The annual theme (2016-2017) for the seminar series for the Committee for the Study of Religion is the analysis of what has been the dominant theme not just of sociology but to a large extent of the humanities from the end of the nineteenth century. The questions confronting social science and humanities have been: what is modernity? What are the processes that have produced the modern world? When did modernity actually start? It has been assumed that modern societies would be secular, and that religion would come to play only a marginal and modest role in the lives of individuals and the societies in which they live. This view has been challenged (at least over the last two decades) with growing recognition of the role of ‘public religions’. To give one example from contemporary America, debates about abortion, same-sex marriage and homosexuality have dominated law and politics, and these issues have involved religious groups in public contestation. Perhaps most interesting has been the view that modernity in fact has a long history with deep origins in many different civilizations.
The second component of the theme for the seminar concerns the growing religious and social diversity of secular societies. With the globalization of labour markets, religious minorities become a more common feature of societies that have been historically and culturally more or less homogeneous. With growing religious diversity, there are important questions about the ability of secular citizenship to accommodate new forms of pluralism such as legal pluralism. Many attempts to ‘update’ liberalism by John Rawls, Charles Taylor and Jurgen Habermas have characterized modern social and political theory. What are the sources of an overlapping consensus of fundamental beliefs?