McGill’s Faculty of Religious Studies has been a resourceful and adaptive intellectual community dedicated to advancing the critical study of religion and its impact on society, politics and culture. From its inception, it has continually re-assessed and renewed its mission and resources. The new transition of Religious Studies from its Faculty status to a School – made official at the Thursday, Feb. 11, meeting of the Board of Governors – represents another pivotal moment in this evolution.
McGill’s Faculty of Religious Studies was one of the first places in North America where the world’s religions were studied rigorously in a university setting, along with professional training for students engaged with the religious sector. This nexus laid the foundations for an internationally recognized tradition of academic excellence in religious studies shaped by ongoing interaction with the living perspectives and practices of religious communities.
From the early 20th century, William Birks spearheaded a determined effort to draw theological colleges and McGill into ecumenical and interfaith consortium for the study of religion. In 1948, the Faculty of Divinity was formed with six chairs ranging from biblical studies to comparative religion. In 1969, the unit was renamed the Faculty of Religious Studies to reflect the increasingly pluralistic religious world that was the focus of its study.
The goal of this latest reconfiguration is not to downgrade the discipline. In fact, the explicit objective of the agreement for transitioning the Faculty into a School is to situate Religious Studies more constructively within the academy and to strengthen its capacity for future development.
In some ways, this academic shift is a response to cultural and political changes. At the turn of the 21st century, we find ourselves in a world marked by the resurgence of religion. Gone are the happy secularist days when political leaders from Kennedy to Khrushchev, Nasser, Nehru or Ben Gurion could confidently relegate religion to a separate devotional sphere, largely disconnected from broader social and political developments.
One face of this resurgence is the evolving struggle to accommodate the rich diversities of religious belief and expression within increasingly multicultural societies. However, the resurgence of religion is also marked by a dark side with the rise of violent ideological extremisms anchored in religion.
Engaging religious diversities and the dilemmas generated by the rise of politicized forms of religious extremism present new and complex challenges for the academy. The School of Religious Studies brings its established credentials in diverse fields such as biblical studies, Hinduism, Buddhism, philosophy of religion, public theology, religion and globalization, and public policy. These assets come alongside the work of Islamic Studies, Jewish Studies, as well the array of scholars engaging religion in disciplinary fields such as Law, International Development Studies, Anthropology, East Asian Studies, Philosophy and Education, among others. With this range of assets McGill is uniquely placed to critically engage the challenges posed by the changing face of religious identities and movements in global societies.
The academy often tends to overlook the institutional capacity, social capital and political salience of the religious sector. However, an expanding body of research is highlighting the impact of religion on culture, the arts, democratization, human rights and global politics. As a School, we are well situated to creatively expand our work and interaction with the complex and changing face of the religious sector. The School will continue to build discursive sites where the academy and wider religious cultures interact and negotiate the complexities of religious identities and communities within the public sphere.
Dan Cere is Interim Dean of the Faculty of Religious Studies