Tuesday, August 12, 2008

2008 - 2009 Theme: Religion, Secularism, and British Nationhood

The religious turn is not only one of the most recent theoretical trends in the humanities and social sciences, it also builds directly off contemporary material reality. The problem and discourse of religion has been a continuous thread in the fields of theology, political science, legal theory, philosophy, history, literature, anthropology and sociology from their inception in Antiquity to our present moment. Religion has been at the center of the latest work by such diverse thinkers as Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas, Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, William Connolly, Judith Butler, Wendy Brown, Charles Taylor, Ernesto Laclau, Claude Lefort, Peter van der Veer.

As an overarching conceptual cluster, religion encompasses issues that require interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research and cooperation: knowledge and faith, the sacred and the profane, the absolute, infinity and totality, the unassimilable Other, political theology, the state of exception, event, the sublime, pluralism and tolerance, secularism and progress, and community. In response to the changing articulations of religious subjectivity and religious communities in the so-called post-secular world, it is emphatically important to heed the double aspect of religion, as a “scrupulous observance” in Jean-Luc Nancy’s words, or reading over again, and as “establishing a bond”, or the means of social cohesion. Our "Religion in British Studies" reading group should be of particular interest to English and Comparative Literature scholars, but we hope that it will also attract graduate students and faculty in history, anthropology, religious and gender studies.

Edward Said’s deployment of “secularism” as an epistemological category to critique nationalism, or Benedict Anderson’s connections between national ceremonies and religious practices are emblematic of a long-standing investigation of ties between religion and nationhood. England emerged out of the Early Modern period as a unified nation-state and in the course of the 18th and the 19th centuries continued to develop as a multi-ethnic and multi-racial empire. This transnational state used the various discourses of religion, ethnicity, race and culture in order to shape definitions of nationality and control citizenship rights. Great Britain, and then the United Kingdom, inherited a legacy of religious conflict, including the Reformation and the Civil War, anti-Catholic legislation and papacy terror, the expulsion and re-admission of the Jews, suppression of Protestant Dissenter groups, the Indian Rebellion of 1857, conversion missions in the colonies, and the current "war" on Islamic fundamentalism. This year, we'll investigate how religious controversies function to circumscribe British national identity through identification and resistance to key, nationally-coded texts, such as The Book of Common Prayer and the 39 articles to creeds and confessions. Religion was a crucial domain for debating the balance between liberalism and unified national identity, extending into political and cultural contests over “sacred” secular practices, from the development of the canon and a modern notion of culture to the most recent debate over requiring British school students to recite a “pledge of allegiance” to the Queen. We will also focus on religion’s key role in colonial expansion, in establishing and questioning cultural difference, which has attracted interdisciplinary work in history, anthropology, and literary and cultural studies.

--Liz Hoiem and Zia Gluhbegovic

Pic by gnasheruk