In an age of science, religious conflicts abound. Violence in Iraq often stems from differences in faiths. In the United States, political turmoil and shootings have been born out of a difference of opinion over when a fertilized egg becomes a human.
A new center at Arizona State University is now looking to understand such discord.
The Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict has expanded in four years to connect the work of 89 professors and roughly a dozen research teams. The academic unit is one of a growing number at ASU built around a relevant issue rather than a traditional discipline such as physics or geology.
Faculty members working with the center teach within typical departments, including the business school and law college. But the center’s scholars spend part of their teaching and research time trying to understand spiritual disputes.
“You really won’t understand this phenomenon until you bring together people who understand the politics, the history, the social psychology of what leads people to violence,” said Linell Cady, the center’s director.
It also helps to tap professors who speak the same language or practice the same religion as those engaged in a dispute.
ASU’s new model of university-building eliminates the walls between departments. A class on bioethics might be taught by two instructors, one a philosophy professor and the other a biologist.
ASU President Michael Crow named the creation of the religion and conflict center as an aspiration in his inaugural address in 2002.
The university, Crow has said, should not study today’s problems from afar but should play a central role in finding solutions.
In years past, scholars have been aided by hindsight when tackling issues such as religious conflict, said Carolyn Forbes, the center’s assistant director. Today, researchers often attempt to analyze situations in real time. But before the center could grapple with the complex factors driving spiritual disputes, it had to shift how many people in higher education deal with religious topics.
The modern university might not be godless — as some critics argue. But in years past, it has largely failed to grasp religion’s significance.
Cady said many academics believed that an enlightened and evolved human race would drop its faith as it dropped its tail.
“Many fields, like political science, for the most part bought into this secularization narrative and the idea religion was largely either going away eventually or was becoming privatized,” she said.
That forecast has proved inaccurate.
The role of religion in people’s lives and in their governments has only grown in all corners of the world.
The French government’s banning of headscarves in 2005 prompted rioting by aggrieved Muslims. Hindus battle Muslims in India. Evangelical Christians in the United States have waged a legal and political fight against what they view as a secular government trampling religious freedoms.
The center serves as an umbrella for ASU faculty interested in studying these issues, Forbes said. And it allows professors to apply for grants from a unit that is devoted solely to religion and conflict.
Miriam Elman, a political science professor, is working with justice studies professor Madelaine Adelman on a research project called Democracy in the Middle East. The professors are looking into how those living in the region perceive the form of government and whether democracy might stem religious violence.
Cady recently received a grant from the Ford Foundation to investigate how secular governments and strong religious groups mix in the United States, India, Turkey and France.
More locally, another project is researching whether Bosnian Serb immigrants to Phoenix are perpetuating the divisions between Christians and Muslims similarly to those who remained in their homeland.
Beyond its research, the center has organized a long list of courses offered by other departments that deal with religious and ethical issues.
Each fall, the center selects up to 12 undergraduate fellows to take a class on spiritual disputes, taught by Cady, and to work on research projects with other faculty members.
Next, the center plans to offer a certificate program for undergraduate students in religion and conflict. The certificate would show that students focused a share of their studies on religious discord, regardless of what degree they earned.
“They could be economics majors,” Cady said.