Round table discussion on religion and politics on Friday, 19 November, 2010 at the Centre for Political Studies,
Jawaharlal Nehru University
Religion and Politics: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue
There is no doubt that religion is emerging as one of the most influential social forces in our times. Many old religious practices are being revived, new religious sects are coming into existence, the so-called secular political parties are reconsidering their strategies, a huge number of people are attracted towards religious discourses, religious identities have started playing an important role in political processes, violence in the name of religion is on the rise, and above all, there is a tremendous growth in intellectual interest in religion which is reflected by the proliferation of books published in this field. This is true not only in advanced capitalist countries and developing countries, but also in communist and ex-communist countries.
Scholars from different societies and disciplines are trying to grapple with the ferment which has been generated because of the renewed vibrancy of religion, which until recently was being written off as a declining, and diminishing force or just relegated to personal realm or belief. While some scholars have explained the phenomenon as a 'return of religion' (Derrida) and a kind of revenge or defensive mechanism against the offence unleashed by modernity, others have suggested that religion had always been a vibrant presence and it was the problem of perspective that blinded us to it. One can take the example of Rawlsian theory of justice in this context, which ignores religion as a social phenomenon.
One can also see this in Lacan's excommunication from the psychoanalytic community on the ground that he was giving importance to religion in his understanding of the individual's psyche; or the fear of Jung of being excommunicated because of his writings on Indian theories of consciousness which was considered as part of Hindu religious philosophy. Therefore, it is the change of the perspective that allows us to take religion seriously. Some scholars are suggesting that instead of a 'return of religion' what we are witnessing is entering in the era of 'clash of civilizations' (Huntington) or clash between 'high religion' and 'low religion' (Ernest Gellner). Of late, many scholars have started exploring the inner core of religion by engaging with it either in an abstract form (Derrida) or by exploring different religious communities (Foucault).
However, social sciences due to a variety of reasons, its epistemic bias, its historical roots in modern western science and in Enlightenment rationality, have arrived very late in the field, except sociology, where religion was studied with modern philosophical perspectives of Marx, Durkheim and Weber.
However, even in Sociology, till recently the starting point of most of the research was the 'secularisation thesis', which claimed that every society passed through various phases of secularization, ultimately, reaching a stage where there would be complete elimination of religion. It is interesting to note that it is only recently that the American Association of Political Science has decided to initiate a Journal of Religion and Politics. Despite the acknowledgment that religion has been an important source of knowledge for social sciences (Gulbenkian Commission Report 'Opening Social Sciences'), there has been hardly any serious engagement with religion.
There are two important issues that one can identify after even a cursory survey of the contemporary engagement of social scientists with religion. One, a phenomenon like religion throws a serious challenge to the way in which knowledge production has been organised in modern universities, by unsettling the premises on which knowledge systems have been raised. There is, therefore, a need to initiate an interdisciplinary dialogue to capture the multidimensionality of religion and its relation with the layers of reality (humans, nature and society), which social sciences claim to comprehend. The second, different societies have experienced religion differently and we need to take cognizance of this fact as it has ramifications for the perspectives social sciences have generated to understand. We know that most of the major religions have emerged in Asian societies and have spread from
Asia to the rest of the world.
This provides us an opportunity to understand religion better and examine some of the established assumptions and larger philosophical questions in social sciences. Some scholars have started suggesting that such an exercise might render a fresh perspective for exploring reality as the epistemological challenge that this project throws, might alter some fundamental assumptions like 'Cartesian duality' (Zizek) which have served as the philosophical basis for contemporary disciplines falling under the broader category of social sciences.
We already have responses from Indian scholars who have reflected on these issues. Some of the Indian scholars are still following the Enlightenment framework to make sense of religious resurgence (Meera Nanda), but many of them have started questioning it. The latter have realised the specificities of experiences of Asian societies and have transcended the boundaries set by the modernist framework (Ashish Nandy, Sudhir Kakar, JPS Oberoi). For quite sometime, the debate on secularism in
avoided direct engagement with the issue of religion. Of late, however, it seems that scholars involved in theorizing secularism have started taking cognizance of the complexities religious experiences throw for this debate (Rajeev Bhargava). Similarly, the debates on development have now started taking cognigence of its interface with religion and religious communities (Gurpreet Mahajan, S S Jodhka) The Marxists scholars were generally guided by the 'opium thesis' ( D N Jha, Romila Thapar) but many of them have started arguing for fresh theorising on religion (Manoranjan Mohanty, Randhir Singh, Sudipta Kaviraj). India
This shows that there is no uncontested perspective any more in this field and a churning is going on among the Indian scholars, as over the years the religious phenomenon has unfolded itself in the global context. One would agree that it is not difficult to locate similar trends among scholars from other Asian societies.
This round table has three inter-related purposes. One, it aims at bringing together scholars from different disciplines to share their perspectives, engagements and ideas on religion and politics. Such a sharing will help us in articulating the issues for future research. Two, it will try to bring scholars of two generations together to share their ideas. Interaction among scholars who have a sustained engagement with this issue and scholars, who have started engaging with them now, will help in shaping future scholarship in this field. Three, it has a long term aim of creating a community of scholars having interest in Asian religions to explore the potential of this engagement in terms of making serious intervention at the levels of theory and practice of religion and of social sciences. This is something we would like to do in a series of dialogues which we intend to organise in future among scholars from Asian Universities.
The round table will be organised around following sets of questions:
Session I: Religion and Politics in Contemporary Times: Mapping the Intellectual Concerns
Q1. How would you like to articulate your overall perspective of understanding reality?
Q2. Where do you locate religion in your perspective?
Q3. Where does religion figure in your current research concerns?
Q4. What are the ways in which knowledge production has been organized in modern universities? Are they adequate?
Session II: Resurgence of Religion: Golbalization, Identity and Politics
Q4. How do you see the current state of religion? Do you think it can be seen as 'return of religion' or resurgence of religion or is it just change in the perspective due to postmodernist challenge?
Q5. What has been the impact of globalization (or modernity) on religion?
Q6. Why is religion readily available ( or why is religion amenable to manipulation / subservient to political use ) for identity politics?
Session III: New Religious Movement: Philosophy, Politics and Social Change
Q7. How should New Religious Movements be studied?
Q8. Does Religious Movement throw any significant epistemological challenge to the social sciences?
Q9. Why are New Religious Movements attracting large number of people?
Q10. Does it offer any important philosophical challenge to the modernity?
Q11. Does New Religious Movement have the potential to play any role in the transformative politics?
Session IV Recapitulating the Interdisciplinary Dialogue