Lee, “Recognizing the Non-religious: Reimagining the Secular”

This month, Oxford University Press releases “Recognizing the Non-religious: Reimagining the Secular” by Lois Lee (University College London). The publisher’s description follows:

In recent years, the extent to which contemporary societies are secular has come under scrutiny. At the same time, many countries, especially in Europe, have increasingly large nonaffiliate, ‘subjectively secular’ populations, whilst nonreligious cultural movements like the New Atheism and the Sunday Assembly have come to prominence. Making sense of secularity, irreligion, and the relationship between them has therefore emerged as a crucial task for those seeking to understand contemporary societies and the nature of modern life.

Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork in southeast England, Recognizing the Nonreligious develops a new vocabulary, theory and methodology for thinking about the secular. It distinguishes between separate and incommensurable aspects of so-called secularity as insubstantial – involving merely the absence of religion – and substantial – involving beliefs, ritual practice, and identities that are alternative to religious ones. Recognizing the cultural forms that present themselves as nonreligious therefore opens up new, more egalitarian and more theoretically coherent ways of thinking about people who are ‘not religious’. It is also argued that recognizing the nonreligious allows us to reimagine the secular itself in new and productive ways.

This book is part of a fast-growing area of research that builds upon and contributes to theoretical debates concerning secularization, ‘desecularization’, religious change, postsecularity and postcolonial approaches to religion and secularism. As well as presenting new research, this book gathers insights from the wider studies of nonreligion, atheism, and secularism in order to consolidate a theoretical framework, conceptual foundation and agenda for future research.

Same-Sex Marriage and Our New Religious Politics

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Photo from Wikimedia

In the last week, two interesting polls have appeared, one from the Associated Press and the other from the Washington Post, on Americans’ reactions to the Supreme Court’s June ruling in the same-sex marriage case, Obergefell v. Hodges. Taken together, the polls reveal that America is more divided on the question than first appeared. And the polls reflect an unfortunate, new religious dimension in American politics.

Notwithstanding the widespread acclaim for the decision in the days following Obergefell, it turns out that many Americans do not favor making same-sex marriage a constitutional right. In the AP poll, only 39% said they approved of the Court’s ruling, while 41% said they disapproved. In the Washington Post poll, a bare majority, 52%, said they approved the Court’s decision, while 44% disapproved. These results are much closer than one would have expected, given the immediate media reaction to the ruling.

Now, the fact that many Americans disapprove of the Court’s decision doesn’t mean the decision is wrong. Constitutional law doesn’t turn on opinion polls. (As it happens, I think the Court’s opinion is wrong as a constitutional matter, for reasons I explain here). And one must be careful about reading too much into polls, especially polls that follow an unusual recent event. In time, public opinion may settle in favor of the Court’s decision, especially given the fact that younger Americans apparently support same-sex marriage in significant numbers. Besides, people could disapprove of the Court’s decision for reasons that do not directly relate to the merits. Americans are generally in a bad mood about the state of our country these days, and the polls may simply reflect that dissatisfaction.

All that said, these polls seem significant to me, for three reasons. First, they demonstrate that opposition to the Court’s decision is not a fringe phenomenon. Forty-four percent of the country is not an insignificant group. Dissenters may be reticent about expressing their opinion publicly—or, indeed, to pollsters, which suggests the percentage of opponents may be even higher—but they are not a trivial proportion of the population. America is apparently still divided on the question of same-sex marriage, and this division will doubtless make itself apparent in our politics. More on this below.

Second, the results hint that some people who oppose the Court’s decision may do so out of concern for religious freedom. In the AP poll, for example, 56% said that religious liberty should take precedence over gay rights, the implication being that people anticipate a conflict between the two. They should. At oral argument in Obergefell, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli himself acknowledged the potential for conflict, on questions like tax exemptions for religiously-affiliated institutions that oppose same-sex marriage.

Finally, there is an unmistakable partisan divide. In the AP poll, a large majority of Democrats gave priority to gay rights, while a large majority of Republicans said religious freedom is more important. The extent of the divide is truly startling. “By a 64-32 margin, most Democrats said it’s more important to protect gay rights than religious liberties when the two are in conflict,” the AP reports. “Republicans said the opposite, by 82-17.”

This polarization is worrisome. Up till now, America has been spared the bitterness of religious politics. Unlike some countries in Europe, we have not had clerical and anti-clerical parties. True, particular religious groups have gravitated toward one or another political party. In New England, for example, Irish Catholics were historically Democrats and mainline Protestants Republicans, a conflict memorialized in films like John Ford’s The Last Hurrah.

But we have never had secular and religious parties as such. Both parties saw religion, in general, as a good thing, and religious liberty as a fundamental American value. Tocqueville noticed this and found it refreshing. “In the United States,” he observed, “if a politician attacks a sect, this may not prevent the partisans of that very sect from supporting him; but if he attacks all the sects together, everyone abandons him, and he remains alone.”

Perhaps the political consensus on the value of religion is breaking down. More and more, one of our two major political parties is identifying itself as secular, and the other as religious. That’s not to say that all Democrats are secularists and all Republicans religious believers—of course not. Just ask the folks at Secular Right. And people could value religious freedom but believe other interests outweigh it in particular cases. Still, there seems a clear trend: religious freedom is becoming a partisan issue. That’s a very bad thing for America. You might even say it’s un-American. Let’s hope the trend doesn’t continue.

Slight, “The British Empire and the Hajj”

In September, the Harvard University Press will release “The British Empire and the Hajj,” by John Slight (St. John’s College, University of Cambridge). The publisher’s description follows:

The British Empire at its height governed more than half the world’s Muslims. It was a political imperative for the Empire to present itself to Muslims as a friend and protector, to take seriously what one scholar called its role as “the greatest Mohamedan power in the world.” Few tasks were more important than engagement with the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Every year, tens of thousands of Muslims set out for Mecca from imperial territories throughout Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, from the Atlantic Ocean to the South China Sea. Men and women representing all economic classes and scores of ethnic and linguistic groups made extraordinary journeys across waterways, deserts, and savannahs, creating huge challenges for officials charged with the administration of these pilgrims. They had to balance the religious obligation to travel against the desire to control the pilgrims’ movements, and they became responsible for the care of those who ran out of money. John Slight traces the Empire’s complex interactions with the Hajj from the 1860s, when an outbreak of cholera led Britain to engage reluctantly in medical regulation of pilgrims, to the Suez Crisis of 1956. The story draws on a varied cast of characters—Richard Burton, Thomas Cook, the Begums of Bhopal, Lawrence of Arabia, and frontline imperial officials, many of them Muslim—and gives voice throughout to the pilgrims themselves.

The British Empire and the Hajj is a crucial resource for understanding how this episode in imperial history was experienced by rulers and ruled alike.

Terpstra, “Religious Refugees in the Early Modern World”

In August, the Cambridge University Press releases “Religious Refugees in the Early Modern World: An Alternative History of the Reformation,” by Nicholas Terpstra (University of Toronto). The publisher’s description follows: 

The religious refugee first emerged as a mass phenomenon in the late fifteenth century. Over the following two and a half centuries, millions  of Jews, Muslims, and Christians were forced from their homes and into temporary or permanent exile. Their migrations across Europe and around the globe shaped the early modern world and profoundly affected literature, art, and culture. Economic and political factors drove many expulsions, but religion was the factor most commonly used to justify them. This was also the period of religious revival known as the Reformation. This book explores how reformers’ ambitions to purify individuals and society fueled movements to purge ideas, objects, and people considered religiously alien or spiritually contagious. * Aims to explain religious ideas and movements of the Reformation in non-technical and comparative language. * Moves Jews and Muslims to the centre of the traditional Reformation narrative, and considers how the exile experience shaped early modern culture, art, politics, and cities. * Traces the historical patterns that still account for the growing numbers of modern religious refugees.

Kornberg, “The Pope’s Dilemma: Pius XII Faces Atrocities and Genocide in the Second World War”

In May, the University of Toronto Press released “The Pope’s Dilemma: Pius XII Faces Atrocities and Genocide in the Second World War” by Jacques Kornberg (University of Toronto). The publisher’s description follows:

Pope Pius XII presided over the Catholic Church during one of the most challenging moments in its history. Elected in early 1939, Pius XII spoke out against war and destruction, but his refusal to condemn Nazi Germany and its allies for mass atrocities and genocide remains controversial almost seventy years after the end of the Second World War.

Scholars have blamed Pius’s inaction on anti-communism, antisemitism, a special emotional bond with Germany, or a preference for fascist authoritarianism. Delving deep into Catholic theology and ecclesiology, Jacques Kornberg argues instead that what drove Pius XII was the belief that his highest priority must be to preserve the authority of the Church and the access to salvation that it provided.

In The Pope’s Dilemma, Kornberg uses the examples of Pius XII’s immediate predecessors Benedict XV and the Armenian genocide and Pius XI and Fascist Italy, as well as case studies of Pius XII’s wartime policies towards five Catholic countries (Croatia, France, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia), to demonstrate the consistency with which Pius XII and the Vatican avoided confronting the perpetrators of atrocities and strove to keep Catholics within the Church. By this measure, Pius XII did not betray, but fulfilled his papal role.

A meticulous and careful analysis of the career of the twentieth century’s most controversial pope, The Pope’s Dilemma is an important contribution to the ongoing debate about the Catholic Church’s wartime legacy.

Lenz-Raymann, “Securitization of Islam: A Vicious Circle Counter-Terrorism and Freedom of Religion in Central Asia”

In May, Columbia University Press released “Securitization of Islam: A Vicious Circle. Counter-Terrorism and Freedom of Religion in Central Asia” by Kathrin Lenz-Raymann (political consultant, Zurich, Switzerland). The publisher’s description follows:

Diverse Islamic groups have triggered a revival of Islam in Central Asia in the last decades. As a result, there has been a general securitization of Islam by the governments: not only do they combat the terrorist Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan but also outlaw popular groups such as the Gülen movement. However, strong repression of religion might lead to radicalization. Kathrin Lenz-Raymann tests this hypothesis with an agent-based computer simulation and enriches her study with interviews with international experts, leaders of political Islam and representatives of folk Islam. She concludes that ensuring religious rights is essential for national security.

Bendroth, “The Last Puritans”

In October, the University of North Carolina Press will release “The Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past,” by Margaret Bendroth (executive director of the Congregational Library and Archives in Boston).  The publisher’s description follows: 

Congregationalists, the oldest group of American Protestants, are the heirs of New England’s first founders. While they were key characters in the story of early American history, from Plymouth Rock and the founding of Harvard and Yale to the Revolutionary War, their luster and numbers have faded. But Margaret Bendroth’s critical history of Congregationalism over the past two centuries reveals how the denomination is essential for understanding mainline Protestantism in the making.

Bendroth chronicles how the New England Puritans, known for their moral and doctrinal rigor, came to be the antecedents of the United Church of Christ, one of the most liberal of all Protestant denominations today. The demands of competition in the American religious marketplace spurred Congregationalists, Bendroth argues, to face their distinctive history. By engaging deeply with their denomination’s storied past, they recast their modern identity. The soul-searching took diverse forms–from letter writing and eloquent sermonizing to Pilgrim-celebrating Thanksgiving pageants–as Congregationalists renegotiated old obligations to their seventeenth-century spiritual ancestors. The result was a modern piety that stood a respectful but ironic distance from the past and made a crucial contribution to the American ethos of religious tolerance.

Goodman, “American Philosophy Before Pragmatism”

Pragmatism has been called America’s most distinctive contribution to American Philosophy Before Pragmatismphilosophy. And pragmatism has certainly influenced American law–see, for example, the contributions of Richard Posner to jurisprudence. Here is a new book that explores American philosophical thought before the 20th century pragmatist explosion, American Philosophy Before Pragmatism, by Russell B. Goodman (University of New Mexico), to be released in September by Oxford University Press. The publisher’s description follows.

Russell B. Goodman tells the story of the development of philosophy in America from the mid-18th century to the late 19th century. The key figures in this story, Jonathan Edwards, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, the writers of The Federalist, and the romantics (or ‘transcendentalists’) Emerson and Thoreau, were not professors but men of the world, whose deep formative influence on American thought brought philosophy together with religion, politics, and literature. Goodman considers their work in relation to the philosophers and other thinkers they found important: the deism of John Toland and Matthew Tindal, the moral sense theories of Francis Hutcheson, Adam Smith, and David Hume, the political and religious philosophy of John Locke, the romanticism of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the transcendental idealism of Immanuel Kant. Goodman discusses Edwards’s condemnation and Franklin’s acceptance of deism, argues that Jefferson was an Epicurean in his metaphysical views and a Christian, Stoic, and Epicurean in his moral outlook, traces Emerson’s debts to writers from Madame de Stael to William Ellery Channing, and considers Thoreau’s orientation to the universe through sitting and walking.

The morality of American slavery is a major theme in American Philosophy before Pragmatism, introduced not to excuse or condemn, but to study how five formidably intelligent people thought about the question when it was–as it no longer is for us–open. Edwards, Franklin and Jefferson owned slaves, though Franklin and Jefferson played important roles in disturbing the uneasy American moral equilibrium that included slavery, even as they approved an American constitution that included it. Emerson and Thoreau were prominent public opponents of slavery in the eighteen forties and fifties. The book contains an Interlude on the concept of a republic and concludes with an Epilogue documenting some continuities in American philosophy, particularly between Emerson and the pragmatists.

Bill Kristol Interview with Samuel Alito

This item is getting some deserved attention: Bill Kristol has posted a long-form, uninterrupted interview with Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito on his “Conversations with Bill Kristol” site. I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to know more about the inner workings of the Court and the intellectual debates that have informed American law for the past generation. Justice Alito’s discussion of his dissent in Obergefell, which you can access here, will particularly interest readers of this site. Alito argues that the case represents a return to an unmoored jurisprudence of unenumerated rights, divorced both from constitutional text and national history and tradition. Worth watching.

Greece and the Price of Europe

Alexis Tsipras, head of the anti-bailout Syriza party, speaks during a financial conference in Athens on Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2014.  Tsipras said that Greece’s battered economy could not recover unless the money owed to other Eurozone country’s was cut significantly. The leader of Greece’s popular left-wing opposition says he will demand a massive debt haircut from bailout lenders if his party comes to power in a possible snap election early next year. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

(AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

Last week was a momentous one for the European project. On Monday, the Greek Parliament passed an austerity package that other Eurozone members, especially Germany, had demanded as a condition for considering Greece’s request for an €86 bailout. Negotiations will now begin. How they will end is anybody’s guess.  No one thinks the austerity package itself will solve the economic crisis Greece faces, and pretty much everyone thinks it will lead to years of misery for the nation. Greece already owes creditors an unsustainable €320 billion. But Germany argues that EU rules prohibit any debt reduction for Greece. Perhaps the parties will find a way to extend Greek payments without calling it a debt reduction. I’m sure the lawyers are working on it.

There is plenty of blame to go around. Yes, Greece misled people about the state of its finances when it joined the euro and has spent beyond its means. And the left-wing Syriza government greatly misjudged the mood in Europe and allowed itself to be completely outmaneuvered. But the banks that made the loans should have known Greece was in no position to pay. Having collected their commissions, they passed the debts to national governments–privatized gains and socialized losses–and walked away. As for those national governments, they should have known a common currency without a common fiscal policy was an unworkable proposition. They ignored this truth in pursuit of the illusion of a common Europe, extending from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean and from the Atlantic to the Black Sea. Greece is now paying the price for that illusion.

All this has been said before. But I’d like to draw attention to a small element of the austerity package Greece’s creditors demanded, one that has largely escaped notice. Under the terms of the package, in order to stimulate commerce, Greece will have to repeal its restrictions on Sunday store openings. From now on, nationwide, Sunday will be a shopping day. (Two years ago, Athens allowed Sunday shopping in 10 tourist areas, a move that led to protests). Presumably, Greeks will respond by buying and selling and generally growing their economy. The increased tax revenues will allow Greece to pay some of its debt. And repeal of anti-liberal Sunday closing laws will allow Greece to create a rational European economy, like Germany’s—though, ironically, German stores are closed Sundays.

We Americans are likely to view this matter as trivial. In America, as Robert Louis Wilken once wrote, the only thing that distinguishes Sunday from other days of the week is that the malls open a little later. Besides, a country can’t be pre-modern forever. Sunday closing laws are hopelessly old-fashioned and illiberal. If Greeks want to stay home on Sundays, they can; but people should be able to shop if they want to.  Resistance probably comes from interest groups that oppose free competition.

But Greece isn’t America or Germany, or at least it didn’t want to be, and the reform is indicative of a larger issue. The Sunday closing laws reflected the fact that Greece had values in addition to the market. Greece has had a tradition of Sunday closings to allow people to spend time with family and attend church. (Sure, lots of people watch football instead, but that’s a different matter. Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue). The ban on Sunday trading acknowledged that Greece is an Orthodox Christian country, with its own rhythms and ways of life. No matter. In Europe today, if it’s a choice between religious and cultural traditions, on the one hand, and commerce, on the other, commerce wins.  That’s the economically sound choice.

I don’t suppose there’s anything to be done. Greece is in a terrible situation and needs to find a way out. And I know it’s a small matter, compared to the other hardships Greeks will have to bear. But something important is being lost. To be part of the European project, apparently, a country must do whatever it can to become a secular, consumerist, market-oriented place—Sundays included. Localized cultures that stand in the way of economic rationality must recede. Perhaps that’s the inevitable logic of modernity. But it’s not an image the Christian Democratic founders of Europe like Konrad Adenauer and Robert Schuman would have recognized.