War, peace and the secular

New ways to study religion, conflict and peacebuilding; new ways to study war and modernity

In recent years I have been interested in how people on the less devout end of the religious spectrum understand peace and conflict. A great deal is known about how people who are more devoutly religious understand, for example, the role of religious symbolism or religious leadership in conflict. We know less about how people who describe themselves as “not particularly religious”, whatever that means in their particular context, understand such things.

I have argued that we need better ways of analyzing variations in people’s personal religious commitments in order to fully understand the relationships between religion, ethnicity, nationalism, conflict and peace. I think this is a useful addition to our analytical toolkit. Based on my work on the ground in the Middle East, I have observed that a more nuanced understanding of variations in people’s personal religious commitments – including where people choose paths away from the religious norms in their societies – can lead to a better understanding of how and when people might be willing to make compromises in the interests of peace. The sharing of sacred sites is one example. To what extent are people who are “not very religious,” whatever than means in their society, more or less willing to compromise over who can access a sacred site, how and when? Are people who are “not very religious” able to see ethno-religious conflicts “objectively” or do they have their own myths and misunderstandings? How do political and social settlements around the “appropriate” role for religion in public life effect the attitudes of the “not very religious” towards peace and conflict?

War, peace and the secular

My long-term research agenda is to explore the various theoretical relationships between peace and violence and the secular as an epistemic category (Asad 2003) or way of thinking about the world. Charles Taylor (2007) in his book A Secular Age uses the term “the immanent frame” to describe the modern age, where religious worldviews are one option among many. He juxtaposes this with, for example early medieval Europe, in which Christianity underpinned a dominant worldview.

Scholars have written about war and religion; they have written about war and liberalism; they have also written about war and modernity. But in writing about both modernity and liberalism, scholars often treat the secular as a taken-for-granted backdrop to liberalism and modernity. Taylor, Asad and others point out that we should not treat the secular as a taken-for-granted backdrop or as divorced from religion. My contention, inspired by Asad, is that there are many more interesting things to say, theoretically and empirically, about the secular as an epistemic category, secularism as a political doctrine, and war as a particular arena of social practice. For example, one debate which has interested me in recent years is the old adage, “there are no atheists in foxholes”.

My approach is to chip away at this large, long-term research agenda through a series of rich, empirical case studies, advancing the theory through each case. For me, the secular is one useful lens through which to explore much wider questions about the relationship between war and modernity.

So far, I  have been developing my ideas over the course of two in-depth research projects on Israel/Palestine and the UK (see Publications).

In my first book on the UK, I was interested in how the attitudes of political elites towards actors they understand as “religious” are coloured by the secular political traditions and social norms in which they find themselves. (The short answer: it’s complicated.) In my second book, I am interested in phenomenology. What does it feel like to be a “not very religious” person living through a political conflict which is sometimes defined by its actors in ethno-religious terms?

The introduction and conclusion of my book, Secular War: Myths of Religion, Politics and Violence, set out my theoretical ideas in depth.

Accessible introductions to my ideas can be found here:

https://www.opendemocracy.net/north-africa-west-asia/stacey-gutkowski/it%E2%80%99s-not-all-about-islam-misreading-secular-politics-in-middle-east

and here:

https://www.academia.edu/20039773/Secularism_security_and_war

and here:

Discussing my 2013 book, Secular War: Myths of Religion, Politics and Violence, with Faculti Media.