Competing Narratives, Alternative Models



Considerable intellectual energy has recently developed around the category of the secular, and its cognate terms secularism and secularization. As the very public and politicized resurgence of religion in recent decades has undermined the reigning paradigm of inevitable and increasing separation between religion and public life, the question of the appropriate role of religion in democratic societies has emerged as a subject of growing contention. Influential public narratives—from the “culture wars” in the United States to the “clash of civilizations” globally—draw the battle lines in a highly oppositional fashion, with religiously identified actors and movements expressing suspicion if not disdain for the secular state/society, while their secular counterparts advocate a public sphere governed by antireligious forms of secularism.

How are we to understand this increasingly contentious divide, and what are its implications for the dominant narratives about the secular democratic state and society? The questions are numerous and far-ranging. What now feeds these growing tensions at the border of religion and the secular? How do these conflicts relate to questions of identity (national, ethnic, gender, religious)? Are there patterns to be discerned across national cultures? What are the public narratives that frame these issues, and how are they differently embedded in the workings of institutions, in media and popular culture, and in the everyday lives of ordinary men and women? What new stories can and should be told?

The Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict is undertaking a multiyear project that explores these questions comparatively and from a diversity of disciplinary perspectives. Although the project will focus on France, India, Turkey and the United States for comparative purposes, the conceptual, analytic, and normative issues are central.

The purpose of this conference is to begin this multidisciplinary conversation. The goal will be to stimulate reflection on the shifting historical and contemporary alignments of religion and the secular; to facilitate comparative insight into the interface of religion, the secular and democracy across national cases; and to explore the analytic and normative challenges that have newly arisen regarding religion, the secular, and democratic public life.