Aqua-blue background with spherical white design that looks like a dandelion seedhead.

Message from the Directors

Bex Sussman

Dear Friends of BCSR,

This past year brought us back together for lectures, conversations and working groups, and we want to recognize the faculty, students, visitors and audiences whose dedication enriches our intellectual community. The study of religion, at its best, brings together scholars and publics in dialogue, and the work of our colleagues and affiliates with BCSR has made that possible. 

We welcomed our new Co-Director, Carolyn Chen (Ethnic Studies), who brings her expertise on immigration, ethnicity, work and Asian American religions to BCSR. Her book, Work Pray Code: When Work Replaces Religion in Silicon Valley, published this year by Princeton University Press, explores how labor in the tech sector has transformed the religious experience of its workers. Carolyn has expanded our programming and laid new connections beyond Berkeley that brought exciting collaborations this past year and will bring more to come. 

Scholars from across disciplines reflected on the relationship between religious authority and democratic participation in our “Voting the Divine: Collective Decision-Making and Religious Authority between Polytheism and Monotheism” lecture series headed by professors Duncan MacRae, Emily Mackil, and Susanna Elm this past year. Funded by the Henry Luce Foundation as part of the second year of our Berkeley Democracy and Public Theology Program, the series invited scholars to discuss theological contexts and motives of voting and deliberation, from Greco-Roman to pre-modern Islam. “Voting the Divine” also gathered eight graduate students from diverse disciplines for the “New Directions” fellowship, which gave students an opportunity to meet as a cohort in the fall semester to explore the series’ themes with conveners Duncan MacRae and Susanna Elm. In the series, Clifford Ando (Classics, University of Chicago) spoke on “Republican Religion in Republican Rome,” and Josine Blok (Ancient History and Classics, University of Utrecht) lectured on “Perspectives on the Interaction between ‘Politics’ and ‘Religion’ in Ancient Greece.” Outside of the Greco-Roman sphere, Robert Gleave (Arabic Studies, University of Exeter) presented “Must a Caliph be Popular? The Theological and Legal Ramifications of Early Muslim Leadership Selection,” and Asad Q. Ahmed (Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures) reflected on “Consensus and Early Islamic Law.” Abhishek Kaicker (History) finished this year’s program with “Voting from the Rooftops: Reflections on Religion and Politics from Mughal India.” 

We were pleased to present another inaugural series, the “Public Forum on Race, Religion, Democracy and the American Dream,” through the Democracy and Public Theology Program. Headed by Co-Director Carolyn Chen, the series invited visiting scholars to explore the relationship between religion, race and class in the modern United States. Jonathan Tran (Baylor University, Religion) presented work on “Asian Americans and the Spirit of Racial Capitalism: Race, Religion, and Democracy.” Sahar Aziz (Rutgers University, Law) reflected on “The Racial Muslim: When Racism Quashes Religious Freedom.” Rebecca Davis (University of Delaware, History) concluded this year’s series with “I Know the Truth: Muhammad Ali, Brainwashing, and the Racial Politics of Religious Authenticity.” This lecture series has led to many fruitful discussions on the diversity and complexity of religious life and political culture in modern American society.

BCSR also partnered with visiting scholars and research centers to present several public lectures and conversations. Denis Lacorne (Sciences Po) lectured on “The Secular State and Religious Tolerance” for BCSR’s annual Lecture on Religious Tolerance, sponsored by the Endowed Fund for the Study of Religious Tolerance and co-sponsored by the Townsend Center for the Humanities, the Social Science Matrix, and the Center for Democracy, Toleration, and Religion. We hosted a book chat with Dominique Townsend (Bard College, Buddhist Studies) and Stacey Van Vleet (History) on Townsend’s book, A Buddhist Sensibility, which was a talk co-sponsored by History and East Asian Languages and Cultures. We also worked with the Social Science Matrix to present a panel on “Religion in the Age of Information.” Other co-sponsored events included Lee Medovoi’s talk Racial Capitalism’s Inner Life: Security, Police Power, and the Tactics of Ensoulment, and Madhav Deshpande’s Debates on Sanskrit Grammar: Vyākaraṇa Workshop. We also collaborated with the Othering and Belonging Institute on Rifts and Revelations: How Religion Has Shaped Pandemic Responses in the United States, featuring Marla Frederick (Emory), Jim Oleske (Willamette Law), Munir Jiwa (Graduate Theological Union) and Ronit Stahl (UC Berkeley), and The Defiant Middle: How Women Claim Life’s In-Betweens to Remake the World, with Kaya Oates (UC Berkeley) and Ronit Stahl. In addition to public talks, we held sessions on research and scholarship. Funded by the Luce Foundation, we hosted the “What Now” workshop led by Jonathan Sheehan who brought together a cohort of scholars to discuss the state of scholarship and new directions of research on religion. We also supported a summer workshop, headed by Jeremy Sorgen and funded by Social Science Research Council, that assembled a network of scholars who work in religion, nature and culture to create a special issue on the theme “Publicly Engaged Scholarship.”

Faculty and graduate students carried the conversation on the study of religion beyond the campus. We launched the first year of our Community Outreach Program headed by professor Duncan MacRae, which will continue to give Berkeley graduate students the opportunity to connect with community groups, schools and colleges by offering interactive talks on religion. Through these presentations to the general audience, we hope to broaden access to these conversations and foster relationships between the Berkeley community and the wider public. Sourav Ghosh presented on “The Long History of Religious Fundamentalism,Courtney Bither discussed “Is Religious Freedom for Everyone?,” Aparajita Das lectured on “Meeting on Sacred Ground,” and Grace Goudiss presented “Cult Talk: The Language We Use for New Religions and Fringe Movements.” As we continue to receive requests, we hope to keep bringing these conversations to community colleges, community centers, and middle to high school students throughout the area.

This year we further expanded our graduate student community with our new Graduate Working Group on Religion, supported by the Democracy and Public Theology Program. The Working Group, coordinated this year by Mohamad Jarada (PhD Anthropology), brings together graduate students to discuss salient topics in the study of religion—from race and racialization, to ecology and the environment, to liberalism and secularism. The group hosted Ashon Crawley (Religious Studies and African and African American Studies, University of Virginia) for his talk “Made Instrument, Made Flesh, Made Blackqueer” that took on the Hammond organ as a specific object through which to consider the convergence of sex, sexuality and spirituality. 

The Graduate Working Group on Religion joins our graduate community along with our incoming cohort in the Designated Emphasis in the Study of Religion, and New Directions students in “Theology and Healthcare” (application window coming up this fall). Now entering our second year of the Designated Emphasis in the Study of Religion (DESR) program headed by Graduate Group Chair Mark Csikszentmihalyi, we are thrilled to welcome new students Hu Hsu (History) and Andrew Blough (German) to the DESR, and look forward to our upcoming courses this fall. 

We are excited about this next year of BCSR programming. With the generous support of the Henry Luce Foundation, we will embark on an ambitious 4-year program with the Asian Pacific American Religions Research Initiative (APARRI) to advance the interdisciplinary study of Asian Pacific American religions and to ensure the legacy of Asian Pacific Americans within the American religious and racial landscape. Our Co-Director, Carolyn Chen, will lead the project as Principal Investigator along with Tammy Ho (UC Riverside), Jane Iwamura (University of the West) and Khyati Joshi (Fairleigh Dickinson University). The initiative will support the growth and development of scholarship and public knowledge on Asian Pacific American (APA) religions by providing funding for scholarly research on APA religions, collaborative projects between APA faith communities and scholars, arts-based workshops on APA religion and spirituality, and the annual APARRI conference. 

BCSR will continue to welcome speakers for a range of lectures and workshops. Caroline Humfress (University of St. Andrews) will complete our “Voting the Divine” series with a talk on “Democratic Imaginaries in Late Antiquity.” A new “Theology and Healthcare” series headed by Berkeley professor of History Ronit Stahl will feature lectures from Jennifer Hughes (UC Riverside), Zahra Ayubi (Dartmouth) and Judith Weisenfeld (Princeton). Our “Public Forum on Race, Religion, Democracy and the American Dream” will include a panel organized by David Hollinger (History) along with talks by J. Kameron Carter (Indiana University), Melissa Borja (University of Michigan), and Philip Gorski (Yale University). We are pleased to welcome Kathryn Gin Lum (Stanford) to deliver our annual Tolerance lecture, and we look forward to hosting book talks by Jeroen DeWulf (Afro-Atlantic Catholics) with Kathleen Donegan, and by Carolyn Chen (Work Pray Code) with Arlie Hochschild and Morgan Ames. Starting our Asian Pacific American Religions Research Initiative, we will commence our working group and religion research grants, digital humanities and Mapping Asian Buddhism projects, and host our annual APARRI conference in Berkeley in the spring.

Thanks to your support, the support of the Deans of Humanities and Social Sciences, and to the immense generosity of the Henry Luce Foundation, BCSR continues to bring together a campus and global community advancing rigorous, creative, and interdisciplinary scholarship on religion. We appreciate the commitment, engagement, and community of everyone involved in the Berkeley Center for the Study of Religion and look forward to connecting with you through our programs this upcoming year.


Carolyn Chen and David Marno, Co-Directors