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After Secularism: Rethinking Religion in Global Politics by Erin Wilson; Wilson to Speak at Belfast Conference, 3-5 September 2014

aftersecularismIn September (3rd-5th), Belfast will host the bi-annual meeting of the European Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Research Network, the theme of which is ‘Religion in the Public Domain.’

Among the keynote speakers is Dr Erin Wilson, the Director of the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, on ‘Global Justice in a Postsecular Public Domain: Challenges and Possibilities.’

Other keynote speakers are Prof John D. Brewer (Queen’s University Belfast) on ‘The Public Value of the Sociology of Religion’ and Prof Linda Woodhead (Lancaster University), on ‘How Public Religion has changed now that ‘Church and State’ isn’t the Only Game in Town.’

Wilson takes an interdisciplinary approach to the study of religion, specialising in religion and politics, human rights, development, global justice, and globalisation. Her recent After Secularism: Rethinking Religion in Global Politics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) makes a compelling case for International Relations scholars to take religion seriously.

Wilson is also co-author, with Manfred B. Steger and James Goodman, of Justice Globalism: Ideology, Crises, Policy (Sage, 2013).

Today I review After Secularism in light of the theme of the Belfast conference.

After Secularism is an important book for scholars in International Relations. As Wilson points out, religion has been dismissed in this field at the same time it has become more prominent in global affairs. This neglect has led to serious gaps in scholars’ and policy makers’ understanding of religion as a public phenomenon, as highlighted by their bewilderment after the September 11th attacks.

International relations scholars, it would seem, have been convinced by the sociology of religion’s secularisation theories, some of which predicted the drastic decline and eventual demise of religion.

Wilson’s contribution in this book is to interrogate the ‘secularist bias’ of International Relations and to offer a more holistic way to think about religion in the public domain.

For Wilson, the secularist bias is revealed in the way scholars have constructed ‘three dichotomies’ about religion:

  1. institutional/ideational
  2. individual/communal
  3. irrational/rational

Wilson says that one part of each dichotomy tends to get subordinated to the other, with the effect that religion is framed as institutional, individual and irrational. The implication is that religion can and should be privatised, and that its irrational influences are best removed from the public domain.

By way of contrast, Wilson calls her approach ‘relational dialogism,’ arguing that it transcends the ‘dualistic’ thinking that she finds all-too-common in International Relations. She wants scholars of religion to consider all six ways that religion may be found in the public domain, and recognise ‘all six dimensions through which religious assumptions about the nature of existential reality can infuse politics and public life’ (p. 21).

Accordingly, Wilson’s definition of religion aims to be more encompassing than definitions typically found in International Relations, or  even in sociology (p. 20):

Religion is … an internally logical set of ideas and beliefs about the nature of existential reality (encompassing the immanent as well as the transcendent) that shapes and is shaped by both individual and community identity and action, and which may be facilitated and practised through institutional arrangements, rituals and/or symbols.

Wilson also sees relational dialogism as ‘undoing the four moves of secularism’ (p. 97ff.) by:

  1. Recognising it is ‘nigh on impossible’ to separate religion and politics at all times
  2. Recognising religion cannot be excluded from the public domain, because even if religious institutions are discouraged or officially excluded, religious ideas and symbols continue to permeate public spaces and ways of thinking
  3. Recognising that the public/private divide is not watertight, so it is impossible to relegate or keep religion a purely private, individualistic affair
  4. Recognising that contrary to many secularisation theories, religion is compatible with modernisation and development. Religion does not disappear with modernity, it adapts to these conditions and people become religious in distinctly modern ways, rather than abandoning religion.

Wilson applies her approach by analysing the texts of six State of the Union addresses by American Presidents, revealing the unexpected ways in which religion matters in what they say and how they say it.

Religion, in this approach, is not simply a matter of personal belief, instead:

‘the purpose of the case study is to identify the extent of religion’s influence on those embedded cultural assumptions that underpin the political principles and worldview that shape how the USA perceives itself, its role and other actors in world politics and how this influences the development and implementation of policy’ (p. 128).

Wilson’s freshest freshest chapter is the one where she provides examples of how passages from State of the Union addresses illustrate her approach (chapter 5: ‘Revealing Religion: An Alternative Account of Religion and Politics’).

Wilson demonstrates how ‘embedded, implicit cultural assumptions,’ derived in large part from the Judeo-Christian tradition and scriptures, are present institutionally, ideationally, individually, communally, irrationally and rationally in the discourses of US Presidents.

The personal piety of George W. Bush, it turns out, is just  one way American Presidents have been revealed as religious.

Wilson’s analysis of an address by John F. Kennedy is especially striking, as she characterises it as deeply religious. By way of contrast, a 2003 study by Donna Hoffman and Alison Howard ‘found no religious references in Kennedy’s speeches’ (p. 185).

Even casual observers of US politics are aware of how American Presidents often present their country as one with ‘a special calling and purpose’ (p. 152) and as a ‘Christ-like figure’ (p. 155).

But Wilson’s holistic approach prompts us to ask if other Western nations have similar embedded, implicit cultural assumptions which are at their root religious – and whether in these ways religion continues to be important in the public domain.

Read the review of John Brewer’s The Public Value of the Social Sciences

Read the review of Linda Woodhead and Rebecca Catto’s edited book, Religion and Change in Modern Britain