On Reading The Post Secular City (Part 1)

Some books require time to read and digest. In 2012, I started a book called Post-Secular Cities: Space, Theory and Practice, and I only recently finished the book. It’s been a deeply influential and meaningful read and each time I pick it up, I find something new to think about. The book describes the resurgence of religion in Western public life as “one of the defining features of this century” (Ley, 2011, p.5) and interrogates the postsecular city, defined as “a public space which continues to be shaped by ongoing dynamics of secularization and secularism.. while negotiating and making space for the re-emergence of public expression of religion and spirituality (Baker and Beaumont, 2011, p. 33).

In the introduction however, the editors of the book caution assuming a new importance to religion, because it may be that what has changed is simply  “a focus of gaze rather than the things themselves” (David Ley, xii). Now, a wider research community is noticing, and is being forced to respond to, the losses that occur when religion is ignored. The postsecular city matters because the “pluralism of postmodern philosophies and multicultural societies make such dogmatic closures no longer possible” (David Ley, xiii). This book matters for planners and others because while religious and spiritual values are evident in many different areas of public life (policy, governance etc), it is clearest in the built environment, and  “it is in the ‘urban” that the shift from secular to postsecular in terms of public space, building use, governance and civil society is most intensely observed and experienced (Ley, p.4).

The chapters in the book cover a wide range of topics from gender and faith in post secular cities, to the role of spirituality in planning practice, to visual representations of faith in Jerusalem, and deepen the readers’ understanding of postsecular cities by examining cities from a variety of lenses.

In the chapter, Post Colonialism and Religion: New Spaces of ‘Belonging and Becoming’ in the Post Secular City, authors Christopher Baker and Justin Beaumont examine how Quran study classes in the UK are “spaces of belonging” and “spaces of becoming”. In their study, participants surveyed described benefiting emotionally from connections made with other attendees, developing practices of citizenship, deepening their understanding of how to apply principles of Islam in pluralist communities and being able to reconcile their sometimes conflicting identities of ethnicity, religion and nationality. Instead of “simply” being religious classes, these study circles were often transformative spaces (Baker and Beaumont, 2011, p.42)

For these authors, this study brings up important questions, and calls to attention the work of Habermas on religious identities in the public square. According to Habermas:

“The traditional secular model of the public sphere, whereby the role of ‘community member’ (for example a religious community) is differentiated from ‘member of society’ is unsustainable… This differentiation lies in the tension between a cognitive level of belief (ie-the beliefs generated by the transcendental view of his or her religion) and the legal norms of the host community, whereby a secular society ‘tells’ the religious citizen that certain beliefs or practices are unacceptable or illegal. This therefore raises for Habermas the question of whether this differentiation (which is not required of secular citizens) and the cognitive dissonance it produces, creates an unfair and therefore unequal pressure (what he calls paying ‘an unfair price’) on religious citizens. These citizens, he argues, have to undergo an act of reflection or relativization whereby any cognitive dissonance is made bearable.” (Baker and Beaumont, 2011, p.46)

 Habermas’ point is not that we must do away with secular perspectives, but that  we need to share “the cognitive tasks involved in attempting to understand each other’s positions”. His expectation for equality is that “secularized citizens may neither fundamentally deny truth positions to religious worldviews nor deny the right of believing citizens to make contributions to public discussion in religious language. A liberal political culture can even expect that secularized citizens take part in efforts to translate relevant contributions from religious language into a ‘publically accessible language’ (Baker and Beaumont, 2011, p.46).

 In Habermas’ later work, titled Religion in the Public Sphere (2006), he goes into greater detail as to what these shared cognitive tasks might be. Instead of simply accommodating religion passively, there must be “an active ‘learning’ from religion (2006:17) on the part of wider society. “ (Baker and Beaumont, 2011, p.46).

This perspective and theoretical background is a key to understanding the rest of the book. If it is important to understand religion, this book aims to examine the postsecular city respectfully. In Leonie Sandercock and Maged Senbel’s chapter “Spirituality, Urban Life and the Urban Professions for instance, they examine the role of spirituality in the field of urban planning, and point out that spirituality is not discussed in the literature of planning (Sandercock and Sanbel, 2011, p.87),  They argue that there are deep commonalities between having a healthy personal connection with the natural world and other people and being able to create meaningful places and spaces, and that the separation of spirituality and city planning impoverishes communities. I appreciate their arguments as planning tends to be a rationalist, empirical field, but I find their definitions and usage of the word spirituality to be limiting. Though their definition of spirituality is broad, they do not talk about religion, and this omission seems to suggest that religion and planning are not compatible. This exclusion seems to reproduce the same exclusions that their chapter seeks to address.

Clara Greed’s chapter, “A Feminist Critique of the Post Secular City: God and Gender, on the other hand, challenges the idea of the postsecular city, and points that though such a city is supposed to allow for space for women and religion, the reality often looks differently.  As Greed points out, the very premise of the modern city is zoning, a practice that separates different activities in a city, and historically has excluded women from cities by “keeping women out of public life and civic space and within the domestic realm of house and home  (Greed, 2011, p.106). Greed’s point is that although feminism has gone through stages rooted in both religious belief and secularism, what we have now is a theoretical appreciation of the postsecular city without any indication that this appreciation can create real change.

Greed also argues that talk does not create a more equitable built environment, and points to the success (or lack thereof) of faith communities in submitting building applications as an indication that the postsecular city is not necessarily friendly towards faith identities:

Research shows that planning officers tend to treat planning applications by both Christian and Muslim faith groups with suspicion, as likely to be linked to  ‘fundamentalism’ and therefore to be dismissed as socially divisive, when in reality, faith based groups (and buildings) often provide inclusive social, economic and community facilities and contribute to urban regeneration (CAG, 2008, quoted by Greed, 2011,112)

(To be continued..)

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