Ryan Schram's Anthrocyclopaedia

Anthropology presentations and learning resources

User Tools

Site Tools

View page as slide show

Do liberal societies need beliefs?

Do liberal societies need beliefs?

Ryan Schram

Mills 169 (A26)


24 May 2017

Available at http://anthro.rschram.org/2667/11


Mahmood, Saba. 2013. “Religious Reason and Secular Affect: An Incommensurable Divide?” In Is Critique Secular?: Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech, edited by Talal Asad, Wendy Brown, and Judith Butler, 64–100. Oxford: Oxford University Press. http://criticism.english.illinois.edu/2012%20Spring%20pages/Readings/Mahmood_Is_Critique_Secular%20.pdf.

Keane, Webb. 2009. “Freedom and Blasphemy: On Indonesian Press Bans and Danish Cartoons.” Public Culture 21 (1): 47–76. doi:10.1215/08992363–2008–021.

Other readings

Bellah, Robert N. 1967. “Civil Religion in America.” Daedalus 96 (1): 1–21. http://www.robertbellah.com/articles_5.htm.

Hirschkind, Charles. 1997. “What Is Political Islam?” Middle East Report. http://www.merip.org/mer/mer205/what-political-islam.

Weill, Nicolas. 2006. “What’s in a Scarf?: The Debate on Laïcité in France.” French Politics, Culture & Society 24 (1): 59–73.

Other media

Ramzy, Austin. 2015. “Singapore Arrests Teenager Over Video Critical of Lee Kuan Yew.” The New York Times, March 30. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/31/world/asia/singapore-arrests-teenager-over-video-critical-of-lee-kuan-yew.html.

Theodorou, Angelina. 2015. “Which Countries Still Outlaw Apostasy and Blasphemy?” Pew Research Center. Accessed May 13. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/05/28/which-countries-still-outlaw-apostasy-and-blasphemy/.

A critique of liberalism

  • Western societies tell a story of themselves in which the present social order represents the emancipation of the individual and a recognition of the individual's natural rights.
  • In this story, history moves from traditional institutions which limit people's freedom to a new, rational order in which people can choose their own destiny.
  • According to Marx, a liberal state governs citizens as individuals, and hence denies that they are also necessarily part of actual communities.
  • This ideology disguises the alienation which makes liberal citizenship possible and thus serves the interests of the bourgeoisie.
  • Marx's critique of liberalism is, in that sense, an extension of our critique of Western secularism from last week.

Civil religion

  • The question of this week–Do liberal societies need beliefs?–can be read as asking whether a liberal society needs to give citizens a substitute for their communal religious identities.
  • Robert Bellah: “Civil religion”


  • The question of this week can also be read as asking something else: f there is a risk of a liberalism becoming a civil religion, is there a way we can imagine a liberal society which is safe for all kinds of religion?
  • Should liberal societies prohibit blasphemy?

Why might blasphemy be threatening to society?

  • “Speech acts” according to J. L. Austin.
    • constative, performative
    • locutionary, illocutionary, perlocutionary
  • Fighting words, hate speech, “trigger warnings.”

Laws against blasphemy

  • Proselytising by all is illegal: Bhutan, Nepal, Greece.
  • Proselytising to members of the majority is illegal: Algeria, Morocco, Iraq*
  • Proselytising is restricted: Venezuela (indigenous), Oslo (against evangelical Christians).
  • Foreign visas denied to missionaries: China, Costa Rica, Kazakhstan, Denmark.
  • China only allows proselytising in recognized places of worship.
  • Malaysia sets very high restrictions on conversion from Islam.

(see Fox 2015: 193).

Semiotic ideology

  • Like language ideology, or the indexicality of language, register, ritual, and style.
  • More generally, an implicit cultural 'theory' of how communication works, and the connection between communicator, code, message and world.


The Danish cartoon controversy and Terry Jones

  • Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartooons controversy, September 2005 to January 2006 (University Post Newsroom 2015).
  • Terry Jones and threatened Qu'ran burning, July to September 2010 (Derby 2010).
  • What is this conflict really about?
    • Mahmood: assimilative versus representational ideologies of meaning. Is it that simple?
    • Another case of iconophilia? The Zurenuoc affair in Papua New Guinea.


Austin, John L. 1962. How to Do Things with Words: The William James Lectures. 2nd ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Derby, Kevin. 2010. “World Weighs In to Condemn Terry Jones’ Planned Quran-Burning.” Sunshine State News, September 8. http://www.sunshinestatenews.com/story/world-weighs-in-condemn-terry-jones-planned-quran-burning.

Fox, Jonathan. 2015. Political Secularism, Religion, and the State. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

University Post newsroom. 2015. “Ten Years of the Muhammad Cartoon Crisis: 2005-2015.” University Post, January 8. http://universitypost.dk/article/ten-years-muhammad-cartoon-crisis-2005-2015.

A guide to the unit

2667/11.txt · Last modified: 2021/06/29 02:27 by