Tag Archives: Secularism

Cimino & Smith, “Atheist Awakening”

This October, Oxford University Press will release “Atheist Awakening: Secular Activism and Community in America” by Richard Cimino (University of Richmond) and Christopher Smith.  The publisher’s description follows:

Atheist AwakeningSurveys over the last twenty years have seen an ever-growing number of Americans disclaim religious affiliations and instead check the “none” box. In the first sociological exploration of organized secularism in America, Richard Cimino and Christopher Smith show how one segment of these “nones” have created a new, cohesive atheist identity through activism and the creation of communities.

According to Cimino and Smith, the new upsurge of atheists is a reaction to the revival of religious fervor in American politics since 1980. Feeling overlooked and underrepresented in the public sphere, atheists have employed a wide variety of strategies-some evangelical, some based on identity politics-to defend and assert themselves against their ideological opponents. These strategies include building and maintaining communities, despite the absence of the kinds of shared rituals, texts, and laws that help to sustain organized religions.

Drawing on in-depth interviews with self-identified atheist, secularist, and humanist leaders and activists, as well as extensive observations and analysis of secular gatherings and media, Cimino and Smith illustrate how atheists organize and align themselves toward common goals, and how media-particularly web-based media-have proven invaluable in connecting atheists to one another and in creating a powerful virtual community. Cimino and Smith suggest that secularists rely not only on the Internet for community-building, but on their own new forms of ritual.

This groundbreaking study will be essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the growing atheist movement in America.

Gray on the Ubiquity of Evil

John Gray has a long, superb essay on the subject (h/t L. Joseph), with scathingly acute criticisms of the modern sense in which evil is eminently conquerable through (of all things) politics, or really doesn’t exist, or must somehow be the result of somebody’s mistake, or could be cleared up as a simple matter confusion. Particularly keen are Gray’s comments about the way in which the old religious traditions offer certain insights on the matter, insights that are today largely either ignored or disbelieved. Read it all, including this:

It’s not that [most western leaders] are obsessed with evil. Rather, they don’t really believe in evil as an enduring reality in human life. If their feverish rhetoric means anything, it is that evil can be vanquished. In believing this, those who govern us at the present time reject a central insight of western religion, which is found also in Greek tragic drama and the work of the Roman historians: destructive human conflict is rooted in flaws within human beings themselves. In this old-fashioned understanding, evil is a propensity to destructive and self-destructive behaviour that is humanly universal. The restraints of morality exist to curb this innate human frailty; but morality is a fragile artifice that regularly breaks down. Dealing with evil requires an acceptance that it never goes away.

No view of things could be more alien at the present time. Whatever their position on the political spectrum, almost all of those who govern us hold to some version of the melioristic liberalism that is the west’s default creed, which teaches that human civilisation is advancing – however falteringly – to a point at which the worst forms of human destructiveness can be left behind. According to this view, evil, if any such thing exists, is not an inbuilt human flaw, but a product of defective social institutions, which can over time be permanently improved.

Paradoxically, this belief in the evanescence of evil is what underlies the hysterical invocation of evil that has lately become so prominent. There are many bad and lamentable forces in the world today, but it is those that undermine the belief in human improvement that are demonised as “evil”. So what disturbs the west about Vladimir Putin, for example, is not so much the persecution of gay people over which he has presided, or the threat posed to Russia’s neighbours by his attempt to reassert its imperial power. It is the fact that he has no place in the liberal scheme of continuing human advance. As a result, the Russian leader can only be evil. When George W Bush looked into Putin’s eyes at a Moscow summit in May 2002, he reported, “I was able to get a sense of his soul”. When Joe Biden visited the Kremlin in 2011, he had a very different impression, telling Putin: “Mr Prime Minister, I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul.” According to Biden, Putin smiled and replied, “We understand each other.” The religious language is telling: nine years earlier, Putin had been a pragmatic leader with whom the west could work; now he was a soulless devil.

It’s in the Middle East, however, that the prevailing liberal worldview has proved most consistently misguided. At bottom, it may be western leaders’ inability to think outside this melioristic creed that accounts for their failure to learn from experience. After more than a decade of intensive bombing, backed up by massive ground force, the Taliban continue to control much of Afghanistan and appear to be regaining ground as the American-led mission is run down. Libya – through which a beaming David Cameron processed in triumph only three years ago, after the use of western air power to help topple Gaddafi – is now an anarchic hell-hole that no western leader could safely visit. One might think such experiences would be enough to deter governments from further exercises in regime change. But our leaders cannot admit the narrow limits of their power. They cannot accept that by removing one kind of evil they may succeed only in bringing about another – anarchy instead of tyranny, Islamist popular theocracy instead of secular dictatorship. They need a narrative of continuing advance if they are to preserve their sense of being able to act meaningfully in the world, so they are driven again and again to re-enact their past failures.

Many view these western interventions as no more than exercises in geopolitics. But a type of moral infantilism is no less important in explaining the persisting folly of western governments. Though it is clear that Isis cannot be permanently weakened as long as the war against Assad continues, this fact is ignored – and not only because a western-brokered peace deal that left Assad in power would be opposed by the Gulf states that have sided with jihadist forces in Syria. More fundamentally, any such deal would mean giving legitimacy to a regime that western governments have condemned as more evil than any conceivable alternative. In Syria, the actual alternatives are the survival in some form of Assad’s secular despotism, a radical Islamist regime or continuing war and anarchy. In the liberal political culture that prevails in the west, a public choice among these options is impossible.

There are some who think the very idea of evil is an obsolete relic of religion. For most secular thinkers, what has been defined as evil in the past is the expression of social ills that can in principle be remedied. But these same thinkers very often invoke evil forces to account for humankind’s failure to advance. The secularisation of the modern moral vocabulary that many believed was under way has not occurred: public discourse about good and evil continues to be rooted in religion. Yet the idea of evil that is invoked is not one that features in the central religious traditions of the west. The belief that evil can be finally overcome has more in common with the dualistic heresies of ancient and medieval times than it does with any western religious orthodoxy.

There follows an interesting discussion of Manicheanism and the views of Augustine, and then this:

In its official forms, secular liberalism rejects the idea of evil. Many liberals would like to see the idea of evil replaced by a discourse of harm: we should talk instead about how people do damage to each other and themselves. But this view poses a problem of evil remarkably similar to that which has troubled Christian believers. If every human being is born a liberal – as these latter-day disciples of Pelagius appear to believe – why have so many, seemingly of their own free will, given their lives to regimes and movements that are essentially repressive, cruel and violent? Why do human beings knowingly harm others and themselves? Unable to account for these facts, liberals have resorted to a language of dark and evil forces much like that of dualistic religions.

The efforts of believers to explain why God permits abominable suffering and injustice have produced nothing that is convincing; but at least believers have admitted that the ways of the Deity are mysterious. Even though he ended up accepting the divine will, the questions that Job put to God were never answered. Despite all his efforts to find a solution, Augustine confessed that human reason was not equal to the task. In contrast, when secular liberals try to account for evil in rational terms, the result is a more primitive version of Manichean myth. When humankind proves resistant to improvement, it is because forces of darkness – wicked priests, demagogic politicians, predatory corporations and the like – are working to thwart the universal struggle for freedom and enlightenment. There is a lesson here. Sooner or later anyone who believes in innate human goodness is bound to reinvent the idea of evil in a cruder form. Aiming to exorcise evil from the modern mind, secular liberals have ended up constructing another version of demonology, in which anything that stands out against what is believed to be the rational course of human development is anathematised.

“Transformations of Religion and the Public Sphere: Postsecular Publics” (Braidotti et al. eds.)

Next month, Palgrave Macmillan will release “Transformations of Religion and the Public Sphere: Postsecular Publics”  edited by Rosi Braidotti (Utrecht University), Bolette Blaagaard (Aalborg University), Tobijn de Graauw (Utrecht University), and Eva Midden (Utrecht University). The publisher’s description follows:

Transformations of Religion and the Public Sphere: Postsecular Publics contributes a counter-discourse to the myth of secularism. This myth is a strongly-held belief, predominantly advocated in the westernised world, that progress and modernity is intimately linked to secular politics and social relations. This book develops a range of critiques of this myth through discussions on the current political, social, and technological conditions in which we find ourselves. It explores the political implications of the myth, as well as exploring postcolonial relations, liberal-secularism and religious sentiments, and the mediated public sphere, with an in-depth focus on the Dutch case. Transformations of Religion and the Public Sphere: Postsecular Publics takes issue with the secular condition and accepted beliefs of its liberal emancipatory foundations.

“The Oxford Handbook of European Islam” (Cesari, ed.)

This December, Oxford University Press will release “The Oxford Handbook of European Islam” edited by Jocelyn Cesari (Center for European Studies).  The publisher’s description follows:

OXford Handbook of European IslamFor centuries, Muslim countries and Europe have engaged one another through theological dialogues, diplomatic missions, political rivalries, and power struggles. In the last thirty years, due in large part to globalization and migration from Islamic countries to the West, what was previously an engagement across national and cultural boundaries has increasingly become an internalized encounter within Europe itself. Questions of the Hijab in schools, freedom of expression in the wake of the Danish Cartoon crisis, and the role of Shari’a have come to the forefront of contemporary European discourse.

The Oxford Handbook of European Islam is the first collection to present a comprehensive approach to the multiple and changing ways Islam has been studied across European countries. Parts one to three address the state of knowledge of Islam and Muslims within a selection of European countries, while presenting a critical view of the most up-to-date data specific to each country. These chapters analyze the immigration cycles and policies related to the presence of Muslims, tackling issues such as discrimination, post-colonial identity, adaptation, and assimilation. The thematic chapters, in parts four and five, examine secularism, radicalization, Shari’a, Hijab, and Islamophobia with the goal of synthesizing different national discussion into a more comparative theoretical framework. The Handbook attempts to balance cutting edge assessment with the knowledge that the content itself will eventually be superseded by events. Featuring eighteen newly-commissioned essays by noted scholars in the field, this volume will provide an excellent resource for students and scholars interested in European Studies, immigration, Islamic studies, and the sociology of religion.

Foret, “Religion and Politics in the European Union”

This November, Cambridge University Press will release “Religion and Politics in the European Union: The Secular Canopy” by François Foret (Université Libre de Bruxelles).  The publisher’s description follows:

Religion and Politics in the EUThis book analyzes the place and influence of religion in European politics. François Foret presents the first data ever collected on the religious beliefs of European decision makers and what they do with these beliefs. Discussing popular assumptions such as the return of religion, aggressive European secularism, and religious lobbying, Foret offers objective data and non-normative conceptual frameworks to clarify some major issues in the contemporary political debate.

Gubo, “Blasphemy and Defamation of Religions in a Polarized World”

This December, Lexington Books will release “Blasphemy and Defamation of Religions in a Polarized World: How Religious Fundamentalism is Challenging Fundamental Human Rights” by Darara Gubo.  The publisher’s description follows:

The 21st century has been significantly shaped by the growing importance of religion in international politics resulting in rising polarization among nation states. This new dynamic has presented new challenges to international human rights principles. This book deals with some of these new challenges, particularly the growing demand by Muslim states for protection of Islamic religion from blasphemy and defamation. Member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), through resolutions at the United Nations, made efforts to introduce laws that globally protect Islamic religion from blasphemy and defamation. The bid by OIC member states faced opposition from Western countries. The conflicting claims of the two sides are discussed in this book. The book clearly shows the impact of blasphemy and defamation of religion laws on certain aspects of fundamental human rights principles.

“Mapping the Legal Boundaries” (Provost, ed.)

This December, Oxford University Press will release “Mapping the Legal Boundaries: Religion and Multiculturalism from Israel to Canada” edited by Rene Provost (McGill University).  The publisher’s description follows:

Mapping the Legal BoundariesFor several decades, culture played a central role in challenging the liberal tradition. More recently however, religion has re-emerged as one of the central challenges facing Western liberal societies’ conception of multiculturalism. Mapping the Legal Boundaries of Belonging explores the complex relationship between religion and multiculturalism and the role of the state and law in the creation of boundaries.

The intersection between religion, nationalism and other vectors of difference in Canada and Israel offer an ideal laboratory in which to examine multiculturalism in particular and the governance of diversity in general. The contributors to this volume investigate concepts of religious difference and diversity and the ways in which these two states and legal systems understand and respond to them. As a consequence of a purportedly secular human rights perspective, they show, state laws may appear to define religious identity in a way that contradicts the definition found within a particular religion. Both state and religion make the same mistake if they take a court decision that emphasizes individual belief and practice as effecting a direct modification of a religious norm: the court lacks the power to change the authoritative internal definition of who belongs to a particular faith. Similarly, in the pursuit of a particular model of social diversity, the state may adopt policies that imply a particular private/public distinction foreign to some religious traditions.

“Atheist Identities – Spaces and Social Contexts ” (Beaman & Tomlins, eds.)

In November, Springer releases “Atheist Identities – Spaces and Social Contexts ” edited by Lori G. Beaman (University of Ottawa) and Steven Tomlins (PhD candidate at University of Ottawa). The publisher’s description follows:

The essays in this book not only examine the variety of atheist expression and experience in the Western context, they also explore how local, national and international settings may contribute to the shaping of atheist identities. By addressing identity at these different levels, the book explores how individuals construct their own atheist—or non-religious—identity, how they construct community and how identity factors into atheist interaction at the social or institutional levels. The book offers an interdisciplinary comparative approach to the analysis of issues relating to atheism, such as demography, community engagement, gender politics, stigmatism and legal action. It covers such themes as: secularization; the social context of atheism in various Western countries; the shifting of atheist identities based on different cultural and national contexts; the role of atheism in multicultural settings; how the framework of “reasonable accommodation” applies to atheism; interactions and relationships between atheism and religion; and how atheism is represented for political and legal purposes. Featuring contributions by international scholars at the cutting edge of atheism studies, this volume offers unique insights into the relationship between atheism and identity. It will serve as a useful resource for academics, journalists, policy makers and readers interested in secular and religious studies, identity construction and identity politics as well as atheism in general.

“Religion in the Public Square” (Uitz, ed.)

This September, Eleven International Publishing releases “Religion in the Public Square: Perspectives on Secularism” edited by Renáta Uitz (Central European University).  The publisher’s description follows:

Screen shot 2014-09-24 at 11.04.05 AMWhat is the place of religion and religious convictions in government, politics and in public life – taking into consideration the need to respect the free exercise of religion? In the separation or neutrality paradigm, religious organizations (churches) are expected to stay away from public affairs. But other models of state neutrality and secularity – rooted in historical struggles and influenced by experiences and mistakes – result in differing forms of cooperation between religious organizations and the state.

“Secularism on the Edge: Rethinking Church-State Relations in the United States, France, and Israel” (Berlinerblau et al., eds.)

In August, Palgrave Macmillan released “Secularism on the Edge: Rethinking Church-State Relations in the United States, France, and Israel” edited by Jacques Berlinerblau (Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University), Sarah Fainberg (Tel Aviv University), and Aurora Nou (graduate student at American University). The publisher’s description follows:

What is secularism, and why does it matter? In an era marked by global religious revival, how do countries navigate the presence of faith in the public square? In this dynamic collection of essays, leading scholars from around the world, including Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua and French female rabbi Delphine Horvilleur, examine the condition of church-state relations in three pivotal countries: the United States, France, and Israel. Their analyses are rooted in a wide variety of disciplines, ranging from ethnography and demography to political science, gender studies, theology, and law.

Prominent among the points addressed are the crippling nomenclatural confusions that have so hampered not only secularism as a political ideology, but secularism as an academic construct. This reader-friendly volume also offers a critical and nuanced look at how women are impacted by secular governance. Though secularism is often equated with modernity and progress, including with regard to gender equality, our contributors find that the truth is infinitely more complicated.