Nonreligion at the #IAHR2015 – the Mega-Event of International Religious Studies

Quasi religious help for all who felt disoriented
Quasi religious help for all who felt disoriented

2015 IAHR GuideFriday 28. The last day of the IAHR 2015 Conference. This is the session guide, and this the Abstract Book of the XXI Quinquennial World Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR), Erfurt, Germany, August 23-29, 2015.

5 days on Erfurt’s University Campus. If you know the place, you will also know that it is not exactly the place where the world is likely to meet for a massive intellectual debate of this magnitute. The event itself i just impressive with its topics ranging from antiquity to latest trends, theological, sociological, philosophical, political… Five days, 1,200 papers and lectures from morning to evening – followed by 1,400 guests. (The students have not arrived yet.)

I arrive at 9am, the last day, the first slot will go till 11am. The program tells me that I have to choose one of 33 parallel sessions. Each session has three to four speakers. I chose 28-112 | 123 | Leaving, losing and switching religion: Disruptive dynamics of past and present, Panel Chair: Teemu T. Mantsinen

…three talks and I can calculate that I will miss 112 talks in the 32 other rooms while I am sitting in this room.

Switching Religions

About 25 people, the three scholars are sitting in front. All three speakers are Scandinavians working on a larger joint project. The first two presentations are based on interviews, the third is rather theological with its look at the Quran and the hadith traditions. What do, Teemu T. Mantsinen‘s question, Finnish Pentecostals experience when they leave the family creed? Are these just the “normal experiences” anyone will make when leaving a religion and its adherents? Daniel Enstedt switches sides. His topic is “Leaving Islam in Contemporary Sweden”. Göran Larsson adds the theological debate and makes it clear that the entire topic is far more complex than the present media debate is ready admit. Islamic texts give ample room for interpretation and for questions: Is it really the apostasy that is punished in the particular examples? – or an act of treason, a particular crime? – and is the severity of capital punishment really legitimised with that example? Is the Quran a recommendation for the lawgiver or addressing the individual believer who has to find to God? How did historical regimes deal with apostasy? – relatively tolerant, so Larsson’s answer; waves of persecution are usually a sign of political weakness.

The complexity of observations is refreshing. The underlying tendency to challenge the radical discourse of Islamism and its pubic opponent Islamophobia has its weaknesses though. This is nothing we will sell to Saudi Arabia’s rulers.

Inside out? The (in)visibility of religious communities in contemporary societies

30 minutes to find the university’s gym where Kim Knott is giving the “EASR sponsored lecture”

We have moved, so her primary observation, into a new era of visibility of the religious in our public spheres. A theoretical turn: We used to speak of the “re-emergence” of religion until Hoelzl and Ward changed the paradigm towards an alternative exploration of visibility.

The narrative of modernity was simple: We were all moving towards complete secularism. Religion was increasingly a private affair. This seems no longer to be the case. Multiculturalism was the term of the 1980s in a movement the sociologist would already dismantle as an attempt to incorporate and to govern the various groups. Show up and you can become a community in the new “community of communities”, Great Britain. Migration and globalisation had brought these groups to Britain, and the religious identification was suddenly on the table. One would speak of the “Hindu community” and the “Muslim community” in order to turn these communities into political partners.

The strategic manoeuvres demand a conclusive pattern – positivism on a new level:


The terms of (in)visibility Attention drawn Attention not drawn
Present (available for perception) A: Visible B: Non-visible
Absent (not available for perception) C: (In)visible D: Invisible


Kim Knott’s observations focus on the religious life of London’s Southwark borough. Almost a B in this pattern – present but no longer visible: the medieval cathedral, today overshadowed by The Shard. The parish is eager to turn the little building into an open space. Far more visible, an A sight so to say: the Bait-ul-Aziz Islamic Cultural Centre – a massive building of distinct features, visible but (behind its steel fence) not aiming at the same accessibility. No longer visible: the Cross Bone Graveyard, used for centuries as a graveyard for London’s prostitutes and their children. Londoners have moved this site from a D to a C in the pattern: it is now a recognised place of commemoration. The Anglican Church and the borough reacted and brought this site onto their maps of historical landmarks.

Physical visibility, body politics as described by Judith Butler, can be converted into political representation, though at a price. In order to become visible, preconfigured images are the first choice. A “container” is needed. It will display some aspects and hide others. Groups fight for a correction of their public image; individuals and groups within larger communities can aim at a higher visibility of features they identify with. “Enclosers” will struggle with “transformers”. The “hyper visibility” of the Muslim community is an option and a test of tolerance. Keep a low profile and you will enter oblivion or a space of greater freedom, the “underground”. All this, so Knot, is best described in politics and tactics of visibility.

The ensuing debate remained lame – perhaps because all this was somehow apparent, self-evident, perhaps we were all hungry.

Lunch and Wicca Creativity

I take a seat outside Erfurt’s mensa and chose company that promises to come from an altogether different field – a Dutch scholar. We introduce to each other, Léon van Gulik, a psychologist working on the creativity of Wicca practitioners. What is it like to study a living community? Do they feel observed? Do they want to be studied?

Well, you do have to earn their trust, but they want to be visible, so my vis-à-vis.

The historian is envious but also in a privileged role. I can publish the intimate diaries of anyone with the distance of three hundred years. Visibility is back on the table. Our studies will interact with present debates. We create this visibility to some extent. A win/win situation of the observer and the observed? A symbiosis? I speak about my experiences in a Facebook-atheist group in which I asked people to help me map atheist memes. I had to realise that my request was a transgression. You are supposed to spread these memes, an analysis is already a sign that you belong to the enemy who wants to criticise practices.

My vis-à-vis feels intrigued about the perspective on atheism. Yes, atheism has qualities of a religion, he laughs. He would prefer to be an agnostic if anyone wanted to label him. I think of Thomas Henry Huxley’s introduction of the term. If I remember it rightly it was a manoeuvre full of theological considerations. Is the agnostic not forced to promote the entire ensemble of concepts of which he says he cannot hope to access them? Is agnosticism not almost identical with the highly religious awareness of being unable to reach out to God, that feeling that has already troubled the psalmists, Jesus and waves of theologians? Wicca creativity. A good topic. They will love to show what they create. (…and I do still have no idea of that productivity.)

Religion and Democracy in the Age of Globalization

Theoretically a superb topic! How do religions cope with the democratic framework? How do they cope with the different democratic frameworks in the age of globalisation? How do we deal in our practical lives with the religious demands here and global media there. This blog has caused me headaches as it has been attracting authors from Iran and Yemen – they publish where exactly? in Germany under liberal, democratic, secular German laws? Not really.

The room I enter has attracted the smallest audience thus far. Dorota Maj speaks about her exploration of the “Ecumenical Movement in Europe in the context of globalization” – a lecture full of 19th-century details.

Marcin Pomarański gives in his talk a survey of contemporary secessionist movements in the United States – and it is fun to follow him through the odd lands of right wing separatists who would promote the disintegration of the devilish US. Churches support these movements with an agenda of white supremacy, traditional family values, an ideal of paternal obedience, and with calls for disobedience if not open warfare on the public level.

Maria Marczewska-Rytko adds the professorial paper on “Christian Democracy in the process of democratic transformation in Poland after 1989”, a summary of Polish party programs since the 1980s.

The discussion has its unique moments. The students have taken their seats among us. The professor is standing in front of her class and invites questions. A lady in the audience is surprised about these American movements. “Don’t they read the Bible?” (Well yes, of course they do, that’s part of the problem.) The professor eventually ends the debate with the invitation to raise and to join her and her two participants for the traditional group photo. A Norwegian lady tries to escape, a man from India is afraid that this must be a European tradition in which he cannot partake. We are eventually all on the family picture.

2015-08-28 Bücherstände

2015-08-28 IAHR, Lit-Verlag

2015-08-28 IAHR, De Gruyter

Social Realism, Erfurt University in front of the Lecture Room
Social Realism and the atheist future of the past, Erfurt University, painting in front of the HS3 lecture hall
Differentiating Nonreligion

Half an hour later a lecture theatre with all the traces of long boring lectures on the decorated folding tables: This is a panel on nonreligion, not on atheism, as Johannes Quack is stressing. Irreligiosity should be among the terms to discuss as well – especially here in Germany where the churches are losing their followers into an undefined space of widespread disinterest. Atheism is a confrontational term. Freethought and Humanism are alternatives – as we are about to learn. The participants know each other. One thing they have in common is that they are studying groups not individuals, another: that they are interested in local conditions that shape the agendas of these groups.

Alexander Blechschmidt looks bak on a field exploration that led him to the Philippines. He has been following the two major groups on the spectrum: the Filipino Freethinkers (FF), founded in February 2009, and the Philippine Atheists and Agnostics Society (PATAS), founded in February 2011. The FF is the bigger, less confrontational group – it is open to all who will identify with the free-thought movement. PATAS sees itself as “a social organization that provides social action for the promotion of atheism and agnosticism in the country”. Both groups are politically active on human rights issues, LGBT rights and the Reproductive Health Bill. FF is more of the ‘rich kid’s club’, gathering students and young intellectuals. PATAS more of a grassroots alternative – a difference that becomes more apparent in practical projects. Both groups organised relief aid in the aftermath of the 2013 Typhoon Haiyan. PATAS visited villages on their “Good without God” program; the FF organised a fundraiser with the help of the global community of atheist intellectuals.

Original-Happy-Human-w100 Humanisterna

Susanne Schenk has been observing a parallel polarisation in the Swedish Humanisterna movement. The conflicts became virulent in the debate over the new Happy Man logo which Sweden’s Humanists eventually adopted. The progressive faction supported the new logo as the design of greater rationality. Supporters of the old asymmetrical design defended the human features as a plea for individuality, human imperfection if not human frailty. The conflict had its deeper roots in the movement’s historical aim to become an alternative to Sweden’s state church. The debates had to be understood in a framework of tensions between the religious, the scientific and the political sphere.

Stephen LeDrew steered through the wider landscape of atheism in the United States. The historical developments provide much of the present segmentation. Traditional “secularists” had been focusing on social justice. The present wave of New Atheism is comparatively confrontational and has adopted much of its activism from the gay movement with its “coming out of the closet” campaign. Again, we see tendencies to supplant religion. The sciences are here the big alternative and evolution the quasi-divine mechanism. But the spectrum is wider with groups like “naturalists” and “rationalists”. The field has been exploding, and Stephen was not too sure whether it can balance its centrifugal forces.

Stefan Schröder concluded the panel with a perspective on Germany’s humanist movement – a movement in an altogether different situation. Germany’s public sphere is widely secular. What is more of a problem: the term Humanism stands here for the classical avant-garde from Cicero to Goethe. Erasmus and Melanchthon are “renaissance humanists” in German. The free-thought movement is here in the uncomfortable position to define its place between uncontroversial ideals of the old Christian humanist tradition and New Atheism. Two organisations are affiliated: The German Humanist Association with 20.000 members and official recognition as a movement on the religious spectrum in several German federal states and the Giordano Bruno Foundation with a far more accentuated agenda of propagating new “evolutionary pedagogics”, to be sold in a country that does not have a more interesting creationist movement to attack.

What unites all these groups? – that they experience similar tensions between an openly confrontational New Atheism and a more integrative free thought movement? The same books are read all over this landscape, yet that does not mean to much. The programs pose their own rhetorical problems: Germany’s Humanists profess an extreme openness, a totally undogmatic stance. But is this more than a rhetorical embrace of the wider clientele the strategists are dreaming of? The group that tells you that you are the very person they are looking for is likely to be the group that will give you the creeps. Bertrand Russell showed these signs of unease when he was asked to state his position in the wider humanist field.

The idea of a religious substitute was present in all these groups and will need a particular differentiation: US-American New Atheists show this a new brand of scientism – a belief that science will solve all the problems religion had always wanted to solve. Yet, a movement that believes in the sciences as the saviour is still miles away from a movement that erects a church of its own right. The idea of a substitute religion is in itself a massive variable. The moralistic Humanist movement has little to share with the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and all the other new fun religions.

Erfurt's Cathedral, still visible
Erfurt’s Cathedral, still visible

The panel ended in a restaurant over food and beer. I enjoyed the company of Jimmy Emanuelsson and David Westerberg from Our conversation was taking wider circles now as we began to share all those puzzling observations: Scientism – what an odd thing! Back in the 1960s and 1970s you would have become a Hippie. You would have detested the sciences as part of the capitalist complex. Star Trek broke with that vision, but not entirely: Mankind, so the prediction, still had to run into a devastating Third World War before it could understand what science had to offer. We have somehow jumped from the imminent catastrophe of the cold war era into this new glorious future – not completely though. We are still discussing climate change and the global deforestation. But the map of alliances is no longer the same. Science is now the partner of the liberal progressive left, and the industrial complex is now financing the “War on Science” with studies that deny climate change. The religious right promotes creationism, yet, they have now buried their previous plan to preserve God’s creation. The anti-intellectual tea party is uniting its forces against a conspiracy of gays, science, the US-American democrats, and the New Atheist movement. How could this new map of division lines develop?

And what exactly is the position of the New Atheist movement on this map? Star Trek is in high esteem throughout this community. Did Roddenberry set the trend? And what happened to all the traditions in this transition? New Atheists will still defend logic, but logical positivism is dead as it can be. New Atheists will advocate gay rights – yet Foucault is strangely missing in their hall of fame.

My Swedish companions laughed: Imagine they would read Wittgenstein and Foucault! They would begin to deconstruct their own agenda!

Does this movement fear its own disintegration? Or is it on its way to the first US-American president who will “come out of the closet” as a confessing atheist. This “closet”… Nazis and Communists have been running in and out of this closet in Germany for half a century. So many people have come out of it with no better intention than to stand on the right side that it should need an archaeologist to reconstruct it in our country. Things are different in the US though, but similar in Sweden. Let us assume that the present movement is not too stupid to read Wittgenstein and Foucault. Let us assume that they simply do not want to deconstruct positions – not their own positions nor the positions of their opponents. Confrontations like the Bill Nye–Ken Ham debate did not aim at a defeat of the opponent. The participants remained on their fields; they stated their opposing views and gathered their followers in their battle. We are observing here win/win-situations more than anything else.

This was my consideration on my way back to home: It makes sense to study this broader movement in the wider framework of religious studies. Richard Dawkins’ God Delusion or Jerry A. Coyne’s new Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible are not exactly philosophical books. These are books in a tradition of critical theologians. The groups and their practices are indeed more interesting to explore than the key texts. It is their specific organisational structure and the clientele the structure can attract that makes you feel at home or trapped. One has to define these groups on the wider (usually national) intellectual landscapes, which they colonise. And one has to consider alternatives on these maps: German atheists – you may find them in Amnesty International rather than anywhere else – somewhere where they can follow their political views and handle their personal perspectives as what he hold dearest: their entirely personal affairs. Johannes Quack spoke against the simple equation that turns nonreligion into just another religion. The more complex view might be then an integrative view that covers the potential win/win situations of stable confrontations (you study in this case New Atheism in direct interaction with US-Evangelical movements). An equilibrium of confrontations is the easy option here – too easy since these confrontations are extremely unstable. It will be more difficult still to speak of nonreligion in the depolarised broadly irreligious society (if “irreligious” is the term we should use for countries like Germany and Japan).

One Reply to “Nonreligion at the #IAHR2015 – the Mega-Event of International Religious Studies”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Before you submit form:
Human test by Not Captcha

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.