A Report from the 2014 NEH Summer Institute “Problems in the Study of Religion”

A Report from the 2014 NEH Summer Institute “Problems in the Study of Religion” August 21, 2014

This summer I had the pleasure of working with Professors Kurtis Schaeffer and Charles Mathewes to run the National Endowment for the Humanities-funded Summer Institute “Problems in the Study of Religion.” Each year, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) strengthens the American study of the humanities through funding dozens of summer workshops, seminars, and institutes, which bring together university and secondary school educators to discuss pressing issues in their fields. After their successful 2011 NEH-funded seminar on a similar theme, Professors Mathewes and Schaeffer wanted to continue the rich conversations and intellectual development through sponsoring a larger summer institute at the University of Virginia.

We accepted 25 faculty and upper-level graduate students from across the country to participate. Professors Schaeffer and Mathewes were committed to creating an interdisciplinary space which nurtured voices from across the humanities—not merely those from the field of religious studies. To that end, almost half of our accepted participants were from fields and departments outside of religious studies, including anthropology, political science, English, area studies, and environmental studies. This wide mix and diversity was a huge success in generating an enthralling and compelling dialogue throughout the three weeks of the institute. As a field, religious studies has much to gain from its colleagues throughout the humanities (and beyond), and one the greatest pleasures of the institute was developing academic connections and conversations across disciplines.

Our first week focused on the problem of the category of religion—and its necessary opposite, the secular. We began with Brent Nongbri’s recent work Before Religion, which looks at the concurrent development of the concept of “religion” with the concept of “secular.” We delved deeper into this topic through examining Talal Asad’s Formations of the Secular. Our final week concluded with Saba Mahmood’s Politics of Piety. The majority of participants concluded that Mahmood’s central claims have been accepted by most scholars of religion and, therefore, perhaps generate less controversy than they once did; however, it was generally agreed that her work still provided an excellent resource for upper-level undergraduates and early-career graduate students. Our week ended with a trip to the nearby Monticello where we were able to explore the founder of the University of Virginia Thomas Jefferson’s complicated relationships with slavery, religion, and the intellectual currents of his day.

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