Political Belonging Reading #1: Bryan S. Turner

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Ernst van den Hemel
Political Belonging Reading #1: Bryan S. Turner

Download the text by Bryan Turner by clicking on this link

Hello all!

To continue our discussion I suggest setting up ongoing discussion of texts that might inform our understanding of Political Belonging. (I have suggested as much here)

If I my suggest a starting point, I would like to propose reading Bryan Turner's essay 'Acts of Piety: The Political and the Religious, or a Tale of Two Cities', which can be downloaded here. As this is a suggestion my question to you is twofold: do you think this is a fruitful way of continuing our discussion? And, would you know a text to read after this one?

As I am reading this text for an article that I am writing, I will share some of my thoughts on this text with you at the end of this week.

Why this text?

This article has been published in Engin Isin's collection of essays called Acts of Citizenship (2008), which in its entirety might offer an interesting discussion about how we can think about political belonging. The collection as a whole is aware of many of the pitfalls we discussed during our workshop (to see political belonging, secularism and religion as a sort of universal matrix that can be applied everywhere and anytime). Instead, what is offered is an understanding of political belonging that is dynamic, immanent and creative. By the way, 'citizenship' is explicitly not connected to a certain political status, but to a mode of acting (that, btw, includes those who are not officially counted as citizens). Or, to quote a definition from the first essay by Isin himself:

'we define acts of citizenship as those acts that transform forms (orientations, strategies, technologies) and modes (citizens, strangers, outsiders, aliens) of being political by bringing into being new actors (...) through creating new sites and scales of struggle' (39)

Bryan Turner builds upon this definition and applies it to the domains of religion and politics. This leads him to a discussion of amongst others, the domain of the body, the domain of everyday norms and practices, and a discussion of the crisis in secularism in general.

In light of some of the problems that were voiced concerning the notion 'political belonging' ( Is it not too much focussed on a realm of 'politics' over and against, say, realms of culture?), it might be interesting to read this text and see whether it could serve as a basis for a more nuanced and critically engaged understanding of political belonging. Or, is this text still too much steeped in the secular divide between religion and politics?

I would love to hear your thoughts!



Pooyan Tamimi Arab
A Tale of Two Cities is too easy
Dear friends,
I found reading Bryan Turner's "Acts of Piety: The Political and the Religious, or a Tale of Two Cities" disappointing. In general, I thought that the he makes too many claims in one chapter and founds his arguments often confused or generalizing. It was disappointing because I am ordinarily impressed by Turner's erudition. Below, I give a few examples.
1. Turner describes "the liberal solution of private religion" and the idea that the "liberal view" considers the "civil sphere as a secular domain". Which liberal thinker or which idealtype of secularism does he have in mind? French? American? Dutch? John Locke defends the right to "public worship" in his Letter on Tolerance, not only for fellow Christians but also for Jews and even Muslims, the so-called "Mahometan". It was also during this period in the 17th century that the first purpose built synagogue of London was constructed. The philosophers at the time who wanted to control public religion more strongly were for example Hobbes and Spinoza, not your typical liberals. 
The complexities of liberalism only increase in the 18th century and later. For example, the Dutch liberal Thorbecke, who single handedly wrote the Constitution of the Netherlands in the 19th century opposed the discrimination of Catholics who were not allowed to hold processions due to the Protestant hegemony.
Turner's text becomes more confused when he jumps from "liberal views of the public sphere" (p.130) to "republican secularism" (p.131), as if it is perfectly clear what these terms mean.
2. A second objection I have is the about the vague comments about reform movements within Islam. It is not clear what Turner means exactly and this leads to huge claims such as that reformists are trying to establish "Islam as itself a public sphere". This is a highly questionable description of the term "reform", and does not fit with the aspirations of for example the Iranian reform movement that wants to make the Iranian state less theocratic. Moreover, I don't think that what is going on in Turkey can be described as the Islamization of the public sphere. Such huge, sweeping statements do not capture the historic and contemporary complexity of e.g. the meaning of the veil in Turkey. 
3. I also think we must be careful when we describe Islam as a religion of praxis and as not belief centered. I am suspicious of accounts that portray Muslims as only concerned with the body and with practices and Protestants as rational and concerned with beliefs. This is a very superficial separation of Muslims from Christians and forgets that just like Protestants and Catholics, different groups of Muslims have had complex histories in which both praxis and rationality were fundamental. The philosopher Averroes, to whom a reference is made in connection with piety as virtuous Aristotelian practice, was in fact one of the most staunch defenders of logic and rationality, and wrote a treatise against religious critics of philosophy. Beliefs mattered. So did praxis.
4. A final problem I encountered in the text of Turner is his emphasis on the divergence of the city of God from the secular city. To put it briefly: absolutists cannot be good citizens. But is this really true? Didn't Socrates refer to a notion of an absolute and transcendent conception of the good to justify his resistance to the Athenian state, and to defend his good citizenship (e.g. in the Apology)? While the divergence between the city of God and the city of the citizen can occur and does occur (Coming from Iran, I am all too aware of this fact and I have encountered this in other forms in my own fieldwork among young Muslims in the Netherlands), it is not necessary the case. What about all those Muslims who think they can be both pious and liberal, religious and secular? Is it totally out of the question that they could be better citizens thanks to their religion, that their could be a convergence of acts of piety and citizenship? I recently visited the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. The Christian singing in honor of Marthin Luther King was a good reminder for me that citizenship and religion do not always exclude each other. 
Pooyan Tamimi Arab
Ernst van den Hemel
Meeting on Turner's Tale of Two Cities @ Utrecht


Reactie Turner:


Pooyan Tamimi Arab, a member of the Utrecht team, expresses here some reservations about Turner's text that were discussed during our meeting of last week.

Allow me to sketch some lines that were discussed:

  • First of all, the beginning of Turner's text appears to be quite productive. Especially the role of embodied practices that would generate agency seems to be an appropriate addition to contemporary debates that all too often remain stuck in binary oppositions between secular political agency and religious pietism. In the beginning of the article, it seems that we are going to read about 'how the political city relates to the city of God' (122).

  • However, as the article progresses, members of the Utrecht team have expressed doubts as to whether the article succeeds in avoiding the pitfalls of a too clean separation itself. Especially when the article ends with the following citation: 'The greater the piety of the social group, the greater its social distance from other groups (…) Acts of piety and acts of secular citizenship in effect create two separate cities – the inspirational and the secular city. The tensions between the inspirational city and the political city may not constitute a clash of civilizations, but do point to the intensification of religious identities within the public domain' (135).

  • Turner's article seems to turn away from the emphasis on acts by folding acts back into an already existing conceptual paradigm. The result might be an obstacle to reading certain acts that do not fit into this framework. For instance, we wondered how acts of religiously inspired citizenship, or acts that betray the religious inspiration of a secular public sphere might be analyzed with Turner's text. For instance: what of the critique of secularism voiced by a.o. Asad and a host of others that secularism might harbour a specific connection to protestantism? (Which in light of the rise of contemporary new right and Islamophobic movements in Europe forms an important topic) Or, if we recall Turner's statement about social disconnection between religious cities and secular cities ('the greater the piety (…) the greater the social distance') what of religious acts that are always already interacting with society (i.e. not just humanitarian work, but also the religious inspiration to work with others)?

In general, we, as a research group based in the Netherlands, wonder how Turner's text would relate to the advent of militant secularism, or how it would relate to a more nuanced understanding of the interconnections of religion and secularism.

The result, as Pooyan has also expressed, is thus a number of questions:

  • a more nuanced understanding of the intricate connections between liberalism, secularism and religion. What liberalism are we talking about? What religion?

  • A more situated understanding, that could accommodate more pluriform apparitions of religion and secularism to make sense of acts of political belonging.

  • To conclude, Turner's text predominantly seems to challenge us: what approaches would work better? Would we know of approaches that are more effective in focussing on acts of citizenship? 






Markus Balkenhol
Dear all,

Dear all,


the following may come across as what in the Netherlands is referred to as 'mustard after the meal' (a superflous exercise), since I agree with and/or reiterate some of the points made by Pooyan and Ernst. But perhaps I can give a slightly different slant to some of the arguments and hope to contribute to the discussion nonetheless.


I think Bryan Turner makes an interesting proposal to regard acts of piety and acts of citizenship in tandem. As he argues, '“politics” in the everyday world finds its parallel in pious acts regarding the everyday practices of religion relating to food, sex and domestic arrangements' (122). For him this raises the question of 'how acts of piety relate to acts of citizenship'. In a world that is fast becoming polarized politically along religious fault lines, this seems to me a question that is both pressing and analytically fruitful. I agree with Turner that a thick description, to use Clifford Geertz's term, of people's everyday lives in contemporary states can provide important insights for a better understanding of the political and the religious today (it is, however, regrettable that Turner does not in fact provide such a description).

Analyzing acts of piety (and that would include such acts in all religions, not only Islam) as embodied acts, of course, is an analytical move of fundamental importance. Nor is this proposal Bryan Turner's – other scholars of religion have long since pleaded for a more embodied perspective on piety. A similar argument can be made for acts of citizenship. In fact, whereas Bourdieu provides a class analysis, his concept of habitus, which is well-known to anthropologists, can be extended to analyze for instance national cultures, as well as racial or gender formations. Acts of piety and acts of citizenship arguably have a lot in common when looked at from a perspective of embodiment. Indeed, I would argue that they are entwined.

Where I part ways with Turner, then, is in the distinction he makes between the religious and the political as two parallel but different, even opposed 'cities'. It is a pity that Turner concludes his article with the assertion that 'acts of piety and acts of secular citizenship in effect create two separate cities – the inspirational city and the secular city.' (135) While Turner does argue that 'we can no longer isolate or separate piety and acts of citizenship' (133), he goes on to describe religion and the (nominally) secular state as comparable, but parallel entities: 'a secular network society sits alongside and in tension with the city of God' (133/4). Several points can be made in relation to this assertion.

(1) In particular when looking at the everyday as a form of embodied praxis, acts of piety and acts of citizenship become intimately entwined, rather than separate 'cities'. In many Western European countries, for example, the headscarf has demonstrated how nominally secular politics have become enmeshed with acts of piety to the extent that wearing or not wearing the headscarf has become a political symbol as much as a symbol of piety. A similar argument can be made about, for instance, the refusal of some parents in the so-called Dutch Bible-belt to send their children to school or participate in vaccination programmes orchestrated by the state. Acts of piety, I would argue, are imagined as oppositional only with reference to particular political formations, not as a consequence of inherent qualities or inevitable trajectories. Secularism itself, then, perhaps ought to be understood as both a political and a religious project simultaneously. As Saba Mahmood has pointed out, the notion of secularism is misleading in the sense that it cloaks its Protestant presuppositions.

(2) Turner falls into a similar trap. While in the beginning of the article, he points out that his 'argument applies to many forms of religious revivalism in modernity' (123), in the course of his article 'religion' and 'Islam' are used almost interchangeably, and his claim almost reads like an indictment of the incommensurability of Islam with Western liberal democracy: 'the Global Umma and the Crisis of Secularism' (133).

(3) I think such a perspective leads Turner to ignore the ways in which acts of piety are racialized. This is in fact surprising since Turner himself talks about the 'government of the body' and a 'technology of the self', arguing that 'the covert aim of piety or its unintended consequences are to define and demarcate social groups within a society or within a field of diverse religious traditions'. It is of course no coincidence that in the Netherlands, Muslims are referred to as 'black', both in the popular imagination as well as official parlance. These processes of racialization are embedded in long histories. In fact it is quite surprising that Turner makes no reference to these histories, especially in the context of a project like Isin's, who aims to unravel citizenship as a notion that emerged out of the racialized world order of Empire. I think this gap leads Turner to seemingly small inconsistencies like the claim that 'the global diaspora of Muslims no longer comfortably maps onto the secular space of Western liberal democracy'. Considering the age of crusades, imperial struggles, and contemporary Islamophobia, I find myself hard pressed to find an age in which the relations between Islam and Europe were marked by 'comfort'.


Best regards,

Markus Balkenhol, Utrecht

john vignaux smyth
"Acts of Piety"


“Acts of Piety” (and “Rituals of Intimacy”)



Ernst’s and the Utrecht’s group’s discussion of “Acts of Piety” seems quite useful to me---as does Tel Aviv’s discussion of theocracy--and leads to some issues of general importance. I find myself in more or less agreement with the criticisms, more or less severe, of “Acts of Piety” advanced by both Arab and Balkenhol, but also am led to try to formulate connected issues and questions that seem to me to emerge.


In no particular order of importance:


  1. The question of to what extent what passes by the name of Western secularism, particularly its European variety (but also, in a slightly different way, in the U.S.A. , Australia, Canada, etc.)  is often more or less overtly or covertly a kind of “Protestantism,” i.e. a political upshot of inherited Christian ideology,


This criticism has been leveled at “Acts of Piety,” also at Habermas, and others---and seems in some ways plausible.


The Portland group’s reading Slavoj Zizek’s and  Boris Gunjevik’s book titled “God in Pain”  can be relevant here, since the Slovenian Zizek explicitly embraces and elaborates what he calls a kind of “Pauline” (as well as “Leninist”) left-wing atheism—a concern with Saint Paul he shares with and partly derives from the communist Alain Badiou.

In such books as “The Fragile Absolute: Why the Christian Legacy is worth fighting for,” for example, Zizek makes his allegiances to the Christian, and more specifically Protestant, “legacy” explicit.


It would therefore be interesting to see what the critics of the more or less covert Protestant bias or basis of many supposedly secular ideologies say about both Zizek’s and Badiou’s overt appeal to St. Paul’s putative universalism. (Ernst, I know, was a student of Badiou’s---so he is an expert, and will surely have something interesting to add here!) Are both Zizek and Badiou --in perhaps different ways-- vulnerable to the “Protestant bias” critique?  Or do they successfully tackle the charge by meeting it head-on?


It is noteworthy that John Millbank, Catholic theologian and co-author with Zizek of “The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic?” also calls Zizek less of an atheist than a Protestant! (Zizek replies by calling Millbank a Pagan!)


  1. If some modern secularisms can be regarded as watered-down or sublimated  

upshots of Christianized culture and politics—if some of them are frankly “protestant”—we might ask whether there are or have EVER been, in fact, any genuinely secular ideologies—let alone cultures or politics—

worthy of the name?   


Here we would need to take on people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens for the present day. Hence, more generally and at a more sophisticated level, the science-religion debate as it occurs currently. (I will have more to say about this later.  We will need to deal with this in some form or other.) 


Here also ---for example---(and this issue was mentioned by our colleagues from Hong Kong at the meeting in Arizona)  the Chinese Confucian tradition is often advanced as an ancient and revolutionary candidate. The title of Herbert Fingarette’s book “Confucius: the Secular as Sacred” (1972) makes the—or at least a--point. Bertrand Russell’s book “The Problem of China” (1922) also links his praise of Chinese culture (as a model for the West) to an interesting discussion of the same issue, over which he contrasts not just China and the West, but China and Japan.


Beyond Confucius, Taoism and Buddhism, at least in some of their forms, are also of course not theistic or religious in the usual Western, Christian, Judaic, Islamic or even Hindu sense of “clearly” worshipping or acknowledging divinities.

(N.B. As well as protestant secularism, we also have so-called “Protestant Buddhism”(!)---the epithet often applied to Western interpretations, rationalizations, and annexations of Buddhism from the early 19th century onwards. Shorn of such things as belief in reincarnation, etc., the ritual of Buddhist meditation is often presented as a kind of quasi-secular technology of the self. or a spiritualized psychology.)


  1. I agree with Balkenhol that “Acts of Piety” is germane in insisting on the importance of acts or rituals---including “rituals of intimacy”—rather than looking at the religious/secular divide simply as one of belief or lack of it.

Though the essay cites Goffman (who sees rituals as thoroughly secular kinds of activity as well as religious ones), it perhaps disappointingly sticks largely to the point that religious acts of piety and rituals of intimacy tend to emphasize exclusivity, discourage inter-marriage, etc.


On the other other hand, if we emphasize that “rituals of intimacy,” and other “rituals,” just as thoroughly define secular behaviour as religious behaviour, then we arrive at various interesting problems.  There are many avenues here. Aside from, say, Fingarette’s notion of “the secular as sacred” (cited above), we might also learn from Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s La marque du sacré  (2008) (The Mark of the Sared, 2013), notably the chapter titled « Rationality and Ritual ».Here Dupuy deals not just with rationality (science etc.), but also with specifically political rationality, e.g. that purportedly underlying voting systems. He also regards economics in the light of a structure of pseudo-transcendence or exteriority (the invisible hand) that belongs to the sacred.


  1. To argue that secular behaviour, even scientific behaviour, is to some degree

“ritualized” in a way that may elicit more analogies than oppositions to the sacred, to religious behaviour, is by no means anti-scientific. On the contrary, Dupuy for example (originally an engineer) makes his arguments frequently within an Anglo-American analytic/scientific framework.


Bruno Latour also comes to mind in this connection. Moreover, in Latour, the analogy between religion and science extends from “actor-network” behaviour (e.g. ritual) to ideas, concepts and epistemology. For convenience, I cite here an excerpt from Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s remarkably acute review of his book titled “The Modern Cult of of Factish Gods.” She (someone who works in the secular-scientific tradition, and shows no sign of religious conversion!) sums up Latour’s logic as follows:


“if we grant, because we understand, the constructed nature of real scientific entities (‘facts’), then we should be prepared to understand, and accordingly to grant, the reality of constructed religious entities (‘fetishes’).

In registering similarities between scientific facts and religious fetishes, Latour is not seeking to demote science. What he does seek to unsettle is a set of powerful but dubious dichotomies central to Western thought: object as divided from subject; real as divided from fabricated; nature as divided from society; and knowledge as distinguished from (mere) belief. But in doing so he also – not, one may think, incidentally – elevates the practices and experiences of those who worship fetishes, fear demons and have visions of the Virgin. They are given epistemic dignity if not intellectual authority.”

‘ The effects that religious talk has on a receptive audience are not, Latour insists, mysterious or transcendent. We are familiar with them from other quite mundane uses of language, notably ‘love talk’ – the charged questions posed and intense assurances exchanged between lovers. Clearly, he writes, it would be wrong to claim that such sentences as ‘I love you’ have no truth value just because they possess no informational content. ‘On the contrary … it is a very important matter – one to which we devote many nights and days – to decide whether they are truthful, faithful, deceitful, superficial or simply obscure and vague.’ Similarly, it is wrong, in seeking to understand the angel Gabriel’s salutation to the Virgin, to ask who Mary was, to wonder ‘whether or not she was really a Virgin’ or to investigate whether she was being impregnated with ‘spermatic rays’. In a bold flourish, he addresses his audience directly: ‘The only way to understand stories, such as that of the Annunciation, is to repeat them, that is, to utter again a Word that produces in the listener the same effect, namely one that impregnates with the gift of renewed presence. Here and now I am your Gabriel.’”


I conclude with this citation from Smith and Latour in part because it brings us back to what “Acts of Piety” calls “rituals of intimacy.” Here (whether we agree or disagree with Latour, a church-going Catholic, as Smith points out), we see that the epistemological stakes in such rituals and myths, as well as the cultural and political ones, are very high indeed.


I apologize for the fragmentary nature of the above…..

john vignaux smyth

john vignaux smyth
Religion and the Secular in "East and West"

I thought it worth posting, for the RelSec record, the text of the talk I was invited to give in Hong Kong, but couldn't deliver at the time due to illness. It seems relevant to the dicussion concerning Bryan Turner's tale of two cities, and also to the topic of Civil Religion developed by our Hong Kong partners in their Lexical Index Entry. Please forgive the relatively informal presentation.

Religion and the Secular in “East” & “West”:

A Modest Proposal Concerning the Separation Between Church & State



In 1922, in the book that was the fruit of his two-year stay in China, Bertrand Russell wrote that “China is (or was) the last refuge of freedom.” Two years earlier he had written: “There is one serious defect, and only one, in the Chinese system, and that is, that it does not enable China to resist more pugnacious nations. If the whole world were like China, the whole world could be happy; but so long as others are warlike and energetic, the Chinese, now that they are no longer isolated, will be compelled to copy our vices to some degree if they are to preserve their national independence.”


I begin with Russell, whose views were cited by a young Mao at the time: a) because these high praises of China were connected to his general approval of Chinese attitudes to religion and civil life; b) because his dramatic claims highlight one sense (however “orientalist”) to the distinction between “East” and “West” posited, perhaps rather foolishly, in the title to my talk; and c) because the Chinese government now encourages the study of Russell’s intimate colleague and teacher, Alfred North Whitehead. 


The talk will briefly interrogate familiar distinctions not only between East and West, but also Sacred and Secular, Atheocracy and Theocracy, as well as the coherence of the so-called secular or “Western” separation between Church and State. I am well aware, of course, that my title should have put not only East and West in scare quotes, but “religion” and “the secular” too—but this seemed to verge on parody.



In despair at how to say anything coherent in a mere 20 minutes, I decided to proceed like Martin Luther with his 95 theses nailed to the church door: 


1)As has been recognized in the West at least since Durkheim, and in China for much longer, the problem of religion and the sacred of course entails but cannot be restricted to theology, i.e. the problem of divinities. Rather, the sacred arguably precedes and produces divinities, and in some cases conceivably outlasts them.


2)Russell’s diagnosis of the excellence of the Chinese ethos—particularly the Chinese attitudes to war---in comparison to the ethos of not only of the Western powers and Russia, but also Japan, has a clear, though flexible grounding in his liking for the founding texts of Taoism, and, in a different way, for the quasi-secular or civil tradition generally associated with Confucius (though he was by no means a fan of the Analects, and, like Mao later, criticized filial piety as bordering on ancestor-worship). Claiming that “There is one, and only one, foreign element in the traditional civilization of China, and that is Buddhism,” Russell nevertheless stressed the benign possibility of being both a Buddhist and Confucian, and indeed a Taoist too, “because nothing in either is [necessarily] incompatible with the other.” If the distinctive merit of the West is or was the scientific method (though with many caveats), “the distinctive merit of the Chinese is a just conception of life” (57).


3)However “orientalist,” Russell doubtless approved of the Chinese mixture of Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism (not to mention more local rites and customs and politenesses, which indeed he does emphasize) partly because they seemed potentially consistent with his own atheism or agnosticism (depending on how you define the terms). But actually he is here criticizing Western “rationality” or secularism—especially the pernicious ideology of the Western powers--as much as Western religion—and indeed, in a way that anticipates modern writers, linking the two as mutually complicit, as what Talal Asad calls “twins.” 


4)What is at stake in this “twinning” is of course the very opposition--or, rather, blurred identity—of sacred and secular.  Herbert Fingarette’s book Confucius (1972), subtitled The Secular as Sacred, makes this point explicit. When we concentrate not on divinities but on actions, processes, and rituals (especially on what Confucius calls “Li,” and what Bryan Turner in the essay proposed by our Utrecht colleagues calls “acts of piety” & “rituals of intimacy”) the opposition may quickly seem dubious. Fingarette says that he started with a view of Confucius a bit like Russell’s—he “found him to be a prosaic and parochial moralizer,” and the Analects an “archaic irrelevance” (vii) --but dramatically changed his mind, finding the Confucian fusion or implosion of sacred and secular to be of decisive interest for both China and the modern West.


5)I jump now back to the United States and Europe. The American Constitution is of course famous for its doctrine of the separation of church and state, though the Declaration of Independence itself begins with God, who in the twentieth century also cunningly got himself inscribed on the dollar bill. Even if this formal theological ambiguity were absent, however, the most obvious legal issues—such as the definition of marriage—illustrate the practical problem. In outlawing Mormon polygamy in the late nineteenth century, for example, the Supreme Court stated:


6)Though not perhaps so often dominated by Christian/Secularist violence as the United States, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that modern Europe is equally schizophrenic on the subject. People like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens (and the millions who agree with them) insist on a radical incompatibility between not only the secular, but also and above all science, and religion. On the other hand, there is also a very vocal group as you know—including such diverse people as Giorgio Agamben, Bruno Latour, Alain Badiou, Slavoj Zizek, and Jean-Pierre Dupuy (to name a few—some religious, some atheists)—that insists, at the very least, on the crucial religious archeology, as Agamben calls it (after Foucault), of “Western” secularism, atheism, and rationalism, and even—in Latour’s rather radical case—on the potential epistemological symmetry between scientific facts and religious fetishes.


7)Bruno Latour, by the way, has also rather shockingly called Whitehead the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century. I’m not sure he even said “English-language philosopher” or the like. The church-going Catholic—of  a peculiar sort admittedly (Latour) -- seems to agree with the Chinese government wholeheartedly on the usefulness of Whitehead!


8)  All this is confusing enough. Indeed, intellectual niceties aside, the failure of  European states and peoples to arrive at anything like a coherent position on something  like the Muslim veil, not to mention crucifixes in Italian classrooms, suggests a similar kind of confusion at a more practical nuts and bolts level. The quarrels of the intellectuals are at least matched by those of the politicians and their constituents.


9)For the sake of clarity, then, I propose to play devil’s advocate against the principle of separation of church and state so dear to many in my own country, Britain, as well in North America where I teach. I am proposing, in short, that both theocracy and atheocracy share a conceivable coherence that the Separation model is bound to lack. This means that I prefer, in theory at least (I am not knowledgeable or daring enough to pronounce on their detailed practices, which of course are highly controversial), both the Chinese and the Israeli models to the British or American or Dutch ones. (You will deduce that I think the nominal theocracy in Britain to be just that: nominal.)


10) When it comes to, not merely quasi-privatized beliefs and rituals, but political institutions, I can draw considerable support, I think, from Ran Hirshl’s recent book called Constitutional Theocracy, an illuminating empirical study of the matter worldwide. To Separationist ears, as his reviewers pointed out, Constitutional Theocracy sounds like an oxymoron.  Hirschl, on the contrary, suggests that constitutional law (the model of the secular state) and what he calls “religion law” have a great deal in common; and indeed that their supposed opposition stems in significant part from their similarity. (The chapter in which he argues this interestingly invokes Chinese categories in its title, “Yin and Yang?”)

Hirschl also points out that different varieties of constitutional theocracy now dominate large areas of the world, and are by no means necessarily more “backward” or “illiberal” than Separationist models. I am merely adding to his list of theocracies, atheocracies too: that is, I am merely suggesting that politics would be more coherent if conducted according to an overt theological or atheist position, not a covert one, or on a position that purports to privatize theology or the sacred. (Nor should this preclude religious and atheist tolerance, but rather the contrary!)


12) I am now also logically forced to confront the position of the perceptive author proposed by my own RelSec group in America, Robert Orsi, who criticizes (as Lee Medovoi succinctly summarizes the point) the “liberal paradigm” of American religious studies as practiced in the academy for making a normative moral distinction between “good religion” and “bad religion.” For obviously Theocracies make such a distinction in a totally explicit way. And Atheocracies often do the same thing—except where they follow Orsi, and indeed Richard Dawkins too in a different way, by making all religions either “equally good” (e.g. all those recognized as tax-exempt by the United States government, or possibly by anthropologists or sociologists of religion), or, often, “equally bad” (the opium of the people, the God Delusion etc.).  The Chinese revolution, so far as I understand its history, went, like the French revolution, through an early militantly atheist phase---religions were all almost equally bad--and remains atheist in principle. However, it now makes evident a distinction between better and worse religions by officially endorsing five of them, at least three theistic—and, what’s more, by establishing no less than 23 centers, if my information is correct, for the study of Alfred North Whitehead. (Which is rather arresting!) Meanwhile, on the side of theocracy, however democratic and constitutional, the Israeli state officially subsidizes “Orthodox” Judaism.


13) I am on Orsi’s side, of course, in warning people and their governments not to think they know in advance or a priori the difference between good and bad religions, or better and worse ones, let alone local practitioners. Here Latour, as demystifier of demystification, goes much further than Orsi, in insisting on the potential epistemological symmetry not only of religions, but of scientific facts and religious fetishes. But Latour does not deduce from this that there are no better or worse religions--just as there are better and worse scientific theories.


14) If we say to Orsi: Well, you would certainly nowadays outlaw Aztec sacrifice as “bad religion”, he could reply that murder is already against the law. Indeed that is the point: supposedly secular law already distinguishes, often unjustly, between good and bad religions; but this is precisely one of its necessary functions, just like religious law. The dubious bifurcation between religion and science, or religion and knowledge—not to mention religion and ethics or politics—becomes absolute if we can make no distinction between good and bad religions, or at any rate between better and worse practices and interpretations, just as we make distinctions between better and worse atheisms, secularisms, agnosticisms, metaphysics, politics, arts, sports, empirical sciences, mathematics, and even fashions. 


15) According to me then, I repeat, the atheocracy of China and the theocratic democracy of Israel, e.g. as envisioned by Martin Buber (in the text given us by our Tel Aviv colleagues), are both in principle perhaps superior to what I have called, simplistically, the “Western” Separation model, unless of course one regards the ambivalence or deceptiveness of a system based on an artificial and blurred disjunction of the secular and the sacred as a virtue and not a vice. This is a position I can well conceive of. (Indeed we may recall Durkheim’s famous insistence on “the ambivalence of the sacred”--which already both posits and internalizes the profane, just as the secular itself is a religious term in origin.)


16) Finally---since it may seem eccentric to praise atheist and theist politics in the same breath---I will conclude by citing Diderot, who once wrote to Voltaire: “I believe in God, but I live very happily with atheists…It is very important not to mistake hemlock for parsley; but not at all so whether one believes or not in God.”

17) Having here supported both theists and atheists in their grandest political ambitions (overt or covert, as the case may be), I am nevertheless fond, as a little caveat, of this Diderot line--- not likely to please anyone, theist and atheist alike







john vignaux smyth

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