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Peacebuilding, interreligious dialogue focus of alum's work

Steven Cottam picture, Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict alumni
September 26, 2011

Unlike the typical incoming freshman, Steven Cottam had no doubt in his mind that he was making the right decision when he declared religious studies as his major when applying to Arizona State University back in 2003.

Having written a research paper on English translations of the Qur’an in high school, Cottam knew well before most students what his major would entail, but even he could not predict that he would end up in the field of religion and conflict.

Fast forward a few years. Cottam is now an alumnus of ASU, having graduated in 2008 with bachelor’s degrees in history and religious studies from the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies. And he is well on his way to completing his master’s degree in theology from Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

While to some a master’s in theology may seem to be narrowly focused on a career in the church, Cottam begs to differ.

“It’s always been important to me that my academic study of religion, as interesting as it is in its own right, have some practical application,” Cottam says.

And for him, that practical application is the field of religion and conflict.

“The study of religion and conflict provides an important, practical outlet for the ideas and concepts we learn from and about religion, and applies them to the important work of peace building, conflict resolution, and reconciliation,” Cottam says.

While at ASU, Cottam was an undergraduate research fellow with the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict. As a fellow, he carried out research for Stephen Batalden, a faculty affiliate of the center and director of the Melikian Center for Russian and East European Studies.

As part of his fellowship, Cottam also helped organize the visit of a number of religious scholars from Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia to ASU, giving him exposure to the practice of interreligious dialogue.

Cottam was surrounded by so much religious diversity that he describes his fellowship experience as the beginning of a joke: “‘So I was with a Bosnian Muslim Mufti, a Serbian Orthodox Priest, and a Catholic Franciscan in a mini-van…’, but there’s no punch line. It was just the description of my normal Friday afternoon,” Cottam says.

At Catholic Theological Union, Cottam continues in the same line of work he started as a fellow with the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict: interreligious dialogue with a specific focus on Catholic-Muslim dialogue.

“I have definitely pursued coursework that is specifically related to interreligious dialogue in the context of conflict. Even in my more day-to-day academic pursuits, I really don’t think I have gone more than a week without discussing religion and conflict,” Cottam says.

When Cottam graduates with his master’s degree in May 2012, he knows without a doubt he will continue to work in the field of religion and conflict. Even though religion and conflict runs the risk of being depressing, Cottam focuses on the positive aspect of what he studies: the creation of peace.

“As a repository of all our deepest hopes and fears, religions will by their nature either instigate and enflame or else mitigate and disperse human conflicts of every variety,” he says.

“It is our duty, for the good of all, to study well and thus bend our traditions toward the latter.”

Story by Alli Coritz, a communications and operations intern with the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict.