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Cambridge Interfaith Programme


Part of the Research Seminar in Inter-Religious Relations series.

Contemporary French Thought and the Definition of Religion

At a time when religious fundamentalisms fight on all continents for the monopoly of religious truth, no definition seems as uncertain as that of religion. To be sure, the definitions proposed by Edward Burnett Tylor, William James and Emile Durkheim in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which revolve around the notion of transcendent belief, have been used in social sciences for more than a century and still constitute the theoretical ground on which secularism rests in the modern West. In the past few decades, however, globalisation and the emergence of spiritual approaches to environmentalism and mindfulness in Western countries have raised the question of whether non-theistic devotion and ritual practices detached from supernatural belief should be considered as religious. Reformist currents of the Abrahamic religions have also contributed to challenging the idea that transcendent belief is conditio sine qua non of religion by emphasising ‘lived experienced’ and ‘reflective faith’. These definitional transformations go hand in hand with the urgency felt by political leaders and sociologists to distinguish religion from what is presented as its terrorist caricature. I argue that a way out of this definitional crisis may be found in the work of four of France’s most original contemporary philosophical voices. Through their respective engagements with the concept of the death of God, Georges Bataille, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, and Jean-Luc Nancy inaugurate a thinking of the religious that does not depend on transcendent belief, but rather unfolds as an open-ended trust in otherness. Crucially, by designating faith in difference as the lowest common denominator of transcendent religions and immanent spiritualities found across the world, these thinkers lay the ground for a more inclusive approach to religious pluralism than the one currently secured by Western secularism. 


About the Speaker

Marie Chabbert is a Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge's St John's College. Her research, which is situated at the crossroads between French and Religious Studies, focuses on the so-called 'return of religion' at the forefront of international preoccupations and interrogates how French thinkers including Georges Bataille, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, Jean-Luc Nancy and Bruno Latour, inaugurate new perspectives for thinking faith in the so-called ‘postsecular’ age. She is currently working on her first monograph to be entitled Faithful Deicides: Contemporary French Thought and the Eternal Return of Religion.

Prior to obtaining her PhD from the University of Oxford, Marie completed a double-BA in Political Sciences and Modern French Culture at SciencesPo Paris and La Sorbonne IV, an MPhil in Comparative European Cultures at the University of Cambridge, and an MSc in Social Anthropology at the London School of Economics.

As part of a wider commitment to public engagement in the humanities, Marie works as a freelance journalist for the Religion section of the French newspaper Le Monde and has written for the French intellectual magazine Esprit. She is also an Executive Committee member of the European Interfaith Youth Network of Religions for Peace, the largest international coalition of representatives from the world’s religions dedicated to promoting multi-religious cooperation for peace. In January 2021, Marie was chosen as a Young Religious Leader-Media Maker by the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations and United Nations Counter-Terrorism Center for their Edin (Empowering Dialogue & Interfaith Networks) programme. 


Monday, 17 January, 2022 - 14:00
Contact name: 
Giles Waller
Contact email: 

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