Science and Religion in Public Life


The return of religion to the public sphere in politics and the academy is one of the great surprises of the twenty-first century. It has given rise to new local, national and global politics and led to rethinking of the boundaries of science and religion. In this FOCUS cluster, we explore the new global role of religion, with special attention to the US, and inquire how it inspires, challenges, and interacts with political and scientific institutions. Using diverse approaches, from historical to social scientific, textual criticism and hermeneutics to storytelling and scientific reasoning, students will gain familiarity with religious traditions and forms of politics that shape their lives, yet remain perilously obscure, and a deeper understanding of how religion has had, and continues to have, cultural and political impact. How do the sacred texts of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity relate to each other and shape the social and political world of religious communities? How do black freedom struggles in the US deploy religious critique as a source of empowerment and agency? How can engaging others’ stories expand our otherwise abstract scientific, theological, and political, perspectives? How have the divergent interpretations of Jesus Christ and his message informed ideologies as contradictory as white supremacy and liberation theology?


History 190FS/ Religion 190FS/Jewish Studies 190FS: Great Books of the Abrahamic Traditions (CCI, EI, CZ)

Luke Bretherton, Professor of Theological Ethics, Duke Divinity School

Malachi Hacohen, Associate Professor of History, Political Science, and Religion

Recent decades have seen radical reshaping of the relationships of the three Abrahamic religions. We have witnessed new conflicts among their proponents, but also renewed efforts at interreligious dialogue and unprecedented solidarity. Yet, do Christians, Jews and Muslims really know each other? The Abrahamic religions are all based in sacred texts, containing revealed truth, and have legal and interpretive traditions elucidating them. Do we know these texts? Do we know how they each read them? This team-taught course brings together scholars with expertise in Christian, Jewish, and Islamic texts and traditions to explore each other’s intellectual universe. We will seek to understand the texts on their own terms, within their contexts of origin and transmission, and explore their social and political working throughout history. By the end of the semester, participants will have acquired basic literacy in the three religions and habits of reflection that will prepare them for engagement with the religious world of the other.

Religion 190FS/ African and African American Studies 190FS/ Political Science 190FS: The Politics of Religion and Race (CCI, EI, SS)

Joseph Winters, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, African and African American Studies, and English

While we are often told that religion and politics should be separate in a secular, liberal society, black freedom struggles demonstrate the interconnections between religion and political resistance. In this course, we will examine how struggles against racial injustice have been informed and enabled by religious ideas and practices—not to mention criticism of religious institutions that justify anti-black racism. We will focus on three different contexts/movements in US history – anti-slavery/abolitionist movements, the civil rights movement, and Black Lives Matter – considering in each case how religion is both an object of critique and source of empowerment, agency, and resistance. We will pursue the following questions: How have racial formations been shaped and authorized by religious idioms? How have struggles against racial injustice refused and reinterpreted these religious idioms? In what ways do notions like the prophetic, redemption, sacrifice, spirituality, and hope function in black freedom struggles? In what way does the idea of America, or the promise of American democracy, function as a religious category? How have contemporary movements parted ways with some civil rights legacies, particularly regarding gender, sexuality, and the dominance of Christianity?

Ethics 140FS/ Global Health 140FS/ Science and Society 140FS/ Sociology 140FS: ON Suffering: How Science and Stories Shape Us (ALP, EI, STS)

Raymond Barfield, Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Christian Philosophy and Director, Medical Humanities, Trent Center for Bioethics, Medical Humanities, and History of Medicine

This is a course about how a genuine encounter with the stories told by people, or groups of people, can bolster, undermine, and reorient our otherwise abstract philosophical, political, and scientific accounts of various forms of suffering – the suffering of individuals, marginalized groups, and the environment. By paying close attention to works of written and oral storytelling (including news articles, research reports, case histories, and speeches at rallies), this course seeks to engage the various arguments for, and critiques of, appealing to stories in the face of suffering, and to start articulating the theological and ethical implications of the idea of ‘being an engaged witness in the world’. We will listen to historical and contemporary voices that have shaped our views of the world, explore the characteristics of pseudoscientific movements that make us squirm, and delve deeper into the apparent and real differences between scientific, experiential, and philosophical reasoning.

Faculty Director

Malachi Hacohen
  • Associate Professor of History, Political Science and Religion
  • Senior Fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics
  • Bass Fellow
210 Carr Building
Campus Box: 
Box 90719
(919) 684-6819