Religion and the Public Sphere

New Conversations

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James Walters, Esther Kersley
  • New York, NY: 
    , June
     122 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Religion and the Public Sphere: New Conversations, edited by James Walters and Esther Kersley, brings together a series of lectures, dialogues, and essays organized by the London School of Economics (LSE) Faith Centre. At only about a hundred pages, it is both narrow in focus and wide in scope. Its tone swings from broadly theoretical to extremely pragmatic and operational, offering as much fodder for theologians and philosophers as for sociologists and political decision-makers.

The collection begins, with Reverend Canon Dr. and LSE Faith Centre Director James Walters’s introduction, in a decidedly theological register and with a surprisingly polemic tone. After succinctly setting the stage by accounting for the resurgence of religion in the secular age, Walters takes aim squarely at liberal academia. Drawing on the political centrism of Jonathan Haidt, Walters nonetheless places heavy blame on liberalism and secularism (in the narrow sense of non-religiosity) in academia for what he sees as an inability to grapple with the return of religion. This argument is only a shade different from a perhaps common idea among scholars of religion. But where many scholars increasingly recognize the need to sympathize with the lived experiences of the religious, Walters goes further in politicizing irreligion. When he cites right-leaning think tanks (4), lambastes an “ideological homogeneity” around secularism (4), seems to celebrate authority and nationalism (5), and laments the political and intellectual abandonment of Trump supporters (6), his rhetoric drifts worryingly close to a logic that reinforces a necessary relationship between religious and political conservatism. 

Walters’s indictment of academic liberalism reverberates into the next two contributions—a dialogue between Craig Calhoun and Charles Taylor and an essay by John Milbank. In the former, Taylor and Calhoun mostly meditate on the contours of secularism, pulling on some of the threads sewn in Taylor’s A Secular Age (Belknap Press, 2007)Of particular note is Calhoun’s interest in the tendency of secularism to counterintuitively raise the theological stakes for those who are impelled to find new or perhaps stronger justifications for their continued religiosity (17). And one of the stickier topics lurking in A Secular Age—namely, whether the “subtler languages” of spiritual seeking and searching that arise in the immanent frame require or imply some notion of transcendence—is raised here, but not exhaustively explored (19). Calhoun and Taylor’s conversation steps back somewhat from Walters’s indictment of secular thought, but nonetheless retains the basic sentiment—unsurprising to those familiar in particular with Taylor’s work—that the decline of traditional religion plays an important part in some kind of intellectual loss or decay in the West, despite the lip service paid to the possibilities for religious innovation latent in a secular age. 

And then, of course, John Milbank turns everything up to eleven. Milbank’s contribution—“The Decline of Religious Freedom and the Return of Religious Influence”—offers an alarming amplification of Walters’s introduction. In it, Milbank blames “extreme liberalism” for the frightening resurgence of religion (see: Islam) (27). Liberalism, according to Milbank, has emptied politics by invalidating all collectivism, meaning that religious projects become “the last genuine public ventures left standing” (27). This, combined with the de-Christianization of the West (28), results in both a “populist reaction” and the “incursion into the west of (largely Sunni) Islam,” a “naturally … nomadic and imperial religion” (29). And so, since secularism is politically incapable of repelling the Muslim invasion, Milbank suggests “recovering our thick European identities,” including “the uniqueness of Greece, the irreplaceability of Israel, the exemplarity of Rome, the truth of Christianity, [and] the more beneficial aspects of empire” (30). Milbank even suggests, after a brief hint that one may still protest vaguely at Trump’s “barbaric lunacies,” that we might have to restrict the number of Muslim immigrant entrants, qua Muslims, to the West. In place of secular tolerance, then, Milbank advocates reaffirming our religious (Christian) and political (imperial) quest lest another “inferior” civilizational quest displace it (36).

Responding to Milbank’s claims merits an article or book unto itself, but the editors of Religion and the Public Sphere choose to let the piece stand unto itself. To the editors’ credit, there is plenty of at least implicit push-back in the contributions that follow. Tariq Modood, Gwen Griffith-Dickson, and Jerry White, for example, all leverage their significant experience in on-the-ground attempts to engage with questions of pluralism and interreligious conflict in ways that calmly put the lie to Milbank’s abstractions. They show how the most successful projects aimed at “de-radicalization” and religious tolerance have stemmed from “complex-multi-dimensional” understandings of religion (45, 72) and the articulation of values that emerge organically from minority communities rather than appeals to shared values imposed from majority positions (65, 74). Griffith-Dickson’s contribution in particular offers a compelling vision of pluralism in which heightened emphases on managing the consequences of religious liberty and attending to the social needs that spur public violence make it increasingly unnecessary to proscribe religious ideas. 

And where Taylor and Calhoun speak somewhat generally about the need for new articulations of transcendence and immanence, Bruno Latour and Rowan Williams get right to work experimenting with new concepts. They weigh the value of the language of the sacred, asking after its opposition to stewardship of ownership of the environment (54). They riff on the French mondain,“mundane,” as a productive alternative to the impossible myth of “the secular” in emphasizing the earthly, materialistic, and vibrant registers of science without dragging along the baggage of Christianity’s anti-paganism (56). 

Ultimately, then, Religion and the Public Sphere: New Conversations offers exactly what a speaker series should aim to offer—a series of contributions that all revolve around the same fundamental questions—namely, what is the nature of religious belief and belonging in the modern secular West and what is the role of the state in shaping or managing religious pluralism?—but to sometimes starkly divergent ends. In so doing, the volume simultaneously announces the importance and intellectual priorities of the LSE Faith Centre while advancing scholarship of secularism and religious pluralism on several fronts at once.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Eric Chalfant is Instructor of Religion at Portland Community College.

Date of Review: 
October 4, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

James Walters is Director of the London School of Economics' Faith Centre, Senior Lecturer in Practice at the LSE Marshall Institute and a Senior Fellow of the LSE Institute of Public Affairs. 

Esther Kersley is the Research Officer for Religion and the Public Sphere at the London School of Economics.


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