Chasms and bridges: Religion and secularity in a polarised world

Rosemary Hancock, The University of Notre Dame Australia & Alan Nixon, Western Sydney University.

On 29 September 2017, the Sociology of Religion Thematic Group and Western Sydney University’s Religion and Society Research Cluster co-hosted a symposium titled Chasms and bridges: Religion and secularity in a polarised world. Twenty-two sociologists gathered at the new Western Sydney University City Campus for a day of intensive discussion about the role of religion in a global world marked by growing political and social/moral polarisation.

The day began with a keynote by Associate Professor Alphia Possamai-Inesedy from Western Sydney University. Alphia spoke about the online networks and connections of religious institutions in the context of the Australian same-sex marriage plebiscite. Using social networks on Facebook, she showed that religious groups advocating for the ‘No’ campaign had almost no online connection to groups advocating for the ‘Yes’ campaign. This data demonstrated the way social media exacerbates existing social polarisation by siloing through egocentric networks and algorithms. The presentation set the focus for the symposium. Occurring as it did in the midst of the same-sex marriage plebiscite, conversation frequently returned to religious engagement in the plebiscite and public debate around the role of religious leaders, official religious institutions and lay religious practitioners.

The roundtable workshops took a more informal and discussion-focused approach. Four to five speakers had 5–8 minutes each to present (without slides) a key argument or idea they wished to discuss, and the conversation was then opened up to the table. This format allowed for ideas to take shape and debates to occur in an organic fashion. Although speakers had less time to present than in the usual conference-style format, this arrangement allowed for deeper engagement with ideas and better scope for critical feedback. At the morning session, Anna Halafoff raised anti-cosmopolitan sentiments and argued that the best response to these impulses is to build a politics of interdependence, which she related to her research on multi-faith movements. Bruce Mutsvairo, keeping to the social media focus of the day, highlighted the fascinating case of Zimbabwean pastors who used Facebook and Twitter in digital campaigns against President Robert Mugabe. Mugabe was deposed not long after the conference, showing the timeliness of Bruce’s presentation. Jack Isherwood took us on a theoretical turn by examining philosophical explanations for political polarisation in the contemporary world. Marisa Della Gatta spoke on the contentious role of secularism in the context of Syrian politics and a religious civil society, where secularism has been used to oppress and elevate certain groups.

After lunch, Professor Marion Maddox from Macquarie University gave the second keynote of the day on religion and public policy. Professor Maddox compared different conceptualisation of interactions between religion and the state across multiple countries and time periods, and took us on the journey through her research process highlighting the unexpected turns that took her research into new places.

The afternoon sessions focused on religion and immigration, with Raphael Lataster speaking on Muslim immigration in the context of a Trump Presidency in the United States and the rise of the alt-right. Alexia Derbas discussed how Muslim women perform the self in online space, the difficulties she faced with digital methodologies and the idea of handset technology as an extension of the religious self. Mehrnosh Lajevardi Fatemi raised how Muslim leaders work to help or hinder their community’s integration into Australia. Finally, Luke Gahan closed the afternoon reflecting on the role of religious people at the origin of the campaign for same-sex marriage in the early 2000s. As one of the founders of Australian Marriage Equality, this was a particularly personal reflection for Luke. Overall, the day presented many interesting perspectives on the place of religion in current public debates and identities. Discussions flowed around the table with the format allowing broad discussion that was successful in the goal of providing ideas and critiques to our presenters.

The Sociology of Religion Thematic Group would like to thank Western Sydney University’s School of Social Sciences and Psychology and the Religion and Society Research Cluster for kindly providing the venue, and catering for the day. We would also like to acknowledge the generous support of TASA in providing funding for postgraduate and ECR travel bursaries for the event.



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