Separation Anxiety: Religion and the Modern State

The Center for Jewish History
15 West 16th Street New York
New York 10011

The separation of church and state is often regarded as the hallmark of enlightened democracy, a guarantor of a secular order that protects freedom of conscience by rendering the state indifferent to questions of religious persuasion. While it was long assumed that modernization and secularization went hand in hand, the so-called “return of religion” in the late twentieth century has called this thesis into question. Rather than a neutral political model, secularism today appears as the product of a unique historical confrontation between ecclesiastical and state sovereignty in early modern Europe. In light of this history, how do we understand secularism in the twenty-first century?

In this course we will trace the genealogy of secularism as we examine the mutually constitutive processes by which modern forms of religion and the state came into being. Reading classic texts by Martin Luther, Baruch Spinoza, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Moses Mendelssohn, we will interrogate how each thinker defined “religion” and conceived of its place vis-a-vis the governing authority. How did each approach the question of religion and public life? What accommodation did they make (or not) for dealing with religious difference, and what conditions did they outline for the tolerance of religious traditions? What types of religious practice became normative in the process? Finally, drawing on more contemporary reflections from thinkers like Talal Asad, Rajeev Bhargava, JZ Smith, and Leora Batnitzky, we will consider what bearing this history has on current debates about religion and the state, ranging from Denmark’s ban on kosher animal slaughtering to the spectre of “creeping shari’a“ at home.

Course Schedule

Wednesday, 6:30-9:30pm
February 01 — February 22, 2017
4 weeks


Registration Closed

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