The Politics of Secularism

Pilot Project A:

The Politics of Secularism and the Emergence of New Religiosities

Funding period (2013-2015)

Principal Investigators:

Prof. Dr. Rupa Viswanath (Centre for Modern Indian Studies, University of Göttingen).
Dr. Dan Smyer Yü (Max Planck Institute for Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Göttingen).
Prof. Dr. Axel Schneider (Centre of Modern East Asian Studies, University of Göttingen).
Prof. Dr. Matthias Koenig (Institute for Sociology, University of Göttingen).
Postdoctoral Researchers: Dr. Neena Mahadev, Dr. Jeremy F. Walton

Project Summary

Secular governance is globally represented as the quintessential harbinger of the new, the means by which societies attain freedom from the alleged intolerance of "tradition.” Our research begins with the observation that secular projects in fact variously redefine, criminalise and incorporate into new forms of legal-administrative regulation a host of religious practices and institutions. Working under the auspices of CETREN, an international team of scholars is engaged in identifying the most significant of these processes in Asia and Europe, collectively mapping new languages and practices of religion, new relations between structures of authority and citizen-subjects, new forms of religious and secular personhood, as well as the — often violent — means by which secularisation is enforced by state and non-state actors.

All the scholars engaged in this project share a dissatisfaction with the two primary methodological assumptions that have animated most studies of the relationship between religion and secularity hitherto. The questions we are asking have been most often posed with reference to putatively universal processes of secularization and modernisation, a teleological approach that, moreover, invariably takes Europe as the model for studies of the non-Western world; in this paradigm the non-European world is represented as deviating to differing degrees from the European norm. Some   scholars have expressed dissatisfaction with this approach, noting instead what has been called a global “resurgence” of religious activity in recent decades, and on this basis, judging secularization a failure. Yet this alternative, we argue, does little to productively further academic inquiry, for it continues to posit religion and secularity as alternatives, rather than as fundamentally mutually constitutive. Our own research will at once recognize the novelty of secular regimes while observing how, when and in what respects actors self-identifying as religious are mobilized in and by them, and radically alter them in the process. Both secular projects and new forms of religiosity will be treated in the same analytical frame, and furthermore, the analysis will be enriched by the comparative dimension of our research, which will allow us to pinpoint what makes some aspects of secularity socio-culturally unique, and conversely, what aspects have travelled well and animate transregional channels of communication. Indeed, it is the unprecedented global reach of secularist conceptions that has given rise to the very political struggles we will examine, and also make a transregional account of secularism’s discursive and practical mobility, such as the one we are proposing, necessary.

The processes on which we will focus have been central nodes of social, political and ideological conflict in colonial and postcolonial India, in modern China, and in modern Europe. In India central examples include the criminalization of religious conversions out of mainstream Hinduism (and the simultaneous state-sponsored surveillance of minority religious communities), and the banning of "low” caste practices such as animal sacrifice and the dedication of temple women on the grounds of immorality. By these and other means, India’s secular state endeavors to produce an elite Hindu- normative citizenry. India’s governing classes for the most part are proud bearers of a secular tradition, though some will concede that Indian secularism differs from its European counterparts; by focusing our comparative research on concrete mechanisms of secularization and religious movements, we expect to be able to specify where these differences lie, and also to uncover hitherto unconsidered points of conceptual and practical contact across the regions of inquiry, asking about the specific legal and political conditions of Indian secularism rather than assuming the existence of an overarching national culture that is determinative of religious life and secular sensibilities.

China presents a critical example for the analysis of secularism’s relationship to forms of religiosity: on one hand, it has a committed policy of non-religion, a state- mandated atheism that is distinct from most forms of secularity. On the other hand, it shares with secular states a fundamental interest in the close regulation of its citizens’ religious lives, coupled with an ideological commitment to the superiority of secular reason over forms of religious thinking; these commitments have given rise, for instance, to the state-led, forced transformation of Confucian temples into schools, and to the targeting of redemptive cults and meditational practices for "dissidence”. At the same time, China has experienced an unprecedented "return” of religious traditions and the proliferation of new popular religious practices and discourses among a large swathe of the population—a fact of which the atheist state is aware, but which it sometimes ignores. What forms of religious subjectivity have flourished in the particular sociocultural and legal-political conjuncture of the past twenty years? And what determines the circumstances under which official legal or administrative intervention is pursued or forsworn?

This question will be applied as well to modern Western European society, where, arguably, the legal field has become the arena in which these tensions are being most heatedly expressed. The regulation of new, largely migration-induced forms of religious diversity has become a contested public policy concern throughout Europe (Koenig 2010). Much of the scholarly literature on the topic has attempted to describe and explain policies at the national level, assuming their internal coherence and national comparability, contrasting French laïcité with Indian secularism, for instance. Our research in Europe, however, by focusing on specific legal and administrative processes, and on agents identifying as both religious and secular, will answer recent calls to move beyond such stylized comparisons by better disentangling the logics of contention in distinctive social fields and thus capturing the specific mechanisms of institutional secularization. Research will focus primarily on contests over the limits to be placed on expressions of religious diversity in Europe, analysing  the discursive repertoires of religious litigants and their national as well as transnational network alliances with professional lawyers. We will also consider the justificatory rhetoric and geopolitical considerations underlying constitutional and international court decisions, and the effects of judicial disputes on public discourse and religious life.

In short we will comparatively analyse secular governance and the production of religion in the three regions of inquiry by attending to the justificatory discourses and counter-discourses used by regulatory powers and religious actors, the forms of coercion and punishment imposed, and the relationships among surveilled practices and institutions and both formal and local politics. In so doing this project will reconceptualise the processes of defining and implementing, as well as resisting and subverting what has become known as secular modernity outside the national frameworks that have long-dominated research on this topic in the humanities and social sciences. Our process-oriented transregional analysis of contention over religion in the secular regimes promises to capture the precise consequences of various actors’ references to "secularism” and to understand the emergence of new modes of state regulation of religion and religiously-identified agents.


Neena Mahadev

Bridge-Burning and Boundary-Crossing: Transnational Evangelism, Conversion, and Nativist Religious Commitment among Minorities of Sri Lanka and Singapore

Jeremy F. Walton

Secular Geographies of Nation and Religion on the Margins of the New Europe: Mosque Communities and Civil Society in Turkey and Croatia (Jeremy F. Walton)

Photo credit: Dan Smyer Yü.

Photo credit: Jeremy Walton.

Photo credit: Axel Schneider.

Photo credit: Jeremy Walton.

Photo credit: Jeremy Walton.

Photo credit: Ablet Semet.

Photo credit: Ma Kang.

Photo credit: Dan Smyer Yü.

Photo credit: Dan Smyer Yü.

Photo credit: Neena Mahadev.

Photo credit: Neena Mahadev.

Photo credit: Jeremy Walton.


Prof. Dr. Rupa Viswanath

Professor of Indian Religions Centre for Modern Indian Studies (CeMIS)

Georg-August-Universität Göttingen

Centre for Modern Indian Studies, Waldweg 26, 37073 Göttingen, Germany

+49 (0)551 39 12740

+49 (0)551 39 14215



Rupa Viswanath is Professor of Indian Religions at the Centre for Modern Indian Studies, University of Göttingen. She previously taught in the South Asia Studies Department at the University of Pennsylvania, where she was assistant professor and Director of Graduate Studies, and she is a lifelong Fellow of Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge. Her research addresses secularism, social exclusion, minorities and processes of minoritisation, the political economy of caste, and democracy and political struggle in South Asia. Her manuscript, The Pariah Problem: Religion, Caste and Welfare in Modern India is under preparation at Columbia University Press. She has received fellowships from the Social Science Research Council, the American Institute of Indian Studies, the Mellon Foundation, and the American Association of University Women. She is currently Chair of the Steering Committee for the Hinduism Group of the American Academy of Religion.

Dr. Dan Smyer Yü (2013-2014)



Dan Smyer Yu was a CETREN researcher during his position as the Research Group Leader at the Department of Religious Diversity, Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity. He is an anthropologist specializing in the studies of religious revitalizations, charismatic communities, commercialization of religious spirituality, and the relationship between eco-religious practices and place-making in contemporary China. He received his Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from the University of California at Davis. Prior to his joining Max Planck, he was a New Millennium Scholar and the Associate Director of the Ethnic Minority Study Center of China at Minzu University of China. He also taught and held research positions at the University of California, Davis, Graduate Theological Union, San Francisco Theological Seminary, and Sacramento City College, and the Center for the Pacific Rim of University of San Francisco.

His research interests include religion and ethnic nationalism; religiosity of state ideology; religious conversion; religion and ecology; sacred landscapes; pilgrimage studies; religion and mental health; religion and peacebuilding; visual anthropology; and religious use of digital media. He recently completed his second monograph concerning the intersections of religion, nation, and nationalism in the context of modern Sino-Tibetan interactions. It addresses how land, place-making, nostalgia, modernity, imagination, and representation are entwined in both rural and urban settings of contemporary China.

In addition to his research writing, Dr. Smyer Yu has also made an ethnographic film titled Embrace, which documents Amdo Tibetans’ narratives concerning folk religious practices and their ecological significances. It is nominated for award at the Beijing International Film Festival in 2011. Currently he is making a new documentary film about Buddhism and science dialogue.

Prof. Dr. Axel Schneider

Director, Centre for Modern East Asian Studies (CeMEAS)

Georg-August-Universität Göttingen

Centre for Modern East Asian Studies, Heinrich-Düker-Weg 14, 37073 Göttingen, Germany

+49 (0)551 39 27033

+49 (0)551 39 27048



Axel Schneider is Director of Centre for Modern East Asian Studies (CeMEAS) at the University of Göttingen. His research and publications have focused on the history of historical thinking and writing in 19th and 20th century China investigating how the traditionally central field of historiography has developed and changed under the impact of the historical experience of imperialism and in exchange with Western philosophical and historiographical influences. His research has analyzed how aspects of modern nation-building, identity politics and academic history have interacted with philosophical and religious concerns. Publishing in English and Chinese and editor of several series shaping the field of research in comparative historiography and historical writing, his most recent work continues and expands this line of inquiry into the field of modern Chinese critiques of Western modernity. Currently he is writing a monograph on Chinese critiques of progressivism and modern concepts of time motivated by ethical and religious considerations.

Prof. Dr. Matthias Koenig

Professor of Sociology

Georg-August-Universität Göttingen

Institute for Sociology, Platz der Göttinger Sieben 3,  37073 Göttingen, Germany

+49 (0)551 39 7232

+49 (0)551 39 7692



Matthias Koenig is Professor of Sociology at the University of Göttingen and Max Planck Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity. His research focuses on international human rights law and the governance of religious diversity in global-comparative perspective. He is co-editor of "Democracy and Human Rights in Multicultural Societies" (Ashgate 2007, with Paul de Guchteneire), "International Migration and the Governance of Religious Diversity" (McGill/Queen’s University Press 2009, with Paul Bramadat) and author of numerous articles in international journals such as Ethnic and Racial Studies, International Migration Review, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, and International Sociology. While his regional research focus is on Europe, he has long-standing interests in the study of transregional processes of policy and norm diffusion.

Dr. Neena Mahadev (2013-2015)

CETREN Postdoctoral Researcher in the project “The Politics of Secularism and the Emergence of New Religiosities”

Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Göttingen



BA Sociology/Anthropology, concentration in South Asian Studies, Carleton College, USA

MA Social Sciences, University of Chicago, USA
MA and PhD, Anthropology, Johns Hopkins University, USA


Neena Mahadev’s expertise lies within the subfields of the anthropology of religion and political anthropology. She is also influenced by the fields of comparative religion and theology. Her ethnographic work accounts for inter-religious rivalry and conflict, but does so with an eye towards empirically examining the conditions of possibility for religious pluralism in contexts of where there is a prevalence of exclusionary identitarian attachments to religion. Her research probes the way that religious subjectivities and aspects of religious politics are shaped by the material and ideological entailments of theology (drawing on concepts of economic theology and political theology) particular to distinct religious traditions. Moreover, Neena’s work explores the religious newness that is engendered within a field of mutual religious influences; particularly, she examine how liturgy and soteriological aspirations shift under the influence of rival forms of religiosity, as well as under the constraints of a state that privileges particular religious forms.

The current book project builds upon her dissertation (2013) which is entitled, “Buddhist Nationalism, Christian Evangelism, and the Rearticulations of Conflict and Belonging in Postwar Sri Lanka.” Based on two years of field research in Sri Lanka, Neena examined expressions of religious conviction, identity politics of religion among Theravāda Buddhist and the Sri Lankan Christian (especially Roman Catholic and Pentecostal) communities. The work systematically examined the mutual skepticism that Buddhists and Christians expressed towards one another in the context of disputes over religious conversion, particularly from the mid-1990s until present. It also examines the politically expedient and the theologically orthodox lines along which alliances between Buddhists and certain denominational segments of Christianities were forged, especially under the revised demands of ethno-religious nationalism in Sri Lanka’s post-war era.

Neena’s new research project within CETREN will undertake a study of religious and ethnic “bridge-burning and boundary crossing,” in Sri Lanka and also Singapore, through an examination of itinerant religiosities within and between these different socio-political milieus. She plans to study the the trans-regional religious links between the two countries, especially in terms of the traffic of Buddhist, Christian and Hindu influences between South, Southeast and also East Asia.

Dr. Jeremy F. Walton (2013-2015)

CETREN Postdoctoral Researcher in the project “The Politics of Secularism and the Emergence of New Religiosities"

Center for Advanced Study of Southeast Europe, University of Rijeka



Jeremy F. Walton joined the CETREN Transnational Research Network at Georg August University of Göttingen as a research fellow in the pilot program, “The Politics of Secularism and the Emergence of New Religiosities”, in autumn 2013. During the 2012-2013 academic year, he was a Jamal Daniel Levant Postdoctoral Fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies (CCAS). Prior to this, he was an Assistant Professor and Faculty Fellow in New York University’s Religious Studies Program (2009-2012). He received his Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Chicago (2009), and is currently in the process of revising his book manuscript, Pieties of Pluralism: Mediations of Islam, Civil Society and Secularism in Turkey. A comprehensive essay summarizing much of this research was published in the February 2013 volume of American Ethnologist, under the title ““Confessional Pluralism and the Civil Society Effect: Liberal Mediations of Islam and Secularism in Contemporary Turkey.” Dr. Walton co-edited, with John Kelly, Beatrice Jauregui, and Sean T. Mitchell, the collection Anthropology and Global Counterinsurgency, and has book chapters in Anthropology and Global Counterinsurgency, Orienting Istanbul: Cultural Capital of Europe? and The Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies. His teaching and research broadly interrogate the myriad relationships among Islamic practice, the politics of contemporary secularism, and global regimes of power and publicity. Dr. Walton conducted fieldwork for his dissertation in Istanbul and Ankara from 2005 to 2007. Under the auspices of CETREN, his new research project, tentatively titled “Secular Geographies of Nation and Religion on the Margins of the New Europe: Mosque Communities and Civil Society in Turkey and Croatia,” will plumb how transregional discourses of belonging and identity affect pious actors, practices, and communities in distinct yet related political contexts.


T: +49 551 39 21286
F: +49 551 39 21284


Georg-Universität-Universität Göttingen
Heinrich-Düker-Weg 14
37073 Göttingen