Event Report: Alternative visions of the public sphere: reflections on the FaithXchange Annual Conference


Fernande Pool attended the FaithXchange Annual Conference held at Goldsmiths, University of London. In this report, she reflects on three papers, each engages with the public sphere and secularism from empirical, methodological and theoretical perspectives respectively.

On the 5th of February 2016, FaithXchange organised its Third Annual Conference, titled Alternative Visions in the Public Sphere at Goldsmiths, University of London. The papers presented at this conference offered a wide variety of alternative visions, from Native Faith in Catholic Poland and Pentecostalism in Post-Apartheid South Africa to witchcraft and political cartoons in the UK. Alongside these alternative visions, the conference included three papers with themes of particular pertinence to the readers of this blog, on which I reflect in this report.

Katie Aston, one of the keynotes, presented a paper titled Good without God: British Humanism in the public sphere, which draws on her ethnographic research with the humanist population in the UK. Aston first discusses the key characteristics of the British Humanist Association (BHA) and humanist life cycle rituals. She then moved on to an analytical discussion of the place of humanism in the public sphere. Aston argued that humanism is not only nonreligious but also nonsecular, ‘betwixt and between the religious and the secular’: humanists appeal to a sense of spirituality and sacred values normally associated with religion but reject religious belief, dogma, and institutions. Humanism is committed to liberal values but criticises hard secular categories and the depersonalised form that secular, bureaucratised rituals tend to take.

The humanist vision of the public sphere is an implicit critique of commonplace assumptions of the place of religion and secularity in the public sphere, and highlights some of the key problems associated with these assumptions. Humanists consider morality to be wrongly associated with religion, which I interpret to be a critique of what Keane (2007) has called the ‘moral narrative of modernity’. In this narrative religion is a separated, private sphere of life, but simultaneously morality is the special concern of religion. It follows that secular spheres of life either lack morality, or rely on a religious source of morality. Aston’s discussion of humanism raises a number of highly relevant questions that this narrative leaves open-ended: what could be a nonreligious and non-dogmatic source of morality? How can morality be disconnected from traditional religious institutions? Is secularity devoid of morality? How can one be nonreligious without being reduced to ‘just flesh and bones’ (in Aston’s words)?

In my understanding of Aston’s analysis, humanism attempts to embody a pragmatic answer to these questions, but remains in a somewhat awkward position in the UK public sphere as the hegemonic vision operates according to the ‘moral narrative of modernity’.

Another vision on how the boundaries between the secular and the religious are or could be blurred came from Tim Stacey who presented a paper titled Including alternative visions in the public sphere: from post-secular “atheism” to the methodological suspension of disbelief. Stacey’s key question is how to achieve inclusive, shared ideas of the common good in a religiously plural society and revive a sense of public duty and solidarity. He draws on ethnographic research among both religious and secular civil activist groups in London.

Firstly, Stacey argued that enthusiastic appropriators of Habermas’ understanding of the term post-secular as allowing for a radical re-imagination of the role of religion in the public sphere, overlook or fail to engage with the methodological atheism that carries over from his early work into his work on the post-secular. This methodological atheism, Stacey argued, views everything through a rationalist lens that hampers the acceptance and appreciation of religion in the public sphere.

Stacey then offered an alternative methodology that would be more inclusive of both nonreligious and religious visions of the public sphere, which he calls the ‘methodological suspension of disbelief’.  Stacey demonstrated how certain activist groups are capable of imaginatively reflecting on shared values and beliefs both between religions, and between the religious and nonreligious. The groups can be cohesive and powerful because they are able to suspend their disbelief in the validity of beliefs other than their own, and as such are able to overcome differences and conjure creative and alternative visions that challenge the state and the market.

The paper raised a number of interesting questions. First of all, what are the beliefs and faiths of nonreligious people? Are these fundamentally different from religious beliefs and faiths? Indeed, Stacey’s paper questions whether there is an ontological difference between the propositional belief in the absolute good as embodied in God, and the ways in which nonreligious people may hold faith with an ideal of the good, perhaps as embodied by historical figures.

Second, Stacey’s critique of the post-secular as still being based on hegemonic Enlightenment ideals of rationality is worth exploring, as is his suggestion that this hegemony may be challenged by a suspension of disbelief and as such revive a sense of solidarity among and between religious and nonreligious people. Reflecting back on Aston’s research, perhaps the suspension of disbelief could enhance the awareness of the content of a nonreligious or secular morality. The question remains: could we truly imagine secularity as an ideal that is able to include all these visions, and that can operate ‘as if’ the various visions are equally true?

The third paper I discuss is by Joshua Duclos. His paper, Let the right ones in: religious and the public sphere, questions whether religious reason should or should not be allowed in the public sphere of a liberal democratic society. This in turn warrants the question: is religious reason fundamentally different from public reason (reasons that we accept and that we can reasonably expect others to accept)?

Duclos first discusses various theoretical approaches to the ‘problem’ of religious reason. Most prominent is Rawls’ ‘standard approach’: religious reason is not publicly accessible and should therefore undergo a secular translation. In contrast its (mostly religious) opponents argue that such a demand goes against liberal democratic principles, and that the assertion of the public inaccessibility of religious reason is incorrect. Habermas offers a revised version of the standard approach, mediating between Rawls and its critics, which according to Duclos insufficiently addresses the key problem, namely the (in)accessibility of religious reason.

Duclos argued that the accessibility of reason does not depend on its religious or secular nature, but on the acceptability of the basic premises. Religious reasons are often thought to be based on basic premises that need to be accepted first, but that are not acceptable for a large number of people. However, Duclos’ demonstrates that secular reasons may at times be very inaccessible, for example when environmentalists arguments are based on premises that are either complex or unverifiable.

Duclos’ paper again raised a number of questions that beg our attention. If Duclos is correct and religious and secular reasons may be equally accessible and equally inaccessible, why do we tend to assume that secular reasons are more accessible and more acceptable than religious reasons? If we link this to Stacey’s research, do we tend to suspend our disbelief more readily when confronted with inaccessible secular reasons than with inaccessible religious reasons? And finally, does the contemporary, post-secular plural society require us to go beyond Habermas, in order to imagine a deliberative democracy in which citizens engage in public reason that may equally be of a religious and of a secular nature?

I end this report with a lot of open question that deserve our attention. In my view, the most pressing point that Alternative Visions foregrounds is the necessity to reconsider the hegemonic position of the secular as opposed to the religious, and the boundaries between the religious and the secular.


Keane, Webb. 2007. Christian moderns: Freedom and fetish in the mission encounter. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Fernande Pool aims to destabilise hegemonic conceptualisations of ‘religion’ and ‘secularism’ through ethnographic research. She has recently obtained her PhD degree at the Anthropology Department at the London School of Economics and Political Sciences (LSE). The PhD thesis explores the ethical life of Muslims in West Bengal, India. In particular, it explores the everyday experiences and vernacular meanings of secularism in relation to contemporary transformations in Islamic belief and practice. In subsequent research, Fernande aims to further explore the nature of ethical and religious life, and alternative experiences and meanings of secularism, both in South Asia and beyond.

She has recently joined the FaithXchange Research Network as a coordinator. For more information, visit her Academia.edu page.




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