By Jeanne H. Kilde
The importance of studying religion is brought home to me every time I open a newspaper. From the short-lived but red-hot dispute over the construction of an Islamic center near the Twin Towers site in lower Manhattan that erupted in August, to the disparaging of Haitian Vodou by Christian fundamentalists after the January 2010 earthquake, to the decision to have President Obama refrain from visiting the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, during the fall, religion is in the news as never before.
Here at the Program in Religious Studies, our undergraduate majors and minors and our graduate minors are exploring these situations and developing the knowledge sets and analytical skills necessary to fruitfully contribute to these important national and international conversations about religion. Courses such as Professor Kirsten Fisher's "Religion and the U.S. Founding: Contests Then and Now over the Place of Religion in Politics," Professor Iraj Bashiri's "Islam and the West," and Professor Penny Edgell's "Religion and Public Life in the United States" are only a few of the many courses we offer that encourage students to engage with contemporary issues of religion in society.
Given the prominence of Islam in the news, we are also committed to presenting accurate information about Islamic religious traditions. To that end, we are delighted to have been awarded a generous grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to participate in their Bridging Cultures initiative. Our contribution will be a three-day conference titled "Shared Cultural Spaces: Islam and the West in the Arts and Sciences," organized by religious studies core faculty members Nabil Mater (English) and Bill Beeman (Anthropology) and myself. This conference will bring together scholars from across the United States to examine the historical interplay between Islamic and Western philosophy, science, art, architecture, and media, from the twelfth-century to the present.
The centerpiece of the conference will be a dramatization of the twelfth-century philosophical novel, Hayy Ibn Yaqzan, by Ibn Tufayl. The story is of an orphaned boy, raised by a gazelle, who, as he grows into an adult, teaches himself about science, philosophy, morality, and ultimately God through careful examination of nature and without the usual mediating influence of society. Translated over the centuries into many languages, the book became the inspiration behind Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe in the early eighteenth century. The story continues to fascinate us, with the most recent iteration appearing in the film Castaway, with Tom Hanks. Our play, titled Journey, is written and directed by New York-based Iranian-American director Mohammad B. Ghaffari and will feature local performer Eddie B. Oroyan in the lead role.
This exciting event will be followed by a workshop of religious studies faculty and community partners aimed at developing a program designed to share the information imparted at the conference with a national audience.
Through their coursework and events such as this, our students are immersed in the religious thought and practices of a variety of traditions, deepening their understanding of how religions function and their ability to think through issues across traditions. It is precisely these knowledge sets and skills that are increasingly required of professionals in fields from education to public policy, from business and law to health and medicine. As religious studies graduates hit the job market, their knowledge about religion provides a significant value added with employers who realize that negotiating the challenges of contemporary religious diversity is now a necessity for success. It is the goal and privilege of the Program in Religious Studies to assist the next generation of participants in this public conversation by preparing them to shoulder the responsibilities of leadership in a religiously diverse world.