Religion, Solidarity and Power: The Contemporary Scholarly Landscape

Religion, Solidarity and Power

by

Howard Adelman

This article is divided into two major parts. Part I is divided in three beginning with a prologue that sets the article amongst contemporary discussions of the relationship of the secular to the religious. The second section of Part I adopts a diachronic rather than synchronic perspective. Instead of orienting the reader within contemporary intellectual space, it offers a sketch of how our new secular religions that characterize our post-modern age emerged out of the trajectory of the past. The third part then sets this paper within the context of other papers discussed at the symposium where this paper was first presented.

Part II gets to the core of what this paper is about – the relationship of solidarity to power in the contemporary world and, more specifically, within the context of traditional religions in competition with contemporary secular religions, and all in competition with each other and with the only secular perspective that is truly idolatrous and not a religion at all. Part II then offers two very specific case studies which are seemingly peripheral to the central issues at stake in the Canadian 2015 political election, but which exemplify the nature of the contemporary struggle between the two dominant secular religions.

Part I: Framing

 

  1. Prologue: Locating this Article in Contemporary Scholarly Landscape
  2. A Philosophical and Historical Overview
  3. State, Society and Contemporary Competing Religions

 

Part II: Case Studies

  1. Solidarity: Coercion, Influence and Authority in Contemporary Society
  2. The Issue of the Niqab in the 2015 Canadian Election
  3. The Issue of Syrian Refugees in the 2015 Canadian Election

 1. Prologue: Locating this Article in Contemporary Scholarly Landscape

Studies of the role of religion and religious symbols in public life have been legion. Some of my own writings (2011) on Quebec and French divisive debates over the hijab and niqab (Adelman blog, 12 October 2015) fit into this classification. The writings of Chidester (1991), Green (1996), Hams (1999), Miller (2005), Lambert (2008) and Fowler et al (2010), as well as many others, have covered the role of religion in political life in America, and certainly peaceful accommodation in civil society (Putnam and Campbell, 2010). We have always had studies of the role of religion in violent conflict by historians (Underdown 1986; Harris 1990; Wilson 1995; Shugar 1997; Martinich 2002) where profound conflicts over fundamental values were at the root of violent clashes. In our time, religious differences have been at the centre of violence in Yugoslavia (Babel 1992), Sri Lanka (Tambiah 1992) and Northern Ireland (Jordon 2013) as well as at work in the peace process itself (Brewer et al 2014).

Religious values, symbols and concepts permeate our secular politics as well (Sung 2007). In fact, if I interpret him correctly, Schewel (2014), who is part of this symposium, claimed that Christ was indirectly the first secularist. For if reconciliation between man and God could not be obtained in one’s lifetime in this world, then, “This created the idea of an autonomous and wholly secular plane of political existence and taught religion to abandon its claim to worldly power.” (p. 50) Nevertheless, even as modernity ushered in what were perceived to be the final stages of shoving religion to the periphery of political life, Elshtain (2008) and Gillespie (2008) documented how deeply religious conceptions underpin the very basis of contemporary politics.

We have also had writings on secular society, especially modernity, as also having its own religious and ethical foundations that provide the basis for cohesion and the peaceful operation of the polity. Traditional religion has also provided the foundation for contemporary culture. The studies of Bellag (1967) and Cristi (2001) try to document that this is not just an influence on secular culture, but has itself produced a civil religion on its own. On the other hand, there does seem to be an increasing trend towards the importance of religious strife in violent conflicts (Bibby 2001) and a wider and broader conviction that our contemporary culture is increasingly divorced from a belief in an unchanging sacred social order that is so characteristic of traditional religion.

On the one hand, religion seems to be everywhere; on the other hand, our society has become increasingly secular (Taylor 2007). Secular in this context refers to the privatization of religion as initially just another distinctive realm among many (usually focused on institutional attachments), a set of beliefs and practices that entail value priorities and even fundamental commitments, and then, in the case of traditional religion, its ostensible exile from the public sphere. For some, this also implied a trend towards extinction of religion from any influence in the public sphere at all.

Religions historically and currently have been a major source of both prejudice and warfare, as well as tolerance, the latter illustrated by Putnam and Campbell (2010). “America peacefully combines a high degree of religious devotion with tremendous religious diversity.” (1) And where is that religion to be found? Not just in churches, synagogues, mosques, Buddhist and Hindu temples, not just in civil society institutions, but as foundation stones for civil religion and for our most fundamental political institutions.

In this paper I try to do something somewhat different, though clearly complementary, analyzing not just a portion of civil society as a civic religion, but secular society as a whole as itself made up of several competing secular religions, each allied with different variations of traditional religion. They attempt, as religious and political theory have in the past, to reconcile cooperation and solidarity as the foundations for unity in tension with coercive power in a polity. Like traditional religions, the various secular religions include institutions dedicated to its operations, a set of beliefs and even an obligation on the individual to pay attention and participate in certain rituals and rites, including often forms of speaking.

I adopt an international studies perspective even when undertaking very specific case studies of conflicts. For although the contention for power is restricted largely to states, the real competition is global; the debate often becomes most heated over transnational issues even when the discourse is about one woman wearing a niqab at a ritualistic public ceremony when an immigrant is becoming a Canadian citizen. Sometimes those clashes are related to war. Sometimes only which and how many refugees will be received. But in all cases, conflicts over fundamental values are at stake that cannot be resolved by reference simply to empirical data.

At an annual meeting of the International Studies Association (ISA) in 1996, Andy Knight opined that the time was ripe to examine the role of religion in world politics. He stressed focusing on the connection between modern specific conceptions of world order and those embedded in various religious traditions in order to understand the way religious ideas could influence the shape of the international system on the premise that religious and spiritual forces shape our cultures and human institutions, not just political, social and economic forces. I myself have written on the conceptual relations with a focus on eschatology (Adelman 2004; 2011e), but more about the effect of religious conceptions in restoring peace than in bringing about conflict and violence.

Fox and Sandler (2004) articulated the importance of culture, religion and identity in understanding international relations. Just over a decade later, this sentiment was echoed this past year by Janice Stein, former Director of the Munk Centre for Global Affairs at the University Toronto. “Religion has become a major construct that needs to be seriously considered when intervening in cultural wars in foreign lands.” This is a very different conception of the role of religion in political life, for it is not about how religious ideas and concepts permeate current politics, but about how religion is an integral part of contemporary politics in the international sphere.

“Seventy years ago we made a deep mistake in thinking about the world; we didn’t foresee the importance of religion in politics. The post-war consensus was rather that secularization would continue to grow as societies developed and became more educated. As religious beliefs became a respected private matter, the secular liberal order would deepen and strengthen around the world. We now need to understand the important role that religion plays in large parts of the world, and build that into our foreign policy.” (Lynch 2015) Janice Stein reminds us that religious ideas, that the teachings of Lao Tzu, Confucius, Buddha, Zoroaster, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, the Bab, and Bahá’u’lláh, have not only influenced our conceptions of world order, but have also impacted on the organization of political battles on the ground in the contemporary era.

There is a third way to examine the relationship between religion and culture by pointing within civil society to a civil religion that mediates between secularism and religious tradition as we generally identify it. That civil religion exists alongside of and clearly differentiated from the churches, synagogues and mosques (Bellah 1967; Cristi 2001).

A fourth way looks at the secular non-religious sector as itself consisting of religions (Levinson 2013). In other words, whether encompassing only part of secular civil society or all of it, there exists a collection of values, beliefs, symbols, and rituals that are considered sacred for a particular segment of society and that are institutionalized within a collectivity that can contribute to fostering tolerance or intolerance.

The battle among religions, both traditional and secular, is international. It is domestic as well (Keating and Knight 2004). In my 2011 essays, I documented the differences between the Stasi Commission in France and the Bouchard-Taylor commission in Quebec over Muslim women wearing headscarves. Those differences reflected contradictions between the two dominant secular contemporary religions and the interpretation each gave to liberalism. Much of the French debate, unlike the Quebec one, related to a perceived threat of international Islamism; what was the proper balance between persuasion and protection? In the 2015 Canadian elections, that perspective was introduced into Canadian politics in a major way by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. So did the issue of humanitarianism versus security concerns in the differences over the issue of the Syrian refugees in Canada. (The niqab issue and the Syrian refugee issues will be discussed at the end of this essay to illustrate the warfare between two contemporary secular religions, each with a different set of traditional religious allies.)

Those four different approaches to examining the relationship between the secular and the sacred in contemporary society as it relates to international and domestic politics and particularly those events related to and involving violence are:

  1. The influence of religious concepts on modern secular society and politics;
  2. The role of religion in contemporary international and domestic politics as core religious tensions within that play out in contemporary religious/political wars as well as facilitating peace;
  3. A civic religion that exists between traditional religions and the state;
  4. Secularism itself as a religion and the interaction of traditional religions and various forms of religious secularism.

I am interested in the fourth approach, but one which subsumes the other three as part of the analysis.

Next: 2. A Philosophic and Historic Overview

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