Thinking about Religion, Belief and Politics with Talal Asad

Thinking about Religion, Belief and Politics with Talal Asad

(upbeat instrumental music) – It's great to see so many people here. I'm so happy that we have a good turnout for our distinguished speaker, Talal Asad, and it's my great pleasure
and distinct honor to present him to you. He joins a long list, you
heard some of the names, of illustrious foster lecturers. Dr. Assad received his master's degree from Edinburgh University
and his doctorate at Oxford. After seven years
teaching in Great Britain, he moved to the United States
where he joined faculties, first at the New School
for Social Research and then at Johns Hopkins University. For the past decade,
he's occupied a position as distinguished professor of anthropology at the Graduate Center of the
City University of New York. Dr. Assad has been a visiting professor at universities around the world, including to our great
benefit and pride, our own, so this is a revisit
for him to our campus. Talal Asad is a prolific
writer, the author of six books and numerous shorter works. More than four decades
of productive scholarship have earned him a well-deserved place in the canon of required reading for anyone interested in
comparative religious studies. Among his most celebrated
publications are: Anthropology and the Colonial
Encounter, published in 1973, Genealogies of Religion,
published in 1993, Formations of the Secular, 2003, and just last year, On Suicide Bombing. Dr. Asad's work is essential
for an understanding of the relationship between
the sacred and the secular, the private and the public,
tradition and modernity. He has made major contributions to our knowledge of
Christianity and Islam, both historically and contemporaneously. Devoted to translating and demystifying spiritual beliefs and
behavior, Dr. Asad's work builds an intellectual bridge between followers of distinct
religious communities. Having grown up and studied
in both the Middle East and the west, he is in
a privileged position to address questions of
religious coexistence and conflict past and present. Dr. Asad's work consistently demonstrates an erudite and creative
interweaving of history, sociology, anthropology, and philosophy. Above all, he is unfailingly informative, interesting, and provocative. Dr. Asad speaks to us today on the topic thinking about religion,
belief, and politics. Please join me in giving a
warm welcome to Dr. Talal Asad. (audience applauding) – Thinking about religion,
belief, and politics and it is really an attempt to think rather than to present
any kind of complete and determined position. Since the closing decade
of the millennium, social friction generated by the presence of substantial numbers of
Muslim immigrants in Europe and the threat of Muslim
terrorists have given a new impetus to the fear of politicized religion. Violent and intolerant
fundamentalist movements have emerged, not only
in the Muslim world, although these are the most
frightening in the west, but also in India, Israel,
and the United States. The secular values of liberal
democracy are under siege or so much of the western media tell us. Academics who teach religious studies have responded eagerly
seeing in this an opportunity to demonstrate the public
relevance of their expertise. What is to be done about the dangers to liberal democracies
of religious belief? But tonight I want to begin
with a prior question, one which I've addressed before and I'll go over some of the points. What is religion? How has it come to be
defined in the ways it has? Why is belief so strongly emphasized in so many definitions? I'll then go on to speculate
about it's connections with politics, mainly through a discussion of some shifts in perspective in the anthropological study
of ritual and religion. But, I'll also discuss Charles Taylor's recent magnum opus, A Secular Age, that draws strategically, but very importantly, on anthropology. On Victorian ideas of the primitive mind, as well as on recent ideas about ritual. This is a generous and learned work, full of insight of the
kind we've come to expect from this philosopher, but I
want to try and think beyond it and I'll do so by stressing
the body as the site of senses and sensibilities in
religion and politics. And I'll end by drawing
on an ethnographic work on religion and politics
that is a counterpoint to Taylor's epic, and this
is by an anthropologist who is actually a Berkeley anthropologist, Charles Hirschkind,
The Ethical Soundscape. Now, skeptics have long written about the origin of religion,
however for most of them it was not the idea of
religion that was puzzling, only its emergence was. At least since the Enlightenment one important approach
to understanding religion has consisted in what anthropologists call the sociology of error. The main question was what gave rise to such patently false
beliefs in the first place? The testing of belief
propositions in this area, and thus their falsification,
tends to depend on a highly simplified language ideology that predicates both the
counterintuitive character of religious belief statements and the emotional character
of religious conviction. The sociology of error, invented by Victorian anthropologists for understanding religion,
eventually gave place to another approach in
which a different set of questions was raised. Is religion the universal? What kinds of belief practice
are peculiar to religion? Do religious beliefs and
practices give meaning to life, if so, what kind of meaning? Do primitives find psychological comfort from religious practices when confronted by an unprecedented natural environment? And do moderns seek
certainty in religious belief when they are plunged into bewildering political economic change? Anthropologists and others
sought to explain religion by reference to what I
would call externalities, that is by looking for
it's social function or for it's cultural meaning. The concept of religion and it's history remained virtually unexamined in this 20th century approach. To my knowledge, Wilfred Cantwell Smith's The Meaning And End Of Religion in 1962 was the first book to
present a historical sketch of a concept of religion in the west. The first to suggest that
it was relatively recent. He also argued perceptibly
against essentialist approaches and yet in the end he
didn't quite break free of a residual essentialism himself. Smith sought to substitute
the word faith for religion in order to avoid the
dangers of reification. But what this move led to was an emphasis on an ineffable experience
as opposed to relationships created through, maintained by, and expressed in practices
of various kinds. It's not that there's
anything wrong in my view in stressing the
importance of inner states when discussing religion, even when describing
non modern religiosity. What's questionable I think is making a particular language game in which an apparently unmediated inner life articulates faith. The basis of a universal
conception of religion as when he writes and I quote from him "my faith is an act that I
make myself naked before God." The reason I think there can't be a universal conception of religion is not because religious
phenomena are infinitely varied and certainly not because
there's no such thing as religion as some have suggested, it's that defining is a historical act and when
the definition is deployed it does different things
in different times and circumstances and responds
to different questions, needs, and pressures. Although what's marked for
devout practitioners as religion, it relates to what is essential for them at the level of scholarly analysis. It has no essence I would say, and by this I don't mean that things
don't hang together in distinctive, even necessary ways in particular religious traditions, but only that these are altered over time. To define is to repudiate some things and to endorse others. Defining what is religion is not merely an abstract intellectual exercise, it's not just what anthropologists or other modern scholars do. The act of defining religion, and this is forgotten sometimes even by religious scholars,
scholars of religion, I beg your pardon, not
the same thing at all, it's not just what religion
or what anthropologists and other modern scholars do,
the act of defining religion is embedded in passionate
disputes connected with anxieties and satisfactions affected
by changing conceptions of knowledge and interest related to institutional disciplines. In the past, colonial
administrations used definitions of religion to control and regulate the practices of their subjects. Today, liberal democracy
is required to pronounce on the legal status of such definitions and thus to spell out
immunities and obligations. Definitions of religion does
have profound implications for the organization of social life and the possibilities
of personal experience. And yet, for this very
reason academic expertise is often invoked in
the process of arriving at legal decisions about religion. In short, universal
definitions of religion divert us from asking questions about what the definition
includes and what it excludes, Why, by whom, and with what consequences. Popular debunkers and
defenders of religion very often tend to anchor their polemics in clear-cut definitions. They are uninterested in how
diverse religious notions do different things in
people's ordinary lives, in how the human
sensorium, seeing, hearing, and so forth, articulates experience recognized as religious
or called non-religious. They don't ask in what historical
context, to what audience the act of defining particular
practices as religious makes or fails to make good sense. Liberal critics and defenders of religion have nevertheless argued with one another over its implications for
modern ethics and politics. Central to both sides of the debate, is the notion I think of belief. Regarded at once as a privilege, that is the subjects ability
to choose her beliefs and a danger, beliefs'
incitement to violence. A first step towards
understanding this convergence between both positions is to review the classical Lockean
doctrine of religious freedom that set some of the
main ideological terms for this argument. Those of you who are very familiar with it will forgive me if I just
go through very briefly one or two points here,
which are important for what I want to say. According to the modern
conception of religion belief can't be coerced
because it's located in a private mental space. This of course is the core
of John Locke's theory of toleration and one part of
the genealogy of secularism. The theory rests on a
new religious psychology that was beginning to emerge
in 17th century Europe. This allowed Locke to
insist that the princes attempt to coerce religious belief, including belief in the
salvational implications of religious practices, was
irrational because impossible. All that force could secure was an insincere profession of
faith and outward conformity. Therefore, so the argument
went and still goes, force employed by civil
government should be directed only at securing objective
public interests, the protection of life, limb, and property as the famous phrase has it. In fact, it's precisely
because the mind is seen as the impregnable bastion
of true religious experience that the modern argument
regarding the impossibility of controlling belief from
outside acquires plausibility. Some liberal philosophers have countered the awkward example of
brainwashing by arguing that it merely creates inauthentic belief however sincerely that belief may be held. Authenticity they argue,
consists in the subject's ability to choose her beliefs and to act on them. In this fashion, belief
reinforces the idea of an autonomous subject, but does the insistence
that authentic belief is quite different from a sincere
and yet inauthentic belief mean that the act of saying
something passionately without choosing should
be pronounced inauthentic? And I'm not sure that it should. When somebody takes up a stubborn position because as they put it famously because there is no moral alternative, I can do no other, in the
famous phrase of Luther's. Should we say they are being inauthentic? I don't think this strikes,
at least it doesn't strike me as being somehow quite right. External forces can not
only compel subjects to do or to refrain from doing things, but beliefs too, in my view, can be imposed by indirect means. So although the insistence that beliefs can not be changed from outside appeared to be saying something empirical about personal belief,
it's singular, autonomous, and inaccessible to other location, it was really part of a political
discourse about privacy, a claim to civil immunity. But the claim tended
by and large to be made against the state and
still to some extent does, not against the market where political economic seduction is typically transmuted
into internal compulsions. We don't think of that as being somehow an imposition
and that's interesting. In his acclaimed book A Secular Age, Charles Taylor has recounted a story that seeks to vindicate both
the historical emergence of the secular democratic order and the promise of liberal religion. Although there's virtually
nothing in the book itself on the liberal democratic state as such, but there is in his other
some in his other writings. Contemporary western
christianity as he puts it clearly depends on it. The most important sense of belief sought by liberal
religion is private belief that is protected by the liberal state. Taylor's first chapter opens
with the following statement: "One way to put the question
I want to answer here in this book is this: Why was it virtually impossible
not to believe in God in say 1500 in our western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but inescapable." If there is a single condition,
and that's the quote from, that's the sentence from Taylor. If there is a single
condition that can be said to sum up the modern
character belief for Taylor it's that individual
believers are now confronted by the distinction between
experience and its construle. He thinks this is a particularly modern, don't quite agree with that, but still that's an important distinction. This distinction makes
religious belief private, that is one may entertain
doubt and uncertainty as well as optional, one can choose. So these are the two
aspects that were absent according to him in the pre-modern world. A secular liberal state is necessary if these conditions of belief are to be defined and protected. Taylor isn't primarily
concerned with beliefs as propositions that
people hold to of course, his interest is in what he
calls social imaginaries or what anthropologists call social myths that undergird these beliefs. His interest is in telling the story of how I quote again from him "the whole context of understanding in which our moral, spiritual,
or religious experience takes place is gradually changed." Spiritual experience according to him is a matter of being directly
in touch with transcendence, that offers itself as a source of meaning and gives the individual what
he calls a sense of fullness. When unbelievers feel
that life lacks meaning the result is a characteristically
secular unhappiness that Taylor calls a modern malaise. Yet in modern society, I
would suggest Christians and non-christians,
believers and non-believers all live more or less the same life within the capitalist system. But if they share, given
class differences of course and so on, but if they share
a style of private life and a distinctive relation
to public politics, how does belief distinguish them? As I understand Taylor, it's the modern western
individual's ability to interpret experience that
leads to different beliefs. Taylor recognises the plurality of beliefs as an inescapable modern fact and affirms the right to
individual interpretation as a transcendent liberal value. And although belief in his
story is not to be equivalent in some simple way to a
proposition as I said already, the centrality of
construle or interpretation by what he calls the
buffered self in this account which is counter posed to
the pre-modern porous self, brings it pretty close to something that is capable of being
stated I would argue, if not propositionaly, then
in the form of a narrative. Taylor's narrative promises
the unhappy conscience the possibility of redemption
by religious belief. A self that seeks to be redeemed regards it's life as a narrative, a life that takes the
form of a personal quest. But there's no redemption
for disrupted selves in his account. Taylor's narrative of how a reformed and disciplined Christianity got here by traversing overlapping
social imaginaries is itself an attempt
at narrative coherence in which some things are repressed and others are emphasized. One can see why individual belief as a choice by right, not
the content of beliefs, but the fact of belief is
so central to Taylor's story about the secularization of religion and why the Christian
promise of personal salvation finds a place in his optimism
about liberal politics. Perhaps one might also see why Taylor is so scornful of attitudes
that regard modernity non-teleologically as having a tragic because irresolvable character and why he sets aside disruption as offering a creative opportunity. There's no mention in Taylor's
story of the global crises that threatened the world today. Interestingly enough, climate change, the militarization of
space, economic collapse, this was written before the
present crisis by the way, economic collapse, it
wasn't too hard to do that, nuclear proliferation, war, and terrorism. And the widening gap
between the wealthy few and the many poor. The word crisis appears in his entire text which is of 900 pages long or thereabouts, appears in that text only in reference to the loss of personal
meaning for believers and for felt need for an absent narrative. But what's this to do
with religion you may ask? Well, the answer is
nothing, that is nothing if religion is to be defined essentially as a matter of belief
in personal salvation. And yet, one wonders what happens to the possibility of narrating the self if the world in which
the believing subject must live is seriously imperiled, and there's no discussion
of that unfortunately. Since the beginning of
western scholarly interest in the subject, ethnographic reports have played an important part in helping to construct the
object of religious studies. Taylor himself draws
generously on anthropology, so let me turn to some debates on the concept of religious belief. Among anthropologists,
it was Rodney Needham who first critically examined how anglophone ethnographers identified the religious beliefs of
the people they studied. What exactly he asked is
being presented to the reader when the ethnographer
claims to be writing about the interior state of believers. His answer was a skeptical one because these states aren't
necessarily expressed socially through language, there are no inner states
that are universal. Not everyone found this answer conclusive, but Needham did point to
something of central importance to the whole enterprise
of comparative religion. And that is translation,
not only from one language to another, but also across
two different modalities, that is the interior and the exterior. Several anthropologists
who subsequently address the question of belief did so with respect to the universalism
versus relativism debate in which the concern remained cognitive and primary intention was paid to implicit meanings in ritual. For example, Malcolm Ruel, writing on the Christian
creed in a widely read article observed and I quote from him that "The performance of
the Creed is as complex, symbolic, and condensed an act of ritual as any other liturgical
act and is consequently as much subjected to
the categories developed for example by Turner, for the analysis of ritual symbolism." The Christian creed Ruel pointed out combines two senses of belief. Belief in a divine
person, the living Christ and belief that a sacred
event had occurred, the crucifixion and resurrection. This echoed an important
historical distinction between belief as a
relationship of trust, love, and commitment and belief as a proposition held in one's mind as true or falsifiable. Although Ruel doesn't say
so, it should be clear that whereas the second sense
of belief allows for choice, the first doesn't do so
or at least not so easily. Following Needham, we might ask how we can identify belief in medieval Latin Christendom? A society in which it said
that it was almost impossible not to believe as Taylor famously says. Recent historical research has shown that it is not plausible to
regard the medieval period as a monolithic age of faith. There's ample evidence
that medieval people often rejected such orthodox doctrines as the immortality of the soul, I'm sorry for this series, the resurrection, the incarnation, virgin birth, and purgatory. The difficulty is that
no ready method exists for deciding whether such
rejections simply meant a total absence of
so-called religious beliefs or were prompted by alternative beliefs. The problem is further complicated by the fact that the vocabulary used belongs to a very
different semantic field. Infidelitous was typically
used in secular contexts such as charters, laws,
and historical narratives. It usually meant breaking
a contract or an oath, acting in a disloyal manner,
or breaching someone's trust. Infidelities were not simply
those who fail to hold Orthodox convictions, they
were first and foremost those who acted disloyally in some way or those who through acts
of treason or misfortune were no longer a part of the
relation that bound together God, Latin Christians, and
their king, one to another. Credere, the word in Christian latin that's translated into
english as to believe usually as a moral rather
than an epistemological sense meaning to trust someone more often than to be convinced about
the truth of a proposition. As the medievalist Dorothea Weltecke cites the case of Aude
Fauré, a young peasant woman who was brought before the Inquisition. She was unable she said to credere indo. The detailed context makes it quite clear that what she meant was
not belief in the sense that we would now translate it. She took the existence
of a God for granted. It was precisely because
in her desperation she couldn't see in the
eucharist anything but bread and because she found herself struggling with disturbing thoughts about incarnation that she had no hope of God's mercy and that is what she meant when she said she didn't as it were,
what we would translate as believe in God. My point is simply that
the words then in use, and this applies to
other cultures as well, that we now translate
as belief and unbelief should not be regarded as
epistemological concepts that define objects of choice, so important for us in our modern culture. Both words expressed
emotional dispositions embedded in social and
political relationships as well as distinctive sensibilities. What's changed is the
hierarchy of the senses I'd suggest, that links human
practices to one another and to their natural environment. A change in what Wittgenstein
called a way of life and ways of life don't change as easily as ideas in one's head. I will return to this point later, but first I want to say
something about ritual, a kind of practice that's
often been seen by critics as symbolic activity and by many critics as activity with an
anti-democratic implication. This is just ritual as the saying goes. Anthropologists studying
religion have been interested not only in religious doctrines, they have also written
about religious practices. Like other Victorians,
evolutionary anthropologists tended to interpret as
magical ways of coping, rites as magical ways of
coping with difficulties of the natural environment. Protestant theologians,
who were also students of primitive religion, such
as the famous Robertson Smith, both an anthropologist and a theologian, took the view that true
Christianity required that he'd be stripped of Catholic magic, that is of false science. But later anthropologists saw all this as a methodological mistake. Rituals they maintained,
were not to be regarded as primitive ways of adjusting to nature, not as evidence of primitive minds. As actions, rituals had a
social function of their own. Some anthropologists like Edmund Leach proposed the idea that rituals weren't instrumental actions at all. Rituals symbolized something, communicated cultural meaning. But for Victorian evolutionists, as well as for many of their
anthropological successors, the modern notion of belief attributed to what used to
be called primitive peoples was essential to their
conception of ritual. Whether it took the form of a cosmology or culturally defined norms, whether it was to be
reconstructed from explanations offered by practitioners
or read into social actions and arrangements by
resort to western theories of signification, belief was central to the repetitive
activities classed as rites. Scarcely any anthropologist in my view took Needham's worries about
beliefs as an interface between inner and outer seriously. However, some anthropologists
who now wrote about ritual took the communicative perspective in an interesting direction. Thus, Morris Bloch took
linguistic performance itself as the paradigm of symbolic action and argued that the very
formality of oratory, as in a formality of polite manners, was a crucial means of social control and political domination. Formal communication
including religious ritual and political oratory was to be seen as the denial of choice, one was forced into a
certain form he argued in this kind of paradigm,
and that therefore it meant submission to traditional authority. And traditional authority in
Max Weber's influential view was one of the three modes
of legitimate domination as many of you will know. This approach to ritual
therefore reinforced the idea that the autonomous
subject needed to break from tradition and the
repetition of the past it demanded from him or her. The claim that ritual had a
repressive social function resonated with the view
that liberal religion should primarily take the
form of private belief with a strong Protestant
rejection of Catholic ritualism. It reinforced the well-known notion that ritual was not only non-rational but also anti-political in the sense of politics that liberal democracy values, including the principles of equality, the freedom to choose, and the right to free speech and so on. However, the notion that
formality is necessarily an external form of
coercion is questionable. It's only when forms become elements in a goffmaneque strategy that they serve as a means of control over others. Goffman was also another person from here I remembered suddenly. But to the extent that
public forms contribute to the making and remaking
of the self in a social world to cultivating it where in other words external forms are part
of the developing self it's effects will be different. In that context, what the embodied self learns to say and do, how it handles behavioural and verbal forms
in relationship to others at the center of the
selves moral potentialities and not merely externally imposed. In short, if we think of ritual not as a mode of denying choice of belief by means of imposed formalities, but as developing aptness
of behavior, sensibility, and attitude by means of a learned grammar then I think come to a
more useful understanding. Thus, contrary to Bloch's thesis that the repetition of forms, that's the condition of formality itself, is necessarily repressive, one can see that formality requires not
only repetition of past models but also the creativity
that issues from judgment of it's present relevance. The cultivation of forms is thus necessary to the cultivation of ethical virtues. In my mind it was Marcel Mauss who in his famous essay
entitled Body Techniques offered the most fruitful
insight into the study of ritual. And he began from the obvious fact that the educated body achieved
a range of human objectives from styles of physical
movement, walking for example, through modes of sensibility and two kinds of spiritual experience. Mauss was not interested in the divide between religion and secularity. He had no investment in
constructing a category called religion as a component of a universal called religion. His interest was in the
formation of attitudes both sacred and profane. Most importantly, he showed a way of asking different questions than the ones focused on belief. In the final paragraph to that essay, Mauss wrote famously, I
have quoted this before, "I believe precisely that there are, even at the base of all
our mystical states, body techniques which
have not been studied, but which were fully
studied in China and India ever since ancient times. This socio, psycho, biological study should be made, he goes on to say, I think there are
necessarily biological means of entering into communion with God." This is still Mauss, not me. That biological means of
entering into communion with God. Now, Mauss isn't saying of
course that that experience can be explained biologically,
but only that the inability to enter into what people
have called communion with God or the inability to revere
words, things, and persons associated with him may be the function of inexperienced bodies, of bodies for whom certain
kinds of experiences have been made difficult,
if not impossible. For Mauss, belief was not
a matter of construing and choosing, but of the
mode in which the human body conscious as well as unconscious, exists. To put this point in less invidious terms, one might say that the secular
attitude and experience like the religious
requires particular social, psychological, biological conditions, I'm using Mauss's phrase,
that the distinctive attitudes underlying secularism as
a political arrangement presuppose particular
hierarchies of the senses. Some culturally valorized senses are deliberately encouraged as objects of disciplinary projects. Others emerge out of the convergence of various political economic developments and the regulatory strategies
that they give rise to in modern industries, mass
markets, cosmopolitan cities, modern transport and communications, capitalist corporations,
and modern warfare. Social imaginaries in other words, as a set of pre-reflective
assumptions and beliefs don't seem to me to be quite explanatory of the historical shift from
a so-called believing culture imposed and maintained
by traditional authority to one that's free and
predominantly unbelieving because explanations in
terms of social imaginaries subsumes, as Taylor himself has argued, subsumes lower order desires
which are raw and corporeal within higher order desires which are construed, that is
interpreted and evaluated, so that those lower order
desires are actually organized by the higher order
desires according to him. And this seems to me to underestimate the contingency of bodily senses. In other words, the
notion of social imaginary and the associated notion of construal seemed to me to fail to get
at the unpredictable shifts and distortions in social
life that are independent of the criteria for
interpreting experience and of a coherence sort in narrative. To explore connections of
religion belief and politics we need to ask a number of
questions about the body I think, it's senses and it's attitudes. For this we need ethnographies
of the human body, its attitudes to pain, physical
damage, decay, and death as well as to bodily integrity,
growth, and enjoyment to isolation from and
strong connection with other persons and things. Attitude incidentally seems to me to be less intellectualist
and more practical than our modern overstretched word belief. What architecture of the senses, hearing, seeing, smelling,
touching, tasting do particular attitudes and
sensibilities depend on? How do new sensory perceptions take shape and make older ways of
engaging with the world, that's building experiences
and older political forms, not merely wrong but irrelevant? The work of Walter Ong especially, and I won't mention them, but anyway, his work is relevant to these questions because he was among the
first to trace shifts from the reliance on hearing
to primary emphasis on seeing. Ong has rightly been criticized for recounting an overly simple
story of historical stages in the development of human communication from oral culture through
alphabet and print to the electronic media. In fact, both in the past and
today, orality and writing have been intertwined in complicated ways. Let me give you one example from the Islamic scriptural tradition in which the senses of hearing and seeing, reading and reciting
are closely intertwined. Te Quran, which as many of you know means literally recitation,
is deeply rooted in complex continuities, quite apart from the major schools that have provided it
with it's construles. The earliest text written in
a primitive seventh century Arabic script seems to have been treated as a kind of musical score, a prompt for the oral rendition that depended on memorization
through reiteration. Sign and sound went together, but not in any direct or fixed way. It was only because the oral
traditions were continuous that they were able to
provide an imminent frame for the written text and thus, for its scholarly
reception over the centuries. An effort has always been required to abstract the Quranic text
as an intellectual object consisting of statements
or even narratives from the relationship
between the charged sound and the attentive body with its growing store of memorizations. The historian Alain Corbin
has taken up the question of changing perceptions of the world appropriated by different human senses, hearing, seeing, smelling, in detail. In his fascinating study,
The Foul and the Fragrant, he traces the densely
interwoven discourses on the cramped condition
of the urban masses. The conditions of contagious disease and the practices of individual hygiene in 18th and 19th century French society. One eventual consequence Corbin observes, was an added emphasis on
the priority of clear sight and I quote "there was
increased concern for light in private dwellings as in public spaces. This was the beginning of
the great swing in attitudes that was to give supremacy,
he writes, to the visual. Darkness made nocturnal
animals sad and perfidious. Uncertain light was a threat to health, zeal for work, and sexual morality." Corbin points out that it was not always the ideas themselves
that immediately changed, but rather that the new form of perception made for what he calls a new intolerance of
traditional actuality. Shifts in sensory
perception endow experience of other people and things
with complicated emotions, anxieties, and pleasures, a function not merely of what is sensed, but of how it's sensed. The new hierarchy of the senses associated with new patterns of living contributed to an aspect
of modern subjectivity that we might provisionally
identify as secular. I quote from him again: "Techniques of ventilation
insofar as they acknowledge the need for space between
bodies and gave protection against other people's
odors brought individuals into a new encounter with
their own bodily smells and as such, contributed
decisively to the development, he writes, of a new narcissism." Now if Corbin is right,
then this narcissism, this disgust at other
people's bodily odors and love for oneself in one's own odors may have reinforced the
feeling that an unwanted touch by a foreign body, an unwanted
touch by a foreign body, was a shameful
contamination making a wound inflicted by another,
yet more of a defilement, one calling for a vigorous
cleansing response. So one might turn this around
and ask what kinds of violence whether individual or
collective can be traced to this modern narcissism if in fact we are willing
to go along with this. And this may help, I think, explain why the ambitious narcissist
protects his own boundaries religiously if I may put it that way, but easily transgresses the
secular boundaries of others. At any rate, many secular sensibilities are the unintended consequences
of new sense perceptions that are themselves part of
the changing ways of life. Of course, attitudes and sense perceptions are also deliberately
cultivated in institutions and social movements,
but the important point is that the senses are
central to the public life in which people participate,
to the ways they promote, submit to, or resist the
forces of political life. The modern secular state
isn't simply the guardian of one's personal right
to believe as one chooses, it's also and first of
all a collective condition in which one senses and
feels in specific ways. And yet, the work of the senses has received less attention than it should in the study of secular politics. What has come to be discussed
in increasing detail is discipline, and I myself
been very interested in that, discipline in the cultivation
and internalization of attitudes as well as in the regulation of individual conduct
by external authorities. But important though discipline is, the conscious cultivation
of behavior and belief isn't quite the same thing
as the unintended shifts in the sensorium described
by anthropologists and historians like Corbin. Thus, in his interesting study of the role of Calvinist doctrine and practice in the
formation of the early modern European State, Philip
Gorski has reviewed a range of authors who've dealt with
the idea of discipline in ways that he regards as useful,
but not quite adequate. His own thesis is that the intensification of religious discipline
in early modern Europe helped strengthen the state in several ways and that
the process of strengthening was dual in origin, both
from above and below. Taylor draws in some detail on Gorsky because he's interested
in the way discipline has contributed to the
formation of what he calls a buffered self, an objective
self contained self, disenchanted and modern,
and able to control its emotions and feelings, to
separate itself from objects by contemplation, reasoning,
and interpretation and to choose from available beliefs. For Taylor and for others
who have taken this view, it was the civilizing process that produced the buffered self out of the primitive porous self and thereby gave the world the
gift of individual freedom. Now this familiar story
about the role of discipline in the formation of modernity is one I'm not very comfortable with because it too often ignores
who is disciplined and how and fails to pursue all
the effects of discipline whether intended or not. But assuming that this is the story, we encounter an intriguing question when we consider so-called fundamentalists in the contemporary Middle East and I would like to put this to you. Thus, although in Euro
America the discipline self or the model or the ideal
of the discipline self is said to be the distinctive
figure of modernity and its freedom. The presence of discipline
in Muslim life generally and Islamic movements in particular, is commonly taken as evidence
of precisely its opposite. The existence of rules of
conduct of dress, comportment, daily prayers, etc, and the
cultivation of sensibilities, the control of emotion
in speech and behavior, and reverence towards the sacred voice, are seen as constrained and suppression. This is an example of
precisely what arguments for toleration warn against if political or religious authority imposes norms of conduct and doctrine on the individual and if this imposition is accepted then this must be a case of
sincere but inauthentic belief or what one would call an ideologically confused consciousness. Now, I don't want to present
this as a question of bias, I want to make a rather
different point here. And this is that one might pursue a more anthropological question that instead of approaching such behavior in terms of belief, and in this
case of inauthentic belief, and this is obviously what differentiates these people from us. Instead of doing that, and because belief is my quarry as you know here, one should inquire into
what the behavior does and how the bodily senses
are cultivated to take shape in different circumstances
and hence into what politics this cultivation makes
possible or difficult. Now this leads me finally to a study by an anthropologist many of you know who has tried to formulate his questions in his ethnography in just this way, the Ethical Soundscape
by Charles Hirschkind. And I described it
earlier as a counterpoint to Taylor's book by which I
meant both that it deals with a much shorter historical
timespan and a specific location and that it's more dense in its account of that time and space. Hirschkind is less interested
in histories of ideas than in a way of life. In this sense he's a better
anthropologist than I am. More precisely his study asks how the enormously popular practice of listening to sermons
in contemporary Cairo shapes religious sensibilities and traces some of its
consequences for politics. Throughout Islamic history
attending the Friday sermon has been an important part
of Muslim subject formation. Hirschkind analyzes the
reception of sermons as an active process one in
which the faithful listener cultivates her ability
to attend and to which as in listening to a
piece of demanding music, belief and meaning are
of little significance, just as we don't really
say what's the meaning of this piece of music,
that's one of the points that he's he's trying
to make about listening. Listening to sermons in modern Cairo is no longer confined to the friday mosque and it's no longer a one-off experience. Taped sermons are heard numerous times in many urban contexts, political oratory, and media entertainment
have affected sermons styles and so made new connections with the institutions of national life as well as with the
transnational Islamic community. This movement has grown in
response to the Egyptian state's often violent attempt to
suppress the Muslim Brotherhood which is very unpopular
in some quarters here which constitutes the most serious popular opposition to that state. Hirschkind's account of the movement describes how it promotes
an acoustic sensibility opposed to the state's
obsession with spatial order as well as to the nouveau
riche who have withdrawn increasingly into their clean
orderly gated communities in Cairo as in so many other cities. Contained in this opposition is a struggle for defining the scope and sensibility appropriate to real Islam. What Hirshkind calls a counterpublic is thus an Islamic space
of moral distancing from the hegemonic religious
secular order of the state. Thus many Islamists regard the
regime of personal discipline as helping to develop
sensibilities that might moderate if not totally negate the seductions of a neoliberal consumer culture. Since Hirschkind did
his field work in Egypt an oppositional movement
has emerged in strength known as Keffiyeh, enough,
that's the name of that movement. Keffiyeh overlaps with the counter public and it brings together a
variety of social elements, Muslims and Christians,
Islamists and secular liberals, men and women, professionals
and labor unionists in a coalition against the
authoritarian neoliberal state. It's not that there's now a happy union of all these elements, but
that an irreducible plurality persists as a foundation
of political sensibility. What gathers secular
liberals and Islamists and others together despite
a continuing measure of mutual unease is
precisely not their belief but their oppositional
attitude, their common feeling that circumstances in Egypt
have become intolerable. They speak of their opposition as something they did not choose but were compelled to adopt. However, this situation
isn't merely negative it also provides a space
of daily interaction and negotiation whose future nevertheless remains entirely unclear. Discrete and not so discrete intrusions by among other things American power, as well as the contradictory desires, feelings, and sensibilities
within individuals and between them make
a political teleology virtually impossible. The religiosity involved
in this movement emerges as a mode of being that
is inwardly unsettled yet outwardly civil. It's never simply a mode of living where belief can be chosen together with every other
good in the marketplace. Instead, there's an attempt
to cultivate a sensibility attuned to mutual care
among the community. To what extent this succeeds
or even what its future holds are of course entirely different questions and I won't venture into that. So perhaps the crucial
point for understanding the threat of religion in
the contemporary world, the thought with which I began, isn't the secular
tolerance of pure beliefs, as is that this is the only
remedy for religious belief that generates violence. It's not that conversion to
liberal model of Christianity provides the best way of
demonstrating the authenticity of belief for the modern
religious subject. The interesting point in
my view I would suggest is that different kinds
of practice encourage and presuppose particular forms of what has been called
religious sensibility and that this relates
in unpredictable ways to emerging political
and moral possibilities. Thank you. (audience applauding) (upbeat instrumental music)

4 thoughts on “Thinking about Religion, Belief and Politics with Talal Asad

  1. Well…he's an intellectual, but a few more examples would have been nice. The only one I caught was the changing form of the physical act of listening to the khutba as a defining feature of religion as a way of life, his point being (I think) that now the physical act of listening to a preacher has been harnessed and modified with 'unpredictable' results by people agitating for social change.

  2. "Secular Christianity" is an oxymoron.
    Richard Niebuhr described the social gospel as follows:
    "A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross."

  3. whoever thumbed you down, beancube, should be ashamed of himself/herself. you are 100% right, religion diminishes society, and only education and the willingness to be open-minded are the real benefiting factors of a society

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