RECENT census data in the United Kingdom and Australia indicates that rates of religious observance remain low.
However, from marriage equality and reproductive rights to political radicalism and terrorism, religion remains ever visible in political life.
So too, a quick pass through the cinema presents us with a popcorn of paranormal activity. The ghosts of religion haunt our secular societies, and this has prompted new research at the University of Newcastle.
The Religion in Political Life (RiPL) research program was funded in 2012-13 in order to intervene in a global debate emerging on this topic.
Leading historians, sociologists, political philosophers and theologians from Newcastle and abroad are collaborating in a series of symposia, conferences and public lectures.
The program includes scholars from the British universities of Oxford, Manchester, Winchester and Aberdeen, as well as the Chinese universities of Renmin and Fudan.
A series of monograph books are planned, as we promote understanding that is urgently needed.
This research focuses on the intersection between religion and four key streams: gender, radicalism, secular authority and colonial legacies. I'll just outline the way in which these streams illuminate the new visibilities of religion in our world today.
Gender: State and church have historically excluded women from positions of authority and power. However, in today's secular societies new questions emerge about the way gender now defines religion in public.
This can be seen in the aforementioned legal issues concerning marriage and reproductive rights, but also Australia's first national saint, Mary MacKillop.
Dr Kathleen McPhillips is leading a public conference on national saints later this year to address how religion, gender and sainthood intersect with Australian national identity.
Radicalism: "Religions of the book" such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam have always promoted calls to personal and social transformation (Hebrew shuv, Greek metanoia, Arabic tawbah).
As such, they have often given rise to repeated radical and revolutionary movements.
Although Karl Marx noted that religion was the opium of the people, today it might be more accurate to say that religion has proven to be the amphetamines of the people.
From recent terrorist movements to political protests in the Arab Spring, the link between radicalism and religion persists and demands further investigation.
Associate Professor Roland Boer's recent conference on Theology and Treason was held at Newcastle's Lock Up Museum to address these issues.
Secular Authority: Although 19th century social theorists predicted that religion would dissipate like a fog from secular societies, a more complex picture has emerged.
As Jürgen Habermas has recently argued, religion is increasingly the pacemaker for cultural rights in the secular public sphere.
Religious dress, symbols, architecture, and even religious language itself, persistently prompt debate about secular authority's inclusiveness and tolerance.
The Religion in Political Life program analyses Australia's unique form of secularism and brings it into conversation with global debate. We will be meeting for an international symposium to discuss Political Religion in Secular Australia in July of this year.
Contributors will investigate religion in Australian law, the unique nature of its secular constitution, government funding of religious education and outsourcing of social services, as well as theoretical reflections on the nature and history of secularism in the Western political tradition.
Colonial Legacies: The fourth stream addresses the historical impact of religion upon today's post-colonial world. Arguably, the twin forces of colonialism/imperialism and its later legacies of colonial nationalism impacted the settler world of the former British Empire, including Australia.
However, its religious legacy has seldom been examined, except by specialist religious historians. Professor Hilary Carey has led a symposium on Religion and Greater Ireland in order to better understand the legacy of colonial religion, and to explain how religion and colonialism mutually enforced the political life of the modern nation state.
In brief, the Religion in Political Life program is akin to a great river system. The more we explore the political streams outlined above, the more religious ecosystems we find flourishing in new ways. Some have predicted that religion in political life can only result in an inevitable "clash of civilisations." However, our contention is that through research we can more precisely identify both future challenges as well as new opportunities for a multi-religious and secular Australia. As Mark Jürgensmeyer has noted in his Religion and Global Civil Society, "the cure for religious violence may ultimately lie in a renewed appreciation for religion itself."
Dr Timothy Stanley is a lecturer in philosophy, religion and theology at the University of Newcastle. He will be one of the guest speakers at the Newcastle Institute’s public forum on Religion in Political Life at the Newcastle City Hall, from 7pm tomorrow.