Too much or not enough religion?

Joan Stavo-Debauge observes that there is considerable social goodwill towards religious expression, including expression of views that are fundamentalist, sexist and pro-inequality. (Félix Imhof © UNIL)

Nadine Richon / L’Uniscope
An interview with sociologist Joan Stavo-Debauge, SNSF (Swiss National Science Foundation) senior researcher at UNIL, on a topical issue: what place do fundamentalist religious views that contest the very notion of secularism have in our secularist societies?

For fifteen years, intellectuals such as Charles Taylor, Bruno Latour and Jürgen Habermas, sensitive to the established multicultural nature of democratic societies, have come round to lending a sympathetic ear to a philosophical discourse developed by thinkers with close ties to religious movements, who are resolved to raise questions on issues on which, until now, there has been a degree of consensus, such as teaching the theory of evolution, gender and sexual equality, marriage for all, the right to abortion and adoption by homosexual couples.

How much freedom should there be for religious speech that modern society confines if not to the private sphere then at least to social practices that do not impinge on democratically validated political choices? For the sociologist Joan Stavo-Debauge, who for several years has been engaged in research in this field, care must be taken not to make religious fundamentalism ‘a measure of the hospitality of public and political space’. In his view, a genuine thinker such as Habermas is naïve when he demands inclusion in political processes of religious voices, some of which moreover openly oppose patiently constructed political and social consensuses. Will our liberal societies ever be liberal and welcoming enough in the eyes of fundamentalists who explicitly condemn political liberalism?

Joan Stavo-Debauge, can one criticise secularism?

In Europe, secularism is a fact. There is a definite global decline in the religious and the strong trend towards this continues. American anthropologist Talal Asad claims to deconstruct secularism by equating it with colonialism and imperialism. The first French translation of one of his texts was published in 2015 by the journal Multitudes, a publication associated with the radical left. This criticism exonerates religion and positions Islamophobia within the intellectual world; it is difficult not to read it as an exorcising of the trauma of 11 September and the ‘war on terror’ launched by George W. Bush. In this criticism, violence can not only come from secularism itself but also from liberal political theory as revived by the American philosopher John Rawls. In 2015, the journal Tracés published a dossier in France on a former female student of Talal Asad, Saba Mahmood, whose book Politics of Piety claims to redefine feminism based on the experience of women from the Egyptian piety movement. They advocate submission to a fundamental Islam that closely links inner belief and its external embodiment, its rituals, the one being impossible without the other. Saba Mahmood develops a discourse in which ‘the power to act’ does not consist of emancipating oneself but of ‘inhabiting the norm’, which gives rise to a curious feminism in which docility becomes a virtue.

You describe the struggle to inscribe these absolute religious views within what is sometimes a violent public debate.

I studied this in my book on the Protestant movement of evangelical obedience, Le loup dans la bergerie (“The Wolf in the Fold”), subtitled Le fondamentalisme chrétien à l’assaut de l’espace public (“Christian fundamentalism’s onslaught on public space”). This work is the result of research led jointly by Laurence Kaufmann and Philippe Gonzalez in the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences. I like to recall that it was published by a Protestant publishing house in Geneva, Labor et Fides. In the United States, evangelical Christians have infiltrated public debate using controversies raised about evolution, global warming and gay rights and by presenting themselves as subjects incapable of speaking a language that differs from the one dictated to them by God himself. Habermas unwisely relayed this fiction by postulating a ‘monolingualism’ at the heart of contemporary societies that are nevertheless very open, which he claims prevents these people from participating in citizen debates, thereby substantiating the theory of discrimination within a political liberalism that in some respects is never liberal enough, never inclusive enough. Yet it is hard to view the philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff, for example, as a pure ‘monolinguist’, a ‘fundamentalist citizen’, incapable of expressing himself other than in his religious language.

Do you think that the election of Donald Trump testifies to both the victory and failure of these fundamentalists?

Trump arrived at a moment of considerable disarray among white evangelical Christians, who cast more of their votes for him than for any other candidate, even Bush before him. They committed vast financial and media resources to supporting him. But it is also a failure, as they have thus had to content themselves with a totally unpredictable New York libertine, who does not exactly embody the religious values supported by these fundamentalists, who fantasise about themselves as heralds of America’s heartland.

Besides the fundamentalists, you also reveal a sense of awkwardness among moderates.

Yes, as religious expression is no longer a given. This is the starting point for the research we have just embarked on at UNIL with Philippe Gonzalez and Marta Roca i Escoda as principal funding applicants. We are seeking to describe and explain the different forms of ‘embarrassment’ that affect the pronouncements of various religious players in public arenas, taking radio broadcasts as the first stage of our study. How do they assert, or attempt to assert, their authority on controversial issues (which they are the subject of and/or are raising)? Contrary to what Habermas implies, religious convictions do not transfer intact to the register for voicing opinion. The modern political space cannot exempt their expression from the need for debate in an arena that is changing and trans-subjective, where opinion is expressed in the first person. Faith takes a huge risk in presenting itself in the same way as opinion.

Are moderate believers sufficiently clear about extremists from their own religious traditions?

In general, there are people – believers and non-believers – who voice sympathy towards the shared places of post-secularism: who say that public space is not sufficiently hospitable towards religions, that secularism is intolerant, who stress the hegemony of the market, link it to a decline in solidarity and to the supposed spiritual vacuum in modern life. It should be noted that there is a social deference towards anything that adopts a religious veneer, even as the practice of religion is becoming rarer. Some see this as a way of increasing global solidarity, while forgetting that the religious model, charity, the theology of freedom, Christian democracy, all that has already been tried. Habermas, who rightly worries about ‘wasted lives’, considers that it is possible to recycle the energy and ethical resources of religions to motivate citizens to take care of issues of vulnerability. In this context, I would say that many believers in fact underestimate the virulence and danger of extremists who profit from this to distil their vision of a sexist, unequal, hierarchical and even theocratic world. It should not be forgotten either that in the academic world, biblical scholars, archaeologists and historians of religion are the first to be targeted by fundamentalists, who feel threatened by the historical study and genetic criticism of religious texts.

Is there another project in the pipeline?

A collective book with Florence Bergeaud-Blackler, researcher at CNRS, on the strategies and contexts that have allowed fundamentalist versions of religions to make a comeback. We have contacted French-speaking experts. Some prefer not to risk working on this project but others are joining us. A previous work which I co-edited, Quel âge postséculier ? (“What Post-secular Age?”), published by EHESS, was an attempt to retrace the origins of post-secular theories, and I have been able to develop this work thanks to a Marie Curie grant from the Catholic University of Leuven, something also worth underlining.

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