Cohen, UCSB Political Science
Wade Clark Roof, UCSB Religious Studies
Giles Gunn, UCSB Global & International Studies
The speakers will discuss the background and content of the multi-year project of the Social Science Research Council on the crisis of secularism that resulted in their recently published, co-edited volume Rethinking Secularism (2011 Oxford UP). The project (and the volume) involved an interdisciplinary group of leading theorists and scholars, including the philosopher Charles Taylor, the literary theorist Talal Asad, the political scientist Peter Katzenstein, the sociologist Jose Casanova, and many more. The project focused on the central issues of how ”the secular” emerged historically, how it is now constituted and understood in different ways around the global, and how it has presented an analytic challenge for the social sciences, the humanities, and international affairs.
I’ve just been reading the following and I thought it pretty much summarised the problems for religion inherent in religious diversity:
“This is the cancer of choice. To the extent that we are free to choose our religion, religion cannot have he power and authority necessary to make it any more than a private leisure activity. Far from creating a world in which religion can thrive, diversity and competition undermine the plausibility of religion”
From Steve Bruce, 1999. Choice and Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 186
If I weren’t broke, I’d definitely consider making the trip down from Edinburgh for this one. Callum Brown has some interesting ideas regarding the role played by gender equality in the seeming demise of the mainstream church in Britain. You should check out the book mentioned below if you can…
Callum Brown (author of ‘The Death of Christian Britain’ amongst other things) will speak to the Modern Cultural History Seminar, in the History Faculty at the University of Cambridge, on Wednesday 12 October, at 5pm, in the Panelled Combination Room, Gonville and Caius College.
Title: ‘The people of no religion: the demographics of secularisation in the English-speaking world since c.1900’
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!
I have just received the following through a mailing list, so I don’t have a link to the source. However, it seems incredibly bizarre. Whilst I can see the potential benefits – I have witnessed some utterly atrocious ministers in my time – it seems like an avenue which could allow certain fundamentalists to organise mass votes to oust more liberal clergy, for example. Just one more example of ‘Rational Choice Theory’ and ‘pick-and-mix’ religion, I think. As every other sector of our society becomes dominated by feedback forms and ‘satisfaction’, it was only a matter of time before churches jumped on the bandwagon…
Is this a good thing? What does it spell for the future? I haven’t decided yet…
Ecumenical News International
17 August 2011
German website allows congregations to rate clergy
Berlin (ENInews)–Does your pastor set a glowing example to his or her flock? Or does the herd tend to drift? A new website launched in Germany allows churchgoers to rate their “shepherd’s” performance on worship, youth work, work with seniors, credibility, and engagement with current issues. “The idea behind Hirtenbarometer [shepherd barometer] is that pastoral work should be and often is qualitative,” one of the website’s founders, Andreas Hahn, said in an email interview. “We wanted to create … an open platform for dialogue between priests and the members of congregations.” [391 words, ENI-11-0432]
Contributors include: R. Scott Appleby, Talal Asad, Rajeev Bhargava, Craig Calhoun, José Casanova, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, Mark Juergensmeyer, Peter Katzenstein, Cecelia Lynch, Richard Madsen, Alfred C. Stepan, Charles Taylor, and Peter van der Veer.
“Much is being written about religion and secularism, but, from the very definition of the terms on down, there is little agreement. This books brings us not consensus but clarity about what the issues are and how the major schools of thought can be understood. It is an important step in the right direction.”
—Robert N. Bellah
“This volume brings together a variety of analytical perspectives on secularism, staging an important intervention into multiple disciplines on a topic that is both timely and urgent. Rethinking Secularism has the virtue of orienting newcomers to the stakes of the current debate while challenging others to push beyond their assumptions and received frames of reference. This is an important addition to the field of secular studies.”
The Immanent Frame is a collective blog publishing interdisciplinary perspectives on secularism, religion, and the public sphere, and a production of the Social Science Research Council.
The Social Science Research Council is an independent, nonprofit international organization founded in 1923. It nurtures new generations of social scientists, fosters innovative research, and brings necessary knowledge to bear on important public issues.
For anyone vaguely interested, I have another publication. It’s freely available to download. If you are interested in the wide variety of research being currently conducted into Nonreligion from a wide variety of disciplinary perspectives, then I suggest you give it a look.
I have also added this paper, and another, to my recently created Academia.edu page.
I just wanted to draw attention to two interesting articles that I have read this morning, although I do not have time to respond.
Firstly, R Joseph Hoffman’s piece on “Movement Humanism“. A few choice quotations would be:
George Bernard Shaw once drunkenly said that “the conversion of a savage to Christianity is the conversion of Christianity to savagery.” (Shame on him for not knowing that he was impugning the Irish as well as first century Palestinian Jews.) It is true, in the same sense, however, that the theft of the name “humanism” by atheists who think it has a nice ring is the diminution of a major chapter in the history of human learning to a press release.
Movement humanism as it has evolved is not really humanism. Or rather, it is a kind of parody of humanism. A better name for it would be Not-Godism. It’s what you get when you knock at the heavenly gate and no one is home.
It’s a rant of disappointment camouflaged by a tributary note to science for having made the discovery of the great Nonbeing possible. It’s structured outrage towards the institutions that have perpetuated belief and promises that (as many atheists sincerely believe) the churches have known to be empty all along.
At its best, it is a demand for honesty which, for lack of a unified response from “religion,” seems to require commando tactics.
The other is a freely accessible, academic article from the Journal of Religion and Society, entitled “Explaining Deconversion from Christianity” by Bradley R. E. Wright, Dina Giovanelli, Emily G. Dolan, and Mark Evan Edwards. The passages which particularly struck me were:
It is not clear how well these intellectual and moral concerns map on to a rational choice perspective on religion. One could argue that they are implicitly linked to costs and benefits; for example, the forced acceptance of non-scientific ideas might pose a psychological cost. Likewise, the perceived injustice of hell might cause emotional distress. Nonetheless, in discussing these concerns, the [deconverts] focused on issues of moral right and wrong rather than cost and benefits. They write as “truth-seekers” more than “benefit-optimizers,” taking perhaps more of a philosophical approach, rather than economic, to religion.
Christians are not usually drawn to other belief systems; rather they are put off by the Christian God. They are not lured away by non-believers; rather they are frustrated with believers. Deconversion, therefore, usually represents more of a desire to leave Christianity than an attraction to its alternatives.
I hope you take the time to read the full articles if you seem at all interested.
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?
“Understanding Secularism” to be Focus of New Trinity College Website
Site will facilitate the Dissemination of Course Materials and Research
HARTFORD, CT, May 13, 2011 – The Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture (ISSSC) at Trinity College today launched a new Website, Understanding Secularism (www.understandingsecularism.org). Its aim is to provide a better understanding of the roles and forms of secularism around the world by disseminating material to educators, researchers, students, and interested members of the public.
The new website is designed to be a teaching and learning resource. It will offer diverse media and materials, including academic course syllabi, articles, bibliographies, research reports, and essays by ISSSC-affiliated scholars and others. Audio-visual and photographic material will help enliven and elucidate the study of secularism.
Course outlines and syllabi are varied, ranging from “Liberty of Conscience and the Creation of Secular Society” to “The Dao of Secularism: Political Transformation and Secular Values in 20th Century Asia.” The articles and reports are equally diverse, and cover such topics as “High School Students’ Opinions about Science Education,” “Evolution in Nature and Society,” and “Anxiety in the Age of Reason.”
Algeria, Australia, Canada, Denmark, Egypt, France, Great Britain, Greece, India, Iran, Israel, Italy, Lebanon, Spain, Turkey and the United States are among the countries that have material devoted to them.
“Understanding Secularism is all about providing objective information,” said ISSSC Director Barry A. Kosmin. “Our aim is understanding, critical analysis, and education – not advocacy.”
Continuing, Kosmin said, “The topic of secularism spans many areas of study and so requires an interdisciplinary approach. Because of this, the site will take a cross-cultural approach that offers a wide range of scholarly and ideological perspectives. The idea is to make the website a vital forum for the exchange of knowledge and ideas among educators, researchers, journalists, policy makers, and concerned citizens.”
Around the world, secularism is in the news. Whether it is the decline of organized religion in Europe, cultural battles over reproduction and the family in Latin America, or political change in the Middle East, secularism plays a central role in the discussion. It is a perennial issue in India, where the term is used to refer to ideological tolerance and religion-state separation.
In the United States, the percentage of secular American adults (as indicated by those who reported no religious identification) almost doubled from 8 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2008, or from 14 to 34 million people.
Yet, despite the importance of secularism in contemporary discourse and society, there has been no single place to go for information about it. Understanding Secularism will be that place.
The ISSSC, which has a global research agenda and strong international ties, was established in 2005 to advance understanding of the roles played by secular values and institutions in contemporary societies. Nonpartisan and multidisciplinary, the ISSSC conducts research, helps develop course curricula, and serves as an educational forum through lectures, seminars, and conferences.