RelSec participates in a growing scholarly interest in the global resurgence of religion in the public sphere, and a related sense of secularism’s increasing fragility. The urgency of these topics grows from distinct situations on many continents, from the post 9/11 politics of religion and “civilizational clashes” in North America or the status of Muslim immigrants in the supranational European Union to the question of religion and citizenship after the Arab spring in Israel, Palestine, and the Middle East, to the evolving place of Confucianism and Buddhism in the wake of Chinese economic expansion. For some, like Jürgen Habermas, these phenomena have suggested that we are entering a new “post-secular” condition that requires us to come to terms with a “religiously mobilized world society.” For others, like Charles Taylor, current conditions should only focus our awareness on the ways in which the religious and the secular have, for a long time now, operated as mutually constitutive, co-existing categories and options for modern subjects. This debate has necessarily engaged many central concerns in the contemporary humanities, including the critical implications of recent world history, the core values of modernity, our theories and genealogies of the political, the ethics of both the stranger and the neighbor, reconsiderations of the binary of the sacred and profane, as well as contemporary cultural studies of immigration, fundamentalism, gender and sexuality.
RelSec contributes to scholarship on the changing status of religion and secularism by foregrounding their relationship to political belonging in a global age. We consider this a potentially transformative entry point into the religion/secularism debates because the idea of political belonging operates on different scales that can range from very local social commitments (family, kinship networks, or subcultures) to complex transnational reading communities, national citizenship or state-based politics, and beyond to notions of cosmopolitan or universal membership. Construed in this way, political belonging cannot help but be overlapping, contradictory, and associated with multiple demands that require consideration through the respective methodological insights of different disciplines. It also raises the important question of how these scales might intersect differently at the geographically and historically distinct sites of our centers, pointing to translocal perspectives on religion and secularism. Value-laden characterizations of secularism not only bears a determinate relationship to the disciplines and their respective political and intellectual histories, but also carries with it an implicit notion of the “religious” that situates the secular.
RelSec’s aim is to establish a global frame for translocal study, using the cross-cutting question of political belonging to create more traction, dialogue, and above all, translation of the stakes of religion and secularism across the international geographies and disciplinary frameworks that separate our centers’ research teams. The project actively investigates what happens when we provincialize narrative frameworks. In bringing Euro-American scholars into dialogue with scholars from the Middle East, China, and, hopefully over time, with such global regions as South Asia, Africa, and Latin America, we will ask how a dominant narrative looks when it is resituated from a global perspective, or when it is brought into an encounter with other narratives.
Projects scheduled by researchers are diverse. They include conceptual philosophical explorations, such as Schmidt’s study of the post-secular dialectics discernible in the Habermas-Pope debate, Pinto’s theory of religious freedom as collective right, or Furani’s rethinking of the relation between anthropology and theology. Others take the form of criticism, such as Karayanni’s analysis and critique of the legal religious accommodation of Israel’s Arab minorities in the area of family law. Still others deal with the concrete analysis of historical figures, literary texts, or social practices, such as Ophir and Rozen-Zvi’s study of the politico-theological category of the “goy” in Israel or Hever’s readings of the nationally decentered religiosity of Hassidic literature as a counter to mainstream Israeli religiosity today. Local and international speakers will be invited to join the group for presentations over the twenty-four months.
Located in Hong Kong, Portland, Tel Aviv, Tucson, and Utrecht, the discrete Project Centers come together to provide a globally translocal perspective on the driving questions of the RelSec Initiative.
In the academic year 2013-2014, the team of scholars at the Institute for the Study of Religion and Culture and the Confluencenter (University of Arizona) worked jointly with the team at the Portland Center for Public Humanities on a research project called “Currencies of the Religious and the Secular.” This title is meant to capture several different sets of concerns that grow from the intensity of both religious life and secular market ideologies in North America. On one level, “currency” refers to flow, allowing an exploration of the circulation of religious and secular energies or practices in and through one another's domains. The idea here is to explore counterintuitive interdependencies of religion and secularism. “Currencies” can also refer to the deep relationship of both religion and secularism to value forms that may take on an economic significance or a connection to the marketplace. Finally, “currency” will also suggest an attention to historical trajectories (currents) that lead to the contemporary (or current) shape of these broader themes.
The Utrecht group is engaged in a quite distinct project on “post-secularism” that aims to call into question Europe’s understanding of itself as the global vanguard of secularization and modernization, asking what this re-evaluation might mean particularly for European feminism and sexual emancipation movements. They will focus closely on themes of secularity, citizenship, modes of belonging and social equality and explore acts of religion as acts of citizenship. Two seminars a year will be organized: the first is an internal seminar with all the concerned Utrecht staff and fellows of the Centre for the Humanities. They will discuss central selected texts and prepare the larger event, which will be scheduled later in the academic year. This second event will be a public symposium with invited speakers and a broader audience. It will investigate in-depth aspects of the main research theme.
An interdisciplinary team made of experienced and innovative scholars from The Chinese University of Hong Kong, as well as its regional associates in China (Peking University, Shanghai Jiaotong University), Taipei (Academia Sinica), and Macao (University of Macau) is ready to tackle this critical issue from the perspectives of philosophy, history, religious studies, critical political theory, and cultural studies. This emergent team in Hong Kong begins at the greatest distance from a sharp secular/religious binary, due perhaps to the long history of Confucian agnosticism. Here the team begins with the dominant mode of scholarship on Chinese religion as a philosophical project concerned with ethics and situational wisdom. They will consider how Chinese religions intersect today with the rapidly changing tenor of political belonging that accompanies China’s burgeoning economic development. As China’s achievements in global modernity become increasingly evident, how that nation and its individual citizens were to re-fashion (formulate) a renewed sense of political and cultural belonging amongst themselves and along with the outside world becomes also critical to all.
Methodologically, such questions may be approached by means of intellectual history or philosophy, to examine the cultural roots of such an unprecedented transition. To see for ourselves, in terms of reflecting upon its “tradition of values,” say in Confucianism, Buddhism, even Taoism and various popular religions, what were the beliefs and inner strengths that not only have pulled over one billion people through the hardship and humiliation but also out of wars, defeats, and political movements to bring one of the oldest civilization into the modern, 21st century. In a less elitist manner, others may want to appraise this in a more tangible way, to examine what have been taken place in the “everyday life” or “material culture,” including say, such mundane and universal questions of family life or gender relations. The team will stand ready to discuss core text with our partner centers from Portland State, Utrecht, and Tel Aviv University, to consider the compelling challenges seen at the interface of ethnicity and religion. Whereby the larger picture in the Chinese struggle for some inclusive sense of identify (belonging) in the global modernity offers the project with an excellent point of macro-comparison in concept and daily practice.
Each of the five Project Centers will interrogate a lexical term of critical importance to the project, aiming to build on the momentum of the first year and further clarify the mission of the RelSec project. In December 2014, the teams will meet in Utrecht to report on their findings and continue work on the development of the project closing white paper.
The Arizona team examines the term “Fundamentalism,” aiming to ask, not what is the truth of fundamentalism but instead what work is performed by the truth claims about it. We are therefore focusing less on those whom we call “fundamentalists” than on what calling them (or sometimes ourselves) fundamentalists might accomplish, particularly when contrasted to alternative terminologies one could deploy, such as Scripture-affirming or conservative on the one hand, militant or extremist on the other. Why fundamentalism?
The Utrecht contribution to the lexical project is “Nationalism,” examining major connections between the ways in which nationalism is seen to be connected to a regulation of religion notions as they have been identified by scholars, and we will conclude with a reflection on the value of these terms for an understanding of a variety of current affairs. We can see that a number of approaches to nationalism stress a connection between religion and the rise of secularism.
At the Minerva Center in Tel-Aviv, the “Religious and Secular States” research team is taking up a variety of research topics that include exploration of the complex political deployments of secular and religious categories, and the uses of religiously embodied citizenship across multiple scales and locations in Israel and Palestine today, as well as the fraught relationship of religion and nation in the aftermath of Zionism. Organized around the intensive and ongoing sharing of research, the group will conduct monthly meetings at Minerva in which they read key texts on religion, secularism, and politics, while also presenting their scholarly findings.
Tel Aviv’s entry, “Faith” identifies that it has been common, in monotheistic traditions over the past 250 years, to think of two main dynamics through which faith engenders political belonging – universalism and ideology. Perhaps we could think of these two ways as two attempts at a definition of truth, each validated by the act of believing. This act creates a place for these two truths in the world, reinforces them and manifests them in their purest form. Faith is the phronesis of both ideological truth and universal truth, the quality which, through practice, establishes real and binding concepts of right and wrong.
Writing through the lens of the Chinese historical context, the group from Hong Kong chose “Civil Religion.” Scholars of religion have long been debating whether the term “religion” is a suitable one in discussing the various forms of belief systems found in diverse human societies. By qualifying religion as, say, “Chinese” religion, one is in the risk of creating some misconceptions. First of all, by qualifying “religion” as “Chinese” or “Roman” does not make the question about the meaning of “religion” go away. When terms such as “Chinese religion,” “Roman religion,” or “Japanese religion” are used, are we referring to the same kind of phenomenon that occurred in different regions or cultures, or are we talking about some very different forms of belief systems? There is probably no clear cut answer to such questions, but it is enough to remind us that when considering the use of the term religion, especially in the context of comparing different regions and times, it would be most beneficial if we could always keep a watchful eye, for even the term “belief” could also generate different perceptions.
Lastly, the Portland Project Center’s entry is “Science,” in which they claim that the complex relations between religion(s) and science(s) may be conveniently divided into three categories of contemporary interest, especially in the so-called West. These categories are: contemporary religious perspectives on the sciences, the supposed incompatibility between scientific reason and religious faith, and the scientific study of religions (and sciences). Religious beliefs sometimes conflict with scientific theories, though this is not to say that Western science is a mere fetish (a rationalist/colonialist myth), but rather to insist on the epistemic dignity of so-called fetishes (related etymologically to (arti)facts, or faits) themselves. The realm of science, in these cases, is expanded rather than limited to “make room” for religion.
In Autumn 2013, RelSec invited Janet Jakobsen and Mayfair Yang, two internationally distinguished humanities scholars, to participate in a structured public conversation that opens the program in Portland, Oregon. Additionally, each program has nominated eminent scholars from their respective universities to function as directors. These noted academics led the conversation and research direction for their teams, as well as attending and participating in the Inaugural Event in Tucson.
Early the next year, a daylong seminar was held with lectures by the eminent scholars Akeel Bilgrami, Dilip Gaonkar, Colin Jager, and Radha Radhakrishnan; the scope of the talks was diverse, ranging from fundamentalism in London to the Rushdie affair to religion and political radicalism.
RelSec is proud to bring Devji Faisal, Timothy Brennan, and Eric Santner to Tucson in fall 2014, spanning the semester with a series of lectures and workshops on the University of Arizona campus. Audio from their talks as well as links to readings can be found on the site and an interesting slate of speakers is being finalized for the spring term.
Leerom Medovoi is the founder and Director of the RelSec Program. He is Head of the English Department at the University of Arizona, having previously taught and directed the Portland Center for Public Humanities at Portland State University. In addition to the ambitious project on religion, secularism, and political belonging, Dr. Medovoi’s research interests include American Cold War studies, new directions in biopolitics, and youth culture studies.
Dean of the Arts at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Professor Ping-chen Hsiung’s research includes child and family studies, traditional Chinese medicine, gender, and the construction of memory. She has been Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the National Central University, founded the Asian New Humanities Network and the Taiwan Humanities League, and serves on the advisory board to CHCI.
Tobijn de Graauw, MA, is a Research Fellow and Project Manager at the Utrecht Centre for Humanities. She has worked with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Netherlands as well as Amnesty International. Tobijn has taught at Utrecht University.
Holding degrees from Hebrew University, Columbia Law School, and Harvard Law School, Raif Zreik is the co-Director of the Minerva Institute at Tel Aviv University. He is an Associate Professor at the University and has also taught at Haifa Law School and held positions at Georgetown Law School and the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem. His research interests, of which he has published prolifically, include legal and political theory as well as citizenship and identity.
Michael Clark is an Associate Professor, Coordinator for the Film Minor, and the Director of the Portland Center for Public Humanities at Portland State University. In addition to his scholarly acumen, Dr. Clark is a lawyer with research interests in the relationships of psychoanalysis, the humanities, and the law.
The Director of the Institute for the Study of Religion and Culture at the University of Arizona, Peter Foley holds degrees from the University of Keele, Northwestern, and the University of Vienna. He is widely published in English and German and his research interests include the history of ideas in philosophy and theological thought.
RelSec’s ultimate goal is to move beyond a mere “comparative study”—whether of religion or secularism—and toward a translocal mapping of the global networks of religious and secular discourses. Here we are guided by the insights of Tomoko Masuzawa, as well as Janet Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini, who have suggested that the pluralization from religion to religions under the banner of "world religions" and comparative study only reinstalls distinctions between the west and the rest. For that reason, RelSec’s comparative work aims beyond itself, toward a broader analysis of the multiple histories (including histories of power) out of which the secular-religion relation has been differentially constituted.
As seen in the recent exchange between anthropologist Saba Mahmood and literary scholar Stathis Gorgouris in the journal Public Culture, it is difficult to hold a cross-humanities debate on the status of either secularism or religion when those very words carry such different disciplinary and even subdisciplinary inflections. Does secularism principally involve the avowed neutrality of the state in relation to religion, as suggested in political science? Does it entail what a philosopher might call the detranscendentalization of theological concepts? Is secularism primarily a governmental project for managing cultural diversity? Is it a post-Christian discourse of imperial right and civilizational superiority? To what extent must secularism be understood (or valued), in the tradition of Edward Said, as the skeptical outlook that grounds the very possibility of critique? Or is secularism primarily an affective relationship to an immanent view of the world?
The RelSec group has carefully designed a structure for this pilot program that will encourage directed and focused scholarly dialogue and collaboration across geographical, cultural, and even linguistic divides. To that end, the RelSec program is specifically designed to facilitate translational intellectual work between the centers’ research teams. The Program begins with each center submitting a single text that it considers foundational to the study of secularism and religion in the region and/or disciplines represented by their research team. All four texts are posted on the RelSec where they can be easily accessed and presented as the establishing body of thought for the Pilot Program. Our teams will engage with the following readings:
Robert Orsi, “Snakes Alive: Religious Studies Between Heaven and Earth”
Jürgen Habermas, “Notes on Post-Secular Society”
Martin Buber, “Concerning the Theocracy”
Benjamin Schwartz, “The Setting” & “Some Implications” in In Search of Wealth and Power: Yen Fu and the West
Faisal Devji, “GWOT” from The Terrorist in Search of Humanity; “Leaving India to Anarchy” from The Impossible Indian
Timothy Brennan, “Introduction” and “Nietzsche and the Colonies” from Borrowed Light: Vico, Hegel, and the Colonies
Eric Santner, “Preface” and “Was Heisst Schauen? On the Vital Signs of Visual Modernism” from The Royal Remains: The People’s Two Bodies and the Endgames of Sovereignty
The RelSec project of the CHCI launched on the University of Arizona campus on October 25th, when as many as three representatives from the research teams located at each of the collaborating institutions converged in Tucson, Arizona.
On Friday, October 25th at 7 pm, the program began with a public forum, designed as a conversation between internationally distinguished humanities scholars Janet Jakobsen and Mayfair Yang.
Janet R. Jakobsen is Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Women's Gender and Sexuality Studies and Director of the Center for Research on Women at Barnard College, where she has also served as Dean for Faculty Diversity and Development. She holds a PhD in religious studies from Emory University and studies ethics and public policy with a particular focus on social movements related to religion, gender and sexuality. She teaches courses on social ethics, feminist theory, queer theory, activism and religion. She is the author of Working Alliances and the Politics of Difference: Diversity and Feminist Ethics. With Ann Pellegrini she co-wrote of Love the Sin: Sexual Regulation and the Limits of Religious Tolerance and co-edited Secularisms, and with Elizabeth Castelli she co-edited Interventions: Academics and Activists Respond to Violence. She has held fellowships from the American Association of University Women, the Center for the Humanities at Wesleyan University and the Center for the Study of Values in Public Life at Harvard Divinity School and has also taught as a Visiting Professor at Harvard University and Wesleyan University and. Before entering the academy, she was a policy analyst and organizer in Washington, D.C.
Mayfair Yang splits time teaching in the Department of Religious Studies and the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultural Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. As a cultural anthropologist, she is interested in the intertwined processes of religiosity, secularization, and state operations in modernity, postcolonial, and Communist conditions. Dr. Yang specializes in the study of China, and her research interests include secularization, sovereignty and state power, and cultural approaches to political economy. Her extensive publications include Chinese Religiosities: Afflictions of Modernity and State Formation, Spaces of Their Own: Women’s Public Sphere in Transnational China, and “Using the Past to Negate the Present: Ritual Ethics and State Rationality in Ancient China.”
Jakobsen and Yang responded briefly to core texts selected by the international research teams, then engaged conversationally with one another’s responses. These texts include Robert Orsi’s “Snakes Alive: Religion between Heaven and Earth” (Arizona/Portland), Jürgen Habermas’ “Notes on Post-Secular Society” (Utrecht), a selection from Martin Buber’s Kingship of God (Tel Aviv), and a selection from Benjamin Schwartz’s In Search of Wealth and Power: Yen Fu and the West (Hong Kong).
The animating question of the forum was: what is the relationship of religion and secularism to political belonging today, and how do we engage that question in ways that are not just comparative, but genuinely translocal?
The forum concluded with questions and comments from team members and the audience. Video of the Inaugural Conversation is hosted on the RelSec website. All CHCI centers with an interest in the subject were invited to participate in discussion forms that will be incorporated into the project’s eventual findings, with many principle investigators in attendance.
On Saturday, October 26th, the visiting scholars from the various research teams participated in a seminar organized around presentations of the various centers’ research agendas and further conversations about the four selected texts. The aim of this format is to develop a dialogue that grows increasingly comparative as the seminar progresses through the full set of research agendas and readings.
A primary goal of the seminar forges a common discussion of this initiative’s framing questions: How are formations of religion and the secular shaping the multiple scales of political belonging across the globe today? Conversely, in what ways might changes in these global forms of political belonging be doubling back to revise the status of secularism and religion? Out of the seminar’s engagement with these questions, we generated a short set of subsidiary questions and keywords in need of definition that the research teams will seek to address over the intervening twenty-four months. Over the course of the 2014-2015 academic year, each project site will examine more closely the selected terms, meeting in December to discuss the project in progress.
These questions and keywords were generated as a formal outcome of the seminar. Posted on the RelSec website, these two lists represent the agenda being delegated to each team of local collaborators as they return home to their Parallel Programs. Their task is to offer provisional responses to the questions and accounts of the keywords as they emerge out of their research programs.
Established in 1988, the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes serves as an arena for the discussion of issues germane to crossdisciplinary activity in the humanities and as a network for the circulation of information and best practices related to the organizational and management dimensions of humanities centers and institutes. CHCI currently has a membership of 154 organizations in the US, Europe, Asia, and Pacific Rim. CHCI produces a major Annual Meeting of its membership, maintains a content-rich website, produces an annual print directory, and serves as a re-circulator for information about its members via listservs and its website. Members of the Consortium also assist one another with ideas, evaluation, and other forms of service. The organization is headed by a President, and is governed by an International Advisory Board of member directors and other leaders in the humanities. (www.chcinetwork.org)
RelSec’s themes also speak directly to CHCI’s other content-driven projects. The organization of our inquiry will take full advantage of the institutional specificity of CHCI as a consortium of humanities centers that is international in its ambitions. The institutional mission of the Humanities Center to pose broad questions that require multi-disciplinary consideration is well suited to our framing question of “political belonging.”
While it is true that CHCI is an international consortium, the vast majority of its membership remains located in North America, where the scholarship has been framed (either for or against) a specific Weberian narrative associated with the disenchantment of modernity, one that was arguably both complexly critiqued and revised by Charles Taylor’s magisterial study A Secular Age. Whether in its classical or reconceived variant, this narrative approaches the secularism/religion couplet from the decidedly Euro-American viewpoint of a world-historical transition from medieval Latin Christianity to a modernity grounded in an “immanent frame” associated with a scientific outlook and, at times, a secular state.
All CHCI centers with an interest in the subject will be invited to post comments that will be incorporated into the project’s eventual findings.
Between September 2013 and June 2015, the participating centers will conduct parallel research projects whose exact shape will reflect the distinct missions of the centers and research profiles of the teams. All will include some combination of public presentations and events, regular meetings of the research teams, faculty workshops, and/or curricular initiatives, such as the development of team-taught courses on secularism, religion, and political belonging. Each research team will be responsible for executing their local program as a research strategy for developing a joint response to the questions and keywords delivered to them by their team’s participants at the Inaugural Conversation and Seminar.
In July of 2015, the project will close with a Culminating Summer Symposium, scheduled at the Minerva Institute in Tel-Aviv. Each research team will send two of their members, who will be charged with the presentation of their team’s White Papers. Participants will also share scholarly papers of their own. The symposium will open with a poster session at which each research team verbally presents their report, framing it in response to the RelSec project’s opening questions. The symposium will then turn to the elaboration of these themes through discussions of the individual scholarly papers. A selection of the scholarly papers presented at the Summer Symposium will be gathered in the form of a book of proceedings: Global/Translocal Perspectives on Religion, Secularism, and Political Belonging. The collection will include an introduction that reviews the entire process of the RelSec pilot program. The White Papers will be included as appendices.
In the first academic year following the pilot (Fall 2015-Summer 2016), we will add three new centers to our collaborating group, while one of our current centers rotates off. This will establish the regular “12 months/6 centers” format that we expect will become the norm for RelSec. At the end of the first regular year, the three remaining centers that are currently involved in the project will rotate off, permitting three new members of the CHCI network to replace us. Each year, the three continuing centers will first select the new theme, then choose their three new partners by open application of members from the CHCI network. New centers should be chosen with geographical distribution in mind.
We expect RelSec to deliver to CHCI both a rich topic of ongoing humanities investigation and a substantive engagement with the consortium’s own globality, as well as finely tuned institutional mechanism for ongoing, intensive collaborations that supports the hard translational work of international scholarly exchange.
Aamir Mufti, Enlightenment in the Colony: The Jewish Question and the Crisis of Postcolonial Culture (Princeton University Press 2009).
Giorgio Agamben, The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans (Stanford University Press 2005).
Arjun Appadurai, Fear of Small Numbers : An Essay on the Geography of Anger (Duke University Press 2006).
Aziz El Azmeh, Islams and Modernities (Verso 2009).
Judith Butler, Jürgen Habermas, Charles Taylor, and Cornel West. The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, co-authored by (Columbia University Press 2011).
Faisal Devji, The Terrorist in Search of Humanity: Militant Islam and Global Politics (Columbia University Press 2008).
Peter Gordon, “The Place of the Sacred in the Absence of God: Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age.” Journal of the History of Ideas, Volume 69, Number 4 (October 2008), pp. 647-673.
Stathis Gourgouris, “ De-Transcendentalizing the Secular.” Public Culture (20:3) pp. 437-445.
_____“Antisecularist Failures: A Counterresponse to Saba Mahmood.” Public Culture (20:3) pp.453-459.
Janet R. Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini, Love the Sin: Sexual Regulation and the Limits of Religious Tolerance (Beacon 2006).
_____“Introduction: Times Like These.” Secularisms (Duke University Press 2008)
Saba Mahmood, “Secular Imperatives?” Public Culture (20:3) pp. 461-465.
George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (Oxford University Press 2006).
Tomaka Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions: Or How European Universalism was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (University of Chicago Press 2005).
John Milbank, Theology & Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (London: Blackwell 1990).
Nathan Schneider (2010), “The future of China’s past: An interview with Mayfair Yang. The Immanent Frame” http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/2010/09/23/the-future-of-chinas-past/
Joan Scott, The Politics of the Veil (Princeton University Press 2007).
Charles Taylor, A Secular Age. (Harvard University Press 2007).
Hent de Vries and Lawrence Sullivan eds., Political Theologies: Public Religions in a Post-Secular World (Fordham University Press 2006).
Slavoj Žižek, Eric Santner, and Kenneth Reinhardt, The Neighbor: Three Inquiries into Political Theology (University of Chicago Press 2009).