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Belief & Unbelief

Orlando Patterson, sociologist and intellectual, James Miller, writer, and Akeel Bilgrami, philosopher, at the Salmagundi conference “Jihad vs. McWorld: Clash of Civilizations,” 2004. (Emma Dodge Hanson photo courtesy Salmagundi)

At this conference — convened to mark the 50th anniversary of the quarterly Salmagundi — an extraordinary cast of writers and thinkers will address themselves to questions that bear upon the most basic aspects of our lives, questions that involve our fate as “modern” men and women and the discontents we must learn to live with. Particular sessions will focus on the relation between belief and ideology, political conviction and religious commitment, fidelity and fanaticism, the traditional and the new, sincerity and authenticity. Inspiring, or informing, discussion will be Phillip Rieff’s suggestion, in The Triumph of the Therapeutic, that there is, at the center of our culture, an “openness to possibility in which nothing remains true.” Also central to our discussions will be Alasdair MacIntyre’s powerful arguments, in After Virtue, that all beliefs, so called, now largely rest upon “a set of arbitrary prohibitions,” that each of us is condemned to be “his own moral authority,” and that the artworks we most admire are “individualist fictions” reflecting the “absence of shared standards or virtues or goods.”

Clearly, our theme is intended to be flexible and capacious and thus to allow participants at our conference table to move discussion in several different directions, as the spirit moves them.

Each session of the conference will begin with opening remarks (approximately fifteen minutes in length) delivered by one of our participants. But throughout, the emphasis will be on free and open conversation, all of it (once the transcripts have been edited) eventually slated for publication in a special issue of Salmagundi.

The participants — 24 in total — will be seated together at a three-sided table throughout the proceedings (see bottom of the page for speaker bios). There will be an audience, of course, and some modest opportunity for audience questions.

All sessions take place in the Payne Presentation Room in the Tang Teaching Museum and are free and open to the public.

Conference Sessions:

  • Friday September 25, 7:00 PM: “What Is Belief & What is the Fearful Unbelief?” (opening remarks by Marilynne Robinson followed by general discussion)

  • Saturday September 26, 10:15 AM: “Prejudice, Fidelity & ‘Fidelities’” (opening remarks by Anthony Appiah followed by general discussion)

  • Saturday September 26, 11:45 AM: “The Meaning of ‘Belief’ & ‘Sincerity’ in Literature” (opening remarks by James Wood followed by general discussion)

  • Saturday September 26, 2:45 PM: “Bien-Pensant Liberalism, Relativism & Truth-Telling” (opening remarks by Jim Miller followed by general discussion)

  • Saturday September 26, 4:45 PM: “Ideology As Belief: Dangers & Distortions” (opening remarks by Orlando Patterson followed by general discussion)

  • Sunday September 27, 10:15 AM: “Realism, The Virtues & Belief in Public Life” (opening remarks by Seyla Benhabib followed by general discussion & audience questions for the entire panel)

For speaker’s bios, follow this link.

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