Inaugural Event Summary

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Peter Figler
Inaugural Event Summary

From Thursday, October 24th through Saturday, the RelSec Inaugural Event was held at the University of Arizona campus. Scholars from Utrecht University, Tel Aviv University, Portland State University, the University of Navarra, and the Chinese University of Hong Kong joined a team of academics from the University of Arizona for three days of discussion, including a keynote conversation between distinguished international scholars Janet Jakobsen and Mayfair Yang. The Event closed with an all-day conference on Saturday, with each program site discussing their interactions with the foundational readings and projecting their future participation.

In the Friday Conversation, open to the public, Jakobsen and Yang spoke at length on the project theme of religion, secularism, and political belonging, with notable moments focusing on contemporary secular formations being co-opted by religious institutions and bleeding over into political arenas; the importance of religion for bringing societies together, and the lack of connection between the destruction of religions and corresponding shifts in ethical behavior; and the complexities of multiple relationships of religion and secularism as objects of study, which should necessarily also include discussions of capitalism, gender, class, race, and sexuality, among other interconnecting discursive fields.

The Saturday conference opened with the participants from Tel Aviv discussing Martin Buber’s The Kingship of God.  The conversation explored notions of religious groups that do not accept state authority as final and instead regard the state as a tool in the accomplishment of divine historical themes. The secular claim of separation of church and state was intended to guarantee certain limits on the state in modern thinking, with the imagination of a complete merging of these concepts that limits the actual state.

The Arizona and Portland teams, comprising the U.S. project site, led a discussion of the group’s examination of currency as a related theme. While the attention to currency drew questions and sparked a lively debate, the context is intended to be understood in the linguistic sense, analyzing ways in which religious, political, and secular formations flow across borders as well as noting parallels between religious rituals and those of the market.

The Hong Kong group discussed historical formations of “official” religions in China, which were constituted by elites and rulers who did support the ritualistic worship of heavenly bodies; consequently, as Chinese state history progressed, ritual and religious discourses remained within aspects of governmentality, though importantly only as long as they did not interfere with state function. A discussion of what makes the sovereign secular followed, leading into the Utrecht presentation which focused on Habermas and the cultural embedding of religion. As Jakobsen and Yang had alluded to the previous evening, progressive images of tolerance are purported to be understood only through secular values as realized in Judeo-Christian structures.

The conference concluded with a coordination session in which participants discussed: the long and short term futures of the project, including the CHCI meeting in June 2014 in Hong Kong; the particularly meaningful key terms “political” and “belonging” with regard to what kinds of relations comprise them as well as the impact of being “born into” or choosing a religion; and an increased focus on participating on the project website. Lastly, some questions for discussion on the website as well as moving forward with the project were identified, including: What are the different modes and skills of cultural and political belonging? How is religion constructed, as well as processes of political inclusion and exclusion? What pitfalls exist in utilizing the terminology and framework of liberal Protestant heritage? What new approaches can we create and what is the potential for mutual understanding and rewriting traditions of culture? Can we examine the ways in which what we call religious practices and discourses are found in the manner in which the state and/or the market articulate themselves?


RelSec is comprised of five partner sites situated in universities around the world. The participating centers conduct parallel research projects whose exact shape reflects the distinct missions of the centers and research profiles of the teams. All will include some combination of public presentations and events, faculty workshops, and/or curricular initiatives, such as the development of team-taught courses on secularism, religion, and political belonging.
Click on the icons below to link to each partner’s individual websites.