Over the last several decades, and especially since 9/11, scholars and intellectuals have come to see questions around religion as increasingly compelling, increasingly complex, and increasingly unavoidable. As high modernism’s confidence in the inevitable secularization of the world has been punctured by the reality of the persistence of religion in private and public life, thinkers have come to see that religious matters are not going away. More often than not, the main imaginative energies shaping our world today—ordering people’s lives and informing our conflicts—are fundamentally religious. The great secular ideologies of the twentieth century, such as nationalism, communism, and even to some extent liberal capitalism, seem to have fewer and fewer true believers. Because of this, to understand our world—its past, present, and future—we must understand religion. Furthermore, scholars across the humanities who in previous generations found little but covert apologetics in the scholarly study of religion have in recent years increasingly turned to religious themes, issues, and concepts as tools of real and abiding import for pursuing lines of inquiry in their own fields

Thus, religion as a topic of humanistic inquiry has become recognized as both necessary and valuable. But too many of the scholars compelled or attracted to issues associated with religion lack any rich acquaintance with the tremendously exciting and innovative work done on these topics, historically, analytically, and conceptually, in recent years. So we face a situation in which many humanities teacher-scholars recognize the importance of studying religion, but lack the best tools available for doing so. This seminar aims to help rectify this problem.

The primary activity of the Institute will be close reading and discussion of important contemporary scholarship on the history, current hot spots, and teaching about religion, with particular focus upon ways that received concepts and categories may ill-equip us to bring the full dimensions of a “religious” theme, issue, or problem into focus. The sections of the course focus on central questions informing what many see today as “the problem of religion.”

The “problem” of religion, of course, is manifold: It is a scholarly problem for modern academia, in that there are serious debates about the proper character of scholarly understanding of religion: Should scholars of religion see religion as an analytic category commensurate with “culture” or “language”, or as an a priori concept? Can “insiders” and “outsiders” both contribute to scholarship on religion, and if so should they do so in the same ways, or in different ways—and if in different ways, how should we relate those modes of scholarship? It is a political problem for contemporary liberal polities: What role(s) can and should religion play in politics, and what role should the state play in the religious lives of its citizens, both political policy and legal matters? It is a historical and cultural problem, for modern societies: How have religions changed views of human individual wellbeing and the social order in the modern world, and how have those new conceptions of the human and society themselves changed and challenged religions? It is an epistemological question, for people seeking to understand religions, particularly in light of claims made by contemporary scientific approaches to human behavior: What is, and what should be, the relationship between religion and science? Finally, and most broadly, it is a social problem, a problem of public discourse, because it asks: How can we understand and investigate religion in a manner that will assist productive public debate today?

In these and other ways, the “problem of religion” touches upon some of our deepest challenges as scholars, as modern individuals, and as human beings. As such, it is a perfect topic for an Institute from a broadly humanistic perspective.

While the contemporary status quaestionis of the study of religion will be the main focus of reading and discussion, we will also give repeated and serious attention to the history of these issues, as both instructors believe that our current prospects and problems in this area of inquiry are quite clearly “path-dependent” upon the previous history of such scholarship. The Institute thus begins with a historical survey (Guy Stroumsa’s A New Science) of major European intellectuals who distinguished the study of “religion”—that is the study of a generalized human activity that is explainable in historical and scientific terms—from theology, which works within the bounds of particular religious traditions to interpret the claims of those traditions, and problematized the relationship between religion, society, public and private life, and continues throughout the first week to explore recent historiography on “religion” in relation to other major areas of thought and practice, including theology, science, and politics.

The value of attending to the formation of “religion” as and object of inquiry for teaching and scholarship across the humanities (and indeed for scholarly work more broadly) cannot be over-stated, for as the readings in week two illustrate, argument about religion extends to many fields. Religion is one of the most powerful forces in the world today, both for good and for ill. Along with science, religion appears to offer such promise and such peril to life on earth that it cannot be ignored in contemporary public debate. Many of the humanities recognize this. The recent emergence of “post-secular criticism” in literary studies, and the rise of “religion” as a specialization in the field of history are only two examples of the humanities’ growing recognition that, in looking at the nature of the human, scholars in the humanities have for too-long ignored those aspects of human life that speak of what humans value above their own lives, or at the center of their own lives—by and large, those aspects of the human condition that we have commonly called “religious.” A overarching goal of the final week of the Institute is thus to discuss ways in which college and university teachers might promote conversation and debate about religion and religious themes today that is both civil and critical, a practice expressed provocatively by Jeffrey Stout in Democracy and Tradition (10-11): “an exchange of views in which the respective parties express their premises in as much detail as they see fit in whatever idiom they wish, try to make sense of each other’s perspectives, and expose their own commitments to the possibility of criticism.”