Politics of Love: Secularism, Religion, and Love as a Political Discourse

By Ting Guo*

“The true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love”—indeed, as Che Guevara most famously put it, love is a powerful language for not only revolutions, but also politics. Love has been a powerful mechanism in shaping Chinese modernity. Rather than studying love in the private realm such as romance, relationship, and family, in my forthcoming book Politics of Love, I study love as a public and political discourse, and examine how the concept of love has been introduced, adapted and engineered for the building and rebuilding of a modern nation by looking into the different adaptations and usages of ai (love) by political leaders, in order to reveal the versatile nature of love as a critical mechanism within modern Chinese politics, informed by both secularism and religion. 

Political Religion in the Postsecular Age

The study of postsecularism has been following a chronological order as the social phenomenon of religious resurgence that takes place after secularism. This book argues for a new framework of postsecularism as the political disturbance of our secular condition from a global perspective by critically investigating four scenarios of political religion that challenge the secularism thesis. 

Italian historian Emilio Gentile famously observed that in modern politics, it is possible for secular political entities to become objects of faith, love, and loyalty. Love, in particular, is a powerful emotion in which bottom-up agency and top-down power can converge, even as political players seek to manipulate and monopolise its expression. 

At the same time, modern secular governance has contributed to the exacerbation of religious tension in postcolonial areas, hardening interfaith boundaries and polarising religious differences, as Saba Mahmood most famously pointed out. In addition to exacerbating religious tensions, the prevalence of secularism as a form of modernity or modern governance also makes it convenient for “secular”, post-socialist authoritarian regimes such as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to further regulate religious freedom and religious expressions. The secular, in this sense, is a historical product with specific epistemological, political and moral entailments including the modern state’s relationship to, and regulation of, religion and the set of concepts, norms, sensibilities, dispositions that characterise secular societies and subjectivities. Modern secularism, therefore, entails fundamental shifts in conceptions of self, time, space, ethics, and morality, as well as a reorganisation of social, political, and religious life. 

Love as a Political Discourse in Four Scenarios

I begin with late imperial China when love began to emerge as a political discourse for the building of a new nation as well as for the spontaneous expressions of new sense of belonging and subjectivity. Rather than charting a genealogy of love in general, I focus on the specific ways in which ai is adopted as a political discourse in four chosen phases or scenarios of China’s modernisation, namely bo’ai (universal love) and the political theology of love in the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as well as the Republic of China (1912-1949) that set the course for modern China, re’ai (ardent love) and the political religion of love as the epitome of political affect in Mao’s China, the familial nationalism of love in the renewal of personal cult and charismatic authority in Xi Jinping’s China, and finally, the discourse of motherly love, postcoloniality, and parental governance of Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s most controversial Chief Executive since the Handover in 1997.

In the first chapter, I introduce a genealogy of love as a political discourse, including aiqing (romantic love) and aiguo (patriotism) in relation to China’s transition into a modern nation-state. In Chapter Two, I then chart the course more specifically of how the key political leaders of modern China, including the Nationalist Party (KMT)’s Sun Yat-sen and Li Dazhao (1888-1927) and Chen Duxiu (1879-1942), the founders of the CCP who introduced communism into China, shared common ideals as they adapted the language of love in terms of bo’ai for their political campaigns and ideologies. I argue that bo’ai, an intuitively Christian concept that nonetheless has its roots in Soviet radicalism, had not only informed the founder of the Republican China and KMT leader Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People, but also shaped the ways in which the founders of the CCP, the opposing party of the KMT, characterised the concept of communism as they introduced it from Soviet Russia to China. Although Sun Yat-sen’s bo’ai appears to be an adaptation of Christian vocabulary, its meaning, later development, and application throughout the revolutionary course of China from 1912 onwards had more to do with the socialist sense of universalism and radical affect. Despite the fact that the CCP and KMT would eventually enter a ten-year-long civil war that preceded the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, during the early twentieth century their paths crossed within the same political territory of universal love, bo’ai, which I term as a kind of “political theology of love”, to refer to the theological framework Sun is known for and the common assumptions about the ways in which he characterise his politics.

It is often debated whether or the extent to which when the CCP took power during the Maoist revolutions, love became diminished as to discuss any aspect of personal life, romantic relationships, or sex became a taboo. However, love also became a key political language to shape patriotic devotions and even transform it into a personal cult in Maoist China. In Chapter Three, I show that the political language and theatrical representations of re’ai in Mao’s era inherited radicalism as well as popular religions to mobilise the masses and consolidate power, and into what I refer to as the “political religion of love”, to refer to the theatrical and rhetorical aspects of Mao cult.

Chapter Four is dedicated to the political discourse of love in contemporary China under the Xi Jinping administration. In China today, family love has been elevated to a propaganda level in order to encourage and reassure people’s devotion to the regime and maintain social stability. At the same time, we see the return of charismatic authority in China in the era of digital culture, as images that portray President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan as a modern loving couple become widely circulated in state propaganda and social media. Underneath this highly political image of a loving, modern-looking couple, is a deeply conservative agenda. In the light of an ensuing gender gap and the rise of feminist movements, the new concept of “love”—a loving domestic relationship and family life as the foundation for social harmony, the love and devotion for one’s own family and national strength—is in reality a makeover for the shrinking space for civil participation, gender equality, and individual freedoms. This kind of love is termed as the “familial nationalism of love” in this book.

Women are often subject to mobilisations or even repressions in patriarchal societies, and in Chapter Five I seek the ways in which female leaders and activists transform or respond to the social and political circumstances around them in terms of political discourses. Responding to the 2019 pro-democracy protests, for instance, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam employed the discourse of motherly love to justify her political stances. It has been noted that casting citizens as children and leaders as benevolent parents charged with disciplining them is a distinctively PRC metaphor with Confucian justifications. Scholars such as Charles Armstrong (2005) and LMH Ling (1994) have further discussed the ways in which familism constitutes a kind of political religion in socialist regimes in East Asia—China and North Korea—as familial nationalism replaces the abstract language of Marxism-Leninism with a more easily understandable and identifiable language of family connection, love, and obligation. In particular, as the CCP continues to use state violence as a method of conflict control in post-Handover Hong Kong, the Confucian script of parental governance remains the core feature of political interaction. It casts political relations as Confucian family relations, thereby constructing political actors as either filial dependents or benevolent but firm fumu guan (parent-officials). Lam’s take on the fumu guan position is further complicated by the fact that she is the first female leader to assume this role in modern China, while Xi Jinping is the first leader in post-socialist China to emphasise Confucianism and traditional values. This chapter will tease out this complex story by investigating the background of such parental governance in the PRC, its gendered aspects, the ways in which it has been applied in contemporary politics, and the ways in which Lam, a Catholic, a female leader, and a proxy parent-governor in Hong Kong, re-appropriates this political discourse of love and parental governance.

In short, in scrutinising how love as an affective concept has been introduced, adapted, and engineered for the building and rebuilding of a modern nation, I reveal the versatile nature of love as critical mechanism for modern politics and for individuals to understand, and interpret their political experiences. In unveiling the postsecular ideology in the project of China’s modernity through the political discourses of love, I further propose a postsecular framework through which secularism could be more productively studied as social formation of emotional regimes.

* GUO Ting is currently based at the University of Hong Kong, focusing on (post)secularism and political religion, including issues of gender, science, and technology. She gained her PhD in Religious Studies from the University of Edinburgh and was research fellow at Oxford and Purdue Universities before Hong Kong. She is writing a book on love as a political discourse in modern China.

The Contagion of White Christian Libertarianism and America’s Viral President

By Brian Nail

As many Americans grow increasingly optimistic about the possibility that Trump will soon be voted out of office, it is worth considering the more widespread set of political and religious forces which produced this viral president in the first place. Trump’s time in office has revealed longstanding structures of racial oppression that are unlikely to simply disappear in the event that he loses the upcoming election. Although many advocates of so-called “political civility” have regarded him as a monstrous anomaly,Trump’s ascendancy has a genealogy, or perhaps epidemiology, that can be easily traced to White Christian libertarianism–the nexus of contagion that has so far sustained America’s viral president.

Despite the advice of medical experts, the president, and the Republican party more broadly, continue to pursue policies to promote a condition of herd immunity that is based largely on conjecture. Writing in The New Yorker, physician Dhruv Khullar argues that Trump has in practice become the “pro-infection candidate.” Khullar suggests that for Trump and his political allies, embracing the risk of infection and disregarding the threat their behaviour poses to others is regarded as a sign of patriotic strength: “According to the Republican leadership, real patriots risk their lives and the lives of others; liberty is walking into a store without a mask; power is touring a hospital without one[.]” This aversion to mitigating the spread of the virus through social distancing efforts and mask-wearing has been eagerly embraced by Trump’s evangelical following.

For many evangelicals, efforts to curtail large in-person gatherings have been interpreted as an affront to their religious liberty. In a recent radio interview, the president’s son went so far as to claim that his father “literally saved Christianity” by opposing some states’ efforts to limit large worship services and religious gatherings. According to Eric Trump, “They want to attack Christianity, they want to close churches, they want to―they’re totally fine keeping liquor stores open―but they want to close churches all over the country.” Meanwhile, in states like Florida, its Republican governor Ron Desantis has fought to keep bars and restaurants open throughout the state in order to maintain its tourism economy.

By mimicking Trump’s own aversion to wearing a mask, Kate Blanchard suggests that the president’s evangelical followers are risking their own lives in order to prove their loyalty to him and the worldview he embodies: “I suspect that refusing to wear a mask is not actually a denial of its danger, any more than to handle snakes is to deny the danger. Going maskless is, rather, a way of embracing danger, of proving membership in the club and obedience to their leader.” Through the president’s insistence upon holding unrestricted campaign rallies and his administration’s emphasis upon affirming citizens’ so-called religious and economic “liberty,” Trump has affirmed the values of his base, while also putting many of their lives in danger. But the viral threat that Trump poses (in some cases literally) reveals the self-destructive logic of a political ideology that embraces death in multiple forms, perhaps even its own.

In a recent video promoting an anti-lockdown protest movement in Idaho, the state’s Lieutenant Governor Janice McGeachin appears holding a gun over and a Bible to deliver the following message: “We recognize that all of us are by nature free and equal and have certain inalienable rights, among which are enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and pursuing happiness and safety.” The gun and the Bible each serve as potent symbols of the political and cultural legacy of settler colonialism. By brandishing the gun, McGeachin invokes what Patrick Blanchfield terms “gunpower”–a mode of social reproduction that maintains White hegemony in the present by legitimating forms of dispossessive violence that are the historical legacy of settler colonialism. Likewise, the Bible is invoked as a symbol of the supposedly divine mandate that has been employed by White Christian Libertarians to affirm and sanctify their dispossessive violence. Wrapped within the thanatopolitics of racial capitalism in the United States, God, guns, and country continue to constitute the sacred forms at the heart of White Christian libertarianism–having recently cast aside his Presbyterian upbringing and embraced “non-denominationalism,” this is indeed the faith of Trump.

Trump’s conservative Christian base are often described as “evangelicals,” but this broad term typically connotes a distinct religious and political expression that in many ways defies denominational classification because many of its core values are deeply secular. According to Gerardo Martí, “The Christian libertarian ideal asserts confidence in believers becoming financially self-sufficient, stimulating a productive economy, and gives no regard to blaming social structures for the failure to accumulate investment wealth” (21). This fusion of an evangelical prosperity gospel with the racist politics of White conservatism developed alongside a growing reliance upon Black and immigrant labor in the United States. This economic reality is one of many stark contradictions that lie at the heart of the oppressive structure of racial capitalism that White Christian libertarianism has sought to maintain.

From its origins in the ideology of settler colonialism, White Christian libertarianism has embraced overt structures of racism through its association of divine blessing with the accumulative advantages afforded to Whites by racial capitalism. Trump invokes this toxic blessing each time he promises to “Make America great again.” As Joan Wallach Scott notes, the MAGA movement “conceptualizes the nation not just as a firm, but as an exclusively white firm.” This conception of the nation as a white firm obtains its divine mandate from the theocratic vision of Christian nationalism which rejects the notion of American secular pluralism, seeking to build instead what they define as a nation built exclusively on so-called Christian moral principles.

And yet, Trump’s popularity among evangelicals remains somewhat difficult to explain in light of his personal aversion to the Christiann faith and its professed moral code. Roberto Esposito’s explanation of the immunitary dynamics of political community provides an illuminating theoretical lens for understanding the contradictory, self-destructive, death-dealing logic of White Christian libertarianism. It turns out that what we may be witnessing is an immunitary crisis in theory as well as in practice.

In his book, Immunitas: The Protection and Negation of Life, Esposito literalizes the body politic metaphor to explore how the biological dynamics of immunity may provide a hermeneutic framework for understanding the ways that political communities are produced and survive. He begins his study with an explanation of the etymological kinship between the concepts of immunity and community, noting that their relationship is not merely oppositional but dialectical. The Latin words immunitas and communitas share in common the root word munus, which “refers to an office–a task, obligation, duty” and also a gift (Esposito 5). Therefore, to live in community, the individual is obligated to participate in some form of social reciprocity: “Common life is what breaks the identity-making boundaries between what is proper to each individual and what belongs to everybody and hence to nobody” (Esposito 22). But Esposito suggests that the expropriative demands of a community can ultimately erode the agency and autonomy of individuals to the extent that the very survival of the community itself might be threatened. This is where the concept of immunity comes into play.

Esposito’s theory of immunity points to the key insight that the survival of any community depends upon the degree to which its institutions are resilient enough and adaptable enough to mediate between the internal and external pressures that are an inevitable feature of any society that is truly alive. According to Esposito, religious forms of the sacred and the institution of law are intimately bound up with the processes of immunization that is necessary to sustain the balance between radical individuality and radical community. But in doing so, the institutions perform their homeopathic function through a paradoxical logic of exclusive-inclusion: life is affirmed through death, the sacred is defined in contradistinction to the profane, and law only exists through the threat of violence. But Esposito notes that when immunity is “unable to directly achieve its objective, it is forced to pursue it from the inside out. . . . [I]t can prolong life, but only by continually giving it a taste of death”(9). If left unchecked, the immunitary dynamic that responds negatively to external as well as internal demands for reciprocity can mutate into what Esposito defines as a crisis of autoimmunity, which occurs when “the warring potential of the immune system is so great that at a certain point it turns against itself as a real and symbolic catastrophe leading to the implosion of the entire organism.”

In a recent interview regarding the pandemic, Esposito suggests that the very concept of “social distancing” is paradoxical:

“The immunity system is necessary for survival, but when it crosses a certain threshold, it starts destroying the body it aims to defend. That threshold is crossed exactly when social distancing demands a total rupture of social bonds. At that moment, it becomes an anti-communitarian propensity.”

Although it offers its own powerful expression of collective identity, the ideology of White Christian libertarianism is predicated upon a rejection of the social and economic forms of reciprocity needed to maintain a political liberal society. This rejection of the social reciprocity necessary to sustain community is manifested through the flawed concept of “herd immunity.” Esposito argues that in practice, the pursuit of herd immunity is “a form of eugenics, and in some ways even thanatopolitical, because it entails the deaths of a considerable number of people who would otherwise live.” This thanatopolitical dynamic is not merely a bug but rather a feature of the ideology of White Christian libertarianism. The story of Trump’s own contraction of the coronavirus, and the incalculable number of people who may have contracted (and may still contract) the disease due to his behaviors, serves a kind of parable of his movement’s own immunitary crisis. By seeking to evoke strength, they demonstrate their vulnerability, and in the process render themselves more susceptible to obsolescence.

As America’s viral president, Trump may be regarded as a portent of the “real and symbolic catastrophe” of self-dissolution that is likely just around the corner for White Christian libertarians. With the persistent rise of the religiously “unaffiliated” or the “nones,” there has been some debate about whether or not “evangelicalism” in general is in demographic decline. But recent data suggest that as a percentage of the American population, the number of self-identified evangelicals has stayed more or less the same for the past decade.

What is changing is the ethnoracial demography of the United States in general. According to Ryan P. Burge, “In 2018, 81 percent of evangelicals were white, compared to 72.4 percent of the population overall. More than 4 in 10 Americans under 25 are people of color. For evangelicals to keep offsetting losses in future generations, they will need to become more racially diverse.” This basic fact has led some writers to conclude that evangelicalism is on the verge of significant political and cultural shift. However, as Chrissy Stroop argues, “If anything, young evangelicals are becoming even more right-wing than they once were, because evangelical culture-warring pushes young people who cannot in good conscience support the Christian Right’s agenda, or who cannot conform because of their own identities, out of evangelicalism altogether.” In short, Stroop’s analysis suggests that evangelicals are essentially doubling down on their White Christian libertarian values. As a result, evangelicalism is accelerating a crisis of autoimmunity by rejecting its own demographic future.

From a demographic standpoint, White Christian libertarianism does not appear poised to maintain its cultural and political hegemony for much longer. But the political and institutional destruction that it has wrought, not to mention the psychosocial trauma it has produced, will require decades, if not more, to address.

The pandemic has revealed the stark reality of socioeconomic inequality and the massive disparities that exist in regard to healthcare, education, and housing in the United States. Once again, Esposito’s immunitary theory of community is illuminating–to maintain the delicate immunitary balance necessary for a community to survive, institutions are necessary, especially when political conflicts threaten to destroy a body from within. Esposito argues, “Political conflict needs special institutions to achieve real political reform. And yes, institutions are full of flaws and limitations. They are often conservative and sometimes they are reactionary, but imagine how this pandemic would have developed without institutions.”

It is not too difficult to imagine what it would be like to deal with a pandemic without institutions in place. As the virus continues to spread throughout the United States, the prospects of universal testing, the possibility of accurately tracking outbreaks at schools, or even the barest assurances that citizens will be able to access affordable treatment have all virtually disappeared from our public discourse. While Democrats have framed the upcoming election as a referendum on the coronavirus (and rightfully so), it remains to be seen whether or not the party’s leadership can break with its own neoliberal inclinations in order build the kinds of institutions and social welfare provisions necessary to save lives not only from the pandemic but also from the viral threat of poverty that continues to jeopardize the future of so many Americans. If it is true that, as former president Barack Obama once cynically declared, many White working class Americans “cling to guns or religion” to relieve their frustrations, it is equally true that the bipartisan neoliberal status-quo has ensured that security, stability, and mutuality remain in short supply in the United States. The self-implosion of White Christian libertarianism itself may signal the end of the myth of American exceptionalism–and along with it the illusion of economic beatitude upon which it rests. In the coming days, the Trumpian fever may finally break in the United States, but the virality of racial nationalism persists.

References

Esposito, Roberto. Immunitas: The Protection and Negation of Life. Cambridge: Polity, 2011.

Martí, Gerardo. “White Christian Libertarianism and the Trump Presidency.” In Religion Is Raced: Understanding American Religion in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Grace Yukich and Penny Edgell, 19–39. New York: NYU Press, 2020.

“Walk to Buchenwald” – Thoughts on Collective Mourning

By Isabella Schwaderer

An approximately two-hour walk from Weimar’s railway station takes you to the Buchenwald concentration camp. Thousands of victims of the Nazi regime had to walk this way. On 16 April 1945, shortly after the liberation of the concentration camp, around 1,000 Weimar citizens also walked this way – at the order of the American Supreme Command. They were to see the horror of Buchenwald with their own eyes. 

To commemorate these events, media artist Christoph Korn composed an audio walk for the project “Gang nach Buchenwald” (“Walk to Buchenwald”) of the Kunstfest Weimar. His eponymous audio piece is a tentative approach: walking on asphalt, tar, leaves, and gravel towards that unspeakable place. The starting point is a conversation with the witness Naftali Fürst (Haifa), who took this walk in 1944, aged 12, and miraculously survived. After remaining silent for 60 years, he started sharing his memories. Since then, for the sake of future generations, he has been pursuing his pedagogical mission to bear testimony to the atrocities of the Nazi era.

In April 2020, no official commemorations of the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp could occur, so this walk on 13 September 2020 also had political significance as an institutional practice of remembrance. Moreover, it was meant to be a strong demonstration of the democratic forces in politically volatile times. Thuringia had been shaken only in February by a political scandal, during which the parties of the liberal-conservative spectrum were accused of cooperation with the national-conservative, populist party of the AFD in an attempt to prevent the re-election of a left-wing government. For this reason, not only the organizers of the Kunstfest art festival but also the prime minister of Thuringia, Bodo Ramelow, walked in the first line.

Especially in Weimar, where the spectres of National Socialism are particularly palpable in their constant presence-absence, it seems essential to take a physical approach to the act of commemoration. But Germans have learned, and for excellent reasons, to mistrust political demonstrations of Durkheimian collective effervescence after 1945, even to the extent that a commemoration ceremony for the 9,300 victims of the Corona pandemic, which Federal President Walter Steinmeier brought up for discussion on 5.9.2020, did not meet with much approval. In this highly charged political climate, the form of a walk chosen here seems to be an acceptable form of public commemoration.

The “Walk to Buchenwald” combines different religious and historical aspects. It evokes the connotation of a penitential pilgrimage, such as that of the Roman-German King Henry IV, who had been excommunicated during the investiture controversy. He visited Pope Gregory VII in the castle Canossa from December 1076 to January 1077 to pray and repent. In today’s language, a plea that is perceived as humiliating, but necessary, is metaphorically called a “walk to Canossa.” 

On the other hand, pilgrimage as a physical-religious practice has developed exponentially over the past three decades; for the Way of St. James to Santiago de Compostela, the number has increased from a few hundred at the end of the 1980s to over 25,000 in 2019.[1] An equally impressive number of publications in the field of religious studies now places the phenomenon, formerly reserved for a Catholic minority, in an individualistic context of late modern spirituality appealing especially to Protestants and even to people who describe themselves as non-religious.[2] Pilgrimage as a performative, physical practice integrates the particular situation of human being-in-the-world with its manifold self and world references. If religion is interpreted as a transhuman experience in the horizon of the unconditional, the late modern subject moves to the centre of the investigation. 

During the commemorative walk on Sunday, 13 September 2020, the approximately 200 participants walked about nine kilometres from the square in front of the Weimar railway station to the former concentration camp. The event’s mimetic character, the bodily practice of self-inscription/ self-effacement, and the over-writing of a historical event by the participants distinguished it from the usual political commemoration events. They left a large part of this process of collective and personal coping with mourning work to the public instead of to a high state representative. On the other side, the participants were, as in a pilgrimage, separate but not alone, and could, if they wished, fuse with the group – following the rules of social distance – at any time. “Perhaps we should establish a culture of crying together,” said professor, activist, and social scientist Naika Foroutan about a year earlier in Weimar. The occasion of her comment was a laboratory for the development of contemporary strategies of remembrance and historical enlightenment given the impact of history. Weeping and mourning together as a physical practice, would open up the possibility of healing through a ritual in a political and social context as well. It could develop the culture of memory on the National Socialist past pointing at options of taking responsibility for the future without forgetting the victims in the past.

Crying together as an approach to public mourning might be considered very emotional in a country which, especially in its political context, is committed to a tradition of enlightenment and disenchantment. Yet, this kind of penitentiary pilgrimage might have offered a way out of the dilemma. The embarrassment is that of modernity, which, in the words of Charles Taylor, had effaced older bodily practices to produce “an excarnation, a transfer out of embodied, enfleshed forms of religious life, to those which are more in the head.” [3] The dilemma arises if modernity is perceived as a history of loss and a God-forsaken (or meaning-forsaken) world. The “Walk” is open enough to allow each attendant the decision whether he or she prefers to commemorate the 56,000 victims of the Buchenwald concentration camp or, e.g., the personal loss of a close family member. Moreover, it serves it helps to shape a future in which the commemoration of genocide is as relevant as to issues of migration and human rights.

Today, it seems that the omnipresent hygiene regulations by themselves continuously remind the public that physical persons can only carry out any form of political or religious activity. The physical-performative aspect of political demonstrations, as well as religious services, permanently produces new forms of presence and authenticity. East Germany, the territory of the former GDR, is generally regarded as secular since the largest religious group here is that of those who claim not to belong to any religion (approx. 78%). Nevertheless, religion is everywhere in public life. An event like the walk to Buchenwald shows that religious aspects have not vanished along with the declining numbers of church members but, on the contrary, have been incorporated into artistic and political practices. To better comprehend this phenomenon, the concept of religion needs to be re-examined and placed on a broader basis that goes beyond traditional institutions.

Picture : Walk to Buchenwald, 13.09.2020. © Isabella Schwaderer.

[1] Isabella Schwaderer, „Pilgern – eine religionswissenschaftliche Einordnung eines zeitgenössischen Phänomens“, in: Theologie der Gegenwart 62 (2/2019), 95–106.

[2] Lienau, Detlef: Religion auf Reisen. Eine empirische Studie zur religiösen Erfahrung von Pilgern. Freiburg i.Br., Herder, 2015.

[3] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, Cambridge/London, 2007, 553-554.

On Making a Critical Shift

Russell T. McCutcheon
University of Alabama

Anyone familiar with our Department at the University of Alabama may know that we have a pretty active social media presence, among which is a Facebook group devoted to our current students and graduates of our program. Apart from putting a variety of Department announcements there, such as recent posts from our blog (on everything from student writing to updates on how we’re handling the Fall 2020 semester), I occasionally put a news item there, with #inthenews as the tag, to suggest to our students that there’s considerable application of the skills that they’re learning in our classes—such as understanding groups via the way that their members classify, rank, and thereby organize themselves. That the grads who stay current with the group sometimes offer guest blog posts of their own, illustrating this very point—despite each of them working in pretty diverse careers today—confirms for me that opting for such a focus in a Department of Religious Studies was a wise choice.

Just the other morning, for example, I posted an item from that day’s New York Times concerning a just-released U.S. Supreme Court decision that will allow employers to opt out of what had previously been Federally-mandated health insurance requirements—opting out based on religious grounds. As the article’s opening lines phrased it:

The Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld a Trump administration regulation that lets employers with religious or moral objections limit women’s access to birth control coverage under the Affordable Care Act. As a consequence of the ruling, about 70,000 to 126,000 women could lose contraceptive coverage from their employers, according to government estimates.

As for the text that I wrote to accompany the post?

Need another reason why it’s a good idea to have someone studying the practical effects of classifying some things, claims, or people as religious?

I offer this example to make a simple but, I think, far-reaching point that sometimes seems to elude those who seem tired of work that focuses on the category religion. (It’s a weariness that surprises me, I admit, given that people are still turning out plenty of dissertations on Augustine or St. Paul, so just a couple decades’ worth of focus on “religion” itself hardly seems to have exhausted everything that there is to say about it—suggesting that claims of tedium are but a handy way to dismiss what is increasingly becoming a focus of people’s work in the field.) For the ease of assuming that “religion” innocently and properly names an obviously distinct and self-organized set of items in the world is something that we need to work against should our interests be more aligned with studying how groups of people signify, navigate, and, yes, contest their worlds. So any opportunity to provide a manageable thought experiment, where the impact of the designation itself can be considered or seen to be working in real time, isn’t something to pass up. And that Supreme Court decision—as with a host of legal rulings over the years in liberal democracies, all of which focus on the extent to which exemptions can be granted as a way to manage social discord—struck me as yet another moment where designating something as religious could be seen to have a practical effect of real consequence to people’s lives.

Whatever else this thing some now call critical religion may be, it at least strikes me as an agreement that this shift—from studying religion or religions to studying why we even call anything religious in the first place—helps us to produce new knowledge about the way our modern lives work, the way our spaces are managed, and the way that identities are created and reproduced within them. Contrary to those who study religion or religions, then, I have no interest in normalizing let alone using any given understanding of the term, something that inevitably occurs, I’d argue, when we just get on with studying religion, as some call us to do. So, with another recent but rather more international news story in mind, the goal of such work is not to decide whether the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul really ought to be understood and used as a museum (as it has been for eighty years) or, as the Turkish government today wishes, a mosque, and, should its religious identity be successfully asserted, neither is it to do a careful ethnography of what some call religion on the ground at this location; instead, it’s the contest itself that can attract our attention, as a way into studying—in this case—a long history of conflict between two modern nations, which draws on pre-national allegiances and disputes, and the manner in which these disagreements have (or have not been) been managed by that artful designation of “museum.” For the issue is not whether the building really is a Greek Orthodox cathedral or a Muslim mosque but, instead, is whether we can understand why the compromise of designating it as a museum now fails to negotiate not just these differing significations but the larger socio-political structures of which each designation is but the visible sign.

So the shift that I am recommending, and which an increasing number in the field are now exploring, opens our field to working with those across disciplines who are equally interested in such things as how identities are formed, reproduced, and contested—whether those identities are local, national, or trans-national. And, along with them, it draws us into studying the structures, whether political, economic, gendered, racial, etc., in which identification and, to put it more broadly, signification takes place. It thus invites us to take our Durkheim all the more seriously, by examining those unified systems of beliefs and practices that, insomuch as we participate in them, establish a social world in which significance can be established or undermined.

Long ago I lamented the strategy adopted by previous generations, insomuch as they sought to build an autonomous field based on the presumably unique and set apart nature of their object of study—and, along with it, the distinct methods needed for its study and the Departments that housed those doing such work. I thought that while helping to create the modern field such an approach inevitably marginalized it as well, given that such scholars lost their voice and their relevance when it came to studying anything but the supposedly ethereal and elusive thing that was once called the sacred. (By asserting that the sacred animated everything Eliade thought that he could reinstate the field’s preeminence, by the way—a claim I certainly resist.) I thought that shifting the field to studying classification, and the socio-political worlds made possible by designating things either in this or that fashion (such as sacred/secular, religious/political, private/public, religion/cult, myth/legend, or ritual/habit, etc.), would not only make good use of our skills but would also demonstrate to those outside our field—whether on or off our campus—that we had something to contribute to understanding this thing that so many of us also study: people, what they do and what they leave behind once they’re gone. Sure, we might each study it a rather specific and different site—those places we known as modern India, the Afro-Caribbean, or maybe ancient Greece—but our work is animated by a shared set of questions which we’re not the only ones asking.

And it’s that shift to broader questions, explored at discrete sites (made possible by an interest in what contestable systems of designation tell us about groups of people) that demonstrates the relevance of our work—something apparent to me last week when a grad of our undergraduate program, who has been out working in her career for 14 years, contacted me asking about some of the books that we read in a course long ago, since she was aiming to re-read some of them. Why? Well, she and her sister-in-law were discussing U.S. monuments commemorating the Civil War, what they meant, to whom they meant it, and whether they should just come down—at least here in the U.S. there’s few more prominent issues than racism demanding our attention in the daily news. While I’m not sure what conclusions they’ll reach, what seems to have been clear to that onetime student was that the sort of scholar of religion that I’m discussing here, and which was modeled for her long ago in our Department, has a surprising amount to contribute to making sense of how and why we talk about the past as we do, how we manage the many possible pasts that are all competing for our attention today, and the sorts of people that we will see ourselves and others to be by adopting this versus that way of signifying a statue.

And it’s just that shift to studying these enabling conditions, made possible by a focus on classification, that comes to mind when I think of what it means to adopt a critical religion approach to our material.

Covid19 and other machines

by Alison Jasper

A protestor wears a mask honoring Breonna Taylor in downtown Louisville, Kentucky on 1 June 2020. Photograph: Amy Harris/Rex/Shutterstock

One of Deleuze and Guattari’s most fascinating concepts is that of the war machine (A Thousand Plateaus, 1988) or more broadly, the notion of a machine. It suggests endlessly complex and variable interrelationships between institutions, social groups, bodies, objects, movements, ideas and environments, moving and producing change in accordance with shifting and differentially weighted purposes and moods. In a machine, components are brought together or rearranged for different aims that can be anything from the nurturing of a child (involving a sucking mouth and a breast) to the way in which states and nations are made, moved or dismantled through the mobilisations and disconnections of civil and military forces in relation to environmental factors such as the weather.

Talking about the exponential growth and sophistication of medical and information technologies, Andrew Hass has already suggested that these implicate and are implicated in a great range of human processes and desires. In terms of this Deleuzian & Guattarian idea of the machine, you could perhaps describe them, in the current situation, as components of a Covid19 machine. The virus is dispersed around the world by means of human breath, speech and song, inhalation, ingestion, touch and physical contact, that have been mediated through innumerable technological, entrepreneurial and bureaucratic processes driven by human desire and anxiety. It’s a machine of human desiring but also one for the growth and spread of a living non-human organism. Humans constitute a vital vector for the virus. The machine has grown the virus wonderfully well. In that way, it’s a success story! Meantime the human hosts or victims are themselves provoked into thought, action or change by their desires in response to this disease.

I have been reading and considering these things during lock down. It is uncomfortable, to think of oneself, not simply acting but being worked or acted upon. But shifting our perspective – uncomfortable or not – does allow us to see and feel differently. So for example, this is not simply an invisible enemy whose attacks leave us feeling intensely vulnerable and frustrated. It is also a revelation of how we can trust and count on each other. And then, we start to recognise how much we are currently trusting and counting on a whole range of poorly-paid ‘unskilled’ workers – cleaners, shop assistants, drivers, farm workers, food preparers – many of whom, like NHS staff, have been forced to put their health and lives at risk for the rest of us. We see that we cannot do without those who clear away our rubbish, or cook hospital meals or help our elderly get to the toilet and dress when we are not there to do it ourselves.

Another notable effect of this shift of perspective has been the increased visibility of racism and racial violence during this time of pandemic. Far from being irrelevant or simply coincidental, I would say that racism is profoundly interconnected with Covid19’s progress. BAME people are disproportionately affected by the disease. They come to this health crisis with poorer underlying health. They are disproportionately represented in poorly paid work. They will be disproportionately affected by the economic consequences of the pandemic. If they are dismayed by a general contempt for what many of them do as ‘un-skilled’ workers, they are often in a poor position to change these circumstances. The racism part of this machine is itself an assemblage of multiple factors from the existence of powerful, well-funded and militarised police forces and the profile of the judiciary, to the differential availability of housing and education and the circulation in all of this of some deeply rooted stories of racial hostility and contempt. In societies dominated by forms of white masculinity, they invoke the thought that people who are not white, are not entirely – or at all – human. They frame BAME people as a threat to white lives and property and they must be controlled. These stories are ultimately, the legacy of slavery and imperial conquest, but more recent racist customs and statutes such as Jim Crow or apartheid, though long suspended, remain lodged in parts of the common imaginary as the possibility of legalized racial segregation.

Staff outside King’s College Hospital in south London join in the applause to salute NHS and care workers © Jonathan Brady/PA

Covid19 and racism achieved one very clear machinic articulation last month, when our intense involvement with technologies of information and communication brought us the video streamed death of an unarmed black man at the hands of police in Minneapolis. George Floyd died on May 25, 2020 when four armed police officers arrested him on suspicion of having purchased something at a convenience store, using a counterfeit $20 bill. He was held in a choke-hold by a police officer for so long that he died. It was a powerful illustration of that fear and need to control; saving black lives was not the priority here. The incident has led to widespread and persistent protest – a sense that many people want things to change. But this assemblage of racist attitudes and actions can also be subject to further intersectional analysis. Another part of the Covid19 racism machine is the silencing rather than the circulation of stories. It takes considerable effort to find out the (many) stories of how black, lesbian, trans women or women with mental health issues, have been killed in similar situations to George Floyd.

Last week, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Professor of law at UCLA and Columbia Law School, interviewed a group of six women involved in the campaign #SayHerName! for her podcast, Intersectionality Matters. All of the women had lost sisters or daughters. Fran Garrett, the mother of Michelle Cusseaux described how her daughter was killed on 14 August 2014. In the course of following up on a mental health check, 8 armed police officers responded to Michelle, raising a hammer by shooting her dead. Maria Moore described her sister Kayla, as a trisector – a black transwoman with mental health issues. Like Michelle Cusseaux she was killed when police, as first responders, deployed forms of control in preference to de-escalation. Even more shockingly in some ways, Shelley Frey was killed by a Wallmart security guard – an off-duty sheriff. Suspecting her of shop-lifting, he shot into her car, even though he was aware there were children in it. At the time of the interview, five of the six had received nothing by the way of justice, compensation or apology. The one successful prosecution was subsequently overturned by a judge. The campaign iterates how these stories need also to be told. If no one tells these stories, how can anything change?

The Covid19 pandemic is an assemblage of parts and motivations and viewed as a machine, prompts us to recognise that human agency and desire maybe overlaid by other, less obvious purposes including those of the virus. Nevertheless, one of the features of this conceptual framework where human desire is involved, is the presence of cross-cutting stories that fuel and direct its flows and trajectories. Drawing on some of the insights of CR we can perhaps suggest that it can be fruitful to pay more critical attention to the presence and effects of these culturally freighted stories. There is a familiar feel to some of them as they express praise, thankfulness and respect for self-sacrifice reflecting a desire to save lives. But in the Covid19 machine, there are also stories whose effects produce sorting strategies for determining which human lives are, in Judith Butler’s memorable term ‘grievable’, or for limiting our view of which particular lives matter and call forth that kind of self-sacrifice (Frames of War: When is life Grievable?, 2010). Thinking courtesy of Deleuze and Guattari in this sense does not provide us with any clear rules or best options but it does encourage us to reflect in this time of pandemic; to try out shifts in our perspective and perhaps internalise tools for averting the worst dangers of ‘final solutions’.

Pan-technology in and out of Lockdown

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A thinking has developed, following the Frankfurt School proponents of Critical Theory, that technology has been instrumental in “replacing” religion. Just as Walter Benjamin had famously claimed that “capitalism essentially serves to satisfy the same worries, anguish and disquiet formerly answered by so-called religion” (Benjamin, 2005, p. 259), so now technology, in all its ubiquity, is said to deliver the same relief. Technological advance has satisfied a multitude of concerns, and has left religious concerns obsolete or irrelevant. As Herbert Marcuse had written, already in the early 1940s, “theological dogmas no longer interfere with man’s struggle with matter” (Marcuse, 1982, p. 145); we overcome the obstacles and inhibitions placed upon us by Nature now without the need of divine intervention. This has given an inverted sense to the term Deus ex machina. God now really comes from the machine.

But the global outbreak of Covid-19 has complicated this thinking considerably. On the one hand, worry, anguish and disquiet have been raised to a new level, in relation first to the virus itself, and the devastation it has caused in so many lives, then to the political inadequacies and incompetencies seen and felt in so many supposedly developed nations, and finally to the economic fallout whose full measure we have yet to experience. Technology on these scores, except to survivors of hospitalised cases, has proven itself deeply unsatisfactory. On the other hand, communication and virtual mobility during lockdown have relied exclusively on screens and interconnectivity, allowing some workers to continue in their employment and the general public to hang on to the remaining threads, thin as they are, of social cohesion. Technology on these scores, except for those too impoverished to afford it (and we should not underestimate this number), has proven itself a lifeline. The question then stands: has the dissatisfaction, fueled by the heightened worry, anguish and disquiet, outweighed the satisfaction, drawn from the increased ability to share with one another our heightened worry, anguish and disquiet? Has the lack of answers to our concerns, whether shared or unshared, rekindled a need to look beyond our technological infrastructures, and the enhancements we thought we had achieved with them?

Examining the intricacies of these infrastructures might give us some insight into these questions, and show us how the pandemic has altered all of them – the questions, the infrastructures, and the nature of their intricacies. Toward this end we might say that advanced modern technology now operates on five interconnecting levels: efficiency, cohesion, diversion, acquisition, and salvation.

The form of technology operating on the first level we could call vocational technology, technology designed for the workspace of homo laborans. This form, an extension of the industrial revolution, is characterized chiefly by efficiency, whereby the occupation of our being in the process of work is expedited through time/cost savings. This level is not particularly convincing, insofar as its instrumental efficiency has proven to be viciously self-consuming: what technology frees up in our working processes is only filled up by more work, not more leisure, and this added work requires more efficiency, whose savings are then filled up by more work, in a relentless cycle of what Marx called the exploitation of surplus value. Email technology is perhaps the most widely accepted example of this phenomenon. What the lockdown of Covid-19 has brought is a palpable realization of just how vicious this cycle had become, and, perhaps, how unnecessary. All too quickly we have found we can survive very well without the perpetual need of responding immediately to all incoming work emails. The suspension of efficiency brought on by the pandemic was initially, for so many, a blessed relief.

The second form we could call social technology, a form that carries the most subscribers. If the dominant device of the form of vocational technology is the computer, the dominant device of social technology is the mobile or cellular phone. On this device, social media has its fullest and most insistent expression, and communication its widest reach. But their ubiquity is both celebrated and reviled. Perpetual connectivity has brought the world closer and transformed our understanding of social cohesion, while at the same time it never leaves us alone. Social media offers a sense of instant community, but in doing so betrays a profound unaccountability within the communal fold. During the lockdown of Covid-19, social technology in general has come into its own: the nastier side of superfluous interaction encouraged by hyper-public social media sites – those for whom “going viral” is not merely a virtue but a sanctification – has been overtaken by more privatized use, as people connect with friends, family and loved ones for their exclusive means of socialization. To many, video calls have been the only portal to life outside a hermetic existence, or solitary confinement.

The third type we could call cultural technology, and is related closely to the second type, though with this difference: rather than focus on cohesion through communication, it focuses on distraction through entertainment. The internet has opened up unprecedented access to all forms of cultural diversion, from films to television, YouTube to TikTok, music streaming to meme generating, gaming to esport spectating. The volume of cultural products in this sphere is bottomless, and so too the levels of preoccupation and separation, by which non-digital reality is often reduced to a second-best option. The coronavirus has certainly played into the strength of, and need for, these diversions, for they thrive on the isolation of the viewer looking for relief from the tedium of static existence.

The fourth form we could call consumerist technology, for it promotes and expedites the accumulation of goods. Online purchase and delivery are now available for virtually every line of product, and one company stands above the rest in creating, capturing and channeling the need for consumption: Amazon. This worldwide market regime has gained its dominance by mastering integration of the first three technological spheres – vocational, social and cultural. One cannot navigate any of these spheres without soon encountering Amazon’s presence, with its platforms to acquire all material goods for both business or personal use. Covid-19 has been a steroid for online shopping in general and for Amazon in particular. What cannot be deemed essential – and even much that can – has been obtained through clicks of the mouse and the delivery vans they trigger into motion. Economies will take a brutal beating from the global pandemic, but the likes of Amazon will be seen as the ventilators that have kept them from an altogether fatal collapse.

What operates on the final level we could call scientific technology. This is easily the most revered, the most lauded, and the most encouraged. It involves the ever-deepening examination of Nature at its extremes – the microcosmic and the macrocosmic – and the harnessing of Nature’s power to control, enhance, and direct what we call our quality of life. In the medical world, this means a greater understanding of the human body and the environmental conditions within which it lives, and leads to the alleviation of certain ills, some common, some rare, towards a longer life expectancy. The coronavirus has brought out once again a tacit assumption or expectation about scientific technology: that it will eventually triumph. Very few doubt that scientists will eventually find a vaccine for Covid-19, even if there is considerable debate about its timing, and its effectiveness against mutations. This confidence is based on our past record of discovery, and on the now global size of the scientific community working on the problem. Modern medicine will in time prevail. Amid the bleakness and tribulations of lost lives, there is a soteriological promise, however deferred. Scientific technology offers itself as a panacea, not because it can now solve or cure all medical problems, but because in our collective imagination it holds out the hope that it can.

Now, if together these forms, and their unmistakable integration with one another, serve to replace, substitute, or surrogate the domain in which our greatest anxieties were once most satisfactorily allayed, the traditional domain of religion – here as faith practices and the tenets that direct them – then the current pandemic crisis has forced us to rethink this technological redemption.

The pause in our work routines has shown us how technology set up for vocational efficiency has in fact produced a more intense and demanding work environment, where endless data and incessant communication have led to a more frenetic work day. Self-isolation and home-working have made us consider the long-term harm of these frenzied routines, as we slow the pace down, and discover that, in most cases, the working world does not implode when we refrain from an instant reply to this demand or that. Labour can no longer be the redemption of life, in Hannah Arendt’s terms – that is, it can no longer redeem us from the “predicament of imprisonment in the ever-recurring cycle of the life process” (Arendt, 1958, p. 236) – when the technology employed imprisons us all the more. Lockdown has provided us the chance, once the whirr of the machine has stopped, to ask anew: “What then might redeem us?”

Self-isolation has also forced us to reconsider the nature of social cohesion. What had emerged in the general polarity of the social media dynamic was not a greater coming together of disparate peoples, ethnicities and communities, but in fact a moving apart, a divisiveness characterized not merely by discourtesy but all too often by acridity and offense. Social media, as a place of unbridled opinion, has bred unrestrained ad hominem attack and invective. Cyber-bullying has reached the level of pastime, even for heads of state. What was supposed to bring us together under a shared ethos of unregulated connectivity has in fact made us much unkinder and more disparaging towards one another, as freedom of expression expands at the same rate as impunity. But while the emergence of Covid-19 has not proven to be a social leveler, for not all are equally vulnerable, it has caused us to redirect our energies towards a different kind of engagement, as general suffering has dominated our thoughts and experiences. Since the social binding and collective representations that organized religion once provided have found no adequate substitution in social technology, as is now patently evident to even the casual user, finding modes of cohesion beyond social media is now an exigent matter. Quarantine has asked us to reconceive the technology as an instrument that no longer imposes suffering but rather helps to relieve suffering by allowing us to share the experiences of suffering, beginning with the suffering of our own isolated selves.

Cultural technology offers exponential distraction, not least from this suffering. But the coronavirus pandemic has awaked us to the fleeting, directionless, and often vacuous nature of these distractions. Digital trends, viral memes, addictive gaming, celebrity culture, the cult of sport fandom – each of these amusements carry their own elements of worship and devotion. But now, with so many no longer available or replenishable in their old form, their empty need has been exposed as what the Hebrew preacher Qoheleth of Ecclesiastes had called a “vanity of vanities”. As much as we require diversion, and in lockdown more than ever, these meaningless divertimenti no longer hold our attention. Or at least we can say this much: in the grand context of a pandemic, superficiality does not carry the same satisfactions as before; its veils are too thin, its fabric too diaphanous, to block out the glaring concerns and needs of a world in the straits of rampant affliction.

In this context, consumerist technology is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it allows us the freedom of goods to arrive directly onto our doorstep, and so furnishes the essential needs threatened by crisis. But it goes beyond this, and salves the need for non-essential acquisition, which, in capitalism’s indoctrination, is vital to our understanding of personal and national prosperity. On the other hand, that very movement, as a global phenomenon, is part of the problem of infectious spread: what allows goods to travel globally around the world for consumption are the same pathways that spread a virus so quickly and extensively. The pandemic has therefore set the conditions for its own metaphorical transference: what has allowed the rapid spread of the virus, the exploits of globalization, especially as directed by and to the West, has become a virus in and of itself. Wanton consumerism attacks the well-being not only of the consumer, with its false sense of prosperity, but also of the planet and its resources. Is it accidental, or somehow indicative, that the largest online company for consumer technology is named after a region with the earth’s greatest biodiversity but also its greatest environmental spoliation? Covid-19 has provoked a re-evaluation of our values, and of our responsibility not only to each other but to the planet we inhabit. In asking so much of the earth, we have plucked a diseased fruit, and brought travail upon ourselves, and we are left asking what reparations, what expiation, we can offer.

The ensuing inflictions and infections go beyond the physical. If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it is how little the medical industry still knows. It has not been able to give us definitive answers concerning the virus’s behaviour. It has not been able to stop all spread, or avert all casualties, even in places not yet infected. Politically, it has not been able to coordinate an effective and uniform strategy across major centres of population. And even if it eventually discovers a vaccine, it will not put at ease the general worry that a mutated strain could develop at any time, or that a future pandemic is more than likely. The soteriological narrative of scientific technology as the realm to solve the problem of human mortality – or, less ambitiously, to keep extending our quality of life – has been thrown yet further into question. We are all grateful for advances made that have kept the coronavirus under some semblance of control. But we are more conscious than ever of how our trust in scientific technology is based on assumptions and hopes that are fragile, tenuous, and ultimately unreliable, to the point where we are forced to recalculate the extent of our human limitations. And this is even more the case when we make that metaphorical leap to a viral condition beyond the physical body. What the various faith traditions have always provided is a comprehensive sense of soteriology: what is under the banner of salvation, however conceived, includes body, soul, spirit, and cosmos. We have always been integrated; movement between these levels, as taught in these traditions, has never been metaphorical. What infects one level in reality infects them all.

Common to each of these five general forms of technology – vocational, social, cultural, consumerist, and scientific – is what Marcuse had called a technical rationality, a rationality that has changed little in the last one hundred years (even if the various forms of technology have). This way of thinking is characterized chiefly by an instrumentality, or by a focus on the means to an end in which the means is so prioritized, so paramount, that the end becomes forgotten, even irrelevant. The pandemic, in all its disruption, has revived the questions of ends: to what purpose do we do the things we do, not just vocationally, socially, culturally, acquisitionally, and scientifically, but beyond these means of activity? And can now the means be justified in light of the ends? These questions have become more salient in our general consciousness.

Technical rationality is also characterized by what Lewis Mumford had called (even before Marcuse) matter-of-factness, wherein technology is the factor and we humans the factum (Mumford, 1934, p. p. 361). Here the “fact” is seen as an empirical solidity verified through measurement and quantification. It divests itself of any metaphorical element. In today’s digital parlance we might modulate this and say the human has become the datum, the quantification that fits into the larger schema of data organisation. In this sense it has fulfilled Marcuse’s prophetic announcement of the one-dimensional person (Marcuse, 1964). The pandemic, however, has challenged this reduction of the human to mere matter-of-factness, to being-data. Statistical numbers for human existence and human activity remain useful instrumentally; but when they are produced for that which threatens human existence and activity, when they capture the shift from existence to non-existence, and measure obliteration, our matter-of-fact attitudes provide less of an assurance, if they provide any assurances at all. Religion has never been contextualised within “the facts”. Rather, “the facts”, whatever they constituted, have, up until modernity, always been contextualized within religion. The question raised by Covid-19 is this: how ought we to contextualise our facts, now that technology has proven unsatisfactory in rationalising the harsh realities, the data and the numbers, in the statistics and graphs and tables we encounter on a daily basis?

We don’t expect traditional, institutionalised religion to quickly refill this context – at least, not in the West. But the question has been asked: will lockdown, self-isolation, and for many an occupational shift into neutral gear move us anew toward introspection, individual and collective? And will this introspection, having seen both the power and the limits of technology, challenge us to rethink what values and what ends we should impose upon technology, rather than what values and what means technology should impose upon us? Technology will not replace religion. But might it re-inspire religious thinking by means of its own limitations? Might we say, as once did T.S. Eliot’s magi, that “we are no longer at ease here” (Eliot, 1971, p.69), in this world of instrumentalised rationality, in this world of matter-of-factness, where disease becomes dis-ease, and we are compelled to seek a new dispensation? Might we invoke a new deus ex machina that releases us from the jammed plotlines of our own making, and frees the gods from the machines in which we have encased them?

References
Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1958.
Benjamin, Walter. “Capitalism as Religion [Fragment 74]”. Trans. Chad Kautzer. In The Frankfurt School on Religion. Ed. Eduardo Mendieta. New York: Routledge, 2005.
Eliot, T.S. “Journey of the Magi”. In Complete Poems and Plays: 1909-1950. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971.
Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964.
Marcuse, Herbert. “Some Social Implications of Modern Technology”. In The Essential Frankfurt School Reader. Eds. Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt. New York: Continnum, 1982.
Mumford, Lewis. Technics and Civilization. New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1934.

Critical Race and Religion

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By Malory Nye

What does a Critical Religion approach have to do with race, and in particular in what ways should Critical Religion make central an engagement with Critical Race theory?

Tim Fitzgerald (e.g., 2008, 2012, 2015) – and others on this blog – have very clearly set out the agenda for a Critical Religion approach, much of which I strongly agree with. Thus, my own starting point for the study of religion is that this entity that gets called ‘religion’ (a thing that is not-a-thing) is bound up closely with another ideological entity that is called modernity (Asad 2003; Fitzgerald 2007). The discourse of religion is an integral part of modernity. Thus religion and secularity are conjoined; the development of modernity is in itself a product of the construction of an idea of secularity – the separating out of certain elements of power and social organisation into discourses of the non-religious.

However, the story does not end there: modernity is a much larger concept which works to produce a series of further ideological (taken-for-granted) categories. Concepts such as ‘politics’, ‘property’, and ‘markets’ have been well discussed in this respect, but I would add to this other key analytical terms such as gender, race, sexuality, and ability (along with of course religion) – these are all discourses of analysis and categories of social difference. That is, the modern world takes for granted not only certain assumed biology-derived differences between men and women, hetero- and non-hetero- sexualities (particularly homosexuality), whiteness and colour (particularly Blackness), and so on. And within such distinctions there are differences between religions – in particular, between Christocentric practice and others (in what is often called the ‘world religions paradigm’, cf. Masuzawa 2005).

In addition, modernity produces such differences – providing material advantages and privileges for those who are identified as white, male, and hetero and thus causing disadvantage (often through systemic or actual violence) to those who are considered as non-white, non-male, and non-hetero. Needless to say, these identities and discourses (and the violence that comes from them) often overlap and intersect. Violence and disadvantage is directed against Blackness, against women, and against gays, but it is also particularly focused when these categories intersect – against Black women, against Black LGBTQ, and so on. To talk of such categories and identities requires an intersectional approach (Crenshaw 1989; hooks 1987; Hill Collins and Bilge 2016) that focuses not only on the categories in themselves, but also on their intersections (or assemblages, cf. Puar 2007:212; 2014).

Again, religious identities are often implicated across and within such intersections. This is not to say that a ‘thing’ called religion can be ‘found’ in or ‘influenced’ by other categories such as gender, race, and sexuality. Instead, the discourse or category of religion is very often assumed to be a significant element of differentiation. This may be in terms of long standing intra-Christian religious categories (such as Protestant or Catholic), or categories that presume racialized differences, such as between (white) Christians and (non-white) others such as Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs. Again there are layers of other categories intersecting across these categories of religion – such as, of course, the persistent gender-based ‘concerns’ about Muslim women (in particular clothing, freedom, etc.), about Muslim women’s sexuality (covering up and unveiling), and assumptions about Muslim men and violence (as ‘terrorists’, wife-abusers, and sexual predators).

Thus, it is important to think beyond the idea of each of these categories as existing separately and in themselves (as ‘sui generis’). The categories of gender, race, sexuality, and religion (and secularity) are all products of modernity, and within the context of modernity they are practised through their intersections. There is no single practice of gender – of maleness or femaleness – but instead each context also relies on the other categories: masculinity is racialized, sexualized, and religionized. This is one of the ways in which modernity works.

However, my main interest is in how the category of race works. And so, I argue in particular for a critical race and religion approach. This puts a central focus on how religion and modernity are the product of European colonialism, which is an ongoing project – what Quijano (2007) and others have labelled as the ‘colonial matrix of power’, or more simply as modernity/coloniality. Both race and religion are the grammar of this historic and present day coloniality.

This leads me to questions of how religion is racialized, or more particularly how the process of talking about religion (religionization) is in itself a form of racialization (Nye 2018, 2019). As Theodor Vial has recently argued:
‘Race and religion are conjoined twins. They are offspring of the modern world. Because they share a mutual genealogy, the category of religion is always a racialized category, even when race is not explicitly under discussion…’ (Vial 2016, 1).

The categories of both race and religion are products of modernity, and both relate to entities imagined to be ‘real’ and which are socially constructed (and hence are real). My issue is that the differentiation between these categories obfuscates more than it reveals – for example, in the extensive debates about whether Islamophobic violence against Muslims can be categorised as ‘racism’ since (as claimed) ‘Muslims are not a race’; or whether anti-semitism is about religious or racialised hatred. This is not merely an academic concern about categorisation, it obviously spills out into very real and pressing issues. And most importantly, this slippage and mutual construction between categories of race and religion is not a recent development, the study of religion has for centuries been dependent on the ambiguities of whether religious groups are racialised or vice versa. Critical religion is about the study of such racialisation.

However, discussion of race also requires acknowledgement of the ‘elephant in the room’: the ideology and identity of whiteness. That is, the racialising aspect of modernity that places white identities as the driving forces of all other aspects of modernity/coloniality. Of course, such whiteness is usually obscured and ignored, but has still dominated public and political life, as well as academic discourses (cf., Sara Ahmed, 2014 on ‘white men’). To raise the issue of whiteness is to talk about the water in which scholars and their readers swim, the air that they breathe – it is there, but not noticed. It is invisible and seen everywhere. Mills (2017) and Wekker (2016) talk of this as white ignorance and innocence, and Bhambra (2017a) talks of methodological whiteness. Of course, in the study of religion this is as simple as pointing to the centrality of issues of Christianity and white Europeans (and other people who racialise themselves as white), and the long-term use of a paradigm that classifies all others who are outside this into ‘world religions’. Thus, the analysis needs to try ‘to understand both the ways in which race, as a structural process, has organised the modern world and the impact that this has had on our ways of knowing the world’ (Bhambra 2017b). In short, the concept of religion (and more broadly the academic study of religion) serves the interests of such whiteness.

Therefore, (what gets called) religion is an important part of this colonial matrix of power, albeit ‘it’ does not stand alone or distinctly. (What gets called) religion is part of an intersecting system involving categories of race, gender, sexuality, class, and ability. In this respect, the idea of the study of religion is a product of a very particular form of modernising theory (that is, of a distinct entity of religion, which stands out from secularity and non-religion). A critique of such theoretical and methodological whiteness suggests that this modernist study of religion needs to be reconsidered, as it is a tool of colonial power (both past and present).

References
Ahmed, Sara. 2014. “White Men.” Feministkilljoys Blog. 2014. https://feministkilljoys.com/2014/11/04/white-men/.
Asad, Talal. 2003. Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford: Stanford UP.
Bhambra, Gurminder K. 2017a. “Brexit, Trump, and ‘Methodological Whiteness’: On the Misrecognition of Race and Class.” The British Journal of Sociology 68 (November): 214–32.
———. 2017b. “Why Are the White Working Classes Still Being Held Responsible for Brexit and Trump?” LSE Blog, November 10, 2017. http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/brexit/2017/11/10/why-are-the-white-working-classes-still-being-held-responsible-for-brexit-and-trump/.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé. 1989. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Policies.” The University of Chicago Legal Forum 1989 (1): 139–67.
Fitzgerald, Timothy. 2007. Religion and the Secular: Historical and Colonial Formations. Sheffield: Equinox.
———. (ed). 2008. “Religion Is Not a Standalone Category.” The Immanent Frame: Secularism, Religion, and the Public Sphere, October 29, 2008. https://tif.ssrc.org/2008/10/29/religion-is-not-a-standalone-category/
———. 2012. “The Breadth of Critical Religion.” Critical Religion Association, November 9, 2012. https://criticalreligion.org/2012/11/09/the-breadth-of-critical-religion/.
———. 2015. “Critical Religion and Critical Research on Religion: Religion and Politics as Modern Fictions.” Critical Research on Religion 3 (3): 303–19.
Hill Collins, Patricia, and Sirma Bilge. 2016. Intersectionality. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Hooks, bell. 1987. Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. London: Pluto Press.
Masuzawa, Tomoko. 2005. The Invention of World Religions: How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. London: University of Chicago Press.
Mills, Charles W. 2017. “White Ignorance.” In Black Rights/White Wrongs: The Critique of Racial Liberalism. New York: Oxford University Press.
Nye, Malory. 2018. “Race and Religion: Postcolonial Formations of Power and Whiteness.” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, July.
———. 2019. “Decolonizing the Study of Religion.” Open Library of Humanities 5 (1): p.43.
Puar, Jasbir K. 2007. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. London: Duke University Press.
———. 2014. “Reading Religion Back into Terrorist Assemblages: Author’s Response.” Culture and Religion 15 (2): 198–210. https://doi.org/10.1080/14755610.2014.911045.
Quijano, Aníbal. 2007. “Coloniality and Modernity/Rationality’.” Cultural Studies 21 (2): 168–78.
Vial, Theodore. 2016. Modern Religion, Modern Race. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wekker, Gloria. 2016. White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race. Durham: Duke University Press.

Religion Under Fire

By Alison Jasper, Andrew Hass, Bashir Saade, Fiona Darroch, Zhe Gao
Critical Religion at the University of Stirling

Flames and smoke rise from Notre Dame cathedral as it burns in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. Massive plumes of yellow brown smoke is filling the air above Notre Dame Cathedral and ash is falling on tourists and others around the island that marks the center of Paris. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

The fragility of religion was all too evident the night of conflagration in Paris. That fragility was first and most spectacularly seen in its material form. For however we may choose to define religion, it is bound inextricably with the physical, the tangible, the sensate. And so it is susceptible to devastation as much as to decay. We may be able to fight against the decay – and the restoration project of Notre-Dame would have been perpetual – but devastation can strike any time, whether by human hands or by an act of God. As the flames ascended the wooden beams of the cathedral’s spire, onlookers watched as the materiality of religion was brought palpably home, brought flagrantly to the ground. What might have happened had the flames reached, and consumed, the famous relic of the Crown of Thorns? Here Good Friday would have come four days early. Black Friday would have become Black Monday, as the ashes floated skyward, and the charred remains were swept into the bin. Religion, so often perceived to rest upon immutable truths, was here all too transient.

Fragility was thus seen in the onlookers themselves. Damage to, or loss of, a landmark building by fire undoubtedly creates a palpable sense of grief over and reflection upon the significance of that space. Parisians, so adamant, with so much pride, in their secularized policy of Laïcité, stood in disbelief, many in tears, as their religious heritage suddenly became real to them. “I am not religious, but…”, said many on camera. That “but” spoke of what few could articulate, but many felt deep within: religion’s lingering importance, its meaningfulness, but fragile in its very inability to mean what they once thought, as set in binary opposition to secularity. The proudly secular gazed dumbfounded at the loss – the loss of the distinction, the all-too-easy classifications of public and private life into categories such as religious, political, cultural, economic, and secular, as much as the loss of their city’s “heart and soul”.

France is a country whose politicians have proudly marketed it as a place where the secular and religious occupy distinct spheres of life. This binary is a direct product of European modernist ideals of progress; the ability to section one’s religious self from one’s secular and modern self has been one of Europe’s defining symbols of civilisation. But this binary is an invention of European modernity which serves to advance, it is believed, the political, economic (and imperial) success of these nation states on the world stage.

The overwhelming response to the damage of Notre-Dame, captured in President Macron’s speech, in the prayer and hymn vigils held outside the burning building, as the flames engulfed Paris’s night sky, in the public responses captured by journalists, and emphasised most powerfully by the (so far) 800 million Euros of donations from the world’s wealthiest businesses and individuals, exposes the fragility of these classifications. For many the fire brought a cultural loss, an artistic and architectural loss, for Notre-Dame is a defining symbol of Paris’ cultural achievement. But there is no escape from the fact that Notre Dame Cathedral is a ‘religious’ building within a ‘secular’ country. The public, political and media responses to its damage are a reminder of the futility of our attempts to divide ourselves as ‘religious’ or ‘secular’ beings; it is a reminder that we are human beings who channel our relationship with the (non-material) world through our architecture, artworks, and treasured objects.

In a sense, Notre-Dame is one of the many traces of a glorious order that was fought and gradually cast out. From this fight emerged the modern yet shaky religious/secular dichotomy. The fight pitted the forming nation-state against the Catholic church. Both these types of regimes involved different kind of authoritative instances, power relations, and most importantly community imaginaries. Notre Dame was “monumentalized” in order to strip itself from its Catholic past, but in this case, instead of reaching an older past or point of origin (such as the Greek or European reclaiming of “Greek antiquity”), Notre-Dame came to represent a “secular” time, suspended with no origin and no end that was constantly displacing its “real” past. As a result, the Church had to reinvent its past over centuries, as its institutional apparatuses and political clout underwent profound change to fit the modern category of “religion”.

The confusion over the recent events stem from the fact that the physical traces carry in themselves the older order at a symbolic level. Battles over symbols are battles over meaning that push for different forms of belonging. In such situations, vows of allegiance become an urgent attempt at delineating community boundaries. It is a fight where secular (or religious) France could ask again: are the Muslims with us? The indeterminate nature of who could ask this makes the question all the more urgent. On social media, one could see that some were rejoicing at the sight of the destruction. Debates quickly unfolded on social media, some talking of a “religious outsider” conspiracy, some pointing out that the very construction of Notre-Dame is not really that “French” after all, as it draws upon an “Islamic heritage”. What are the “properties” of this French community? Are we all part of one community?

Some interesting discussions emerged in the Chinese internet world in relation to these questions. While the vast majority of Chinese people felt grief for this tragedy, some view this event as ‘karma’ (报应). In other words, the fire can be understood as one of the effects of those bad things done, especially to China, by the French. The historical background of this way of thinking is the looting and destruction of the Old Summer Palace, known in Chinese as Yuanming Yuan (圆明园), by the Anglo-French expedition force in 1860 during the Second Opium War, a time when China had just stepped in the so-called semi-colonial and semi-feudal era. From their narrow nationalist perspective, therefore, the Notre-Dame fire is something which embodies the principle of justice (transcendental or otherwise), if not something worth celebrating. It is not difficult to imagine why this kind of reaction would emerge. Although the Old Summer Palace has been completely destroyed, the ruins of it have been retained intentionally, in order to remind Chinese people of the colonial history of humiliation and to conduct patriotic education. Yet most Chinese people feel disgusted by this kind of theory. Their thoughts are that, in spite of the colonial history, what was ravaged is something which belongs to the common cultural heritage of all humankind. The Catholic background is not the focus of Chinese people. It seems that for them the cultural implications of the building and the event of its damage are more important than their ‘religious’ implication.

The Chinese reaction brings into relief, then, the confusion or blurring of the boundary between the material and the spiritual, the religious and the secular. In terms of critical religion, the various reactions, within and without France, go to show how the binary distinction between what are perceived as categories of religious and secular things in the world fails get to the heart of things. Where ‘religion’ is defined by self-identifying secularists in relation to institutions that foster violence or irrational belief, they will be disconcerted to see people weeping in the streets overcome with emotion at the loss of a ‘religious’ building. On the other hand, Christians may also regard these tears with a certain scepticism, wondering whether they are matched by a willingness to follow a Christian life or whether they are produced by undirected effervescence – mere mood music. In both cases, we rely on stereotypical or misleading categorisations that blind us to the fact that our world is thoroughly imbued with powerful meanings that go well beyond any calculation in literal or strictly material terms. They blind us to the fact that powerful symbolic realities can and do exist outside of conventional institutional formulations, and are found in relation to nations, economies, and civic values to places, spaces and physical constructions, and even to gendered perspectives.

In the case of Notre-Dame, the female personification – as seen in its very name – is drawn from its Christian origins, where Our Lady is Mary, conventionally, the idealised mother who is untouched by the sufferings and ecstasies of embodied sexual relations. A great danger, as feminists point out, lies in identifying with ‘her’ uncritically, as the image serves to support the objectification of women within patriarchal culture. . Nevertheless, as female personification she can also powerfully reflect the symbolic reality of the material, embodied feminine that very much sits as the beating heart of human concerns, even religious concerns, which impels and empowers us to restore what is broken.

So fragile then is religion in the modern West. For Christian Europe, it cannot sustain the numbers to fill its pews, but it cannot countenance the loss of its heritage. The American sociologist of religion Robert Bellah (1927-2013) had said near the end of his life that, where religion is part of human evolution, “nothing is ever lost”. These might be words of comfort as the restoration teams line up, yet again, to restore Notre-Dame to her former glory. But these words might also point to a more difficult phenomenon: if religion persists, it persists in frailty, perhaps as it always has conceptually, as it certainly has materially, and, following upon the high point of the Christian calendar being celebrated at the time within the walls of Notre-Dame de Paris, as it is featured in the Passion of Easter.

The Folly of Secularism

Dialogues on the theopolitics of the nation-state: Israel in a wider context
1 April 2019

Oxford School of Global and Area Studies and Department of Politics and International Relations, The University of Oxford

One of the gravest distortions of the discussion on the modern, liberal-democratic nation-state has been the prevalence of a secularist epistemology as the basis for this discussion. This epistemology serves the configuration of power of the nation-state by identifying it with the “secular” realm of rational politics, relegating “religion” to the realm of the irrational, private and apolitical. Doing so, the secularist discourse actively hides the theopolitical nature of the modern nation-state, justifying the violence of the state as necessary and rational, while delegitimizing others ideational claims for (political) truth as irrational and politically illegitimate.

Convened by Stanley Lewis Chair in Israel Studies at Oxford, the proposed symposium will position the Israeli case in a wider thematic context. It will tie into one event or discourse several threads emanating from this critique: A deconstruction and reconsideration of the conceptual duality of “religion and politics”; a critique of the notion of liberal secularism; and a reconsideration of the case study of Israel (and Judaism).

The symposium would be formatted as a series of public dialogues:
Session 1 (10:30am-12pm): Religion and Politics: a dialogue between William Cavanaugh (DePaul) and Timothy Fitzgerald (Stirling) on the politics and history of this conceptual duality and its current usages.
Session 2 (2pm – 3:30pm): Liberalism and Secularism: a dialogue between Elizabeth Shakman-Hurd (Northwestern) and Yolanda Jansen (Amsterdam) on the notion of the “secular,” liberal politics of the nation-state.
Session 3 (4pm-5:30pm): Israel: a dialogue between Yehouda Shenhav (Tel Aviv) and Yaacov Yadgar (Oxford) on the uses and misuses of a discourse on “Judaism” in Israel.

Sign up here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/the-folly-of-secularism-dialogues-on-the-theopolitics-of-the-nation-state-israel-in-a-wider-context-tickets-57506667992?utm_term=eventurl_text