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Religions and the spirit of inquiry

At Emory, the study of religion is alive and well, with scholars taking the field in surprising new directions.

Google the two words "Emory God" and your browser will supply the phrase, "is dead." That's a legacy of the 1966 TIME cover story that linked Emory to the "God is dead" theological controversy. Anything but dead, the study of religions is more alive than ever at Emory.

This revitalized study of religion across the university is thanks, in part, to Emory's strategic plan, Where Courageous Inquiry Leads. The plan capitalized on two important points concerning religious study at Emory. Unlike many leading research universities, Emory has maintained a strong interest in religion and advanced an intentionally pluralistic study of religions in their many forms around the world. Moreover, the study of religion at Emory is pervasive. It extends throughout the university from the Candler School of Theology and the Emory College of Arts and Sciences to the Laney Graduate School and the School of Law as well as to the schools across the health sciences.

Building on this foundation, the strategic plan's Religions and the Human Spirit initiative stimulated and supported the development of new fields, programs, and resources. This effort helped elevate Emory's Graduate Division of Religion to top national ranks and make it the second-largest doctoral program at the university. From developing the Emory-Tibet science program and contemplative studies to creating the interdisciplinary doctoral program in Islamic Civilizations Studies, the plan advanced new areas of religious study. It also supported major exhibitions at the Michael C. Carlos Museum such as "The Cradle of Christianity," which presented art and ideas from Judaism and early Christianity, and "Traces of the Calligrapher," highlighting Islamic calligraphy and the Qur'an. Emory's Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Book Library benefited with the acquisition of new holdings in religion and sexuality as well as the records of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Giving peace a chance

Can the religions of the world work together to reduce violent conflict and build peaceful pluralistic societies? That was one of the questions explored at Emory's first international conference on Religion, Conflict, and Peacebuilding in 2007, which grew out of a strategic plan initiative. More than 4,000 attendees gathered to hear His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Sister Joan Chittister, Rabbi David Rosen, Rajmohan Gandhi, and Emory's Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im, among others, discuss how world religions might address peacebuilding in strife-torn areas. The question remained pertinent at Emory's second conference on the topic in 2011 when scholars brought to bear a wide range of expertise from a mosque-based model of local peacekeeping to the headscarf controversy in France, from obstacles to peacebuilding in the United States to religion's role in remaking Rwanda after genocide.

Since that time, the emphasis on religion, conflict, and peacebuilding has advanced further at Emory. A doctoral concentration in the field is now available at the university, and faculty ranks have grown with experts such as Distinguished Senior Scholar-in-Residence Bernard Lafayette Jr., co-founder of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and Ellen Ott Marshall, associate professor of Christian Ethics and Conflict Transformation.

At the intersection of religion and health

Another major initiative of the plan is making news recently in religion and health. Earlier this fall Oxford University Press published a pioneering volume of essays by 31 Emory faculty, Religion as a Social Determinant of Public Health. On the heels of that publication, Emory hosted a major conference focused on religion and public health, arguably the first of its kind anywhere.

Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Sociology, Ellen Idler edited the volume and organized the conference. Idler, who holds a joint appointment in epidemiology in the Rollins School of Public Health (RSPH), has been far from idle since she arrived at Emory in 2009. She has led the Religion and Public Health Collaborative, an important component of the Religions and Human Spirit initiative. Immediately following this fall's conference, Idler will carry the message to annual meetings of the American Public Health Association and the American Academy of Religion. She is among a cohort of Emory scholars and students who are shaping the way we will come to understand religion and public health in the future.

Public health researchers have recognized that zip codes can be as much a predictor of health as genetic codes. Unpacking these codes, however, whether genetic or social, is immensely complex. A 2008 WHO report listed the primary social determinants of health as economic and political. Emory is making the case for adding another -- religion. A comparison from a classic study shows why. Take Nevada and Utah; compare Reno and Provo; compare "Sin City" and Salt Lake City. Guess where people tend to live longer? (Save the quip that it only feels longer.) You won't need a social scientist to tell you the right answer.

You do need social scientists, however, as well as experts from other disciplines, to understand the data and its implications. Previously when experts have factored religion into health, they typically have considered the intersection in simple binary terms, pro or con, an asset or a barrier, rather than along a complex spectrum.

How to evaluate, much less engage, religious determinants of health is complex and fraught with enormous cultural sensitivities. Studying the intersections of religion and health involves analyzing a complex array of societal, cultural, and biological interactions. Advancing the field, however, promises to improve understanding and access to resources and to help people make more informed and responsible choices.

New contacts and hand sanitizer

Prepare to be surprised: that might be the preliminary conclusion after this early foray into the multifaceted intersections between religion and public health. Consider the humble hand sanitizer. Most brands are alcohol-based. Yet for some devout people, any contact with alcohol is prohibited. Or consider the increased risks of vitamin D deficiency from wearing a veil. Both problems, once identified, can be remedied. But to identify them, much less implement effective remedies, requires careful consideration and communication.

The dual degree programs at Candler and the RSPH are but two examples of how Emory is pioneering pathways for new research and teaching into religion and public health. These and other cross-cutting opportunities already are shaping the next generation of students with critical, interdisciplinary learning and skills.

"Emory is the only school that stood out to me," says Leslie Munoz, in deciding to pursue her doctorate at the RSPH. Emory mentors nurtured Munoz's path from Oxford College to Emory College to Scotland's University of St. Andrews as a Bobby Jones Scholar and eventually back to Emory's campus. That nurturing also grew through field experience in Dharamsala, India, through the Emory-Tibetan Mind/Body Sciences program, and field work in Kenya through the RSPH's Interfaith Health Program. When Munoz began to consider doctoral studies in public health, she found that no other options came even close to what the RSPH offered. Now she is pursuing research in refugee mental health that grows out of her interest in religion and health, which she first discovered at Emory as an undergraduate.

In 2005 the Religions and Human Spirit initiative cast as its goal "to explore the broadest features of the human condition, to juxtapose the study of religion and the human spirit." Certainly that goal was not for the fainthearted. Yet Emory is realizing this goal. The courageous scholarship, leadership, and perseverance of so many across the university have coalesced to make Emory a destination for faculty and for students like Munoz to advance the study of world religions in new contexts.