A Conference on Modern Pluralism and Ethico-Religious Education

Bridging, Bonding, or Dividing?

The Role of Religious and Ethical Education in Mediating Deeply Divided Societies

April 29-30, 2011

In recent years, the question of how to facilitate inclusive and democratic interaction in societies marked by deep religious and ethical divisions has taken on a far greater urgency.  The resurgence of ethnoreligious identifies from the 1970s onward, the heightened circulation of migrants and movements across national borders, and the outbreak of “culture wars” over the proper forms and meanings of religion, ethics, and public education have underscored that religious and cultural diversity poses potent challenges to civic life.  These same events have reminded us that formally democratic institutions like elections and a separation of governmental powers are not alone sufficient to “make democracy work” (to borrow Robert Putnam’s phase), not least of all under conditions of marked religious or ethical pluralism.  Contrary to the hopes of Western policy makers in the 1980s and 1990s, even a vibrant “civil society” cannot alone guarantee a tolerant and inclusive citizenry.

There is no single golden road to civic pluralism or multicultural peace.  Indeed, one premise of this conference is that local conflicts of a religious and public-ethical sort require profoundly local, “embedded” solutions.  Nonetheless, an inclusive political society typically requires social organizations and ethical discourses capable of bridging religious and ethical divides.  Public and private education often serves as one site, an especially pivotal one, for efforts to disseminate the terms for an ethic of public inclusion.  In other cases, however, especially in societies marked by long histories of ethnic and religious division, education may serve, not to bridge religious or communal divides, but to “bond” social groups into exclusive and antagonistic social blocs.

It is the in-depth and comparative study of religious and ethical educational challenges like these to which this conference is dedicated.  The conference organizers, Robert Hefner and Adam Seligman, aim to bring together eight scholars of religious and public ethical education who have worked on the role of that education in societies marked at some point by deep religious and public ethical divides.  Participants in the conference are asked to provides a sociological “map” of the main educational institutions in society responsible for shaping popular discourses on religion, public ethics, and citizenship.  Having mapped the landscape of public ethical education, each participant should then assess the impact of these varied normative models for interaction within and across religious and ethical communities, and their implications for the comparative study of religious and ethical education in deeply plural societies.

The more general goal of this conference, then, is to draw on case studies and comparison so as to assess the capacity for different varieties of religious and ethical education to generate workable formulae for civility within and across religious and ethical divides.  What role can religious education play in mediating divisions in deeply plural society?  Must religious or ethical education internalize a latent or even explicit “liberal” model if it is contribute to civic cultural peace?  Or are there in fact multiple and non-liberal pathways to the practice of an inclusively multicultural citizenship?  These are some of the questions to which the conference is dedicated.  We welcome discussion of others in the run-up to the April conference itself.