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Interview with José Casanova – religion, modernity & secularisation

Dr. Kim Knibbe interviews dr. José Casanova about his view on the relation between religion, modernity and secularisation.
Professor Casanova, thank you for agreeing to discuss you work with us. And you have written a lot on the role of religion in contemporary societies. And your work has been very influential in developing our ideas of what religion does in the world, at the moment. So, of course, we value this opportunity to be able to discuss your ideas in this course on religion and conflict. Well, first, let me say that I am thankful for you having invited me on this occasion to come here and have the opportunity simply to, simply share with you and with your students, some of my ideas on these matters.
So, to start the discussion, I would like to ask you how do you see the relationship between religion and modernity? What are some of the main arguments you have developed on this relationship? First, if the question is how do I see that relationship, or how do I analyse the objective relationship between religion and modernity. Because I think that there was a moment in which there where theories that basically had developed what religion is, and what modernity is. And they have defined it in such a term that there is a a fundamental tension between the two. To the point at which basically religion was supposed to somehow either disappear or become irrelevant in modernity. At least in the public sphere.
At least for the main institutions. How do I see the relationship? Obviously, in how my own development of these ideas has changed, obviously it has changed dramatically. I began studying theology at a time when everybody took the secularisation thesis for granted. People talk of the death of God, and basically the secular city. And coming from Europe, I took, also, these theories for granted. But then I came to the United States, and I realised that the United States was, I think, a relatively modern society, yet very religious. So this forced me to rethink the whole relationship, and to open up to really comparatively study parallelism. So there is no relationship, per se, but it is many, many different types of relationships.
And it changes. What modernity is changes from time to time, from space to space. And what religion is, also. So it’s simply an open-ended question. Yes, so religion and modernity are open categories that vary from time to time, space to space. However, there’s a third term that is also important in these discussions. And that is secularity, secularism, secularisation, et cetera. So what are your views on this third term? Insofar as modernity was defined as secular, or modernity, therefore, we “moderns” define ourselves as secular, then we’re really defining ourselves in tension with religion. But even with secularity, in our global age, we have become aware of the very different things, of being modern, and of being secular.
Realising there are different forms of secularity. And ultimately, when we talk of secular states, there are two fundamental types of secular states. One which emerges to solve the problem of religion. To put religion in its place. To manage religion and to in a way, control it, regulate it. Because religion is a problem for modern societies, for the public sphere, for democracy. And this is the response to states that had established religions. And it was necessary for the sake of democracy to disestablish those churches. And then there is in our experience– and this is the experience of the United States, or India– in which the secular states secularity was actually constructed.
Even if they didn’t use the term, for this sake, precisely, of furthering and making possible religious pluralicy. So rather than religion being a problem, religious pluralicy was a fact. And so it was not viewed as a problem, but as a fact that had to be simply accepted and used. And so there is this other stance of secularity, which is not a response to religion as a problem, but a response to the challenge of religious pluralism, and how to establish modern democratic religious pluralist societies. And I think that today, now, with our global context, we are more and more being forced adopt the second model– model or conception of secularity, because all our societies are becoming increasingly more religiously pluralistic.
And the secular state cannot be any more one state that either privileges is one religion over others, or one which simply wants to get rid of religion, but has one that allows the religious possibilities of all its citizens. Would you say that the second type can get away from putting religion in its place? Well, in a certain sense, every state, we somehow regulate religion. The question is how it is regulated. And which kind of regulation is organised. As you know, the First Amendment to the US Constitution has a double clause. The first clause is no establishment– namely to make sure that no religion has privilege at the state level. That no religion has privilege over others.
But the second amendment, or the second clause, is free exercise of religion in society. So one is prohibiting congress to legislate, to pass any legislation concerning religion. There is even a prohibition on the part of the state to regulate religion by prohibiting any legislation. If you mention religion in your legislation, by definition, this law is unconstitutional. On the other hand, the free exercise of religion in society that the state has to protect leads to all kinds of questions, problems. Is, let’s say, the killing, sacrifice of animals, permitted because of the free exercise, or it’s something that should not be allowed? Is polygamy permitted because the Mormon religion says it’s good, or should a modern democratic state not permit it?
So ultimately, even those states that want to get out of the business of regulating religion– will be forced through civil conflicts, through contestation about what is a law, what is not a law– will enter into the business of really regulating religion. So it is unavoidable. But the question is whether regulation is for the sake, precisely, of simply establishing a civil structure for religious pluralism and for freedom and equality for all, or that what is actually a way of really forcing religion into kind of a marginal role in society. So regulation there would always be.
The question is whether it’s regulation for the sake of preserving democratic, living together, or is for the sake of, preserving getting rid of religion as a problem. But the other question is that, simply, we are observing around the world in the last three decades that this question has been opened in a way that we had not expected. We spent– we are obviously in a religious studies department– and we spent 200 years studying religion. And we thought that the problem was what religion is. Nobody thought of studying secularity, what the secular is. I still remember when, probably, about 15 years ago, no more, Talal Asad proposed the need to simply develop an anthropology and a sociology of the secular.
Not only anthropology of religion, but anthropology of the secular. And it’s the fact, that in the last 30 years, the secular state has to be reformulated, what secularity means everywhere. From India, to Turkey, to France, to the US, to China. So we are entering a new kind of processes, in which those issues have become ultimately open to contestation. And this is part, I think, of the kind of the global proces we find ourselves in. So for further democratisation. It’s a further reflexivity about the fact that the European model of secularity really doesn’t work for the rest of the world, that this isn’t a model for the rest of the world.
Professor José Casanova, one of the world’s leading scholars in the sociology of religion, offers his insights into the relationship between religion and the secular.
In this video Casanova explains how religion and modernity are ever-changing categories, and how the relationship between these categories is influenced by conceptions of the secular society. Furthermore, he explains the secular as regulating religion in modern societies.
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Religion and Conflict

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