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2014: Religion

The 2014 Engelsberg Seminar addressed the topic of religion. What roles does religion play in societies past and present? In our human relations? As individual experiences? What function does religion have in a post-secular society? Has God made a come-back in our society, or is it the case that He never left us?

“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. Yet his shadow still looms. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become god simply to appear worthy of it.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

The Gay Science

Even though Nietzsche declared God dead more than a hundred years ago his shadow still seems to be more than just looming. More than 80 percent of the world’s population has a religious affiliation. In secular states religion continues to play an important role in public and intellectual life. Politics and international relations can’t be understood without accounting for the element of religion in cultural contexts. Indeed, in order to understand ourselves we need to understand religion.

This conference will investigate the role religion plays in society today and in the past. We will examine religion in relation to the human condition and religion as individual experience. Or as William James put it in one of his Gifford Lectures in 1901: religion as “feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine”.

Starting in the Near East we will discuss the early religions and what their existence tells us about ancient societies and the needs of human beings of past civilisations. We will analyse the existence of a “sacred economy” in the Uruk culture, the notion of “ordered chaos” in ancient Indian thought and religion as collective practice in the Hellenistic and Roman worlds. We will continue with a conversation on the many varieties found within the Abrahamic tradition and what it means for our view on Judaism, Christianity and Islam today.

The second day of the conference will concentrate on religion in relation to the fundamentals of the human condition. How has religion dealt with human experiences such as suffering, violence or love? And how has the sensation of the divine been interpreted outside the confines of orthodox religion? We conclude the day with an overview of how cognitive sciences and neurology understand religion and the way religious belief can be viewed in light of evolutionary theory.

nderstanding in what ways religion matters and why we are religious also means looking at its role in current politics. Using the situation in the Middle East as a lens the conference will highlight the problems and possibilities of religion in international relations. Furthermore, we will discuss religion’s role in modern society, a society that maybe more accurately should be referred to as “post-secular”. Is God back? Or did he just never leave?


Reza Aslan: Muhammad and Monotheistic Pluralism

Associate Professor of Creative Writing, University of California, Riverside, USA

Esther Benbassa: Suffering as Identity: the Jewish Paradigm

Professor of Modern Jewish History, École Pratique des Hautes Études, Sorbonne, Senator in the French Senate, France

Benedetta Berti: Religious Identities, Political Islam and Sectarianism in the New Middle East

Fellow and Lecturer, Institute for National Security Studies and Tel Aviv University, Israel

Jessica Frazier: Religion and Passion

Fellow, Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, UK

Armin W. Geertz: Whence Religion? Reflections on the Origins of Religion, Cognition and Culture

Professor, Department of Culture and Society, Aarhus University, Denmark

Ariel Glucklich: Religion and Self-­Directed Violence

Professor, Department of Theology, Georgetown University, USA

Martin Goodman: Variety in Judaism

Professor, Oriental Institute, University of Oxford, UK

Janne Haaland Matlary: The Catholic Church’s International Role: The Ideological Basis of Its Diplomacy

Professor, University of Oslo and the Norwegian Defence University College, Norway

Wouter Hanegraaff: Open Access to the Absolute: Hermetic Gnosis and the Concept of Religion

Professor of History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents, University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Hugh N. Kennedy: Deconstructing the “Clash of Civilisations”: How the Study of History Can Help

Professor, SOAS, University of London, UK

Gary Lachman: Mystical Experience and the Evolution of Consciousness

Writer, UK

Julius J. Lipner: “Ordered Chaos” in Ancient Indian Thought

Professor Emeritus, Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge, UK

Diarmaid MacCulloch: Rethinking the Shape of the Christian Past, Present and Future

Professor of the History of the Church, University of Oxford, UK

Simon May: Love as Religion

Professor of Philosophy, King’s College London, UK

Richard Miles: Tough Love: Correcting Sinners in the Early Christian Church

Associate Professor, Department of Classics and Ancient History, University of Sydney, Australia

Candida R. Moss: The Redemption of Suffering and the Birth of Christianity

Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity, University of Notre Dame, USA

Robin Osborne: Collective Practice as Individual Experience

Professor, Faculty of Classics, University of Cambridge, UK

William O’Reilly: Religion and the Secular State

University Lecturer, Faculty of History, University of Cambridge, UK

Elaine Pagels: Variety in Early Chris­tianity

Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion, Department of Religion, Princeton University, USA

Wolfgang Palaver: The Complex Relationship Between Violence and Religion

Professor, Department of Systematic Theology, University of Cambridge, UK

Marco Pasi: Esoteric Experiences and Critical Ethnocentrism

Associate Professor in the History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents, University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Daniel T. Potts: Accounting for Religion: Uruk and the Origins of the Sacred Economy

Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Archaeology and History, Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York University, USA

Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad: Reading Religion Today and Tomorrow: Two Interrelated Patterns

Professor, Department of Politics Philosophy and Religion, Lancaster University, UK

Göran Rosenberg: Judah at the Cross­roads: Jews and Judaism between Zion and Diaspora

Writer and Journalist, Sweden

Malise Ruthven: The Islamic Search for Gnosis

Independent Writer, UK

John Scheid: Religious Practice in the Roman World

Chair in Religion, Institutions and Society in Ancient Rome, Collège de France, France

Mona Siddiqui: Suffering – the Price of Being Alive: An Islamic Perspective

Professor of Islamic and Interreligious Studies, Edinburgh University, UK

Pär Stenbäck: Religion and Politics in the Middle East

Minister, Finland

Jayne Svenungsson: Divining History, the Visionary Potential of the Biblical Legacy

Associate Professor of Systematic Theology, Stockholm School of Theology, Sweden

Harvey Whitehouse: Ritual, Community, and Conflict

Professor, Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Oxford, UK

A. N. Wilson: Dante and European Religion

Writer, UK

David Sloan Wilson: How Can the Same Sacred Text Give Rise to so Many Religions?

Professor, Departments of Biology and Anthropology, Binghamton University, USA

Adrian Wooldridge: Is God Back?

Management Editor, The Economist, UK