Abstract: In this essay I review three important volumes for the field of secular studies: Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age, Rethinking Secularism, and The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere. All three volumes explore the nature of the secular and the status, role, and possible futures of religion in our late modern, globalized world. The volumes present 34 essays by 30 authors representing seven disciplines, and at least six end games. For some, questions of religion-secular entanglement are a historical matter and the task is to map intellectual and ideological trajectories. A second purpose is to empirically document the complexities of particular religion-secular entanglements in particular socio-cultural locations. For others, the remit is theoretical, to discern a conceptual agenda for the ongoing study of religion-secular entanglements. Others are more philosophical, chasing the existential consequences of secularity. A fifth end game is applied in nature: reflections on how political actors might best engage the religious and the secular in acts of governance and international relations. Finally, there are normative voices, those seeking to name what a good, productive religion-secular entanglement ought to look like. Taken together, the volumes mark a thriving, mature field of scholarly inquiry: secular studies has come of age.
Abstract: In this article I explore the relationship between the secular and ‘cultural’ Catholicism in France through the lens of a contemporary art exhibit displayed at a new project of the French Catholic Church. Visitors’ varied responses to the exhibit, I argue, ultimately reinforced the organizers’ claim that the activities that occur within this ‘non-religious’ space of the French church are self-evident aspects of a broadly recognizable and ‘secular’ French or European culture.
Publisher’s Description: In this work of qualitative sociology, Anna Strhan offers an in-depth study of the everyday lives of members of a conservative evangelical Anglican church in London. “St John’s” is a vibrant church, with a congregation of young and middle-aged members, one in which the life of the mind is important, and faith is both a comfort and a struggle – a way of questioning the order of things within society and for themselves. The congregants of St John’s see themselves as increasingly counter-cultural, moving against the grain of wider culture in London and in British society, yet they take pride in this, and see it as a central element of being Christian. This book reveals the processes through which the congregants of St John’s learn to understand themselves as “aliens and strangers” in the world, demonstrating the precariousness of projects of staking out boundaries of moral distinctiveness. Through focusing on their interactions within and outside the church, Strhan shows how the everyday experiences of members of St John’s are simultaneously shaped by the secular norms of their workplaces and other city spaces and by moral and temporal orientations of their faith that rub against these. Thus their self-identification as “aliens and strangers” both articulates and constructs an ambition to be different from others around them in the city, rooted in a consciousness of the extent to which their hopes, concerns, and longings are simultaneously shaped by their being in the world.
Abstract: This article examines blogger and political pundit Andrew Sullivan’s performance of gay Christian identity through his weblog, The Dish. Through a reading of the repetitive and collaborative nature of The Dish as a medium of cultural production, I argue that Sullivan’s gay Christian performance is made legible by how the religious and secular are articulated and negotiated through the site of the body in American culture. Sullivan’s performance both reproduces and resists religious and secular normativities while at the same time produces a singular identity with distinct political and social advantages. Among other advantages, examining how the religious and secular are articulated through everyday discourse and embodied performance exposes some of the political investments in this articulation and provides a space to consider the stakes of scholars’ own investments in ‘secular’ knowledge.
Abstract: Religious plurality has implications for religious organisations active within the public realm. Using semi-structured interviews, I examine how Christians and Christian organisations are framing faith discourses so that they resonate with religiously neutral discourses dominant in the public sphere. There are indications of a shift towards the use of profane terms instead of sacred terms to explain aspects of the Christian faith and Christian teachings of love, compassion, and belonging are amplified to counter criticisms that Christianity is a threat to liberal rights and beliefs. This article conceptualises these discourses as two social action frames: the ‘Love Frame’ and the ‘Inclusivity Frame’. I do not refute claims that the social significance of religion is declining but argue that Christians and Christian organisations are working within the confines of secular discourses to disseminate their messages in order to build credibility as egalitarian public service providers.
Abstract: Secular humanists in the United Kingdom regularly think about, talk about, and act in relation to religion, especially Christianity. In this article, I address the relationships between secular humanism and Christianity by drawing on fieldwork with a local humanist group affiliated with the British Humanist Association. In line with many moderns, as indeed with many kinds of Christians, these secular humanists often want to sever ties with the past—in this case, with what they understand to be Christianity’s religious elements. At the same time, they want to preserve those aspects of Christianity they understand to be human, not religious. These engagements with and articulations of Christianity can be helpful not only for understanding contemporary secular-humanist formations but also some of the debates that have framed the anthropology of Christianity over the past decade.
Publisher’s description: Singing the Right Way enters the world of Orthodox Christianity in Estonia to explore musical style in worship, cultural identity, and social imagination. Through both ethnographic and historical chapters, author Jeffers Engelhardt reveals how Orthodox Estonians give voice to the religious absolute in secular society. Based on a decade of fieldwork, Singing the Right Way traces the sounds of Orthodoxy in Estonia through the Russian Empire, interwar national independence, the Soviet-era, and post-Soviet integration into the European Union. Approaching Orthodoxy through local understandings of correct practice and correct belief, Engelhardt shows how religious knowledge, national identity, and social transformation illuminate how to “sing the right way” and thereby realize the fullness of Estonians’ Orthodox Christian faith in context of everyday, secular surroundings. Singing the Right Way is an innovative model of how the musical poetics of contemporary religious forms are rooted in both consistent sacred tradition and contingent secular experience. This landmark study is sure to be an essential text for scholars studying the ethnomusicology of religion.
Abstract: This chapter examines the spiritual motivations and impacts of voluntarism in the USA through an investigation of international short-term mission (STM), a paradigm involving 1–2-week trips that amalgamate leisure tourism, evangelism, and voluntary development work and are carried out among Christian and non-Christian communities. Mainline and nondenominational bodies sponsor STM, but it is most popular among evangelical Christians. I argue that STM’s effects, while partially explicable in terms of the social capital that it may (or may not) engender at home and in mission fields, include challenges to secular norms and institutions. STM, especially as carried out among non-Christian communities, provides (1) experiential contexts for imagining a world in which divinity is reckoned as immanently and sensorially present, and (2) communicative tools for enacting that world. It thus may rework the categorical boundaries between secular and religious practices and spaces at home, as well as on mission sites. As such, STM can be understood as an artifact of an emergent postsecular imaginary—a characterization that signals the limits of the secularization thesis and the recognition of significance of plural religiosities, spiritual orientations, and faith commitments in social action and institutions. This chapter is based on ethnographic research in southern California conducted from 2009 to 2012.
This past summer began with a United States news cycle dominated by a single story. The U.S. Supreme Court voted in a 5-4 decision in favor of Hobby Lobby and its evangelical owners, the Green Family, supporting their claim that to provide certain forms of contraception through their health insurance plan would violate their religious conscience. Conservatives and many religious groups declared the decision a victory for religious freedom. Progressives, many women’s advocacy groups, and many supporters of the Affordable Care Act decried this the inappropriate imposition of religious views on individuals, and a failure of the state to protect the rights of women to comprehensive health care.
While both sides generally argued their positions based on liberal principles of individual rights, there were more complex questions in the background: what is the legitimate role of religious views in the secular public sphere? What is properly a “religious” belief and what is its relationship to economic, social, and political actions? Where are the limits of religion in a secular state?
Working from a different set of conversations around global Islam and secular Europe, these questions are taken up in one of the more productive reads I have enjoyed this year. Beginning as a conference at the Townsend Center for the Humanities at the University of California, Berkeley in 2007, Is Critique Secular? lived for a time as a publication of that conference. After some years of reaction and discussion, the authors decided to re-frame the collection with a new preface by the authors, and published as a mutli-authored book by Fordham University Press in 2013. The book now consists of chapters from two anthropologists – long-time scholar of secularism Talal Asad and comparatively more recent voice Saba Mahmood – paired with an introduction by Berkeley Professor of Political Science Wendy Brown, and response from Judith Butler, a prominent feminist scholar and social theorist. Asad and Mahmood each provide short replies to Butler’s discussion, constituting the last two chapter of the book. Although the entire volume comes in at a slim 145 pages, the format provides for vigorous interaction. Going far beyond the cases on which the authors primarily rely, the questions of secular society and its relation to religion as practice and concept are taken up with vibrancy that will make this volume a key conversation for anyone interested in the nature of secularism and liberal society in a rapidly changing global context.
Abstract: This dissertation explores the reconfiguration of Syriac Orthodox liturgical tradition among Aramaic-speaking Christian refugees in the Netherlands. Under the pressures of Dutch integration policy and the global politics of secular recognition, the Syriac liturgy is rapidly losing its significance as the central axis of social life and kinship-relations in the Syriac Orthodox diaspora. As such, it has become a site for debate over how to be religiously, culturally, and ethnically distinct despite the narrative binary of Christian Europe and the Muslim Middle East that dominates Dutch multiculturalism discourse. Every week, young Syriac Orthodox women and men congregate at their churches to practice singing the liturgy in classical Syriac. What they sing, and how they decide to sing it, mediates their experiments in religious and ethical reinvention, with implications for their efforts at political representation. Singers contend not only with conditions of inaudibility produced by histories of ethnic cleansing, migration, and assimilation, but also with the fragments of European Christianity that shape the sensory regime of secular modernity. Public debates over the integration of religious minorities illuminate this condition of fragmentation, as well as the contest over competing conceptions of ethical personhood inherent in the politics of pluralism in Europe.