Thinking differently about religion

By Simon Barrow
April 26, 2012

Very frequently, discourse about religion - which, with the changes in perception taking place in the world over the past decade has come back onto the global and political agenda with great force - remains stuck in a series of un-enlightening polarities.

'Public' versus 'private'. 'secular' versus 'religious' and 'liberal' versus 'conservative' are perhaps the dominant paradigms. They assume that 'religion' (a fairly tenuous aggregation of different phenomena more particularly described as internally and externally diverse religions [plural] and beliefs / life stances) is mostly one, and at best two, kinds of thing.

This leads to vastly simplistic questions and equations, such as "should religion be accepted in public life, or should it be seen as a purely private opinion?" and "Christianity equals the church equals major denominations." Or, "should religion be kept out of politics?"

Here 'religion' means nothing more and nothing less than peculiar (in the technical sense) beliefs of an essentially private and extra-political form that gets intruded into public, political life and could simply be left to households, small clubs and personal convictions.

But not all religion is like this, and much of it is quite unlike it. Regarding 'religion' as essentially apolitical does not help avoid the difficulties of domineering religious politics, it enables them, for example. Churches and mosques are not 'private' clubs, but rather public institutions.

The way Ekklesia has tried to address the issues, specifically in a Christian context, is through the language and analysis of Christendom and post-Christendom. The former are the shapes the church takes in allying with, blessing and being granted privileges by governing power. Post-Christendom is what happens when this breaks down and is challenged, and when the language, symbols, assumptions and doctrines of the church are no longer readily comprehended or accepted.

From Ekklesia's perspective, post-Christendom can take a positive turn, recovering the subversive, anti-establishment traditions of nonconformity, and choosing witness (good example) rather than control as a way of interacting with society at large, including its governing institutions.

Likewise, it can take a negative, defensive form - as when Christian groups seek to protect privileges for themselves, or develop a 'victim narrative' of persecution when challenged not to discriminate against others.

Professor Naomi Goldenberg, from the University of Ottawa, is enriching our understanding of the place and performance of religions in society through her analysis of religions as operating like, or being treated as, 'vestigial states' within national and inter-national formations. She largely sees this as a negative thing, since it reserves and sacralises power in unaccountable ways, enforcing prejudice or rejection (against women and LGBTQ people, say) and gaining or maintaining a 'special' privilege not granted or assumed with other civic formations.

At least, this is my understanding of part of what she is saying. I am looking forward to hearing more about her challenging analysis as she speaks at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church at 7pm in London tonight (26 April 2012), as part of a short tour sponsored by the Critical Religion Research Group at the University of Stirling and supported by Ekklesia.

The talk, “What’s God Got to Do With It? Feminism, Religion and the State”, will also be 'tweetcast' live. The hashtags we will be using on Twitter are: #womenreligion and #statereligion. A recording will also be made available in due course.


(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He will be chairing the meeting with Professor Goldenberg.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.