Thinking freely in religion in English-speaking countries

Nathalie Caron's picture
Call for Papers
March 14, 2019 to March 15, 2019
Subject Fields: 
American History / Studies, Atlantic History / Studies, British History / Studies, Intellectual History, Religious Studies and Theology


It is of note that the term “freethought” should be seen as self-explanatory, referring to some form of thought about, against, outside of religion even without any explicit mention of religion. It is hardly less remarkable that the term should imply an absence or lack of freedom within religious institutions. Freedom of thought is not, however, necessarily exercised about or against religious dogmas and clerical institutions, nor does it always presuppose anticlericalism. With more or less liberalism, the religious institutions themselves create spaces of freedom for the expression of religious thought. That was the case of the Medieval Church, which actually did not generate submission to religious authorities only, as the black legend has it, but also produced the conditions for the rise of the individual and the subsequent emergence of new forms of spiritual experiences. Later, the Protestant Reformation introduced the concept of free enquiry. Thinking freely in religion includes thinking not only against or without, but also within religion.

Religious traditions and their foundational texts provide believers with significant, though often unacknowledged, intellectual resources. They enable the faithful to introduce some creative spaces into religious structures and some fluidity into fixed religious categories. This leads to different ways of relating to religion and the divine, as well as addressing political and social issues which would otherwise remain untouched by the religious imagination. The process can be exemplified by the development of queer theology, whose presence can be felt in various degrees in the three monotheistic religions, or by Christian, Jewish and Muslim feminisms with their non-patriarchal approaches to the sacred texts and religious traditions.

Moving away from a narrow understanding of the “freedom to think” as the mere inverted mirror of religion, we welcome papers on the constructive contributions of free religious thought to religion per se, as well as papers which discuss the theological and ecclesiastical foundations of the notions of liberty and freedom. We encourage participants to distinguish between thinking freely in religion and religious freedom, on the one hand, and free religious thinking and freethought, on the other. 

How does the “free” thinker think in religion? What does one claim or proclaim at various times and in various contexts when one professes the desire to think “freely” from within a religious tradition? How can one express and experience what is then being thought? Is not the freedom to think in religion—that very freedom that can lead to heresy, impiety, or blasphemy—the sine qua nonof the survival and expansion of a religious tradition? Is there a causal relationship between freedom of thought and secularization?

Semantic variations may also be explored. What is the possible difference in meaning and scope between “free thought” (or “freethought”), “free enquiry”, heterodoxy, dissent, or even skepticism and doubt? How enlightening can linguistic specificities be in the matter? For example, the English word order does not allow the subtle distinction between “libre pensée” and “pensée libre” readily available to French speakers. Conversely, the lack of a neutral grammatical gender in French may preclude any attempt to theorize the deity and the divine in gender-neutral terms. Does it mean that one can think “more freely” in English (or in French) in religious matters? We will seek to establish and/or question the existence of oneor more—idiosyncratic English-speaking traditions of free thought. 


Contact Info: 

The conference will take place on March 14-15, 2019, and is a Culture et religion en pays anglophones event.
Location: Maison des Sciences Économiques de l’Université Paris 1, 106 Bd de l’Hôpital, Paris 13e

Organizers: Rémy Bethmont (Université Paris 8) et Nathalie Caron (Sorbonne Université)

Deadline for submission (500 words and a CV): September 30, 2018.

We welcome papers in English and in French.