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Scholars and Students Explore Intersection of Religion and Violence

Scholars and Students Explore Intersection of Religion and Violence

Leading scholars representing a range of disciplines are lending their expertise to a new Religious Studies course that encourages Stanford students to think globally about how religion, violence and politics converge in the 21st century. Every Wednesday during the spring course entitled, “Religion and Global Conflict,” a different guest speaker is addressing this timely issue from their unique research perspective.

Presented in a lecture series format, the course avoids grand theories concerning the relationship between religion and socio-political conflict, and instead examines the way in which the major world religions at different times and in different places have - through their distinct ideologies and/or practices - amplified or mitigated violence. Throughout the quarter, students’ understanding of this nuanced subject has grown as they have heard from scholars in the Departments of History, Political Science, and Religious Studies; the Programs in Islamic Studies and Jewish Studies; the Centers for European Studies and Buddhist Studies; and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

Alternating viewpoints have been eye opening for freshman Firas Abuzaid. “The world is rife with conflict, but too often we don't understand that a conflict has more than one perspective, and that these perspectives are formed by our respective identities. That, to me, is what this class is all about.”

Religious Studies professor Brent Sockness, who developed the new course, said that there was a sense in his department that students across the university were eager to understand “the resurgence on the world stage of ‘strong religions,’ i.e., various forms of fundamentalism.” Although the course is offered through the Department of Religious Studies, the academic interests of the students are as diverse as those of the presenting scholars, with a cross-section of humanities and science majors enrolled. Offered as a two-unit course, Sockness hopes that “Religion and Global Conflict” will inspire students to pursue the study of religion’s interaction with society in more depth with one or another of the course’s guest lecturers.

Interdisciplinary Approach Challenges Perceptions

From the outset, Sockness envisioned the course as an interdisciplinary lecture series because he knew there were Stanford professors outside of his own department devoting serious thought to the issues of religion and violence and religion and politics, faculty who could help students think about the topic in new and complex ways. Choosing a capacious course title enabled him to pool Stanford's best resources from various departments, institutes, and centers across the campus. “I knew if I could identify the right people, the topics would fall into place on their own.  I’m extremely grateful to my colleagues whose participation has made the course so informative and engaging.”

Guest lecturers have included political scientist and FSI Senior Fellow Martha Crenshaw, who spoke about the motivations behind, and psychology of, suicide terrorism; History professor Philippe Buc, who explored the pre-modern Christian roots of American ideals shaping attitudes towards war; and Religious Studies professor Steven Weitzman, who traced the concept and practice of martyrdom back to ancient (2nd century BCE) Hellenistic Jewish origins.

Each lecture is a relatively self-contained study in the complex ways in which a particular religious ideology, set of practices, or "sacred history" continues, as Sockness put it, to “impact and shape what some sociologically oriented scholars of religion are now calling the ‘post-secular’ world.”

When asked what he hopes students will take away from the course, Professor Sockness had a multi-part response.

“I hope students will come to appreciate that with respect to the forms of culture we recognize as 'religious': 1) history (both of the religious tradition and of the region in which it is embedded) matters a lot; 2) the cultural 'software' of religion is ignored by social science and policy analysis at our peril; and 3) popular, simplistic understandings of religion's role in society and international affairs (such as that contained in the subtitle of Christopher Hitchen's God is not Great: How Religion Ruins Everything) are not terribly helpful.”

Junior Cecilia Jojola, a Biology Major and Religious Studies Minor, confirmed that the course is, in fact, allowing students to “reach beyond the traditional scope of examining religion for the sake of examining religion.” About her own interest in ethics she said,  “it is particularly interesting for me to see how various leaders and religious groups use religion to justify action, good and bad.” Ms. Jojola added that thought-provoking class discussions had brought, “the dynamic nature of human interpretation to the forefront.”

Enhancing a Community of Scholarship

The students aren’t the only ones profiting from the lectures.  Although religion and politics is not Sockness’ principal field of expertise, the theme is not unrelated to his abiding interest in religion and modernization. Sockness has published widely on the ethics and social theories of two major nineteenth-century German Protestant religious intellectuals, Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) and Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923.) According to him, both were acutely aware of what sociologists call the functional differentiation of society in the modern period, and each was in conversation with the most important philosophers and social theorists of their time.  

“Schleiermacher was theoretically ground-breaking in this respect, for he developed a theory of culture (under the auspices of a philosophical ethics) in which religion forms but one sphere next to those of the state/economy, academy/education, and what we today call civil society.” Sockness continued, “Troeltsch too was concerned to envision a place for religion in modern life that would respect other ‘cultural goods’ such as economy, the state, the arts, and education. He recognized that each of these spheres has its own dynamic or rationality, and that religion--if it was to have a humane and positive role in modern life--would have to come to terms with these relatively independent arenas of cultural activity. Indeed, 'compromise' was a key concept in Troeltsch’s social ethic as he thought about how to balance his religious ideals with the hard factors of modern social life.”

On June 2nd, Joshua Cohen, political philosopher and Director of the Program on Global Justice at Stanford, will deliver the final lecture, which will explore the relationship between human rights and religious pluralism. But the conversation may well continue in two years when Professor Sockness plans to reconvene a similar group of experts.