The Ottawa Citizen's Pauline Tam, reporting last week on Carleton University's new Muslim studies program, noted how, "a decade ago, religion programs were on life support at most universities, where they were viewed by some as antiquated, perhaps even irrelevant."
That's true. The 1990s were thought to mark the end of ideology, political or religious. With the Soviet collapse, globalization was to be the new, secular religion. People around the world would unite around their shared faith in trade, development and economic progress.
The assumption was that traditional religious belief, a relic of pre-modern tribalism, would no longer play a significant role in human history. Barriers were coming down -- geographic, linguistic and economic.
There was the European Union and the World Wide Web. If universities were eliminating religious studies departments, it was to make room for technology and business programs.
Then came 9/11, and the revelation that some people, huge numbers in fact, have continued to make religious belief the guiding force in their lives.
So, yes, it's important that we take religion seriously again. Equally important, students of religion -- and this includes believers -- must understand that 9/11 was a transformative moment. It changed the way we need to think about religion.
Before 9/11, for example, many scholars and ordinary Muslims were slow to recognize the radicalization occurring in Islam. In 2002 I attended a conference of the Middle East Studies Association and was surprised to discover that even one year after the attacks, there were virtually no papers being presented on religious terrorism. Just the opposite: The professors were dismissive of researchers in other departments, such as security studies, who took an interest in the subject ("terror-ologists," they called them.)
As I wrote at the time, "journalists who visited mosques in North America and abroad after Sept. 11 realized that Osama bin Laden had more sympathy than professors of Middle East studies wanted the public to know. The professors insisted categorically that Islam was a religion of peace, end of story. Reporters, a cagey bunch, quickly realized that the reality was more complicated."
The challenge for Carleton University's program will be to capture the historic richness of Islam without sanitizing the uglier expressions of the faith. This applies to all religions.
A good example of post-9/11 religious scholarship is a new book, published out of Europe, titled Les Versets Douloureux, or "Painful Verses." Here, three thinkers -- a rabbi, a Jesuit and an imam -- confront, in a spirit of reconciliation, the most dangerous passages in their respective holy books. (Full disclosure: the editor, Rabbi David Meyer, is my brother-in-law.)
This is a healthy response to 9/11, certainly a more realistic one than giving up on religion altogether as some proponents of the "new atheism" have done. Religiosity is hard-wired into the human condition. Sept. 11 didn't destroy religion, though it did impose a burden on religious leaders, and followers, to engage in self-criticism -- to acknowledge the "painful verses" of our traditions.
For something that was supposed to be obsolete, religion continues to be in the news. Also last week, the Pew Research Center released a monumental survey of religious life in the United States.
The survey discovered, as the researchers put it, "a very competitive religious marketplace." Forty-four per cent of Americans profess a religious or church affiliation different from the one they were born into. Methodists are becoming Baptists, Anglicans are becoming Catholics, and so on. Seventy-five per cent of Buddhists in the U.S. are converts to Buddhism.
The marketplace is so busy that members of protestant churches, traditionally the religious establishment in the U.S., are barely holding on to their majority status, at 51 per cent of the adult population. The survey is a reminder that even in post-industrial technological society, people are constantly in search of meaning.
Atheists have argued that religion is for the ignorant and illiterate. But more than a quarter of American Buddhists -- most of whom, remember, embraced Buddhism later in life -- have graduate education. Thirty-five per cent of practising Jews have professional degrees or MAs and PhDs. For Hindus, the figure is 48 per cent.
The advancement of modernity has not yet displaced the major religious traditions. Since they're going to be with us for a while yet, it's in our collective interest to understand them.