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December 13, 2016 • By Dr. William Schweiker Religion in the Public Sphere: A Q&A with William Schweiker

Is there a way to determine the legitimacy of a certain religious expression? What are policymakers getting wrong about religion? Dr. William Schweiker, the Edward L. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of Theological Ethics and a Principal Investigator for The Enhancing Life Project, discusses something that’s “front page news” more often than not: the relationship between religious expression and the political order.     

Tell us a little bit about your research for The Enhancing Life Project, and explain its public relevance.

I work in the field of religious ethics, or theological ethics. That means that I’m interested in the ways people navigate the interrelation between their moral and political lives. What beliefs do they have about the human good, human flourishing, justice, various virtues, as well as about their political life? How do those beliefs relate, if at all—and they usually do—to their religious convictions? If you look in the morning newspaper, my subject matter is always on the front page somewhere, which makes it both interesting and of the highest public relevance. That’s because we want to know what will bring some measure of social stability and flourishing to societies, and we already know, if we’re honest, that there’s never been a society on this planet that hasn’t had some religious elements to it. And so the question of how the religious or the sacred or the divine relates to beliefs about how to live, and what kinds of community to have, is absolutely pressing. All my courses play around those kinds of fundamental topics. Enhancing Life came out of my own work—a particular formulation of the imperative of responsibility I use includes enhancing life, so my work is at the core of what we’re trying to do in this project, both in terms of content and method.

Are there any specific policy implications that are tied to your research?

There’s an intra-religious punch to this, because I’m arguing that religious beliefs that do not enhance life are not valid, and therefore, may be believed or practiced in some way, but should also be criticized. This idea might provide ways for public policymakers to leave the religions alone on one level, but also to intervene when they become dangers in the public order. I don’t think it makes sense that if a religious group is expressing itself violently, that the political order shouldn't be able to say, “wait a minute, you’ve transgressed not only the goods of our society, but also your own deepest religious beliefs.” 

What political difficulties, in your opinion, have arisen from a misunderstanding of religion?

I really think that one of the difficulties we’re seeing globally is that political leaders continually underestimate the force of religion in people’s lives. If you think about it, the population of Jews, Muslims, Christians is larger than any economic system, has more people, and has more impact. The global media system is particularly naïve about this, which leads to a situation where we see these violent religious expressions, which are then played up as if that’s all religion is—which is a big mistake. It’s important to know that I insist, as a scholar of religion, that no matter what one thinks about the sacred or the divine, religions are human phenomena—they’re peopled by human beings. And human beings are profoundly ambiguous creatures. Incredibly wild, stupid, folly-ridden, self-delusional, violent, but also loving, caring, imaginative, hopeful. And religion is so interesting because it captures all of that. I don’t think our public leaders grasp that force of the religions, and I don’t think that scholars of religion do a good job of communicating it, and that’s part of what The Enhancing Life Project is trying to do, with respect to religion.

How do you see public opinion and policy moving to better understand religion?

I think that we should start teaching about religion in the elementary schools. It’s absurd that, in a multicultural, global society, we do not teach these traditions as human phenomena very early on. Doing that would also potentially mean teaching foreign languages early on, which would be really nice. I think education is really at the core of what’s happening in our global age. Extremely conservative groups, for example, tend to set up schools that will keep their children from interacting with others. If we want to have an intelligent society that can deal with the complexities of the global age, we need to start with education. This is what makes me very concerned about our current situation in the United States, because it seems that we’re going down a road that may potentially gut elementary and secondary education. As a professor of primarily graduate students, I can tell you that if there’s not proper formation in the lower grades, people cannot advance to take on stuff like advanced studies of religion. It’s just not possible. And universities like The University of Chicago are not equipped to do secondary tutoring on tools that students need. So I would see the teaching of the religions as part of a more comprehensive educational policy concern for dealing with the reality of a globalized world. 

For more of William Schweiker’s work, see:

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