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73nd Annual Summer Conference, August 5–8, 2004

Conflicts between Secularism and Religion:
Clarification of the Issues

Ali Jimale Ahmed and Robert Orsi

Speaker’s Notes: ROBERT ORSI, Harvard University

The key words used to describe the contemporary world – secularization, modernization, globalization, fundamentalism, pluralism, and so on – present themselves to us as a descriptive vocabulary for what is really out there in the world

  1. But in fact these are prescriptive terms: they tell us how the world must be, the give normative accounts of the way things are:

    – Take “pluralism” for instance: this pretends to describe the simple reality of many contemporary urban societies, from New York City to Capetown, in which people who differ from each other ethnically, linguistically, and religiously, live together in a shared space, in mutual respect and toleration, and in harmony

    – But this fact is better called “plurality”; “pluralism” as a prescription, which is what it is, includes clear norms on what is and what is not tolerable in this shared space; it often assumes a common foundation of value and belief that all people share and that consequently minimizes differences (differences that in fact are essentially important for the various groups involved); it puts high, although not always well-defined, strictures on what can and cannot be said and done in the public space

    – Pluralist “harmony” means the absence of differences that liberal modernity finds intolerable

    – The modern secular state – I am thinking here of the U.S. federal government which is (at least theoretically) founded on a clear separation of church and state – was born not out of the success of pluralism but of a sharp awareness of the dangers and risks of plurality, specifically out of the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries
  2. Such key words of the modern world mask their authority behind this claim of being unproblematic descriptions of the way things are.
  3. They occlude the political decisions, the exercises of power, and in particular the exclusions, that went in to making the modern world the way it is, and the consequences of these decisions and acts of power
  4. And especially troublesome for our work, they constitute the normative space of what will be deemed tolerable, acceptable, safe and good, on the one hand, and what will be declared intolerable, unacceptable, unsafe and bad

Early on in these remarks I want to say that I too want to live in a safe and good world, in which people respect each other’s rights to live as they see fit, and in a peaceful world –

But as a scholar of religion committed to empirically (with all due caveats) engaging religion in the modern world and trying to understand it – and very much trying to understand now how we live in a very dangerous world in which competing understandings of how humans best live inflict serious damage on each other – I find these words to constitute a thicket through which it becomes almost impossible to see clearly; and the cost of this bad vision is very high now

Take the very title for this gathering: “God’s Back, With a Vengeance” – what narrative is assumed, and authorized, in this formulation?

  1. Has God been away? Hard to say this about modern India, or throughout Asia, or for that matter in the U.S.
  2. And what is this image of a vengeful God? What does this articulate – the bad conscience of a normative modernity, which recognizes that God did not so much as disappear, but was hidden?
  3. The fact is that God never went away: look at the U.S.: no sooner had all the churches been disestablished, in the 1830s, that a revived Protestantism turned its attention to the public sphere, initiating and sustaining a host of social reform campaigns (or campaigns of social order, depending on your perspective).
  4. We can narrow our focus to governing institutions, which in the modern era have been secular in the west, but on what grounds would we do this, other than the normative insistence that this is the inevitable telos of the modern age.
  5. Modern social worlds have never been secular, and even in the most apparently secular societies, the modern world has been characterized by ongoing conflict between competing visions of public life – so this would be my first conclusion:

    – That the world we find ourselves in today is not frighteningly new, with new religious forces unleashed against modernity;

    – That there is not a single inevitable modern world towards which all of history is striving;

    – So that the challenge really is to learn how to live amid radical differences not heading towards a normative sameness;

    – Can we learn to talk about multiple modernities? Alterative modernities?

The word “fundamentalist,” as I am sure I am simply reminding you all, was coined in the second decade of the 20th century in the U.S. to describe a group of Christian intellectuals who were dismayed by the new biblical criticism and the use of critical historiography to study biblical and church histories.

  1. There were serious issues to be debated between liberals and conservatives, and both sides schemed to discipline the other in various church bodies.
  2. But it was with the Scopes trial in 1925 that the term fundamentalist took on its meaning of one utterly opposed to the modern world, an atavistic holdover soon to be left behind by the forward movement of history.
  3. In fact the 20th century in the U.S. saw the proliferation of conservative Christian movements, including Pentecostalism, which is the fastest growing religious idiom on the planet right now, among all social classes and in both hemispheres.
  4. One of the great ironies – bearing serious reflection – is the fact that the same American president who aligns himself with the most radical religious currents in his own country is calling for a radically secularized Iraq.

What would it mean then for those of us in the normatively modern west to rethink our own singular modernity: what if we decenter our own modernity?

  1. Are you prepared to see your way of life, the particular configuration of political, cultural, and economic world, as one among several possible ways of inhabiting the modern world, and not the inevitable end point of all ways of living? Are you willing to imagine what it would mean to coexist with radical difference?
  2. Perhaps I am being naïve: one political theorist has famously argued that after the end of communism, history itself came to an end – but what this argument does is to naturalize capitalism, as if it was the entirety of reality, reality’s very identity.
  3. Westerners are asking today whether conservative religion (a preferable term to “fundamentalism”) can coexist with democracy.
  4. The real question is whether or not alternative modernities can coexist with capitalist modernity.
  5. Here I think the prognosis is not good.

The key distinction in the days of the old cold war was not democracy/totalitarianism; recall Jean Kirkpatrick’s famous effort to distinguish between totalitarian and authoritarian regimes.

  1. In other words, those regimes that accommodated capitalist modernity and those that did not.
  2. Likewise throughout the 20th century, the capitalist west has marginalized or eradicated in the Middle East among other places movements that were truly democratic but antithetical to capitalist modernity.
  3. So when we confront the reputedly vengeful God come “back” to torment the modern world, what we might be observing is a God created by the denials of singularly powerful capitalist modernity that insists on its own exclusive primacy; this is not a “fundamentalist” God, if by this we mean the return of the repressed, but a distinctly modern God, born of the specific conflicts and denials of modernity.
  4. After 9/11/01, Bush told us that the Islam of the pilots who took down the World Trade Center was not “real Islam.”

– What I am about to say does not imply that the U.S. should have taken no steps to ferret out the perpetrators of this action and punished them, or punish nations that may have in this instance supported this act.

– I believe the actions taken against the Taliban were appropriate.

– However Bush’s comment signaled a number of disturbing realities:

• First that we need not take seriously or attend to anything in the worldview of the Islam so decreed unreal.

• That our only responsibility now is to obliterate any proponents of this unreal world of “Islam.”

• That this “Islam” is completely antithetical to “democracy.”

So what am I suggesting here? At the very least I’m calling for a recognition of – not an endorsement of – the range of alternative ways of living in the modern world, including those not compatible with capitalist modernity

  1. I am suggesting that religion alone – religious imaginings and practices imagined in isolation – is not responsible for chaos and violence in the modern world, that you cannot find the key to terror in the inner world of religion; there is really no such a thing as religious terrorism – there is terrorism, but its origins are in the lives and histories of people, not in their religions.
  2. You can’t deduce terror from a phenomenology of certain sorts of religious imagining.
  3. The gods of the modern world are products of the modern world, generated in the distinctive spaces of its history.
  4. That we need to study carefully the ways that modernities other than capitalist modernity have been crushed, and at what cost, and the ways in which the act of crushing resulted in new religious formations.
  5. And to think about what it would mean if we reconceptualize the modern world as a place of plural modernities, including some we might not recognize as such from the perspective of our once normative, now besieged version.