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Joint Kripke, Kenefick symposium to look at roles, interplay of religion and secularism

As much as a conversation about the secular and the religious might inspire visions of militant atheists and Bible-thumping churchgoers shouting each other down in the street, the two concepts might not be as binarily opposed as the modern age suggests.

October 5 and 6, Creighton University will host “Religion and Secularism,” an interdisciplinary symposium co-sponsored by the Kripke Center for the Study of Religion and Society and the John C. Kenefick Faculty Chair in the Humanities will ask scholars to meditate on how much the secular and the religious share and benefit from one another and, indeed, how they could be said to form something of a continuum between not altogether divergent poles.

“Not all that long ago, the idea of religious society versus a secular society would not have made sense,” said J. Patrick Murray, PhD, professor of philosophy and Kenefick Chair in the Humanities. “It was just society. Religion was life. The emergence of secularism has shown us that and provided us with a host of other questions to ask when it comes to religion. Some people say humanism is a religion. Some people say they can have spirituality without religion. Is that secularity? Those are the kinds of conversations we hope to have here.”

In the United States, secularism has run an especially intriguing course. While the Establishment Clause of the Constitution and the subsequent interpretation of the separation of church and state are sometimes cast as the very watchwords of the republic and enshrine a secular society, the nation is often viewed as overwhelmingly religious.

Most nations in Europe, where secularism has taken a much harder line, would blanch at the idea of open displays of religion on streetcorners, national flags above churches, a pledge of allegiance taken as “one nation under God.”

“The tenor of secularism is entirely different in Europe,” said Ronald Simkins, PhD, director of the Kripke Center. “Secularism there is the near total absence of religion. An interesting case to look at is what’s happened in Turkey. The foundations of Turkey are as a secular state. In recent years and under the current president, there has been a swing toward a more religious basis in government. Is that an eroding of secularism or is it a case where there’s just a slightly more religious acceptance by the government, as there is in the United States?”

Secularism as an area for study first emerged in the 1960s in sociology departments around the world. At about the same time, religious studies also came about as a discipline in the Academy.

The discussion has been amplified by renowned Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor, DPhil, who has written on the interplay of religion and secularism for the better part of his more than 50-year career. Taylor penned A Secular Age, a foundational text on the subject, a decade ago. Murray and Simkins hope a discussion about the origins of secularism and secularization, along with a definition of the terms “religious” and “secular” will take place over the course of the symposium.

“The two have been tied together for some time,” Simkins said. “And secularism has become such a fluid term. There are differing conceptions of it, from total atheism to a recognition of the variations between the neutral, the sacred, the profane. People no longer think of the sacramentality of life or even in religious terms, but there are sacred spaces and profane spaces that they recognize.”

Trending away from a strictly religious concept of life has also opened new doors and perspectives in the world.

“To be an atheist in mid-19th century Germany would have closed any door to you as far as a government post or a teaching post,” Murray said. “Before that, it was only priests who taught in universities.”

“Democratization has been part and parcel of secularization,” Simkins added. “In that light, it’s hard to view secularization as a bad thing in itself.”

José Casanova, PhD, senior fellow in the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs at Georgetown University, will be a featured guest at the symposium, delivering a paper titled “Secularism in context, regional and historical: A Catholic perspective.”

Creighton scholars David McPherson, PhD, William O. Stephens, PhD, Jeanne Schuler, PhD and Richard White, PhD, along with Murray, all from the Department of Philosophy, and Leonard Greenspoon, PhD, Klutznick Chair in Jewish Civilization in the Department of Theology, will deliver papers.

Additionally, scholars from nine different institutions from across the U.S. and Canada will also present on topics ranging from faith and modernity to secularization and economics, and the notion of being spiritual but not religious.

Presented papers will be published in book form. All presentations will take place in the Harper Center, Room 3023.

For a full listing of presenters and topics, click here. The Religion and Secularism Symposium is free and open to the public.

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