The Observer is a Student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame & Saint Mary's. Learn more about us.



Conference to focus on religion

by Laura McCrystal | Wednesday, November 17, 2010

In the early 20th century, the idea that religion was “on its way out” became predominant, according to Notre Dame Professor Patrick Mason. Today, Notre Dame is launching a research initiative to explore the relevance of world religions in the modern world.

The initiative, titled Contending Modernities, will use multi-disciplinary research to promote understanding of how religious and secular forces interact. Its first phase involves studying the interaction between Catholicism, Islam and secularism.

Mason, the project’s associate director for research, said Notre Dame has always been a leader in the study of religion, specifically Catholicism. Contending Modernities, which began through Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, will make the University a hub for understanding the interaction between Catholicism, other world religions and secular society.

“The heart of this project is that it’s comparative,” Mason said. “Our vision is that it will involve dozens of scholars both here at Notre Dame and around the world.”

Today and Friday in New York City, the University will launch Contending Modernities. Today at 4 p.m. at the Sheraton New York, University President Fr. John Jenkins will deliver an introduction to the project. Kroc Institute Director Scott Appleby will also address the prior to three keynote speakers.

Shaykh Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, will speak through videoconference. Jane Dammen McAuliffe, president of Bryn Mawr College and former president of the American Academy of Religion, and John McGreevy, dean of Notre Dame’s College of Arts and Letters will also give keynote speeches.

Friday at 10 a.m., the University will host a panel titled “Women, Family and Society in Islam and Catholicism,” featuring experts with a variety of perspectives.

While there are plans for the project to eventually include other religions, it is beginning with Catholicism and Islam because they have many similarities, Mason said.

There are Catholics and Muslims in every country, Mason said, and members of both faiths make up approximately one-third of the global population.

“They’re the two truly global religions,” he said. “They’ve had to adjust to the radical transformations that have come about in the modern world … They make really interesting historical cases or parallels because of this shared experience of having to live through or renegotiate the transitions of modernity.”

Today and Friday’s launch events in New York were planned long before the controversy over the Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero, but Mason said the controversy is a further indication of Contending Modernities’ importance.

Public discourse about issues such as terrorism and Sept. 11 are important in modern society and a part of Contending Modernities, Mason said.

“Scholars have, we believe, an obligation to enrich the public discourse on these things,” he said. “Part of the underlying foundation of the project is that … the most important problems we have aren’t going to be solved by secular institutions alone.”

After the project’s launch, Mason said the University would form research teams in early 2011. The project is designed to unfold over several years, but the preliminary stage will include teams of Catholic, Muslim and secular experts at Notre Dame and around the world. Together, they will explore themes such as human development, science, gender, law, migration, violence and peace.

Emad Shahin, the Henry R. Luce Associate Professor of Religion, Conflict and Peacebuilding at Notre Dame, joined the Notre Dame faculty in 2009 and has been involved in the planning stages of Contending Modernities.

Shahin will also participate in the project’s research teams. His own research focuses on Islamic politics and the relationship between Islamic law and modern political concepts, and he said he is looking forward to the project’s ability to find common ground between Catholicism and Islam.

“I’ve always thought of the possibilities of building a common ground, common agenda and even a plan of action between the various communities of faith that could enable them to cooperate and respond to the challenges in our modern world at the humanistic or humanitarian level.”

In addition to a scholarly research initiative, Mason said Contending Modernities is a public education project. Research teams will present their findings to the broader public through writing op-ed newspaper pieces, contributing to blogs, working to develop school curriculums, advising religious and civic leaders or writing policy papers for governments.

“This is really bold and ambitious and innovative and really sort of takes Notre Dame a step further in terms of our outreach to the world,” Mason said.

At Notre Dame, the Kroc Institute has already applied for and received money to hire new faculty members, including one specialist in global Catholicism, two professors in Islamic studies and one Islamic law specialist.

Mason said the project could eventually lead to research opportunities for undergraduates, expansion of the University’s foreign language offerings and new study abroad programs. These programs would be created in cooperation with other offices and departments at Notre Dame.

“One of our real hopes is that Contending Modernities will act as a seed to further internationalize the University,” Mason said.