CFP: Religion, Secularity, and the Public Sphere in East and Southeast Asia

Date: 07 Mar 2013 – 08 Mar 2013
Venue: Asia Research Institute Seminar Room
469A Tower Block, Level 10, Bukit Timah Road
National University of Singapore

Co-organised by the Asia Research Institute, NUS and the University of Tokyo Center for Philosophy Contemporary Philosophy in the Age of Globalization, Japan

The ongoing debate about the secular public sphere reaches to the core of the issue of the foundation of modern political power. Scholars upholding liberal democracy insist on a normative, privatized definition of religion in their efforts to sustain the secular, rational public sphere. Critiques of this approach call into question the viability of the distinction between the religious and the secular, and argue the public sphere, far from a free space for rational political discussions, is the very terrain where the public power of the state is deployed to ensure the proper formation of its national-citizens by shaping what they believe as truth. This debate reflects a primary concern with religion and the state as manifested in European and North American context. This conference is an attempt to engage the conversations on religion, secularity and the public sphere from the specific sites of East and Southeast Asia. The goals are to problematize social-political conditions and generate new ways to understand state-society relations in these regions.

Two anchoring points ground the more specific discussions of each paper. First, the “religious” and the “secular” are categories of performativity that have been instrumental in constructing distinctions of the private and public, belief and reason, distinctions central for the operation of the power of modern nation-state. We seek to examine these performativity moves of the categories of the religious and the secular through specific case studies of East and Southeast Asia. Second, the secular public sphere will be rethought. It operates upon the premise of exclusion of what is defined as religion. Questioning the “secular” nature of the public sphere requires interrogations into such notions as public good, citizenship, minority, ethnicity, freedom, and fundamentally the relation of the individual with the public authority of the state. Instead of the liberal democratic public sphere, we propose the possibility of envisioning an alternative one that is unbound, inclusive, and embodied. The conference seeks in the past and present of East and Southeast Asia alternative conceptions and practices of that which can be called a public realm.

We pursue these issues while addressing specific questions of:

  • In what ways are ongoing discussions on religion, secularity and the public sphere relevant to E/SE Asia?
  • How were these ideas shared, borrowed, understood and experienced in this part of the world?
  • How were/are the pre-modern or indigenous conceptions, such as gōnggòng/kōkyō 公共 (public) or maslaha (public good), transformed in modern nation-state building?
  • How did the diverse populations of Buddhists, Muslims, Christians and adherents of other religions in Asia pursue “public good”?
  • How did the definition of religion relate to constructions of nation-states and of modern scientific knowledge in Asia?
  • How did the secular become constitutive of modes of representations of the state in the diverse Asian contexts?
  • How were/are the principles of religion-state separation and religious freedom legally and politically instituted and practiced? What tensions and problems were generated in the process?
  • How and in what sense do the religious revivals in Asia challenge the very ideas of the public sphere and the nation-state, and why?

Papers from any field in the humanities or social sciences are welcome. We are particularly interested in theoretically informed empirical study of cases, issues and events pertaining to the conference themes.
Successful applicants will be notified by January, 2013 and will be required to send a draft paper (5,000-7,000 words) by February 15, 2013. Travel and accommodation support is available from the Asia Research Institute, depending on need and availability of funds.

Workshop Convenors:

Dr. Yijiang Zhong
Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore

Assoc. Prof. Yongjia Liang
Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore


Mr Jonathan Lee
Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore
Contact Person: Mr LEE Ming Yao, Jonathan