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ASU center director reflects on the state of religion and conflict

Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict set to mark its 20th anniversary

Center director John Carlson, wearing a navy suit and red tie, speaks at a forum regarding politics and religion

John Carlson speaks at a Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict forum on politics and religion. Photo courtesy ASU

January 18, 2023

In his inaugural address, Arizona State University President Michael Crow acknowledged “religion’s enormous role in conflict and public affairs around the world” and called for the creation of a center to address “the urgent need” to understand the impact of religion “in areas as diverse as foreign policy, international law, teaching and learning in our schools, science and technology research and application, news coverage and political ideology.”

Now entering its 20th year, ASU's Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict continues to fulfill this mission by producing transformative research and education and by fostering exchange and collaboration that, together, expand knowledge of the religious dynamics of conflict and peace.

In recognition of the anniversary, the center’s director, John Carlson, associate professor of religious studies in ASU’s School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, talks about the unit’s important work and its continuing relevance today.

Question: In 2007, you wrote an article titled “How Shall We Study Religion and Conflict? Challenges and Opportunities in the Early Twenty-first Century.” In it you assert that the study of religion and conflict in a global era requires an interdisciplinary approach, incorporating a variety of methodologies from disciplines across the humanities and social sciences. Based on what you wrote then, and given the issues we are facing today, how has your thinking and approach evolved?

Answer: ASU is a university that prides itself on interdisciplinary thinking, and I believe we've continued to show the importance of that by drawing into the center’s research by many colleagues across the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences, engineering and other disciplines. That has not changed since the early 2000s.

What has evolved is how we approach the concept of conflict. Many people tend to think about conflict, especially in conjunction with religion, as a problem — often a violent one — in need of a fix or solution. To begin with, not all conflict is violent. But even when it is, problematic forms of violence provide important occasions for reflection, for innovation, for reform and for transformation. Beneath every form or instance of violence are much deeper conflicts and issues that warrant investigation and require subtler forms of understanding.

I think it is also important to acknowledge that conflict itself can be constructive. There is no time in the history of human civilization that progress, innovation, reform and change occur without conflict. … What all of us — policymakers, practitioners, journalists, students and citizens — need to understand better is how religion shapes conflict and how it might also be part of a story of human progress.

Q: Among its projects, the center has focused on countering violent religious extremism. What lessons have been learned in this area, and can they be applied to the rise of nationalism in the United States?

A: There was a lot of focus on countering violent extremism in the years after 9/11. One of the things that we in the center sought to understand was how discourses and movements within Muslim societies already worked to counter violent extremism.

This approach also applies to growing forms of extremism in the United States and the role that religion plays, particularly Christian Nationalism. Some forms of Christian Nationalism do not pose a violent threat to the government or to other Americans. It is imperative we recognize that. But, as we saw during the Jan. 6 insurrection, there are dangerous elements we need to understand better, including the presence of Christian Nationalist viewpoints found in different militia groups. Their numbers are rising in the U.S., and that’s a real concern.

Democracy in America has always thrived when we've been able to preserve a healthy tension between the political and religious lives of its citizens. Figures like Martin Luther King remind us that religious ideals can inspire and guide us to improve our national politics. But we also need to resist elevating partisan fealty to a level of devotion that should be reserved for ultimate religious and ethical concerns.

Q: While the center’s founding in 2003 was animated by the events of 9/11 and a newfound sense of public urgency about the role of religion in conflict, scholars were keenly aware that trends begun well before 9/11 were unleashing dynamics where diverse traditions — religious and secular — were increasingly likely to collide. Can you elaborate on how these dynamics have evolved in the last 20 years, and why it still matters to contemporary publics?

A: Let me begin by saying that it's important to remember that the history of religion, or any individual tradition, is itself a history of conflict. As well, whenever we try to understand our own time, we need to appreciate what's distinctive about it as well as what's continuous with the past.

It's vital not to resort to a kind of presentism, where the only thing that matters is what's happening now — as if it is unprecedented or unrelated to the past. … One of the things that we really want to do at the Center is to give people enough understanding of the past so that they understand how it has shaped the moment we're in now. 

That said, the center was born and took form in an era of intense globalization — one defined by unprecedented global trade, the influence of global technologies, the rise of global institutions and even appeals to “global citizenship.” This era was also defined by exigent global problems and threats — from terrorism and piracy to climate change and mass migration.

One of the challenges that we're facing today that is new, though not unprecedented, is the resurgence of nationalism, and the ways in which religion is a force in that. In many ways, nationalism is part of an intense backlash against globalization. Interestingly, though, the rise of nationalism is itself a global phenomenon that one sees not just in the U.S., but all over the world, including places like the U.K., Turkey, the Philippines, China, India and Russia. Religion plays a role in many of the nationalist movements we are seeing today, as well as in the divisions they are creating.

One of the projects we are involved with now is called the Recovering Truth project, which brings these questions of religions and the secular together in a new way. What forms of truth-seeking do we find in religions? How are these compatible with democracy? Democracy as a unique form of government depends on a shared public world in which we pursue truths in common. How do we nurture that shared world, the trust in one another on which it depends and the institutions it sustains? These are the questions we are working on today — at home and abroad — in our Recovering Truth project, our Peace Studies program, and our Religion and Science and Spirituality and Public Life initiatives.

The center kicked off its 20th anniversary schedule of events with a lecture by Carlson on Jan. 19, titled “The Future of Religion and Conflict.”

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