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Center director earns Ford Foundation grant for study of secularism

February 13, 2007
Can a country where Christmas is recognized as a federal holiday – and the coins and bills have the words “In God We Trust” imprinted upon them – be considered a secular democracy?

This point has been hotly debated in the past 25 years, and there are no signs that the argument will end soon.

The United States is not the only country where the relationship between religion and the secular is being argued, according to Linell Cady, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict.

“Disputes over the nature and legitimacy of the secular state and society have exploded in recent decades both in the United States and abroad,” she says. “The public resurgence of religion, and its extensive politicization, in the past 25 years have reopened with a vengeance questions about the role of religion in contemporary democratic polities.”

By “going public,” Cady says, religious activists have “upended dominant assumptions about modernity that envisioned the increasing and inevitable separation of religion and public life.”

Cady has just been awarded $775,000 by the Ford Foundation to study the nature and varieties of secularism through a project titled “Public Religion, the Secular, and Democracy: An International Cross-disciplinary Project.”

The multiyear project will focus on four countries: France, India, Turkey and the United States, and will include three international conferences, the publication of papers from the conferences, and a series of workshops in the participating countries.

The workshops' goal will be to broaden the public understanding of this topic.

“Journalists, religious leaders, and policymakers will be invited to join scholars in extended dialogue on the implications of conflicts between religious and secular traditions for democratic life and global pluralism,” Cady says.

Cady also will convene an ASU working group on “Religion, Gender and Global Conflict.”

“The role of gender in relation to conflicts over religion, secularism, human rights and democracy is a critical yet seriously underdeveloped area,” she says.

The first conference, “Religion, the Secular and Democracy: Competing Narratives, Alternative Models,” will take place March 22-23 on the Tempe campus.

This event will look at the different ways in which democratic states and societies “manage” religion.

“This is an issue of growing contention,” Cady says. “From the ‘culture wars' in the United States to the purported ‘clash of civilizations' globally, the battle lines have been drawn in a highly oppositional fashion. How are we to understand this increasingly contentious divide, and what are its long-term implications for the expansion of democracy and global society at large?”

“Public Religion, the Secular and Democracy” will bring together some of the best minds from ASU and abroad to address a problem of significant global import.

“The stakes could not be higher, nor the urgency greater, for rethinking the relations of religion and the secular in both national and international contexts,” Cady says. “There's a lot of confusion over what we mean by the secular, and people have certain assumptions, such as religion is moral and secularism is immoral … or religion is always – whether Christian or Muslim – dangerous and extreme. How do we move beyond these divides?”

The four countries to be examined by the project have interestingly different models and histories of relating religion and the secular, Cady says.

“The idea is that by looking carefully at the way in which the secular has taken shape in different countries, we will develop new approaches that will help us move past the either-or paradigms that shape the thinking of the public and policymakers alike,” she says.

Conflicts over religions and the secular also will be the topic of this year's Maxine & Jonathan Marshall Speaker on Religion and Conflict, to be held April 13. Jean Comaroff, the Bernard E. & Ellen C. Sunny Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology and of Social Sciences at the University of Chicago, will be speaking on “Sacred and Secular Refigured: Identity, Piety and Politics in a Global Era.” The lecture is free and open to the public. For more information, visit the Web site