Inaugural Conference


What role does religion play in promoting the flourishing of the individual, community, and environment? How can the “metaphysical anguish and ontological delight” that allows us to “cross,” in the words of Ansari Institute Director Tom Tweed, between life stages and through space mobilize resources and structures for holistic human development? The inaugural conference for the Ansari Institute for Global Engagement with Religion at the University of Notre Dame, held on October 25 and 26, 2018, took a close look at the ambivalent role of religion in the present-day migration and ecological crises, as well as in the public discourses of media misinformation. 

The genocide of Rohingya people in Myanmar. Global North depictions of “good” and “bad” Muslims. Irreversible climate change. Each panel recognized the complicity of religions in structures of violence, be it through the construction and upholding of subjective boundaries of belonging that participate in and reinforce modern orientalist and nation-state divisions; or through the undergirding of an anthropocentrism that has given carte blanche to the despoiling of the water, earth, and air on which we all depend. With the emergence of the modern nation-state and international economic system, religious traditions—simultaneously siloed beyond the public sphere and folded into the modern imaginary of the nation as ethnically-cum-religiously homogenous—have absorbed and furthered these exclusivist formations. The fact that churches are among the most segregated places in the United States is a glaring example. 

At the same time, religions provide “powerful narratives of history and the universal,” that offer alternate understandings of human community and trajectory, as noted by panelist Erin Wilson (University of Groningen). Religious language and values can be used to make visible and contest cultural and structural violence, challenging, for example, the underlying worldview of the modern nation-state system through alternate readings of community (who deserves to belong?) and human worth (which identities are valued most highly?). By some readings, certain religious and social histories may create orientations, even obligations, towards forms of solidarity that supersede modern boundaries. But to build peace, religious actors “must claim a normative platform,” Diane Moore (Harvard University) argued, “rather than pretend to be neutral.” The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society’s refugee resettlement efforts come to mind, emerging out of Jewish experiences of seeking refuge and evolving to support refugees of all backgrounds. Laudato Si’ resoundingly critiques the modern economic system and how it assigns value.

Could religion’s most powerful positive contribution to flourishing be to promote a generative understanding of complexity? Panelists put forth examples of the ways in which religious teachings could disrupt existing assumptions, invoke empathy, and give legitimacy to new ways of knowing and being. 

These efforts face an uphill struggle as they seek to question the frames through which society subconsciously operates. The media can play a destructive role in this sense, reifying broadly accepted discourses like “religious violence” without exploring how religious identity is both internally multifaceted and interwoven with other social, cultural, and political markers. In addition, the changing nature of religious authority may change the playing field, as orthodox forms of religious expertise and knowledge transmission fade or splinter, and new actors take the stage deploying novel modes of authorization and communication. Complexity, and, as conference attendee Caesar Montevecchio (University of Notre Dame) commented, ambiguity, can be troubling; they require a predisposition or openness towards uncertainty. Perhaps, Tweed closed, our aim should be to construct communities that welcome complexity, together.

Inaugural Keynote Address: Engaging Religion

Thomas Tweed, the Ansari Institute's founding director, opened the conference with this keynote address.

Forced Migration: How Religion Causes and Eases Displacement

Religious Misrepresentation: How to Improve Media and Education Accounts

This second panel from the Ansari Institute's inaugural conference provided a robust discussion featuring chair Gabriel Said Reynolds (University of Notre Dame) and panelists Diane Moore (Harvard Divinity School), Mahan Mirza, (University of Notre Dame), journalist Elisa Di Benedetto, and Jolyon Mitchell (University of Edinburgh).

Sustainable Habitats: How Religions Can Repair Unsustainable Environments

This conference panel features insights from chair Thomas Tweed (University of Notre Dame) and panelists Nosheen Ali (The Aga Khan University, Pakistan), Ana Mariella Bacigalupo (University of Buffalo) and Daniel Castillo (Loyola University Maryland).

Conference Works

Works by scholars, journalists, and Notre Dame doctoral students who attended the conference helped to underscore and elaborate on conference themes and are included below. 


“Engaging Religion: Inaugurating the Ansari Institute”
(Thomas Tweed, University of Notre Dame)


“The Reed Laments: Ecology in Muslim Thought”
(Nosheen Ali, New York University)

“The Preferential Options for the Earth and the Poor: The Task and Contribution of Theology”
(Daniel P. Castillo, Loyola University Maryland)

“The Spiritual Leadership of Sentient Landscapes: Health, Collective Ethics, and Environmental Justice in Peru”
(Ana Mariella Bacigalupo, University of Buffalo)

“Media and Madrasa: Between Rhetoric and Reality”
(Mahan Mirza, University of Notre Dame)

“Covering Jerusalem: In Search of Journalistic Religious Literacy”
(Jolyon Mitchell, University of Edinburgh)

“Between Despair and Hope: Religious Actors and the Challenges of Forced Migration”
(Erin K. Wilson, University of Groningen)

Graduate Student Essays

“Border-Crossers: Interrogating Boundaries through Bodies”
(Lailatul Fitriyah, Notre Dame)

“Sustainable Resources: Reimagining our Relationship with the Earth”
(Marie-Claire Klassen, Notre Dame)