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Posts Tagged ‘secularism’

I’ve just come across this phrase ‘non-religion’ as an academic term.

The two concepts of nonreligion and secularity are intended to summarise all positions which are necessarily defined in reference to religion but which are considered to be other than religious. Thus, the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network’s research agenda is inclusive of a range of perspectives and experiences, including the atheistic, agnostic, religiously indifferent or areligious, as well as most forms of secularism, humanism and, indeed, aspects of religion itself. It also addresses theoretical and empirical relationships between nonreligion, religion and secularity.

There is a new website to coordinate research in this area.

The Non-religion and Secularity Research Network (NSRN) is an international and interdisciplinary network of researchers; the network was founded in 2008 to centralise existing research on the topic of non-religion and secularity and to facilitate discussion in this area.

This website – launched in December 2011 – is our new home on the internet. To find out more about the changes to the site, please have a look around, or see the ‘About Us’ section for more information. Meanwhile, we hope you enjoy the site and welcome your feedback and suggestions for additions and improvements.

See what you think. I like the inconsistent use of the hyphen; as if there is an unresolved philosophical/sociological debate here.

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I was at the Catholic Theological Association last week; I managed to get there for one day of their annual conference. Frank Turner SJ gave a fascinating talk about Europe, the Church, faith etc; and in particular about how those involved in the European Union view religion today. Turner works at the Jesuit European Office in Brussels, so he has quite an insight into the mindset of the politicians, bureaucrats and policy-makers who move in those circles.

What he said was encouraging. In his view, there is a cautious openness to religion on the part of many opinion-formers in the EU, and secularism as an ideological force intent on driving religion from the public sphere is much weaker than it might have been in the past. He senses that the cultural wind has been shifting for the past few years.

Why? Turner gave three reasons. The first is not new, but perhaps its significance has increased with the historical perspective: the atheist ideologies of the twentieth century have not aquitted themselves well in terms of promoting a civilised European culture or a proper context for human flourishing. Second, Islam has become a much more significant factor for European identity on so many levels. And third, the influx into the EU over the last decade of so many countries from central and eastern Europe has shifted the balance of religious sensibilities, not just because many have an explicitly Catholic heritage, but also because at the political level they bring quite different conceptions of Church-State relations from those found, for example, in France.

So things are changing, subtly; even though it’s not yet clear what kind of relationship the European ‘project’ will have with religion in general, and with the Catholic Church in particular.

I didn’t know much about the Jesuit European Office before. Here is some blurb from the website:

The Jesuit European Office – OCIPE
Those in the Ignatian tradition have always inserted themselves in different societies and cultures. The Jesuit European Office, OCIPE, was founded in 1956, at the request of Monseigneur Weber, the Archbishop of Strasbourg. In 2006 OCIPE is present in Brussels, Budapest and Warsaw, with an antenna in Strasbourg.

OCIPE’s Vision
OCIPE seeks to accompany the construction of Europe: in serving its personnel in their professional and spiritual discernment, in sustaining critical reflection from the perspective of Christian faith on European values and responsibilities, and in promoting Europe’s solidarity internally and with the wider world.

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If, despite the Resurrection, you still need a boost, try these ‘Ten keys to happier living’ from the Action for Happiness campaign.

It’s easy to mock this kind of project (as banal, twee, patronising, ineffective, etc) and I don’t know what effect it will actually have – perhaps about as much as those posters on the buses that tell you not to eat smelly food or play loud music – but as you know I’m a sucker for these self-help summaries, and I like the fact that it’s an attempt to question why the materials gains we have made in the West over the last two generations have not increased our happiness.

It’s happiness as self-fulfilment by not seeking self-fulfilment; self-help by not seeking to help the self but by looking beyond the self; happiness as something that stems from your subjective approach to your situation and not just from the objective facts about the situation into which you are unwillingly thrust. Lots of truth here; together with the risk of Pelagianism – salvation by personal striving.

Take a look at the accompanying video: 

Here is their understanding of happiness:

We all want to live happy and fulfilling lives and we want the people we love to be happy too. So happiness matters to all of us.

Happiness is about our lives as a whole: it includes the fluctuating feelings we experience everyday but also our overall satisfaction with life. It is influenced by our genes, upbringing and our external circumstances – such as our health, our work and our financial situation. But crucially it is also heavily influenced by our choices – our inner attitudes, how we approach our relationships, our personal values and our sense of purpose.

There are many things in life that matter to us – including health, freedom, autonomy and achievement. But if we ask why they matter we can generally give further answers – for example, that they make people feel better or more able to enjoy their lives. But if we ask why it matters if people feel better, we can give no further answer. It is self-evidently desirable. Our overall happiness – how we feel about our lives – is what matters to us most.

In recent years there have been substantial advances in the science of well-being with a vast array of new evidence as to the factors that affect happiness and ways in which we can measure happiness more accurately. We now have an opportunity to use this evidence to make better choices and to increase well-being in our personal lives, homes, schools, workplaces and communities.

The research shows that we need a change of priorities, both at the societal level and as individuals. Happiness and fulfilment come less from material wealth and more from relationships; less from focussing on ourselves and more from helping others; less from external factors outside our control and more from the way in which we choose to react to what happens to us.

See our Recommended Reading list for useful books which summarise some of the recent scientific findings in an accessible way.

And here is the motivation of the movement:

Action for Happiness is a movement of people committed to building a happier society. We want to see a fundamentally different way of life where people care less about what they can get for themselves and more about the happiness of others.

We are bringing together like-minded people from all walks of life, drawing on the latest scientific research and backed by leading experts from the fields of psychology, education, economics, social innovation and beyond.

Members of the movement make a simple pledge: to try to create more happiness in the world around them through the way they approach their lives. We provide practical ideas to enable people to take action in different areas of their lives – at home, at work or in the community. We hope many of our members will form local groups to take action together.

We have no religious, political or commercial affiliations and welcome people of all faiths (or none) and all parts of society. We were founded in 2010 by three influential figures who are passionate about creating a happier society: Richard Layard, Geoff Mulgan and Anthony Seldon.

What do you think? The last part of the ‘scientifically proven’ wish-list is especially interesting: ‘Meaning: Be part of something bigger’. Does it matter what that something is? Or whether it is true?

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It’s the second year that the Wintershall team has staged the Passion of Jesus in Trafalgar Square on Good Friday. Last year I posted about how powerful it was to see this religious drama unfolding in the secular spaces of central London – the pigeons, the buses, Nelson’s Column towering above, Big Ben in the distance, and the narrative punctuated by the scream of police sirens every few minutes. This is exactly what Jerusalem must have been like in the madness of Holy Week two thousand years ago. Well, take out Nelson and the buses and Big Ben and the sirens…

The play was even better than last year. It wasn’t just the glorious weather – although that certainly helped; or the screen – which made a huge difference. It felt tighter, more focussed. I don’t know if the script had been changed, or if it was just because the staging area seemed more restricted, or because it was the second year.

One or two moments stood out for me. First, when Simon of Cyrene was pulled out of the crowd by the soldiers to carry Jesus’s cross (just like last year) his wife raced after him – I presume it was his wife, sitting beside him in the audience. Or maybe I just missed this last year.

She was terrified that her husband was being dragged into the violence and mayhem of the Jerusalem/London streets – which he was. She circled round the edge of the crowd, desperate to help her husband and spare him this ordeal, not knowing where it would end, terrified that he might be crucified himself if he arrived at the place of execution with the cross on his shoulders. It was a lovely touch.

It reminded me that Simon of Cyrene – and all the others involved – are not just ‘characters’ who exist in some kind of suspended biblical animation, they are people with relatives and friends and colleagues and neighbours. It made me think of the relatives of all those who have even been kidnapped, tortured, murdered and forgotten – those who perhaps live with the agony far longer than those who perpetuate the crime and even those who suffer it. The Gospel narrative is so much more than the people who are actually mentioned by name.

The second moment was unintentional. When Jesus first appeared after his resurrection, and spoke to Mary Magdalene, the audience started clapping! It was so not appropriate – it completely broke the dramatic spell – but at another level it was so beautiful, and so British! Jesus appears; the Son of God comes among us in all his glory; the Risen Saviour is in our midst. We’ve got to do something! We’d like to scream or weep or fall flat on our faces in worship and adoration. But we’re British, and we don’t do these things in public, and the only visible display of approval or mild emotion we are able to make around strangers is to clap, politely, as if we are applauding a boundary at Lord’s or a dull after-dinner speech. It was marvellous. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead – and we clapped!

Last year I wrote about Jesus’s exit at the end of the play:

And right at the end, after the Resurrection, Jesus stepped through the crowd in his white garments as the audience was applauding. He didn’t take a bow. He walked up towards the National Gallery, across the top of Leicester Square, and into the streets beyond. I followed him, while the post-production congratulations were taking place in the square behind us.

That image of Jesus turning the corner into Charing Cross Road is what made the whole play for me: the figure of Christ, walking into the madness of London; without the protection of a director, a cast, a script, an appreciative audience; fading into the blur of billboards and buses and taxis; an unknown man walking into the crowd…

This year, a similar thing happened, but because of the weather the crowd was thicker and in no mood to let Jesus go. When he got to the top of the steps in front of the National Gallery, as Archbishop Vincent was saying thank you to the organisers, dozens of people crowded round him – just happy to see him close up.

And what did they want? Photos! So there was Jesus, smiling for the cameras – holding a child who had been lifted up for him; then with his arms around some friends as they peered into the lens; then standing in the middle of a large group for the camera. He was happy and obliging; in no rush; with a huge grin on his face. Obviously enjoying the people, and enjoying their joy in meeting him.

At first I thought: the play is over, the spell is broken, and the actor is quite rightly taking his bow. But then I thought: No, this is still very real. If Jesus were walking through Trafalgar Square today, would we be taking photos? Of course we would! Or put it the other way round, if people had had cameras back then, ordinary people who loved him and were delighted to catch a glimpse of him, would Jesus have marched away with a frown on his face, telling them to take life more seriously and to let go of these worldly gadgets? I don’t think so. He was, above all, kind. He met people where they were. He loved the ordinary and sometimes stupid things that they loved – as long as they were without sin. He would have stopped for photos.

Seeing this actor smile for the cameras – a warm, genuine, affectionate smile – didn’t create any disjunction in my mind with the Jesus he had just been playing. Quite the opposite – it helped me realise something about the kindness and humanity of this Jesus, and made me wonder even more about what it would be like if he were to walk the streets today.

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The focus of inter-faith concern, at least for Catholics, has shifted from Judaism to Islam over the last decade. This is the observation made by John Allen in a recent article.

The Ortaköy mosque, Istanbul (I managed to find a beautiful mosque beside a glorious suspension bridge!)

 

It doesn’t mean that the relationship between Catholics and Jews is less important. Islam, however, is where the bulk of the Church’s time and energy is being invested. Why? Allen gives four reasons.

First is simple arithmetic. There are 1.6 billion Muslims and 2.3 billion Christians in the world, which adds up to 55 percent of the human population. For good or ill, the relationship is destined to be a driver of global history.

Second, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and subsequent outbreaks of Muslim radicalism such as the assault on Our Lady of Salvation, have made Islam a burning preoccupation for the entire world.

Third, Pope Benedict XVI’s speech at Regensburg, Germany, in September 2006 unleashed massive new energies in Catholic/Muslim relations. The speech triggered a firestorm in the Islamic world […], yet it also galvanized thoughtful voices on both sides of the relationship — most notably, it produced “A Common Word,” an initiative of 138 Muslim scholars, representing all the schools of Islam, acting together for the first time to outline common ground between Christians and Muslims.

Fourth, the demographic transition in Catholicism from the West to the Southern hemisphere is producing a new generation of leaders from Africa, Asia and Latin America, where Judaism generally does not have a large sociological footprint. This Southern cohort didn’t live through the Holocaust, and they generally don’t feel historical responsibility for it — seeing it as a Western, not a Christian, atrocity. Relations with Islam, however, are a front-burner priority, since many of these southern Catholics live cheek by jowl with large Muslim communities.

Allen goes on to reflect on four implications of this shift to Islam. One of them is particularly interesting for us in Britain after the Papal visit, where Pope Benedict was sometimes wrongly perceived to be against all forms of secularity and pluralism. It’s aggressive secularism that he is against, and not the idea of a secular society. What does that mean? Here is Allen’s analysis:

During Benedict XVI’s Sept. 2008 trip to France, he endorsed what French President Nicolas Sarkozy has dubbed “positive laïcité” — a French term for which there is no exact English equivalent, though the usual translation is “secularism.” The basic idea is that religious freedom and church/state separation are positive things, as long as they mean freedom for, rather than freedom from, religion.

The emergence of Islam as the church’s central interfaith preoccupation has turbo-charged support for “healthy secularism.”

Proof can be found in the Middle East. Squeezed between two religiously defined behemoths, Israel and the Muslim states which surround it, the tiny Christian minority has no future if fundamentalism prevails. Their dream is to lead a democratic revolution in the region. That outlook reflects a basic law of religious life: secularism always looks better to minorities who would be the big losers in a theocracy.

Momentum towards healthy secularism in Catholic thought has implications well beyond the Middle East.

In both Europe and the States these days, there’s considerable debate about the political role of the church. Critics, including many Catholics, sometimes argue that bishops are “too political.” Americans, for instance, are still chewing over the role the U.S. bishops played in the health care reform debate.

If there is a force in Catholicism capable of balancing the scales, it’s likely to be the relationship with Islam, and the perceived need on the Catholic side to offer a credible model of the separation of religion and politics. That points to a keen irony: The specter of shariah might do more to give Catholic leaders pause about blurring church/state lines than a whole legion of liberal Western theologians.

I like that distinction between a secular political space that gives freedom for religion and one which demands a freedom from religion.

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I went to a debate last week at the main Foyles bookshop in Charing Cross Road. The topic was ‘secularism’ and its many meanings, in the light of recent controversies about faith schools, aggressive atheists, anti-burqa legislation in France, and of course the state visit of Pope Benedict to the UK.

I don’t want to summarise the content of the discussion here (good though it was), just to comment on how well the evening worked. It was a genuine debate. Eight people sitting round a table having their say. Chaired in a way that allowed the conversation to flow, and move in unexpected directions. Plenty of time to hear from the floor. People not afraid to speak their mind, or admit that their mind was not yet fully formed; people prepared to say something uncertain or unsettling.

There were no votes; no winners or losers. Everyone, I think, came a way a little more enlightened. It reassured me that public debate about controversial issues is still possible, and that there are people willing to argue and to listen.

The debate was organised by the Institute of Ideas. Their big ‘Battle of Ideas‘ weekend is coming up on 30-31 October. Take a look at the amazing selection of topics up for discussion that weekend, in a single venue. This video is from the run up to last year’s Battle of Ideas.

Claire Fox, the director of the Institute, explains the vision here:

The Battle of Ideas festival, now in its sixth year, is very much about a PUBLIC conversation. Since its inception ten years ago, the Institute of Ideas (IoI) has sought to interrogate orthodoxies and debate the challenges facing society, and to make these things public activities. We put an emphasis on audience participation, and the festival is open to anyone with intellectual curiosity and the courage to think critically.

This public orientation may not seem so unusual these days. The rhetoric of public engagement is all pervasive. In politics, much is made of maximising the public’s involvement: ‘People Power’ is the slogan of the UK’s Big Society. Everywhere from science to the arts, participation and crowd sourcing are buzzwords. At the IoI, though, we are sceptical about this flattering rhetoric. Many initiatives look like paper exercises in connecting to an imaginary public. When confronted with the real thing, too often our leaders recoil in horror. When the last Prime minister expressed his contempt for ‘that woman’ in the infamous Bigotgate incident, he gave a glimpse of what those who run society really feel about ordinary people. How dare we offend today’s politically correct etiquette or ask awkward questions?

The rise of an illiberal liberalism silences genuine public challenges to received wisdom. One arena where this intolerance of unfashionable ideas is clearly expressed is in discussions about religion and how secular society should accommodate it, or not. We will tackle these topics head-on at the festival. As the name suggests, the Battle of Ideas is not afraid of dissenting opinions and encourages people to speak their minds and battle over difficult issues. The festival’s motto is FREE SPEECH ALLOWED.

What faux engagement initiatives lack is any content to inspire and engage the public’s minds and passions. Historically, what has moved millions to act upon the world and change things for the better has been big ideas, such as freedom, progress, civilisation and democracy. Today we are offered the thin gruel of ‘evidence-based policy’. When we are told that scientific research demands particular courses of action, ever increasing areas of politics are ruled out-of-bounds for democratic debate; ideas and morality are sidelined by facts and statistics. In contrast, the Battle of Ideas is a public square within which we can explore the crisis of values, and start to give human meaning to trends too often presented fatalistically and technically.

Despite the fashion for ‘localism’, we need to expand our gaze beyond our own back yards. With this in mind, on the IoI’s tenth anniversary, we are launching the Battle of Ideas as an international project. We have a series of Battle Satellite debates in India, the US and Europe, and have invited as many international speakers as resources have allowed. We not only look abroad for intellectual renewal, but also to the past. In a strand of debates on history, we assess whether we can make the best that has been thought and known a source of future inspiration; standing on the shoulders of giants and reinvigorating their ideas for a new era.

One such idea worth rescuing is the ancient Greeks’ notion that ‘Man is the measure of all things’. Today, such humanistic thinking is under threat, from those who warn that human-centredness is no more than hubris, that man’s ambitions are destructive, that we cannot trust politicians, bankers, cricketers, even each other or ourselves. Sessions will explore what these ideas mean for our attitude to human life or for our ambitions to engineer our future and use the huge gains of science, technology and biomedicine to solve problems associated with ageing, with the economy or even natural disasters. Is man guilty of playing God? Or would any lessening of our aspirations mean simply accepting our fate? We welcome attendees who are free thinkers, who have verve, passion and idealism, and a dose of irreverent scepticism; who believe mankind has a future worth fighting for. LET BATTLE COMMENCE!

It’s pretty expensive, but I hope to go for as much of the weekend as possible. Maybe we can set up a ‘Bridges and Tangents’ stall or poster-board!

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It often seems that Christians in general (and the Catholic Church in particular) are locked in a perpetual battle with the secular media. The Church thinks the media is out to get it; and the media assumes that the Church has nothing credible to say to the contemporary culture. That’s the way the story is told.

I was at Worth Abbey last weekend, helping with a retreat for members of Catholic Voices. The whole project is built on the idea that the media can be a force for good in society, and that Catholics need to engage with the media more and not less.

Take a look at the promotional video here:

You can read a recent article here about Catholic Voices from the National Catholic Register.

And here are some words of explanation from their website. I especially like the quote from Cardinal Newman:

What’s the idea?

To train 20-25 Catholics in the art of speaking about their faith in the quick-fire settings of media interviews and public debates.

Where does the idea come from?

Catholic Voices has three main sources of inspiration:

1.      A recognition of the need for articulate, reasoned and committed Catholics to be present in the media, especially during the papal visit when the Church will be placed under the spotlight.

2.      Cardinal Newman’s call for “a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men [and women] who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it.”

3.      Pope Benedict XVI’s 1 February call, in his address to the English and Welsh bishops in Rome, for Catholics in the UK to “insist upon your right to participate in national debate through respectful dialogue with other elements in society” and for “great writers and communicators” to follow the example of Cardinal Newman in courageously communicating their faith.

A kind of Catholic Evidence Guild?

Yes, in the apologetic tradition – understanding your faith and the teaching of the Church, and learning how to express these clearly, succinctly, and reasonably. But CATHOLIC VOICES is different from the old model in that it is geared to the demands of the modern media.

So why the special training?

Partly the training is in media skills. Many people simply aren’t familiar with the idiom and the methods of modern TV and radio. That lack of familiarity can make even the most articulate Catholics defensive or simply ineffective. CATHOLIC VOICES will show how you can be open, transparent and positive in the media, as long as you are also strategic. Part of that is understanding the role of journalism and the pressures that exist on editors and journalists.

A large part of the training will be on the issues that the media – and society at large – is interested in. Church teaching can often seem abstract, aloof or inhuman; it needs grounding in real human experience. Rather than seminars in church teaching, we’re arranging vigorous dialogues with experts where the hard questions are not skirted but confronted straight on. That allows our team to think through their own positions, and for the co-ordinators to assess which speakers will be best to talk on which topics.

Is this an evangelisation initiative?

We do not see our task as evangelising through the media. We respect the media’s role to probe, question, and hold to account those who have power and influence, as the Church does. In responding to this demand, we are not so much evangelising as clearing the obstacles to evangelisation – presenting, we hope, the true face of the Church to replace the often mythical one portrayed in the media. What’s needed is an attitude of openness and transparency: we respect the media’s role in holding us to account, and we are happy to give an account of ourselves. If that leads to people having a truer view of the Church and the Catholic faith, we’ll have achieved our objectives. We are concerned less with persuading people than with articulating the Church’s positions in a way that is accessible, reasonable and accurate.

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