Institute for the Study of Religion and Culture (North America)

Rethinking Secularism Symposium

Symposium Recording

On Friday, February 21,2014, the RelSec project team at the University of Arizona convened four internationally recognized scholars to participate in a symposium on “Rethinking Secularism.”. Akeel Bilgrami (Professor of Philosophy, Columbia University), Dilip Gaonkar (Professor of Rhetoric and Communication, Northwestern University , Colin Jager (Associate Professor of English, Rutgers University), and Radha Radhakrishnan (Professor of English and Comparative Literature, UC Irvine) spoke on such topics as the religious basis of political radicalism, the secular personae of the author during the Rushdie affair, the shifting politics of Christian fundamentalism, and the dialectics of knowing and being secular. The day-long symposium was attended by scholars from across the university as well as community members.

The symposium program appears below, and will soon be linked to audio recordings of the talks.  A sequel event to be held at the Heyman Center for the Humanities at Columbia University in the Fall of 2014 is now being explored.

RelSec Symposium

“Rethinking Secularism”

February 21, 2014

The University of Arizona


Featuring Presentations and Discussion by Internationally Distinguished Scholars Akeel Bilgrami, Dilip Gaonkar, Colin Jager, and Radha Radhakrishnan


Schedule of Events


Dilip Gaonkar 9:30am

The Rushdie Apology and the Quest for a Secular Persona”

Moderator: Suresh Raval

In the quarter of century separating the publication two of his books—a novel and a memoir—The Satanic Verses (1988) and Joseph Anton: A Memoir (2013) —Salman Rushdie has been extraordinarily productive as a writer under what might be euphemistically characterized as “trying and unusual circumstances.” In this paper, I examine six texts Rushdie published in first three years of the controversy over his novel which may be regarded as constituting Rushdie's “Apology” or “defense” of himself and his novel. The complicated textual itinerary of Rushdie’s Apology begins with a terse liberal-secular defense and after a series of detours reverts back to it, but in pathos laced heroic mode. What does this itinerary of an avowed cosmopolitan and diasporic “writer under duress” tell us about the perils and possibilities of “persuasion” in the world in which we live?


Radha Radhakrishnan 11am

“Being Secular, Knowing Secular”

Moderator: Matthew Abraham

I will evaluate secularism both as a way of knowing and a way of being in the context of other forms of knowledge that are either religion or faith based. Does secularism envision its own rationale differently than Religion/Faith?  Is it possible to become a secular fundamentalist?  What is the relationship between the regime of the secular and the sovereignty of the democratic nation state?  Using Edward Said's notion of the secular, I will also be looking into the epistemics as well as the politics of what it means to coexist.


Akeel Bilgrami 2pm

“Religion and the Possibilities of Political Radicalism”

Moderator: William Simmons

This paper will explore genealogically and conceptually the extent to which the continuities between religion and secularity can be the basis of a radical vision of politics that falls outside the conceptual framework of the orthodox enlightenment. 


Colin Jager 3:30pm

London's Overthrow: Fundamentalism and Inequality”

Moderator: Karen Seat

This talk turns to the question of fundamentalist reading practices, whose literalism is often thought to encode violence. Through a reading first of Jonathan Martin, who tried to burn down the York Minster in the 1820s, and then of more recent efforts to convert or soften fundamentalist reading by means of allegory or symbol, I argue that fundamentalism has been deeply and complexly interwoven with questions of economic justice. Against the prevailing tendency to think of so-called “strong religion” as indifferent to material concerns, I suggest that it speaks to the needs of ordinary people in ways that are only now, in the age of neoliberalism, becoming recognizable.

The RelSec project is a three year collaborative effort which brings together scholars from around the world in a joint study of how political life is changing worldwide in response to the forces of religion and secularism. The project is supported by a grant from the Mellon Foundation and the backing of the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes.


With special thanks for support from:

Department of English

Religious Studies Program

Institute for the Study of Religion and Culture

Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry

Department of Gender and Women’s Studies






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.