Religion Beyond Memes


Accomplished journalists, scholars, and thought leaders gathered at the Keough School of Global Affairs’ Washington Office recently to discuss the complexities of religion at a time when a cascade of social media platforms shapes how people understand and discuss faith and practice.

The diverse panel shared insights at “Religion Beyond Memes: Enhancing Public Discourse about Faith and Practice,” an October 18 conference organized by the Ansari Institute for Global Engagement with Religion.

Together, conference participants identified the consumers, providers, settings, and formats of stories about religion around the world. They explored various motives, incentives, and means of representing religion, as well as platforms that seek to counteract what is perceived as the distortion of religion.

The gathering drew a number of accomplished scholars, including Heidi Campbell (Texas A&M); Nichole Flores (University of Virginia); Todd Green (Luther College); Richard G. Jones (Notre Dame); Jolyon Mitchell (University of Edinburgh); Ebrahim Moosa and Atalia Omer (Notre Dame); and Stephen Prothero (Boston University). 

Participants also included several media representatives: Tariq Ansari of Next Mediaworks Ltd.; Daniel Burke, CNN’s religion editor; Robert Costa, a reporter for the Washington Post and moderator of Washington Week on PBS; Emma Green, a staff writer for the Atlantic; Mehdi Hasan, a columnist and senior contributor at the Intercept; and Nermeen Shaikh, a broadcast news producer and weekly co-host at Democracy Now!.

The conference was the third in the Contending Modernities series on Changing the Conversation about Religion. The first conference, “Changing the Conversation about Religion: Partnerships for Global Development,” was held in London in 2015, and the second, “Making Democracy One’s Own: Muslim, Catholic and Secular Perspectives in Dialogue on Democracy, Development, and Peace,” took place in Rome in 2016.

Mapping the Mediation of Religion

Who are the consumers of religion around the world? Who provides the material consumed and in what kinds of settings and formats? Can we map different institutional sources of information and interpretations of religion? In the conference's opening session, moderator Robert Costa and panelists Heidi Campbell, Emma Green, Jolyon Mitchell, and Tariq Ansari explored these questions and more.

The Geopolitics of Representing Religion

Both majority and minority religions within a given state typically complain that their religious beliefs and practices are willfully misrepresented by hostile state media, hostile secular actors, and other religious actors. This panel discussion explored various motives, incentives, and means of representing religion, as well as platforms that seek to counteract what is perceived as the distortion of religion. Moderator Mahan Mirza and panelists Nichole M. Flores, Todd Green, and Nermeen Shaikh shared their insights in this conversation. 

Religion Beyond Memes

What are the challenges in “getting religion right” for non-specialist audiences? How can educators and media representatives respect and convey the vivid and distinctive dimensions of religion without exoticizing it beyond recognition? In short, what must educators and media take into account when handling this subject? Moderator Ebrahim Moosa and panelists Stephen Prothero and Zeenat Rahman shared their perspectives in this conversation.

Best Practices for Covering Religion

In this session, moderator Atalia Omer and panelists Daniel Burke and Mehdi Hasan discussed best practices, concerns, and pitfalls in explaining how to convey complex religious topics to non-specialist audiences.

Changing the Conversation Around Religion

Panelists shared a wide range of insights in the conference's closing session.