Abstract: This article cautions against an ‘earnest turn’ within the anthropology of religion, pointing up the tendency for anthropologists of religion to over-emphasize the role of discipline in the construction of the religious subjecthood over mechanisms of leniency and compromise. Taking the Catholic Church as an example, I show how discipline andlenience have been co-constitutive of Christian subjectivities, as different movements in a gigantic choreography which have spanned and evolved over several centuries. By looking at certain technologies of lenience that have emerged over the course of Catholic history, I trace an alternative genealogy of ‘the Christian self’; one in which institutional growth, power, and survival depended not only upon the formation of disciplined bodies and interior dispositions but also upon a carefully managed division of labour between clergy and laity, as well as upon a battery of legal commutations and practical avoidances aimed at minimizing the effort and pain of the ascetic approach. Taking the concept of ‘lapsedness’ as cue, I ask to what extent the ‘lapsed Catholic’, rather than indexing an ever-increasing tendency towards secularism, might already be contained and accounted for within Catholicism as a living, evolving form.
By Brian Howell (Wheaton College)
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.
By: Jon Bialecki (University of Edinburgh)
On its face, Brent Nongbri’s book, Before Religion, is seemingly not about Christianity, but about religion more generally – or more specifically, about the category of religion more generally. Nongbri’s argument is that religion is not a human universal, but rather construction that has both a history and a genealogy (to the degree that those are two separate things). To Nongbri, this is important because treating religion as a universal has costs in both how the thought of the analyst ends up structuring whatever object he or she is addressing, and in how work is presumably consumed by readers, many of which will come to the term with a lot of baggage attached.
Nongbri avers that religion as currently understood is marked by a set of invariant features: it is about internal experience, takes the individual as the primary unit, is oriented around ideas and sacred texts, is separate from institutions such as government, is effectively private, and is something that is a response to a universal human need – and is therefore presumably also universally present as well. Finally, religion forms identified bodies – the ‘world religions’ such as Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity – which are all fungible to the extent that they are formally homologous. Because of this common structure, the relation between religion in the abstract and religions in particular is equivalent to the genus/species formulation, or to put it in a metalanguage borrowed from linguistics, religion is the type, and various ‘religions’ are tokens.