What is Religion? What is Secularism? Religious History Association Conference Part 1

State of Confucius in garden

Confucianism: religion or a philosophy? Statue of Confucius in the grounds of the University of Adelaide

All week I am attending the Australian Historical Association Conference in Adelaide.  As I mentioned in yesterday’s post this conference is really four conferences in one.  I have been mostly attending the Religious History Association conference which concluded today.  This post gives a brief introduction to some profound philosophical debates about religion and secularism and how these debates were addressed in the papers presented at this conference.

The secularisation thesis has underpinned the work of much of the humanities and social sciences since the nineteenth century. This theory proposes that religion will die out with the increasing modernisation of society (for further explanation see the introduction to Sacred and Secular by Inglehart and Norris).  This theory is under intense scrutiny because it would be reasonable to expect that if the secularisation thesis holds then in many western societies religion would have virtually disappeared by now.  As religion is still a force in the west the question is whether the theory is incorrect or whether it needs to be reframed in a more nuanced manner.

To discuss the secularisation thesis we need to be able to understand the nature of both secularisation and it’s binary opposite, religion.  I have touched on the meaning of secular in an earlier post, but what is religion?  This has proven to be very difficult, and I would argue, virtually impossible to define.

While these debates are relevant and discussed by other disciplines, the historical record is crucial to understanding what is occurring.  The theme of this week’s Religious History Association conference is very topical.

Ian Tregenza (Macquarie University) gave a good overview of the philosophical debate concerning the nature of religion and secularist life.  He acquainted the audience with Charles Taylor’s arguments from Taylor’s seminal book, A Secular Age, as well as addressing contributions to the debate by Talal Assad, William Cavanaugh and Saba Mahmood.  The discussion that arose from his paper raised the contribution to this debate by Christopher Bayly and the importance of looking at the experience in the rest of the world.  By examining non-western (and non-Christian) societies we should be better able to understand the principles at work.  If you would like to acquaint yourself with the current philosophical debate about religion and secularisation, I recommend that you regularly read The Immanent Frame website.  Many of the philosophers that are leading this debate contribute to this website. You can also read my review of a book by political philosopher, Veit Bader, which discusses these issues.

The problem of defining ‘religion’ was addressed in two other papers I heard presented.  Samuel Koehne (Alfred Deakin Research Unit) asked whether Nazism could be considered a religious movement.  There are a variety of opinions in the academic discussion of this question.  Koehne argued that Nazism was not a religion by examining what Nazis themselves considered it to be.  He said that Nazism was not specifically religious, nor did it necessarily oppose religion.  “Religious teachings or doctrines were to be measured against a ‘racial’ yardstick”, Koehne argued.  The chairman of the session, Roberto Gonzalez-Casanovas, commented that it did not matter whether someone had converted from Judaism to Christianity to Nazis.  What mattered to them was their ethnicity, not their religion.

Christopher Hartney (University of Sydney) drew on the work of Robert Belllah, Timothy Fitzgerald (Discourse on Civility and Barbarity) and Jonathon Z Smith.  Hartney adopted a broad approach to defining ‘religion’.  He argued that even though Australia does not have a formally established religion, we do have a state religion (civil religion).  He focussed on what he regarded were competing claims to ‘ultimacy’ by the religions and the state.  He said that the state increasingly uses its claims to ultimacy to claim control over our emotional lives.  He used the example of the Australian and New Zealand national war memorials to argue that the architecture and general presentation of the material therein told people how they must behave when considering the issue of the war dead.  He then discussed the state’s use of law to claim power over religions.  “Religions are precisely what the state says they are”, he said citing the example of new religions needing to prove to the state that they were a religion, using the definition of a religion set down by the state.  Hartney examined the taxation laws of Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom.  Regarding the taxation laws of the United States, Hartney said that the handbooks of the Internal Revenue Service specify how the church and ministers should behave.  The state, in this instance, becomes the ‘moral arbiter’ of how religions should behave.  In response to a comment from the audience that Hartney’s definition of religion is too all-encompassing, that using his approach anything could be regarded as religious, Hartney responded by agreeing that he had a very broad view of the definition of ‘religion’ and that he regarded communism as a form of religion.

I have thus far only covered the papers I heard which addressed the philosophical issues in the debates concerning religion and secularisation.  There were many other papers I heard which focussed more on particular historical instances or lives in addressing the theme of the conference.  In order to give adequate coverage to these papers, I will write about them in a separate post.

I would like to leave this post by expanding on a thought that I raised in response to the discussion after Ian Tregenza’s paper.  If religion is still present in Australia in 2012, where is religious belief considered in the many articles and books about Australian history?  Someone who reads Australian history could easily be left with the impression that the only religious people in Australian history were the missionaries who ran the missions on which the Aborigines lived.  The other impression that a reader of Australian history would have of the role of religion in our national life is how it fuelled sectarian conflict. Except for these two examples a general reader of Australian history could easily gain the impression that religious belief had no impact on the behaviour of Australians.

There were many religious Australians who held many different religious beliefs throughout our history, as well as Australians who held agnostic and atheist beliefs.  The effect of this diversity of world views is often not considered by today’s historians, yet beliefs permeate our actions in all aspects of our everyday lives.  In our universities religion is often left to the religious studies department rather than integrated into the consideration of all disciplines.  This separation of religion from the secular was also reflected in the conference.  The ‘secularism and history’ theme was only considered by the religious history conference whereas the issue of secularism is of great importance to history as a discipline.

I said at the beginning of the article that the secularisation thesis underpins many disciplines.  Why would historians consider religion if the discipline is built on the assumption that religion would die out as modernity advanced?  In predicting that religion would die out in the west, the secularisation thesis is effectively telling us that over the last century religion has almost disappeared as a factor in historical processes, so it is not worth considering.

There is a bit of the historian in every history they write.  The historian aspires to be fair, but can never claim to be completely independent of the subject they are studying.   The lack of consideration given to the effect of religious beliefs of Australians in the past is quite possibly an unconscious action on the part of many historians.  All of us have been brought up in a secular society.  Where religion has survived it is only considered to be a private or once a week (or once a year) affair.  Many people in our society have lived out their lives with little consideration of religion.  Why would historians brought up in a secular society consider the effect of religious views on the historical processes they are examining?

The current debates about the secularisation thesis have a clear message to historians. Religion is not dead, neither is secularism. The role of belief on the behaviour of people in the near and not so near past needs to be considered by all historians, not just the few who specialise in religious history.

Some Other Posts on this Blog about Secularism and Religion

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One thought on “What is Religion? What is Secularism? Religious History Association Conference Part 1

  1. Pingback: Religion, History and Secularization: RHA Conference 2012 | Religious History Association

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