Religious violence and the reconstruction of religious studies

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How can secularist framework deal with religious phenomena it views as irrational and non-scientific in the first place?

 

The crisis of intra-religious and interreligious coexistence is partly a crisis of religious studies by which I mean intellectual apparatuses to study religious practice as a distinct aspect of human life, or as a problem of secular-liberal modernity

The discipline of religious studies, which is taught at major universities around the globe, can contribute immensely to the understanding and mitigation of violence in the name of religion if it is reconstructed. But its framing of religion as an anti-thesis of secularism is a major barrier in its quest of becoming a useful endeavor for humanity.

As a result, the discipline is facing serious crises. A number of examples support this assertion. The discipline’s scholars and practitioners alike have been unable to predict the recent rise of hate and violence in the name of religion. And when the religious violence increased, they could not suggest ways to mitigate it.

It is unfortunate that a discipline which concerns itself with explaining the interplay between sacred and profane is unable to offer rigorous and substantive insights into religious violence except proposing interfaith dialogues to find commonalities among religions. But we know these dialogues have served their organisers and participants, materially and socially, more than the sufferers of religious violence. We can ascertain the limitations of interfaith dialogue by having a look at all interfaith dialogue organised around us in Pakistan.

It is due to this that dissatisfaction with religious studies is increasing among the academics and citizens alike. A number of books mention this dissatisfaction: Timothy Fitzergerlad’s The Ideology of Religious Studies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000); Bryan S. Rennie, Philip L. Tite’s edited volume Religion, Terror and Violence: Religious Studies Perspective (New York: Routledge, 2008); and Ross Aden’s Religion Today: A Critical Thinking Approach to Religious Studies (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2013) acknowledged the limitations of the discipline and call for making it relevant to the problems of religious violence. Fitzegerlad even suggests the discipline itself should be abandoned.

Religious studies, however, have a hope. But the scholars of religious studies should abandon the narrow conception of religion.

The crises of both the religious studies and secularism have motivated scholars to rethink their ideas about studying religion. The rethinking is also taking place because the modernity’s hope of the eclipsing of religions and their consequences from the world has not proven true.

As a product of enlightenment thought, secular-liberal modernity views religion as a problem in the way of human progress. The religious studies are informed in large part by this tradition. What follows from following this conception of religion is that religion is made to appear as a distinct and standalone aspect of human life. Thus, it downplays the material, political and social bases in which religion is interwoven.

Let me explain this.

The secular-liberal view of religion comes out of a long tradition of western thinking. Classical sociologists from August Comte to Emile Durkheim to Karl Marx hoped religion would vanish as modernity progressed. Like their predecessors, the modern sociologists such as Jürgen Habermas, Peter Berger and Anthony Giddens dreamt of rationality’s triumph over religion. Using the ideas of classic and modern sociologists, the religious studies scholars continued studying religion as sociologist study leisure: if religion has to disappear or taken over by rationality, why consider it important. Instead, let us study religion as a vestige of history.

This attitude did not have promise.

It did not let the scholars take the rise of religious revivalist movements of 1970s and afterwards seriously.

The way religious studies defined interreligious is problematic. The twin ideologies of liberalism and secularism, which postulate religion as irrational and non-scientific force suitable only to the realm of passions, do not help much in understanding how faiths interact and relate to each other. Liberal-secular conception of religion contributes to frame questions of interreligious conflicts and violence, religious privileging, bigotry, and religious discrimination in particular ways not so helpful to promote peace.

How can secularist framework deal with religious phenomena it views as irrational and non-scientific in the first place?

The interreligious peace endeavors informed by liberal-secular reify religious identities.

The other problem with liberal-secular religious studies is that it assumes that a joint venture of secularism and science can fix all problems of humanity. Since the rest is superstition or tradition at best, it can’t promise good future.

Moreover, by drawing a line between secular and sacred, religious studies create and celebrate difference. Take the example of censuses, which count both religious and atheist people. It is strange because the censuses claim to be informed by secularism. If it is so, these censuses should not actually be concerned with the questions of belief and disbelief among citizens. It means the liberal-secularist conception of religion may have some kind of religious imagining.

Another important problem with liberal-secular religious studies is that they aspire to tame the religious or religious violence with non-negotiable secularism. From its very beginning, it stands on difference by allocating itself a superior position.

But secularism is also in deep trouble, the signs of which are visible in the publications such as William E. Connoly’s Why I am not a Secularist (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000); Anuradha Dingwaney Needham & Rajeswari Sunder Rajan’s edited volume The Crisis of Secularism in India (Duke University Press, 2007). Therefore, secularist prescriptions for fixing religions and religious studies need to be rethought.

The crises of both the religious studies and secularism have motivated scholars to rethink their ideas about studying religion. The rethinking is also taking place because the modernity’s hope of the eclipsing of religions and their consequences from the world has not proven true. But what has forcefully stimulated the rethinking in religious studies is that the prescriptions of religious studies to reduce religious violence are also failing. Even the countries where secularism was enforced as a public policy have been unable to metamorphose their citizens into tolerant beings. Then what alternatives we have?

The conception of religion in ancient and pre-modern South Asia was remarkably different from that of liberal-secular view in vogue currently. A number of social movements in the history of South Asia did not privilege any singular religious tradition.

A number of scholars from within the discipline of religious studies are looking for other sources of ideas to construct a new way of doing religious studies — a way which overcomes the limitations of liberal-secular view of religion. The notable among them are: Gerrie ter Haar, Rajmohan Gandhi, Ashish Nandy, and TN Madan.

These scholars do not view religion as a problem but as part of the solution — as part of the response to the problem of religious violence.

The conception of religion in ancient and pre-modern South Asia was remarkably different from that of liberal-secular view in vogue currently. A number of social movements in the history of South Asia did not privilege any singular religious tradition. Nor did they reify religious identity. They also did not create a secular or non-religious sphere separate from religion. These movements can be termed as South Asian tradition: what distinguishes them is that they were not based on highlighting differences but diffusing them; not on highlighting identities but trivialising/dropping them.

This tradition was accommodating and inclusive, to a degree. This tradition did not necessitate taking a religious identity by an individual. If the taking of a religious identity was not an obligation, the possibilities of emancipation could have been greater.

Let us talk about religious studies relevance to the interreligious, and in particular, religious violence. Should we think that liberal-modern religious studies are not useful at all? No.

But in order to rethink the discipline and its practice and in order to make it relevant, let us start from questioning it. One thing is certain: if religious studies want to have a promise or if it wants to become relevant, it needs to rethink its conception of religion.

And it is where South Asian tradition can be helpful. I believe that South Asian tradition which postulates life as indivisible between secular and religious need to be revived. It might have much to offer given the failure of modernity-inspired work on interreligious peace. Similarly, other traditions of the world can also enrich religious studies and their insights should also be used to reconstruct the discipline.