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

Conflicts between Secularism and Religion:
Clarification of the Issues

Summary by Paul Dhillon

Moderator, Alan Pearson, CIPA Board Member

Alan Pearson began by giving a brief explanation of the order in which the discussion will occur. Alan then gave a brief introduction of the two speakers on the panel and the subject of their talk today.

The panel today will help us understand the lexicon that is attached to the discussions that we are having on the role of religion, pluralism, and the secular state. The speakers today will help peel back the many layers of this discussion.

Ali Jimale Ahmed, Professor, Queen’s College and the City of New York Graduate Center

Ali began with a discussion of the title of the conference. The god is back indicates how faith has moved back into the discursive process and our politics. However, the passing of time does not mean that representations of god have been absent; they have always been a part of the narrative.

Mr. Ahmed cited an anecdote:

“There was a man looking for something in a well lit place in the street. Shortly afterwards he was joined by a police officer who asked what the man was doing. The man replied that he had lost the key to his home and he was looking for it. The police officer begins to help the man search the well-lit area for the key and asks the man if he was sure that he had lost the key in the well lit area. The man replies that he had in fact lost the key in the dark area down the street. The police officer, perplexed, asked why he is not searching for the key in the dark. The man replies ‘it’s dark over there.’”

From this he believes that we need to look for answers in places that are dark, places that are outside our perceptions of the world.

Ali went on to speak about a number of different points that he thought were of importance:

  1. There is no single master narrative that explains all other narratives.
  2. History does not have an end that is the one claimed by western modernity.
  3. Secularism does not mean the suppression of religion; it is the separation of church and state.
  4. Fundamentalism is not a universal movement.
  5. Contradictions abound in all societies, there is not a monolithic west or east.

He then quoted an African proverb, “a sick person is showered with 1000 prescriptions.”

What the world needs is a new language with different values and mores. We must realize that nations are not a terminal concept; they only exist because of other nations. We must think outside the “cave” of the tribe.

“To the believer wisdom is a stray animal,” quotation from the Koran.

“If a snowflake cannot fall without his notice, how can an empire rise without his aid.” – Dick Cheney’s message in a Christmas card

“You never ask questions when god is on your side.” – Bob Dylan

Mr. Ahmed then continued with an African fable:

A farmer went out the garden to dig up some yams for the market, the yam begin speaking to him and said “you never weeded me, and now you want to dig me up and sell me! Get away from me with your shovel.” The farmer, shocked, looks at his nearby cow that is chewing cud and not saying anything. Suddenly his dog speaks to him and says “it wasn’t the cow talking to you it was the turnip.” By this point the farmer is quite angry, and he cuts a branch off of a nearby tree. Before the farmer can hit the dog with the stick, the stick speaks to him and states, “you are not going to use me to hit the dog! Put me down right now!” The farmer puts the stick down on a rock and the rock says “don’t put that stick down on me.” At this point the farmer takes off running down the road.

Down the road he run’s into a fisherman with a basket of fish and he tells his story. The fisherman doesn’t believe him and thinks he’s crazy. But then the basket of fish suddenly speaks and says. “If it happened to you, you would run too.” They both take of running and get on a train.

On the train they meet a cloth vendor and explain the story to him. He is incredulous, but then the bundle of cloth next to him says, “If it happened to you, you would run too.” All three jump off the train and start running together.

They reach a river and see a man bathing in the river. They all relate the story to the man in the river who thinks that they are all crazy. Then the river speaks to him and says, “If it happened to you, you would run too.”

The four men are not running to the chief of the village. They repeat the amazing story to the chief who does not believe the incredible story. He simply tells them to go back to work. As the chief returns to his house, he hears the small stool in his house say “fantastic story, a talking yam.”

Ali finished with a Chinese proverb, “to know, and not to act, is not to know.”

Robert Orsi, Professor, School of Divinity

Mr. Orsi began with a brief discussion about nomenclature – the words that we use.

Secularization, pluralism, fundamentalism, globalization, etc.; these are words that are used as descriptive vocabulary of the world around us. But in fact, these are prescriptive words, these are normative words.

Pluralism – purports to describe how people live together in mutual respect in many cities around the world.

There are problems with our use of these prescriptive words, terms that we see as natural and taken for granted, what they do is they leave things out that we don’t want to see.

These words occlude the political dimensions.

“I want to live in a peaceful and good world,” but as a religious scholar while studying the empirical.

The use of these words creates a thicket that distorts our vision.

He examined the title of the conference. God never went away in much of the world as the title might lead us to believe, and also the use of the word vengeance is evocative of a violent god and actions.

The modern world has never been secular, there are not new religious forces against modernity today, and they have always existed.

He then repeated the idea that was mentioned by Mr. Ahmed, that there is not a single narrative that the world is all going towards.

“The challenge is now how to live amongst multiple visions of modernity.”

Mr. Orsi then posed a question to the audience, “could it be that a person who takes his/her religion seriously is a possible terrorist, or is someone who takes their religion as a metaphor better suited to public life.”

“Fundamentalist” is not a good word and he hopes that it will disappear from our usage in the future.

He then mentioned a short humorous anecdote about the Scopes trial – it was actually organized by a group of public relations people who wanted to bring more media attention to the state of Tennessee for tourist purposes.

He believes that one of the great ironies is that the current American president, one of most aligned with conservative religious groups, is calling for a secular state in Iraq.

Mr. Orsi then posed a number of questions to the audience, “are you willing to think about how it would be to live with people with radical differences from you. Can conservative religion co-exist with democracy? Can multiple modernity’s co-exist with capitalism?”

Then he reiterated the point that religion alone is not alone responsible for terrorism. The origins of terrorism are in the history and lives of the people, the socio-economic and political circumstances that they live, and lived in.

Mr. Orsi finished with the comment that “we need to think about what the world would be like with multiple modernity’s.”

Alan Pearson then moderated a discussion between the two panelists.

Mr. Pearson began with the question, “what do you think are the most dangerous misconceptions in the public right now?”

Mr. Orsi believes that it is a “a deepening terror of Islam, and a growing fear of Islam.” Mr. Ahmed stated that he believes the “fear itself is grounded in the fact that you have to demonize the enemy.” He also made the comment that “some people can interpret scriptures literally, but you they do it at their own risk, literally.”

Mr. Pearson’s second question was “is there a split between religion and secularism? Or is it more of a triangle. To which Mr. Ahmed replied that religion has become implicated in the wars, it has gotten caught up in battles. Mr. Orsi brought up an anthropological triangle that included (a) family networks, (b) political/social/economic circumstances, and (c) religious ideas.

The third question posed was, “isn’t secularism a way of limiting the role of religion in political life.” To which Mr. Ahmed answered that “you won’t know your own religion until you know other religions” and that “a plurality of mixed itineraries is always possible.” He gave another quotation “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” Mr. Orsi made a comparison and he believes that we should stop talking about Islamic terrorism, if we are not going to talk about Dick Cheney’s Christian terrorism. He also wonders if people can be patient enough with radical difference.

After a short break there was a question and answer period.

What is modernity?

Both panelists replied to this question. Modernity is the self-consciousness, modernization (political social process), the existence of the self-consciousness, an imagining of the modern world with essential features – a historical self-consciousness, critical consciousness, the centrality of science to the modern world, a liberal society, a sense of the disenchantment of the world.

Do you think that monotheism necessarily engenders violence?

Mr. Orsi brought up the fact that there is Hindu violence (polytheistic religion) and Mr. Ahmed brought up the same issues.

“Don’t be fooled by the migration of the locusts, they leave their larvae behind.” – Mr. Ahmed

What are the particular social, economic, and political circumstances that lead religions to certitude and violence?