ASA14: Anthropology and Enlightenment


What is (religious) Enlightenment? Kant, freedom and obedience in religion today

Location Chrystal Macmillan Building, Seminar Room 1
Date and Start Time 22 June, 2014 at 09:00


Jon Bialecki (University of Edinburgh) email
Thomas Boylston (LSE) email
Mail All Convenors


Drawing on Kant's influential 1784 essay "What is Enlightenment", this panel takes Kant's thematic of public freedom and private obedience to ask the ethnographic question: what are the spaces and degrees of freedom and restraint in numerous contemporary religious movements, and what work do they do?

Long Abstract

Immanuel Kant's essay "An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment," (1784) has had an oversized impact. It argued that the then-current moment was not an "Enlightened Age," but rather an "Age of Enlightenment," where human beings were beginning "an exit from self-incurred immaturity." Foucault would later identify this essay as the first moments of a still unfolding and relevant modernist, immanent, and non-teleological ethic of critique

What is striking about Kant's paper is that it argues not for complete intellectual freedom, or even a freedom of conscience in one's private life, but rather for freedom to engage in public debate, in tandem with 'private' obedience, meaning submission to authority in the execution of one's quotidian duties. Just as striking as that while government and medicine are given as examples, Kant spends most of his time thinking through the play of freedom and obedience by reference to religion and clergy.

If Enlightenment is an ethic and not an age, comprised of a play between unfettered thought and corporal submission, in what ways can we speak of 'religious' enlightenment? Conversely, what might it mean for religious institutions to critique enlightenment principles, or to be described by others as anti-enlightenment?

This panel asks this question by investigating spaces and degrees of freedom and restraint in numerous contemporary religious settings. Moving beyond unhelpful oppositions of faith and reason, we ask how institutional authority and free thought are understood from different religious perspectives.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Evangelical childhoods, freedom and modernity

Author: Anna Strhan (University of Kent)  email


This paper examines the formation of children in two evangelical churches in London to address both the norms of autonomy and obedience associated with adults’ hopes for these children, and how these children’s participation within evangelicalism shapes their everyday senses of freedom and agency.

Long Abstract

Conceptualizations of 'childhood', 'education' and 'adulthood' are frequently predicated on emancipatory Enlightenment ideals, in which what it is to be an adult and what it is to be educated are held to entail the development of individual autonomy and self-determination. This has often been perceived as somehow at odds with a desire for submission in religious life, and heated public debates about children's involvement and non-involvement in religion - within educational and other spaces - often invoke fears that 'religion' threatens the developing independence and freedom of the child.

In this paper, I draw on ethnographic fieldwork conducted with two evangelical churches and schools linked with them in London to address experiences of freedom and constraint in the lives of children, in these spaces of church and school and in their everyday London lives. I describe how adults within these churches seek to shape children as religious subjects, and consider both how this desired formation reveals particular norms of submission and freedom, and how these relate to broader cultural desires for autonomy. Through then addressing how children learn to think of particular times and spaces as their 'own', I explore how their participation in evangelicalism shapes their practical senses of freedom and agency, and the extent to which this is bound up with an ethic of obedience.

Mosque hopping around London: changing engagements with Islamic knowledge amongst young Somali Muslim women

Author: Giulia Liberatore (University of Oxford)  email


This paper explores young pious Somali Muslim women’s engagements with Islamic knowledge in London. It investigates how knowledge is acquired and consumed, and explores the mechanisms used to establish, and modes employed to relate to, authoritative knowledge.

Long Abstract

This paper draws on 18 months of fieldwork conducted amongst young pious Somali Muslim women in London to explore the ways in which they "seek" different forms Islamic forms of knowledge. It addresses how knowledge is acquired and consumed, and explores the mechanisms used to establish, and modes employed to relate to, authoritative knowledge. In so doing, it challenges recent work on young Muslims in Europe which argues that a growing objectification, fragmentation, and pluralisation of authorising discourses and institutions is indicative of an increasingly individualised, and hence more European, form of Islam. In contrast, I treat my interlocutors' emphasis on individual choice and autonomy as a mode of subjectification, which intersects, and coexists, with a submission to the Islamic modes of reasoning and structures of authority. Moving beyond the binaries of autonomy vs. submission, I also show how affect is a crucial component of what, for these young women, determines authoritative knowledge. Through an ethnographic discussion of these young women's engagements with a popular Islamic scholar in London, I investigate the ways in which they debate, and seek to establish, the relative importance of reason, choice, affect and submission in assessing the validity and authority of Islamic knowledge.

'Love? Yes, I've known that': dilemmas of mandatory celibacy among Brazilian Catholic priests

Author: Maya Mayblin (University of Edinburgh)  email


The paper explores the meanings of personal freedom and religious obedience in the case of mandatory celibacy among the Catholic clergy of Brazil.

Long Abstract

The paper explores the meanings of personal freedom and religious obedience in the case of mandatory celibacy among the Catholic clergy of Brazil. For centuries Catholic priests have lived at odds with this doctrine. According to established convention, any consensual sexual relationship between a priest and an adult lover constitutes a broken vow to God and a sign of moral failure. However, in light of increasing levels of doctrinal dissent and theological diversification within the Church itself, disobedience of the institutional Church is no longer so readily equated with moral failure, and can even be conceptualized as a kind of strength. Notwithstanding historical shifts in Catholic sensibilities, priests more than anyone continue to negotiate a painful disjuncture between their commitment to the Church and a desire to cultivate themselves as modern, sexually balanced, emotionally healthy men. The paper will examine the case in Brazil, where clerical dissent from celibacy is increasingly dealt with via a type of moral proportionalism fostered within the seminaries themselves.

Freedom to love? Moral sentiments and the Catholic response to gay marriage in France

Author: Nofit Itzhak (University of California San Diego)  email


Based on fieldwork among Catholic humanitarian workers and members of a Charismatic community in France, this paper investigates the interplay of freedom and restraint in the Catholic opposition to gay marriage and its reconciliation with the moral sentiments defining the community’s ethos.

Long Abstract

Recently signed by French president Francois Hollande, the law authorizing marriage and adoption by sex-same couples was met with considerable public opposition, the scope, force, and perseverance of which surprised many, within France and without. While this opposition was mobilized primarily by practicing Catholics, the rhetoric employed by opponents to the law did not rely on theological or explicitly moral argumentation, and of particular note were the frequent references to the question of freedom, specifically the freedom of speech, which opponents to the law felt was denied to them by the state. That one of the most prevalent images used to represent the "manif pour tous" collective opposing gay marriage was a gagged Marianne underscores the prevalence of this sentiment. This paper investigates the interplay of freedom and restraint in relation to the question of gay marriage in the lives, both public and private, of Catholic humanitarian workers and members of a Charismatic community in France. In particular, I examine how the opposition to gay marriage is reconciled with moral sentiments anchored in the community's self-definition in terms of the Charisms of Adoration and Compassion, exposing the interplay of freedom and restraint in multiple public spaces, that of the state, and that of the broader Catholic community itself.

Freedom in obedience: negotiating religious authority among Syrian Christians

Author: Andreas Bandak (University of Copenhagen)  email


Syrian Christians have found themselves in increasingly difficult circumstances as the country has been dragged into civil war over the last years. This paper addresses various conceptions of freedom at play among laity and clergy by pondering whether freedom can be found in submitting to authority.

Long Abstract

What value is liberty to those that don't use it, Isaiah Berlin once pondered. This question of liberty, or freedom, informs part of this paper's engagement with Syrian Christians and their current anxieties. Syrian Christians have found themselves in increasingly difficult circumstances as the country has been dragged into civil war over the last three years. Here freedom could harbour dangers beyond control if it means the fall of the current regime and the victory of islamism.

This paper addresses various conceptions of freedom at play among laity and clergy by pondering whether freedom can be found in submitting to authority. This has often been the way proposed by the great number of Syrian churches - both Orhodox and Catholic - and in an authoritarian setting can be reflected in light of Jesus' way of putting things: give Caesar what belongs to him, and God what belongs to him. However, as Christians find themselves more and more vulnerable, what belongs to God and what belongs to Caesar? And what happens when freedom is sidelined as the least desirable thing to hope for? In times of social upheaval enlightened answers may be difficult to find.

"The clothes don't make the man": religiosity and freedom in Ghana

Author: Girish Daswani (University of Toronto Scarborough)  email


This paper looks at Pentecostalism and Traditional Religion in Ghana as two models of religiosity that are involved in public debates around "freedom" but that work toward different kinds of self-discovery and accountability.

Long Abstract

My paper compares Pentecostalism and Traditional Religion in Ghana with a focus on the public debates around "freedom" that they are involved in. "Freedom" is a concept that circulates within and well-beyond Christian circles in Ghana. In more recent years, certain traditional priests have publicly challenged Pentecostal Christian leaders and their ability to determine the ethical boundaries of "freedom". They have successfully done this through their use of the media technology through their arguments around virtuous conduct and public accountability ("truth-telling"). If Pentecostal Christianity requires a set of rules through which "freedom" is produced, and made accountable to others, Christian pastors and prophets (as well as traditional priests) have to also demonstrate appropriate forms of virtuous behaviour that are valued in Ghanaian society. The increasing inability of Pentecostal leaders to demonstrate "character" has led to criticism from within Christian and non-Christian circles and to a shared engagement on the boundaries of virtuous behaviour and the concomitant limits of Pentecostalism in contemporary Ghana.

Private discipline as public critique: Pentecostal asceticism in a self-proclaimed "Christian nation"

Author: Naomi Haynes (University of Edinburgh)  email


This paper analyzes the relationship between private religious practice, especially ascetic discipline, and political critique among Pentecostal Christians in urban Zambia. I argue that Pentecostal practice produces not only theological debate, but also public engagement with state authority.

Long Abstract

In what is probably the most important study of African Pentecostal Christianity to emerge in the last decade, Ruth Marshall has argued that this religion should be understood first and foremost as a political project. Her argument turns on the centrality of Pentecostal techniques of the self, seen primarily in disciplines like fasting. According to Marshall, these disciplines transform the non-believer into the Christian subject, and therefore, when pursued in aggregate, represent a program for public transformation. In this paper, I present a different ethnographic account of private Pentecostal discipline, one that moves beyond asceticism as a process of subject-formation to interpret practices such as fasting as part of a critical theological debate. My argument draws on ethnographic material collected among Pentecostals in Zambia. For these believers, ascetic practices are structured by a set of ideas about who God is and how he acts in the world, ideas that are regularly reconfigured as new circumstances call them into question. While these are theological questions, they are fundamentally political as well, and this is especially true in Zambia, the only African country to make a constitutional declaration that it is a "Christian nation." In Zambia, Christian theology is political, and Pentecostal practice engages state authority in a particularly public manner. Insofar as this is the case, Pentecostal practice can also be seen as a site of political engagement and critique, an observation that brings us back to Marshall's argument, but that differs from it in important respects.

From an anthropology of religion to an anthropology of truth

Author: Thomas Boylston (LSE)  email


When does truth matter, in religious debate or otherwise? Discussing Orthodox Christian preaching movements in Addis Ababa, I ask how much of public discourse is dependent on ascertaining what is true, and in what contexts it even matters.

Long Abstract

The fossilised remains of Lucy the australopithecus lie in the national museum in Addis Ababa, next door to the headquarters of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. This presents a contradiction, and yet this has not developed into anything like the magnitude of American debates about creationism. A lively public religious debate exists in Ethiopia, and yet, in the home of many of the earliest hominids, creationism has not come to the forefront.

Therefore I ask, what part of public debate, religious or otherwise, is devoted to ascertaining what is true? This paper begins from the contemporary Orthodox Christian preaching movement in Ethiopia, and Orthodox Christians' beliefs and ideas about science, to ask: when do statements about truth and belief matter? Preaching (like most other forms of rhetoric) just as often serves to entertain, to win supporters to a faction or denounce its enemies, or to outline a moral vision, as to describe what the world is like. Science, meanwhile, is recognised more for its power than its truth - neither of which matters much if they don't address people's needs. This paper argues for a greater comparative focus not just on particular cultural notions of truth, but of when and how truth is understood to matter.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.