I am just back from the Oxford conference that I blogged here about recently. The final programme is available here and as you can see, there was a large variety of papers and plenaries. I met some fascinating people and made some good links with some European counterparts. The session in which I gave my paper was somewhat difficult, held as it was in a room far too small for the purpose and it necessitated opening a large sash window to let in air, and of course traffic noise. I was not entirely happy with the paper I delivered, simply because it became too complex and that is no one’s fault but my own. Trying to explain the lack of spaces for civic engagement in Ireland while focussing on the post-Ryan and Murphy environment for Catholicism in Ireland was just too unwieldy for the session. The session was graciously chaired by Jon Madeley who gave an interesting paper the following morning on secularization and the confessional state in Europe
So what did I learn? I learned that talking about European established churches does not mean that only one church is established; I learned that it is not always good to meet authors in the flesh whom you admire for their writing; I learned that Oxford’s Pizza Express is a poor imitation of a restaurant. There was lots of talk about relationships (personal and political) that are blocked by an over-arching reliance on image and objects. There was also a session where a London priest told us that bringing politics back to ‘the local’ allows us to overcome the cynicism that erodes trust. However, I had Talal Asad’s brilliant Formations of the Secular along with me on the journey and I learned that when people at conferences talk about Europe’s heritage, it generally means to exclude, not include. Europe ends at Poland’s borders (now ‘central Europe’ seemingly) we are told and it starts somewhere near Valletta. This despite the fact that Algeria was a full department of France until the middle of the 20th and the British claim sovereignty over the Falkland Islands.
As a companion for the weekend Asad was excellent. He talks about the European narrative excluding when it needs some self-definition. Like the US, it seeks the denuding of religious identity inside its geographical border and heightens its effects for the people outside itself. We are internally civilised and understand those outside as far too religious to be part of ‘us’. The current French self-obsession with veiling practices of some of its citizens is a fine example: by their veiling you will know them as outsiders. (oh yea: Turkey’s possible EU accession too.) ‘These people’ are not European but they reside within Europe. They are internally-displaced people from outside, and an outside that has been violently mediated by Europe’s own definition of itself in the last 500 years. He charts an anthropology of the secular and secularism in a way that doesn’t require judgement, just an eye for the liminal.
When some Christians talk about Europe, listen out for references to heritage, history and traditions. You can be sure that what they mean by Europe is white, ‘secular’ and Christian. So that’s the first of 2010’s conferences over, bring on the CIG and possibly Religion and Modernity in a Secular City.