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We talk about one another all the time, but talking to each other—not so much.

Part of our problem is that the very categories we use to organize our social life and delineate the space we allow for religion—particularly the categories of “religious” versus “secular”—actually hamper our attempts to have such conversations. Scholars from the post-colonial Foucauldian Talal Asad to the Augustinian Christian theologian John Milbank have shown that these categories are the product of the past few centuries of European history and have been shaped by the peculiarities of European religion (especially Protestantism) and politics (especially liberalism). Misshaped, in fact, for our situation: They assume a particular picture of what religion essentially is—mostly, the private encounter of the individual soul with God that takes place in the sublime space of the individual’s most inward and inaccessible subjectivity. In contrast, the “secular” is the outward space, where we negotiate our way amid the material cosmos and our “properly” political concerns—which, by definition, cannot be “properly” religious.

This picture has never made sense as a way to understand the non-Western world, and it ill fits the religious diversity of our society today. It defines religion as a matter more of believing than belonging, and by discounting “outward” practices it creates problems for religious traditions the farther they get from, say, a contemporary liberal Presbyterian church. It distorts, in increasing levels of contortion, sacramental forms of Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and the several forms of Judaism, Islamic mosques, Hindu temples, Buddhist meditation centers, and Confucian centers. If any of these religion try to “appear” in public (the metaphor itself is telling), they must politely cram themselves into the whalebone corset that is the etiquette of the modern Western public sphere. Religion in the contemporary West has become socially and politically denominationalized and existentially privatized. Many religions can accept such terms only at the cost of self-mutilation. Pretty obviously, this is a situation that doesn’t encourage coherent conversation about belief—more the opposite...

What’s God Got to Do with Religion? - The American Interest

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