José Casanova speaks at podium


José Casanova Concludes Discussion Series on Public Religions in the COVID-19 World

By: Henry D. Brill

May 21, 2021

José Casanova, acclaimed sociologist of religion and senior fellow at the Berkley Center, explored religion in the COVID-19 world as part of a public conversation with Thomas Banchoff, vice president for global engagement at Georgetown University, on May 13.

The event was the last in the Global Religious and Secular Dynamics Discussion Series, which brought Casanova into conversation with prominent scholars to discuss the interface of secularization and religious revival.

A wide range of experts, from sociologists Nilüfer Göle and Hans Joas to philosopher Charles Taylor, provided critical insight into contemporary issues as part of the 12-event series.

José is a leading scholar of religion and globalization who continues to deeply enrich the intellectual life of the Berkley Center, says Michael Kessler, managing director of the center. We were thrilled during the COVID-19 quarantine to feature his public dialogue with other prominent scholars of religion and society.

Public Religions in the Modern World

Casanova started the conversation by reflecting on the journey behind his best-known work: Public Religions in the Modern World (1994). Writing in wake of the Iranian Revolution and rise of evangelicals in U.S. politics, Casanova challenged the supposed privatization of religion.

“It was challenging the thesis of privatization, empirically,” said Casanova. “But also normatively, I wanted to challenge liberal theories of democracy that argue that religion ought to be a private affair because it threatens democracy when it enters the public square.”

The book also made a major contribution by providing historical and comparative analysis to push back against the idea that modernization would necessarily lead to secularization. As Casanova explained,

Modernization in the United States, and in many other parts of the world, did not lead to religious decline—on the contrary, it led to religious revival.

As part of his comparative approach, Casanova moved beyond the national frame to study religion in global perspective, turning his attention to the Catholic Church as a transnational institution.

Global Role of the Catholic Church

The reforms of the Second Vatican Council were a key factor leading the Catholic Church to assume a cutting-edge role in globalization, according to Casanova.

“When people began talking about globalization, I was struck by how the council fathers had already recognized this fact as a sign of the times: that we are entering a new global age in which humanity is becoming one,” he explained.

Casanova explored the contributions of the five most recent popes, highlighting structural changes to the papacy and its role in global affairs.

“The popes were the first ones to go beyond the international system of states and begin to talk to global humanity as one,” said Casanova, highlighting a variety of papal encyclicals that address global issues such as nuclear disarmament.

The sociologist also provided reflection on how Pope Francis is changing the conversation on Church engagement in the world, commenting,

What is new in Pope Francis is the recognition of these new global challenges, which cannot be addressed through either capitalism or through the system of nation-states: environmental issues, immigration and refugees, and now the pandemic.

Role of Religion in COVID-19 World

The COVID-19 pandemic is a critical moment to reflect on global challenges such as exclusionary forms of nationalism and economic inequality, according to Casanova.

“We are in the midst of a radical transformation, and we do not know where we are going,” he said. “What the pandemic has revealed above all was precisely the strength of nationalism, the nation-state, and the national interest.”

Casanova highlighted the promotion of solidarity as an important step toward tackling the issues of exclusion and inequality worldwide.

“It’s not that the nation-state ought to disappear for the sake of a global government,” he explained. “But it is the need to create higher instances of governability.”

The discussion series, while now concluded, allowed Casanova to delve deeply into these and other issues at the nexus of religion and globalization in the COVID-19 pandemic. His current book project—building on The Jesuits and Globalization (2016), co-edited by Casanova and Banchoff—aims to better understand our current global age.

As Casanova explained,

The idea is to use the Jesuits to point to the fact that the first phase of globalization was before Western hegemony, before modernity and that this new global era we are entering is not simply a continuation of Western hegemony—it is something very different that has a lot of similarities with the world that was not yet systemic.

The Global Religious and Secular Dynamics Discussion Series was co-sponsored by the Berkley Center and Reset Dialogues on Civilizations.

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