Jun 14, 2011

What is a secular act?

Thomas Tweed's definition of religion, in a talk he gave at Heidelberg today, arguing for his "translocative method"* of religious studies:
"Religions -- note that that's plural, religions -- are confluences of organic-cultural flows that intensify joy and confront suffering by drawing on human and suprahuman forces to make homes and cross boundaries."
The question, for me, following from this definition, is what would a secular or non-religious act be?

Tweed says there's a continuum of religious to secular, with those terms as poles on either end, and that something can be marked as religious when it a) has some suprahuman element that can be appealed to and/or used, and b) "imagines an ultimate human horizon of human life" such as heaven, nirvana, etc.

According to Tweed, certain sorts of Marxist politics, e.g., Maoism, are thus religious. Something like "healing meditation" done in a hospital (which he called a secular space) would also be religious, but closer to the center of the continuum than, say, meditation in a Hindu temple.

I questioned him about a definition of secular or non-religious "confluences of organic-cultural flows." Tweed kind of didn't have one. There are "less religious" activities in culture, though. Asked for an example, Tweed mentioned certain types of exercie fads and sports fans, which he said were not "religious" according to his definition in that they didn't propose to imagine an "ultimate horizon."

Pushed to define that -- since, after all, sports fans often do imagine a sort of ultimate horizon with team victories, etc., and exercise fads often do this as well, promising a kind of transcendence or new life -- he said, "well, as opposed to not ultimate," but then specified that they don't, in his estimation, approach questions of "ontological shock," i.e., why am I here, what is the meaning of life, etc.

He backed away from his exercise and sports examples, and proposed, alternatively, the pursuit of hook-ups in bars ("do they have that word in German? Hook-up? Anyway, having sex with people in bars ..."), or dueling, as, sans-definition, examples of non-religious activities.

Since both dueling and recreation sex seem to me to be ways of "confronting suffering" and "intensifying joy" and can be understood to involve and "ultimate horizon," and also, possibly, suprahuman forces (e.g. the power of music, for bar hook-ups, or "bravery" for duels), I pushed him on this as well.

My question: In principle, is there any kind of human activity that couldn't be understood by the person doing it as religious in your sense, with an ultimate horizon?

His answer: Not in principle, no. Any human activity could be religious. But things are more or less religious ...

I think -- this is only a guess -- that "suprahuman forces" was maybe meant, at some point, to separate the religious from the non-religious, but since those are not necessarily gods or otherworldly forces, it doesn't really draw a strong line. Likewise, "ultimate horizon" was maybe supposed to do this dividing work, but since there can be political ultimate horizons, one starts to see all kinds of possible such ends imaginable for human activities.

When Martha Nussbaum was trying to articulate an action that could be "non-religious" (and thus, for her purposes, not an act of conscience, and not protected by freedom of conscience), she proposed a teenagers clothes as a necessarily non-religious act**. Tweed agreed with me that this wasn't the case (i.e., that it is not necessarily non-religious, is not an act that's secular par excellance, not immune, as it were, from being an answer to "ontological shock" sorts of questions).

He proposed (as I understood it), that while such an act of choosing what to wear could be secular, it was not necessarily so. His example: tattoos. Presumably, this ultimately leaves the question of whether something is or is not religious up to the people doing such things -- clothes, tattoos etc. are appeals to "suprahuman forces" and "imagine ultimate horizons" which "intensify joy" and "confront suffering" when they are that for the wearers, and not when they're not for the wearers. Not that it's entirely personal. Perhaps it should be understood more as the making of meaning, i.e., dying one's hair can be a semiotically laden action in certain contexts, the production of which one is involved in, but also not totally in control of (as the signs must be readable/read, the author cannot fix the meanings and so on).

So, I said, there's no human activity -- "confluences of organic-cultural flows," etc. -- that can be walled off from the religious? That can be understood as always being or necessarily being non-religious?

He agreed.

I'm not sure where that leaves us. If anything can be religious, or, to say it another way, can be done religiously, then the whole thing starts to blur and gets really nebulous. At best, non-religious actions seem to end up being those actions which are not important to those who do them, activities that aren't laden (implicitly or explicitly) with a "something more."

I don't find any particularly urgent need for a definition of religion, so that doesn't bother me. But, I am trying to think through secularity, secularism, pluralism, etc., so, for me, the trouble someone like Tom Tweed has in articulating the non-religious is quite interesting.

My suspicion and intuition -- and this is exactly what I'm trying to think through, so there might be good reason to be suspicious of my suspicion -- is that this definition of religion isn't actually precluding secularism, though, but, rather "religion" has come to be understood as something that happens within the context of secularity. That secularism isn't, in such formulations, the opposite of religion, the alternative pole at the other end of the continuum, but the context, the frame, the environment in which religion is religion.

Secularism is, in a way, not that which someone does, but the condition in which religions or religiousnesses dwell.

Perhaps I'm missing something, though. I'm still working with this. The question that seems useful to me, though, is not, what is religion? or what actions are religious? but:

1) Given Tweed's definition of religions, what human activity is by definition secular/not religious?
2) Given Tweed's definition of religions, is there anything humans can do that is meaningful to them or important to them that is not, by definition, religious?

*What I'm describing here is not his method, per se, but his definition of religions. His method does extensively inform his definition, though, and his method involves this definition, how crucial the one is to the other, though, I can't say. Both involve flowing water metaphors, which seem to be necessary for him.

**Academically, of course, the question of a definition has to do with the shape of the field of religious studies, and is, basically, the question of what it is, exactly, we're studying. In public policy in America, though, there's some actual teeth to the question. If Georgia Bulldogs is a religion, and "free exercise" of religion is guaranteed, must a fan(atic) be allowed a day off work for a game?