Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Rethinking Secularism: The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere

On October 22nd we (Kendra Barber and Beverly Pratt) decided to take a short academic excursion to New York City where NYU's Institute for Public Knowledge (IPK) was hosting a panel entitled "Rethinking Secularism: The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere." The panelists - each academic stars - included J├╝rgen Habermas - yes, he's still alive, Charles Taylor - from McGill University in Canada, Judith Butler - from the University of California, Berkeley, and Cornel West - from Princeton University, who of course wore his signature 3 piece suit.


Habermas began the discussion by presenting his

lecture: "'The Political - The Rational Sense of a Questionable Inheritance of Political Theology." Due to Habermas' German accent and because he wasn't speaking into the microphone, however, it seemed that
much of the audience - ourselves included - had a hard time understanding much of what he said. How do we know? Well, let's just say heads buried in reading and people
nodding off was a small indication. But thanks to a recap of the panel on the IPK website we figured out that Habermas suggests that both religious and secular voices are needed within a constitutional democracy - which is a process in itself as well as a learning process - as "the political" has a strong basis in political theology. Therefore, he calls for reciprocity between religoius and secular citizens in order for decision making - with a diversity of voices - to occur.


Taylor followed with his lecture: "Why We Need a Radical Redefinition of Secularism." Taylor posited that contrary to popular opinion, secularism is not really about

religion but rather the response of the democratic state to diversity. He suggested that conceptions of the divine have shifted from realms of authenticity to realms of law and argued that citizens must shape political institutions that “maximize the basic goals of liberty and equality between basic beliefs.”


After a thirty minute break Butler restarted the panel with her lecture: "Is Judaism Zionism? Religious Sources for the Critique of Violence." She began by examining the quandary of the critique of Israeli state violence by Jews being viewed as anti-Semitic or un-Jewish as an attempt to understand the relationship between Judaism, Jewishness, and Zionism. Drawing on Said, Arendt, and Benjamin, Butler introduced the concept of "co-habitation." She stated, "it is not only that we may not choose with whom to co-habit, but that we must actively preserve the non-chosen character of inclusive and plural co-habitation: we not only live with those we never chose and to whom we may feel no social sense of belonging, but we are also obligated to preserve those lives and the plurality of which they form a part." Butler argued for the importance of critical remembrance and that remembrance may be a way for religion to enter the public sphere.


West ended the panel discussion with a characteristically rousing academic discussion/sermon: "Prophetic Religion and the Future of Capitalist Civilization." Similar to Butler's calls to critical remembrance, West called the audience to bear witness to the catastrophic - including individual and societal failure - by alluding to Benjamin's Ninth Thesis which focused on history as catastrophic. He also spoke of the importance of empathy as a "genuine love and willingness to celebrate with the wretched of the earth" and a need for righteous indignation against issues rather than persons. In doing so, West alluded to Habermas' discussion by suggesting that "prophetic imagination" is necessary - among both religious and secular individuals and organizations - in order for social justice to occur.

To close, we are both grateful to have attended this great session at NYU's IPK. For us, it was a once-in-a-graduate-student-lifetime to see such figures we have read, discussed, and argued about in such classes as Sociology of Knowledge, Critical Race Theory, and Intersectionality. As we are each interested in social justice and religion research, witnessing this discussion provided a boost to our professional framework and goals.

Anyone can attend these free lectures provided by the institute. Go to www.nyu.edu/ipk/ to find their schedule and to be placed on their email list. New York is a quick bus ride, so we definitely encourage folks to take advantage of the knowledge production occuring on the East Coast, especially if you're not from the area.


Kendra Barber & Beverly Pratt

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