The story of secularization has long been key to the self-understanding and description of Western modernity. But confidence in this story is on the wane as scholarship responds to the complex pressures of globalization, the end of the cold war, and a revived intimacy between religion and politics. The inevitability of religious decline seems now more mythical than real. At the same time, powerful critiques of secularization and of secularism in general have emerged across the academic disciplines, unsettling durable Weberian models for understanding the functions of religious life in the modern world, even as secularism remains an academic ideal.
One thing is clear: modern religions are (and historically have been) in process of dynamic change in the face of wider social, political, and cultural transformation. The challenge for this research field is, then, to account for this dynamism in nuanced and sophisticated ways. Our goal is to produce new research on the relationship between religious and non-religious perspectives, both how these perspectives came into being and how they continue to develop in tandem. Why and how have (some) religions thrived in modern society rather than withering away? How have secular regimes provided space for differing religious traditions and how have they controlled them? How does secular society take shape around certain ideas about religion and its proper modern function? What counts as a properly secular world view?
These research questions stand at a crossroads of a host of disciplines in the social sciences and humanities. From political science to history, from sociology to literary studies, not to mention religious studies: the effort to re-conceptualize religion's relationship to modernity spans a wide intellectual terrain. Our goal in these workshops will be both to foster this cross-disciplinary engagement about the study of religion and to see how our various methodologies might produce new and productive research on religious change after secularization.
We invite applications from students who are interested in interdisciplinary research on religion in the (broadly understood) modern period. We want to encourage comparative conversations across religious traditions and welcome participants in all geographic areas. The historical emergence of new religious categories and practices, the changing face of Christianity in the southern hemisphere, the rise of large immigrant Muslim communities in Western, and still primarily Christian, nation-states, the growth of so-called new religious movements, the problems of pluralism versus the strict state secularism of France or Turkey, the relation between religious law and secular law, the dynamics of church-state relations in different religious and national traditions: these are just a few of the topics on the table.
Finally, the workshops themselves will engage deeply with the literature on secularization and its critique, will take up models of new research in the field that might serve as exemplary for students and will, most importantly, emphasize the concrete design of dissertation research projects.During the course of their summer research, the twelve After Secularization fellows will be sharing their reflections, notes, ruminations, and observations in Notes from the Field on the SSRC's blog The Immanent Frame .
Joseph L. Blankholm
Columbia University, Religion
Atheist Heterodoxy and the Limits of the Secular and the ReligiousMy fieldwork-based research examines the practices and beliefs of self-identifying atheists in the United States, with a particular focus on New York City. The beliefs of many atheists prove more complicated and heterodox than the strict materialist philosophy that frequently appears in atheist manifestoes and other formal documents outlining atheist belief. By paying close attention to the complexities of lived life, I hope to show the ways in which even those who oppose themselves to religion resist categorization within simple definitions of religious, nonreligious, and secular. By demonstrating the limits of these categories, I hope to contribute to the growing body of scholarship that seeks to critique and reframe them. My participation in this critique and reframing situates me as part of a larger discursive movement, of which many atheists are also a part, to reconfigure the constellation of terms that necessarily define each other around the secular and the religious: religion, secularism, science, reason, faith, modernity, the state, democracy, etc. The second part of my research is to create a contemporary intellectual history of the debates that effect a continual reconfiguration of the secular/religious constellation.
Caroline M. Block
Johns Hopkins University, Anthropology
Sacred Studies and Secular Processes: The Affective Religion of Scholarship in Orthodox Women's Talmud ProgramsI am interested in the recent proliferation of women’s scholarly communities within American Jewish orthodoxy, the ways in which women in these communities engage Jewish legal texts to balance claims of innovation or newness and appeals to tradition, and the particular discursive framing of these communities in terms of denominational mechanisms—a reflection of the longstanding American Jewish encounter with Protestantism. A powerful social form of Protestant secularization, denominationalism, and the formalization of boundaries between particular religious groups within Protestantism, has become an important factor in the organization of American Judaism as well. However, it would be a mistake to portray this American, organizational secularization as a constant, unrelenting process at odds with Judaism as a modern religion. Secularism is not so easily scripted, religion not so easily relegated to the past or the private sphere. While denomination exerts a strong institutional force of secularization, it may simultaneously produce sensibilities and affect that are not necessarily secular at all. In studying the traditional rabbinic curriculum, the women of these communities also seem to pose an institutional challenge to Orthodoxy. However, at the everyday affective level, they uphold the Orthodoxy they read as prescribed in their studies of religious texts.
David T. Buckley
Georgetown University, Government
Secular Evolution: Understanding Democratic Change in State-Religion RelationsHow does state governance of religion evolve over time? In particular, how has state regulation of religious minorities changed since the reemergence of religion as a political force in the past three decades? My study’s point of departure is the concept of “secular evolution,” which captures the shifting response of secular state institutions to changing constellations of social and religious actors over time. In addressing this process in four key countries (Ireland, the Philippines, Senegal and the United States), the study provides an empirical test of contrasting theoretical approaches: institutional change driven by political calculation, pressure from religious associations and civil society, or broad shifts in popular norms regarding the relationship between religion and the state. The recent combination of religious activism and pluralism has challenged even democracies with constitutional disestablishment to alter patterns of state-religion governance. I propose summer field work in two of these countries, Senegal and the Philippines, to analyze the key actors, institutional constraints, and religious dynamics driving secular evolution. Through a series of structured interviews and the collection of documents and survey data, I will be able to refine my theoretical framework and gather vital empirical data for this project.
Colby J. Gordon
University of California / Irvine, Comparative Literature
Deathless Bodies: Artificial Personhood and Theaters of Incorporation in Late Medieval and Early Modern EnglandI will begin this dissertation on corporate personhood with an investigation into incorporation at its ugliest—the cult of bleeding wonderhosts, those traumatized Eucharists whose revelation of the sacred carnage was not infrequently taken to indicate the community’s contamination by Jews and heretics. The extraordinary popular purchase of these narratives of desecration formed the basis of a thriving relic industry, and accounts of communal purging circulated widely in broadsheets, poems, and plays. Although many of these late medieval and early modern cult sites have been thoroughly studied in German historiography, scholars of English cycle drama have largely ignored this continental theater. Building on the recent work of C.W. Bynum and Mitchell Merback, I will pursue a comparative reading of English mystery cycles alongside host desecration narratives from Passau and Wilsnack. As Eamon Duffy, Miri Rubin, and Charles Zika have argued, the Eucharist was the central corporate symbol of the Catholic middle ages, figuring collectivity, unity, and reconciliation of an often fractured communal body. But despite Christianity’s pretensions to the universal availability of salvation, the social integration created by this ritual theater required violent exclusions in order to create this image of a unified body politic free from pollution.
Emory University, Religion
When Religion Matters: A comparative study of Religious and Human Rights Practices in Gender Justice Activism in the United States and LiberiaInternational women’s human rights actors argue that legal and political gender equality is the most promising approach to ending gender-based violence. By contrast, institutions that seek to end violence against women by retaining “traditional” or “religious” practices are often viewed as suspect. However, some women describe their motivations to participate in the secularized world of human rights discourse as necessitated by their religious beliefs and traditions. Being religious paradoxically means participating in and advocating for a human rights framework that defines itself as highly secularized. Given this seeming incongruity, my project probes the question of what “counts” as religion, particularly in human rights practices and discourse surrounding gender-based violence. Using interviews, participant observation and participatory focus groups with women’s organizations in the United States and in Liberia, I challenge two assumptions of human rights discourse and practice: 1) that so-called “religious” practices can be sharply delineated from more secularized legal or political responses to gender-based violence and 2) that religious practices are (or should be) on the decline in gender-based violence work. Instead, I argue that religious practices and human rights practices are not separated, but often intersect in nuanced and subtle ways for those involved in gender-based violence work.
Alex Eric Hernandez
University of California / Los Angeles, English
Savage Liberties: A Social History of TheodicyThis year marks the 300th anniversary of Leibniz’s Theodicy, a text that famously sought to reassure its readers that they lived in the “best of all possible worlds.” Yet this was neither the first nor the last time this ambitious task would be undertaken. The long eighteenth century would repeatedly visit this theme, fashioning a progressive history that tempered the emergence of mercantile capitalist modes of production with a complex and contested rhetoric of providential design. My project attempts a social history of theodicy broadly considered. What is it that these texts do? Does providence serve to legitimate political and economic power? How is this related to trust and the function of institutions? How do terms like credit and speculation etymologically link ways of knowing, manifest new ideologies of causality, and figure crises of modernity and secularization? What is the relation between these processes and aesthetic form? Anchored in the literature of the English Restoration and eighteenth century, while ranging across a variety of texts—from Richardson’s Clarissa and Voltaire’s Candide, to the visual culture surrounding Hogarth’s prints, to the philosophically-rich economics of the Scottish Enlightenment and German idealism, I plan to explore the cultural meaning behind God’s plots.
Kristen E. Kao
University of California / Los Angeles, Political Science
The Nexus Between Citizenship Religion in the Middle EastScholarly research on citizenship often defines it as the set of rights and obligations the state and its legal members, conceived of as an essentialized and homogenous group, owe to one another. But when it comes to much of the Middle East, this paradigmatic way of thinking about equal citizenship is limited, overlooking vital components of what it means to be a citizen in an authoritarian setting that is strongly influenced by religion. My dissertation research will look at the nexus between citizenship and religion in the Middle East, employing an analytical model of thin versus thick social ties that make up these two social constructs. This summer I hope to travel to Damascus, where I will research both the formal and informal aspects of relations between the nation-state and its citizens, paying special attention to religious minorities. In the future, I hope to replicate my research in a number of countries in the region, in order to further understand these concepts in modern Middle Eastern societies.
University of Arizona, Anthropology and Near Eastern Studies (Dual PHD Degree)
Conservative Television Channels and the Question of Pluralism in TurkeyTelevision has played a significant role in the creation of a public governed by norms of secular reason in Turkey. However, many self-identifying secularist Turks are worried that the growing popularity of conservative television stations, combined with the dominance of the Justice and Development Party in the parliament since 2002, amounts to the gradual eroding of that secular public sphere. My dissertation proposes to explore the role of religiously oriented television stations in refashioning the secular public sphere by blurring the boundaries between the secular and the religious as well as the traditional and the modern, and challenging the exclusivist tendencies of secularism. It questions whether Islamic television channels illustrate the possibility of the co-existence of the secular and the religious by fostering new habits of media production and consumption tied to a new Islamic bourgeois ethic, or whether they contribute to the perpetuation of the narrative of secularism in a different guise. My dissertation research will involve ethnography of TV producers and audiences, study of the influences of the transformations in the media industry on culture and politics in Turkey, and exploration of the political debates about secularism, the state, and mass media in a liberalizing polity.
Justin M. Reynolds
Columbia University, History
Sacred History: Secularization and the Meaning of History in Transatlantic High Culture 1945-1955This project looks at debates over the relation between Christianity and historical consciousness in postwar transatlantic high culture. The late 1940s and early 50s saw an explosion of philosophical and historical works tracing the origins of modern views of history to secularized versions of Christian eschatology. These works, written by some of the periods leading Protestant, Catholic, and non-religious thinkers frequently in contact across national borders, played an important and poorly understood part in German, British, and American postwar intellectual history. They challenged Weberian notions of disenchantment and portrayed the liberal belief in progress, as well as Nazism and Communism, as outgrowths of process by which the Christian goal of salvation came to be seen as a possibility to be realized within, rather than beyond, history. I place this literature in the context of attempts at conceptualizing the Cold War struggle, the emergence of human rights, Cold War realism, and the activities of the Christian Ecumenical Movement. Even while occasionally singling out modern philosophies of history as “corruptions” of Judeo-Christian eschatologies, many of these thinkers sought to inscribe in historical knowledge itself fundamental Christian concepts – original sin, the dignity of the individual, and divine providence – thought to distinguish the “West” from its ideological opponents.
James MacEwan Robertson
New York University (NYU), History
Messianic communism in Yugoslav leftist thought: 1930-1960The conflicts in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s were key moments in what has been termed the ‘post-secular.’ Commentators at the time relied on a notion of a return of the repressed to explain the viciousness of the conflict; national (and religious) difference had been suppressed under Tito, it was argued, and so became all the more violent as a result. But to what extent did Yugoslav communism expel the religious from its ideology? Through a history of the generation of inter-war Yugoslav intellectuals this project will offer a rereading of influential writers, theorists, philosophers and artists through the lens of the theologico-political. For this generation of the 1930s communism had an irresistible appeal; it offered a way out of a past of foreign domination and underdevelopment through the embracing of secular modernity. Many of these intellectuals became party members or fellow travelers and subsequently key ideologues in the post-war regime. Although, as elsewhere in the 20th century, Yugoslav communist modernization was envisioned by most, although not all, intellectuals as secularization by focusing on the theologico-political structures implicit in these thinkers’ works, my project will try to pin down the persistence of religious concepts in Yugoslav communist thought. It is my belief that such a rereading will produce a clearer understanding not only of the formation of Yugoslav communism in the 1930s but also of the turbulent political conflicts of the first post-war era.
Georgetown University, Government
Indispensable Arbiters: Political Islam and Authoritarian Renewal in the Arab WorldScholars have posited several explanations for the emergence and persistence of Islamist political groups in Arab countries, including: the fragility of Arab states’ cultural hegemony over their respective societies; post-1967 decline of Arab nationalism; the growth of socio-economic inequalities in Arab countries; and the perceived corruption of secular regimes and oppositions. In addition to being highly deterministic, these explanations fail to account for the diversity in success/failure of political Islamist groups across different countries. They also overlook the role of regimes in legalizing and tacitly encouraging the participation of these groups. Using cross-national statistical evidence and historical evidence from Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia, the proposed dissertation investigates the conditions under which authoritarian regimes choose to allow Islamist groups to participate in politics. It is guided by the proposition that regimes that encourage the participation of Islamist groups often do so in order to undermine and diffuse redistributive coalitions that would otherwise present serious opposition to regime-sponsored economic reforms. Not only does this research contribute to a fuller understanding of the emergence and dominance of Islamist political parties in Arab countries, it also enhances broader understanding of why authoritarian regimes promote religious conflicts in their political arenas.
Sarah Elizabeth Shortall
Harvard University, History
Converts into Apostates: Rethinking the Secularization of French Intellectual Culture, 1880-1940The Third Republic (1870-1940) has long been identified as the period which inaugurated French secular modernity, reaching its climax with the legal separation of Church and state in 1905. And yet, just as the institutional power of the Catholic Church was being systematically dismantled, French intellectuals were converting to Catholicism in record numbers. Because scholars tend to define Catholicism as a religious institution with clear boundaries and centralized standards of orthodox belief, they have treated state secularization and religious conversion as products of fundamentally opposed ideologies and institutions. My research moves beyond this polarized vision by placing the stories of Third-Republic intellectuals who converted to Catholicism into dialogue with those of intellectuals who converted from it. By examining the links between the Catholic Decadent writers of the late-nineteenth century and apostate intellectuals of the interwar period, I offer a historical account of the way in which secular modernity has opened up unexpected avenues for the creative redeployment of religious traditions outside their initial institutional framework. My work thus contributes to a growing interdisciplinary literature destabilizing the apparent opposition between secular modernity and religious traditions defined in exclusively institutional terms.