The brilliant sculptor Pietro Torrigiano mutilated a terracotta Pietà he had executed in early sixteenth-century Spain. He was convicted by the Inquisition for defiling a sacred image, and was imprisoned in Seville until he died in 1528. There are moments and places where artists can still be persecuted for violating religious norms. That, for instance, is the situation of Maqbool Fida Husain, a leading nonagenarian and Muslim Indian contemporary painter who lives in Dubai, afraid to return home because of the controversy that surrounds his nude depictions of Hindu goddesses. Think also of the Taliban's wilful destruction of the monumental Buddhas of Bamyan in 2001, said to be idols forbidden by sharia law. But such instances are in the main shocking exceptions.
This book treats religion and the political imagination in the period spanning this transformation. Until quite recently, a rather simple story prevailed. ‘Secularisation’ purported to describe a universal transition from a traditional religious picture of the world to a rational conception. Every society was thought to be caught up in this global trajectory, even if each progressed along it at different speeds. In this approach, the division and differentiation of church and state into separate spheres was identified with a progressive separation of politics from religion, an overall shift from a religious to a rational and scientific mentality, and a waning acceptance of religious authority. This perspective has, for some time, lost its capacity to persuade. And yet, something profound did happen. How should it be understood, studied and analysed?