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Foucault and Religion

Michel Foucault et les religions

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Published on Thursday, June 20, 2013


La pensée de Michel Foucault, on le sait au moins depuis la publication de ses cours au Collège de France, est faite de nombreux excursus vers des domaines inédits pour le philosophe du savoir et du pouvoir. La spiritualité antique, l’histoire du christianisme primitif, l’ascétisme chrétien, les mouvements de contre-conduites et la question des marginalités religieuses ou du rapport entre politique et religion, à partir de la notion de « spiritualité politique » qu’il forge suite aux événements d’Iran, l’ont tout autant intéressé que la prison, l’asile, ou l’analyse des discours. Il s’agira durant ces journées de resituer et de discuter cette proximité (mais aussi l’inévitable distance) de Foucault avec la question religieuse, de visiter successivement les différents chantiers ouverts par lui dans lesquels les religions sont, par quelque biais, en question.


"Foucault and Religion" IRCM – University of Lausanne

Sponsored by the Association pour le Centre Michel Foucault.


As the publication of his lectures at the Collège de France confirms, Michel Foucault often digressed into domains not normally explored by philosophers of knowledge and power. He was just as much interested in Antique spirituality, the history of early Christianity, Christian asceticism, contre-conduites movements, the question of religious margins or the relationship between politics and religion, which Foucault built on the notion of “political spirituality” in the wake of the Iran events, as he was in prisons, asylums or discourse analysis.

His career-long concern for these issues requires, thirty years after his death, that we return to these themes in order to understand their position in his thinking but also to identify the ways in which Foucault’s work allows for renewed questioning and conceptualizations of religion. How does he mobilize religion? What function does Foucault grant it in his theoretical constructions?

The conference’s aim will be to document and discuss Foucault’s proximity (but also his necessary distance) to religion, to review the different sites where religion in one way or another plays a role. Christianity, but also Western non-Christian religions. Foucault was interested in other religious universes: Judaism (1978 and 1980 lectures), Islam, and Zen Buddhism. Moreover, Foucault’s relationship with religion may also be studied in light of the role played by literature, with authors such as Blanchot, Bataille, Klossowski (as well as Beckett, Roger Laporte, Sade). Authors who led him to reflect on the death of God, on discourse’s unspeakableness and on mystical discourses. The question of the relationship between religion and sexuality is equally essential: flesh, body, sin, pleasure. Possession as well...

Thus, the conference will attempt to define the relationship between these various sites but without postulating the existence of a unique guiding thread that would necessarily lead from the one to the other and whose existence would yield the key to the whole’s synthetic cohesion.

The conference will be organized according to the following themes (though these are not exclusive):

  • Antique spirituality

On the basis of his reading of Antique philosophy, Foucault provides in his final texts an analytics of subjectivation practices, of which the hermeneutics of the subject is but a particular form. The latter appears as a form of specific knowledge implying a transformation of the self. A transformation which can take various forms and various practical modalities: techniques of spiritual concentration, recollection of utterances, formation of self by means of reading, writing, examination practices, etc.

  • Religion and Modernity

As early as the History of Madness, Foucault questions our modernity, granting religion a key role. He notes for instance that the subjectivation of Western man is Christian and not Greco- Roman. It is likewise linked to the issue of confession, and to the break this practice establishes when it becomes mandatory in the XIIth century. In a number of texts, Foucault ascribes an important place to the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation which by turns question and intensify pastoral power... One might then wish to analyze the way in which Foucault takes up, but also shifts, the Nietzschean and Weberian question of modernity.

  • Religion and resistance

This third theme provides the occasion to return to the question of « political spirituality » by way of Foucault’s « minor texts » - interviews and press articles, in particular those produced after his return from Iran in 1978. More generally, it will deal with the relationship between politics and religion which Foucault worked on with the notion of « pastoral power » he constructs in his 1977-78 lecture.

Besides Iran, one might mention Tunisia, Brasil and especially Poland in 1982. While Foucault is more careful in qualifying religiously the Polish movement, it is in fact an instance of political spirituality. The study of governmentality he begins in 1978 allows him to return to the more general question of Christianity as government of the living (techniques of confession, of examination, of spiritual direction). His strategic history of Christianity addresses the question of the State and modern governmentalities from the perspective of a pastoral power constituted as its prehistory and matrix. One might wish to mention the case of anti-pastoral revolts in this context.

  • History of religions and Foucault

The final theme will explore the position Foucault occupies today in the disciplines that deal with religion(s). Have his theories and methods allowed a renewal of the conceptual frameworks that generally structure reflexions on religion? Is he an author who revolutionized the study of religion, and how ? Can we trace a parallel with the influence Discipline and Punish and its focus on institutions and techniques of social control exercised over historians of justice and those who study ecclesiastical disciplinary procedures? Foucault is undoubtedly a fundamental author, his notion of discourse and his way of conceptualizing the relationship between knowledge and power, in particular in his critique of Orientalism, are widely used. Further possible points of interest include his 1980 lectures on the evolution of theology and baptismal liturgy in the first two centuries C.E. and the role of Gnosis in his analyses.

Submission guidelines

Scholars who wish to contribute to the conference should send the organizers a title and a short outline (c. 300 words). Proposals must provide the name of the presenter, position held and institutional affiliation, in English or in French, and should be sent no later than November 15 2013.

Jean-François Bert : Jean-Francois.Bert@unil.ch

Scientific Advisory Board

(and Organization Committee)

  • Julien Cavagnis ;
  • Jean-François Bert ;
  • Philippe Artières ;
  • Frédéric Gros ;
  • Christian Grosse ;
  • Nicolas Meylan ;
  • Luca Paltrinieri ;
  • Philippe Chevallier.


  • Institut religions, cultures, modernité - Anthropole 5020.1 - UNIL - IRCM
    Lausanne, Switzerland (CH-1015)


  • Friday, November 15, 2013


  • Foucault, religion, politique, modernité, spiritualité, antiquité


  • Jean-François Bert
    courriel : jean-francois [dot] bert [at] unil [dot] ch

Reference Urls

Information source

  • Jean-François Bert
    courriel : jean-francois [dot] bert [at] unil [dot] ch


CC0-1.0 This announcement is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal.

To cite this announcement

« Foucault and Religion », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Thursday, June 20, 2013, https://calenda.org/253741

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