Secularisms: Ideals, Ideologies and Institutional Practices. International Conference 25-27 September 2014

Thursday 25 September 2014, 18:30 – Saturday 27 September 2014, 13:00

Secularisms: Ideals, Ideologies and Institutional Practices

International Conference, Graduate Institute, Geneva

Venue: Auditorium 2, Maison de la paix

International Conference organised by the Graduate Institute under the auspices of the Yves Oltramare Chair on Religion and Politics in the Contemporary World.

Over recent decades, the global religio-political landscape has been widely shaped by conflicts between advocates of secularism and resurgent fundamentalist movements. However, at a closer look, it turns out that secularism is by no means a clearly defined concept. Some see it more as a worldview that rejects transcendence and relies solely on scientific knowledge. Others emphasise the separation of state and church (or better, religious associations). Again others mean by secularism that religion should be kept out of politics in general. Secularism exists in many different instantiations, which is reflected in the title of this conference. We encounter not onesecularism, but many secularisms.

Focusing on the separation of state and religious institutions, the conference will explore the characteristics and implications of various secularisms and the conflict between secularist and religious forces in India, China, and North Africa.

  • Organised by: Prof. Martin Riesebrodt, Yves Oltramare Professor of Religion and Politics in the Contemporary World, Graduate Institute
  • Keynote Speaker: Prasenjit Duara, Raffles Professor of Humanities, Director of the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore
  • Other Speakers: Veit Bader, Reda Benkirane, Rajeev Bhargava, Vincent Goossaert, Friedrich Wilhelm Graf, Ratna Kapur, Kristen Stilt, Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, Yanfei Sun, Malkia Zeghal

 

Conference description

Over recent decades, the global religio-political landscape has been widely shaped by conflicts between advocates of secularism and resurgent fundamentalist movements. In the United States evangelical Christians have entered politics through the Republican Party and have tested the boundaries of the “wall of separation” between church and state. Various European countries have serious inner political conflicts about the public visibility of symbols of religious, especially Muslim, minorities, be such symbols minarets or headscarves. In India, Hindu nationalists have challenged the secular state in the name of “true secularism”. In post-communist Russia, the Orthodox Church and President Putin have joined forces in order to promote a new nationalism. And in Egypt and Tunisia, clashes between religious and secular forces over the crafting of new constitutions have characterised the recent political developments in these countries. These are just a few examples that illustrate the centrality ofsecularism and its contestation in contemporary politics.

However, at a closer look, it turns out that secularism is by no means a clearly defined concept. Some see it more as a worldview that rejects transcendence and relies solely on scientific knowledge. Others emphasise the separation of state and church (or better: religious associations). Again others mean by secularism that religion should be kept out of politics in general. For the purpose of this conference I would like to focus on the separation of state and religious institutions with all its implications.

Secularism exists in many different instantiations, which is reflected in the title of this conference. We encounter not one secularism, but manysecularisms. Many constitutions are seen as being secular; but secularismin India looks different from secularism in France, Turkey, Germany, the United States, or China. Even if various states had the same constitutional understanding of secularism, we would still find that their institutional practices vary immensely, for example with regard to the funding of religious schools and hospitals, juridical institutions, or the toleration of religious symbols in state institutions.

Secularism can also serve as an ideology, for example in imaginations of modernity. The proclamation that the West is modern and secular and therefore all societies that aspire to become modern have to become secular too, is such an ideology. It resembles the preaching of free markets as the only path to economic development by nations who often owe their own wealth to protectionism. On closer examination, most Western countries are much less secular than they think they are. Let me give you some examples from Germany, usually regarded as a rather secular country.

German politics since 1949 has been strongly shaped by Christian parties, the CDU and the CSU. In 44 out of 64 years they were in government. The German state collects the taxes for the two main churches, the Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church. The state also finances their welfare agencies (“Caritas” and “Diakonie”) to the effect that they have become the two biggest employers in the country with over a million employees. Moreover, state universities have departments of Catholic and Protestant theology employing more than 400 professors, whose appointment needs approval by the churches. There even exist “Konkordats-Lehrstühle” (special professorships in non-theological disciplines) where the Catholic Church has the right to veto candidates. Although Germany does not know a state church, other “secular” countries in Europe do, such as Great Britain, Norway and Denmark. If the concept of secularism can cover such a weak separation between state and churches, it seems worthwhile to revisit the concept, its various meanings, and its relationship to “modernity”. This is one of the purposes of our conference.

In order to free the term of its occasional vacuity and to clarify how it is being interpreted around the world, I propose four strategic moves in approaching “secularism”:
–    a conceptual one,
–    a theoretical one,
–    a methodological one and
–    a political one.

Conceptually, I propose to treat secularism as an ideal type. What does that mean? An ideal type defines basic structural characteristics and explores to what extent a given case approximates them. In this respect it is different from a classificatory system, which asks whether or not something is the case. For example, the question whether or not Switzerland is a secular country is a classificatory question that – given the examples mentioned above – I find not very fruitful. Instead, I would prefer to ask: To what extent and in which respects is Switzerland secular?

What now are such characteristics of secularism? This, among other goals, is what the conference intends to explore; but let me make the following preliminary suggestions. The ideal type of secularism shall consist minimally of the following three characteristics:
1.    A strict separation of state and religious institutions
2.    Equal treatment of all religious associations and beliefs
3.    Equal opportunity for the political participation and occupational opportunities of all citizens independent of their (religious or nonreligious) affiliations and beliefs.
Accordingly, one of the tasks of the conference will be to explore how and to what extent various countries approximate these three (and/or possibly other) criteria at various points in history.

Theoretically, I propose to uncouple the notion of secularism from notions of modernity and progress. If the role Christian churches play in Germany has not prevented Germany from becoming a modern state and society, strict secularism cannot be the precondition for modernity. Instead, we should look at the form and degree secularism takes as the outcome of political struggles and compromises between strictly secularist, moderately secularist, and anti-secularist forces as well as potentially many people in-between who do not have a principled position on secularism.

Methodologically, I propose to put the various Western understandings and experiences of secularism aside for the time being and focus on other countries in order to reflect back on the concept and its practices. The idea behind this methodological move is to treat secularism no longer as a modern Western concept or problem that has been exported to other parts of the world, but rather as one that concerns all countries worldwide in their own way. It has been appropriated globally and has become part of the multiple modernities we encounter. This conference will devote considerable attention to the cases of India, China, and North Africa (Egypt and Tunisia), in order to better understand what secularism means in various contexts.

Politically, I would like to suggest that secularism should not be viewed as an end in itself, but rather a means to an end. This end should be a pluralistic societal order, in which all citizens feel equally and adequately represented and recognised as individuals and as members of groups, a society in which they ideally all have the same opportunity to live their lives according to their own convictions. It does not come as a surprise that the form and degree of secularism as a means to achieve this end will vary according to the social structure and cultural traditions of each society.

It goes without saying that no one who presents at this conference has to share any of the views I have briefly outlined here.

Martin Riesebrodt
Yves Oltramare Chair on
Religion and Politics in the Contemporary World
The Graduate Institute, Geneva

 

 


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