Orsi, Habermas, and More

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Leerom Medovoi
Orsi, Habermas, and More

In this first post, I’d like to offer a brief summary of and critical reflection upon Robert Orsi’s “Snakes Alive: Religious Studies Between Heaven and Earth.”  Orsi’s essay was originally selected by the U.S.-based research teams as a foundational text for RelSec because it seemed to speak directly to the research project on “currencies of the religious and the secular,” specifically on the flow of religious and secular discourses into and through one another.


Orsi’s essay criticizes what it understands to be the “liberal paradigm” of American religious studies as practiced in the academy, one that makes a normative moral distinction between “good religion” and “bad religion.”  Good religion is universalizing, mature, civil-minded, usually enlightened Protestantism understood to be compatible with secular values, while “bad religion,” exemplified in the essay by snake-handling evangelicals, actually includes the “world of sects, cults, fundamentalisms, popular piety, ritualism, magic, primitive religion, millennialism, anything but ‘religion.’” (188).   Religious studies in the U.S. is thus pitted always against a repugnant religious other.


Orsi draws upon the criticisms of this “liberal paradigm” mounted paradoxically by both evangelical and postcolonial critics.  For the evangelical, the liberal academy only studies religions which are already “dead” or that it can “kill” in the process.  For the postcolonial critics, liberal religious studies is bent on installing a hierarchy of the Christian west and the rest that authorizes the rationality of colonial power.  Ultimately, however, Orsi finds both the evangelical and postcolonial criticisms of religious studies to be limited by their own moralizing self-conceptions at the expense of their respective others.   Such scholarship will still “wind up where they started.” Between the “liberal paradigm” and its critics, Orsi therefore proposed a “third way” that is open to self-transformation or destabilization in the encounter with a repugnant other.


Orsi’s essay could be said to be profoundly ethical in its concerns: it asks what our responsibility is to the other and to the openness in ourselves that this responsibility entails.  As I noted earlier, Orsi’s essay was chosen by the American teams because it does seem to be shaped profoundly by the unavoidable awareness of the long historical interpenetration of religion and secularism in the American context.  Orsi’s tacit conception of the public stands in contrast to that of Jürgen Habermas’s in the lecture on “post-secularism” that was selected by our colleagues on the Utrecht team.  For Habermas, the public sphere is a decidedly secular institution that, only now in the era of the New Europe, must engage in post-secular problems.  While I find Orsi’s conception of the potential comingling of religion and secularism more open than that of Habermas,  Orsi only considers our ethical stance in such a world, not on the direction of its politics. I’d be very interested therefore in pushing the insights of Orsi’s essay toward Habermas’s avowedly political concerns.


Habermas urges that we seek a more permeable membrane for the secular public sphere, one in which the discourse of religious persons can be translated into secular terms, and therefore be made audible.  For him, this is a paramount issue in an era of Muslim immigration to Europe, for example.  What Habermas seems unwilling to consider is under what conditions secular discourse might need to be translated into religious terms as part of its political efficacy?  I assume that this is so because Habermas wants to preserve the secular rationalist intention of the public sphere, so it can accommodate but not be animated by the religious.  I would submit that this secular presumption is a mistake; the entire tradition of western political theology suggests that the efficacy of state and governmental power connects to a kind of vacilliation between secular and religious framing.  Without some recognition of how political theology has constituted the public sphere, Habermas would seem to be at risk of reinscribing the “good religion”/”bad religion” hierarchy addressed by Orsi.  Where good religion would be distinguished by its willingness to undergo a secular translation, while bad religion would be viewed as indifferent or worse.  The risk here is that one ends up inadvertently with a politics under which religion is admissible only when it renders itself servile to secular power: the state, governmentality, or the market.

john vignaux smyth
Slavoj Zizek and Jean-Pierre Dupuy

The Portland group plans to invite Zizek and Dupuy on the relation between religion and the secular, if they will come, together to Portland sometime after the New Year. We will hence also add these authors' several directly relevant works to our own group's reading list and discussion topics, hoping that others in Holland, Israel, and China may also be interested.

Lee's post concludes with a hope that we can move from ethics to politics (he was talking specifically about Orsi's ethics and Habermas' politics). Zizek as a communist atheist--but also a "Pauline" one (to cite his own self-description)--certainly makes politics central; indeed he himself ran for high politial office in Slovenia.

Since the perhaps rather too "Euro-centered" Habermas (as both the Utrecht and Arizona posts suggest) raises the question of which European thinkers, if any, provide a more profound political understanding of the religion/secularism tension and interchange, it is useful to turn to Zizik and Dupuy as examples (directly related via Zizek's many citations from Dupuy) of other kinds of European thinking on the subject. 

Zizek's claim to "Pauline" atheist communistic universalism (influenced in part by Alain Badiou's book on Saint Paul and the "foundation of universalism") may perhaps help us to clarify what is at stake in the claim to "rationality" or "universalism" (however Western or otherwise). His dialogue with, and somewhat surprising praise of Dupuy (since Dupuy is associated with the theory of religion proposed by Girard) may also complicate our understanding of what is at stake in both authors' conception of the relation between religion and secularism, particularly as it devolves on politics. Dupuy's understanding of the relation between economics and the sacred, for example, may also add something important to the mix.

john vignaux smyth

Karen Seat
Preliminary Reflections from Karen Seat

Karen “Preliminary Reflections from Karen Seat”

Lee, thank you for your helpful discussion of the Orsi and Habermas readings.

I will begin my reflections with a favorite quip of my mother's—who is herself an interesting case study of blurring the lines between "religious" and "secular" worlds, as her life journey has gone from 38 years in Japan as an employee of the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Society to a Missouri-based LGBT activist in her retirement (among many other identity markers); she loves to say "I'm only intolerant of intolerance." This speaks to my interest in examining whether or not it is possible for certain forms of secularism (and liberal forms of religion compatible with secularism) to be in conversation with certain forms of religion grounded in premodern worldviews, when their basic ground rules can be so different. It is a Catch 22—how can liberal traditions embracing pluralism engage with religious traditions that revile that very pluralism? How can liberal traditions tolerate those who reject their ground rules of tolerance?

In an attempt to be respectful of all forms of human meaning-making, Orsi challenges religious studies scholars to move beyond explicit or implicit value judgments regarding "good religion" and "bad religion." While I do agree that this makes for effective ethnographic scholarship, rendering rich and engaging presentations of a wide variety of human experience, I am not sure this is always politically helpful. The kind of religious studies scholarship Orsi promotes can help us to understand and appreciate the inner logic and human complexity of any religious group—and perhaps that is indeed the main purpose of religious studies scholarship. But does this form of scholarship move us any closer to getting a handle on the very real political tensions between liberal democracy and certain forms of religion?

Lee ends his introductory reflection here questioning Habermas' attempt to open a space for the religious in a "secular" public sphere; Lee writes, "The risk here is that one ends up inadvertently with a politics under which religion is admissible only when it renders itself servile to secular power: the state, governmentality, or the market." Whether we think it is admissible or not, religious forces hostile to liberal secular traditions are in the public sphere shaping politics.

I will continue to reflect on this, and post more when I can.

Snake Handlers and Headscarves

Many thanks to Lee and Karen for getting the ball rolling with the Orsi chapter.

First off, I enjoyed reading this chapter - I wasn't previously aware of it, and though I’m not particularly fond of disciplinary navel-gazing, Orsi’s substantive formulations track very nicely the work I've done in my recent book Human Rights Law and the Marginalized Other. 

Lee and Karen nicely lay out the risks of liberal, secular notions of the public sphere when confronting the religious Other.  From Karen’s post, “The risk here is that one ends up inadvertently with a politics under which religion is admissible only when it renders itself servile to secular power: the state, governmentality, or the market."  Religion must be sanitized, that is, cleansed of its otherness, to be made acceptable.   

Habermas, Arendt, and others hold that the public sphere is a neutral canvas on which a wide variety of voices can express themselves, because it only requires minimal ground rules for admittance and participation.  Nonetheless, those very ground rules and their enforcement contain what Derrida and Benjamin would call a founding violence.  For Habermas and Arendt, an Other is allowed to speak publicly as long as they are rational, use proper justifications for their arguments, and are tolerant of other viewpoints.  Unfortunately, those terms are defined and enforced by specific actors who themselves are framed by specific political and social forces. 

Thus, a public sphere will insist upon a specific type of rationality, specific forms of justification, and specific types of tolerance, all the while tacitly accepting its own forms of irrationality, its own forms of mystical justification, and its own intolerance. 

In one chapter of my book I critique Seyla Benhabib’s Habermasian analysis of l’affaires du foulard (the headscarf affairs) in France and Turkey.  Benhabib, echoing Habermas, holds that the school-aged girls could wear headscarves in public schools if they can provide a good justification that is acceptable to the French public sphere.  Of course, calling on teenage immigrant girls to justify their clothing choices to a (mostly hostile) society is close to absurd.  Meanwhile, there is no need for the French public sphere to justify its own a priori exclusionary policies.  Tacit social biases are revealed when the Stasi Commission, created by the national government to examine this issue, heard testimony from 150 witnesses, only one of whom was a woman who wore a headscarf.  The Stasi Commission is perhaps an extreme example of a priori excluding (what I call cauterization) of certain voices from the public sphere, especially in the deliberations about who to include in the public sphere.  Granted, the young Muslim girls are not de jure completely removed from the public sphere but they will be on a de facto basis if they are unable to attend school, or must attend school under conditions where key parts of their identity are hidden. Thus, an already marginalized group is marginalized further by the ground rules of the supposedly secular public sphere. 

This sort of cauterization (marked by branding, exclusion, and moral desensitization) seems to be operative in Covington’s account of the snake handlers, especially Punkin’ Brown.  After being marked as semi-human, literally branded as a snake, Covington is able to dismiss his ideas as irrational, and to no longer care enough about him enough to continue his ethnography.  The ethnography ends when the subject is no longer human.  The question that follows of course, is how those with hegemonic positions in the polis, can truly listen to the marginalized voices, without merely incorporating them/sanitizing them into the hegemonic discourse.   At the same time, we must deal with Karen’s questions about to what extent we should tolerate the intolerant.   To address such questions, I will think more deeply about Orsi’s proposed third way. 



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