“It was inevitable,” writes William Johnsen in the inaugural issue of English Language Notes (Summer 2006), “that the shame associated with admitting religious belief in the secular world of the human sciences in midcentury would prepare the ground for the great succès de scandale of religious (re)turn at the end of the century.” In other words, some of us may need to click refresh on our stereotype of academia. I’ve written about this phenomenon here before, and about the graying of critical theory at my home address . One consequence of the shift is that new phenomena are now subject to the scrutiny to which religion has long been exposed. You could call it the anthropology of secularism, which is being exemplified by Catholics ( Charles Taylor ), Muslims ( Talal Asad ), Evangelicals ( Hunter Baker ), and—perhaps most interestingly—people of no faith commitment at all ( Fenella Cannell ).

For further evidence of what is widely called the academy’s “religious turn,” consider this call for papers for an upcoming conference entitled Empowerment and the Sacred :

Discussing international responses to the ‘resurgence of religion’ in our time, Talal Asad has argued: ‘If anything is agreed upon, it is that a straightforward narrative of progress from the religious to the secular is no longer acceptable’ (Asad, 2006). In the ‘straightforward narratives’ of which Asad talks – and in Enlightenment discourses of ‘reason’, ‘progress’ and ‘modernity’ more generally - religion, spirituality and the sacred have customarily been pitted against empowerment and emancipation, in political, cultural and intellectual terms. At this present historical juncture, then - when the secularist orientation of global futures is increasingly being called into question - a vital need presents itself for cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary debate about the role that the sacred has, does and can play in our understanding of the possibilities of personal and collective agency, power and change.

This conference will bring together scholars, professionals and arts-practitioners to investigate the ways in which sacred traditions -in diverse cultural and historical contexts - have shaped discourses, practices and narratives of empowerment, emancipation, social change, resistance and survival. We ask: How do different sacred discourses and practices frame and/or extend the possibilities of agency - socially, spiritually, imaginatively and corporeally? . . . Where sacred traditions have challenged the limits of secular reason, what alternatives have they suggested for cognition, representation, and even rationality? And how have they ‘empowered’ different artistic practices? . . . Do sacred traditions themselves provide the premises for imaginations of cross-cultural and inter-faith community that differ from secular multiculturalism?


Post-Marxist, post-secular and (of course) post-postmodern: Welcome to the academy in the twenty-first century. I’m aware that the religious turn comes with its own host of problems, among them being the believer’s temptation to ressentiment (see James Davison Hunter for more on that). But we can at least take notice of this welcome reversal, which might even disseminate some holid . . . I mean Christmas cheer.

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