This summer, the Religious Freedom Research Project is funding five doctoral students exploring the sources, development, and consequences of religious freedom. Through original research, they are making new observations about the relationship between religious liberty and other fundamental freedoms; its importance for democracy; and/or its role in social and economic development, international diplomacy, and countering violent religious extremism. This week the Berkley Forum features their midterm reports.
The spotlight is on the topic of female genital cutting (FGC—also called circumcision or mutilation). An ongoing Michigan court case involves a doctor accused of performing FGC on young girls; FGC is against the law in the United States (as it is in many countries), but this is a precedent-setting case as prosecutions are rare. Adding to the focus on this issue in the United States, a video widely circulated on social media showed a Washington D.C.-area imam defending FGC, arguing that it curtailed women's “hypersexuality.” Many Muslims were outraged because nowhere does the Qu'ran recommend FGC. For decades the global human rights and health communities have actively condemned the practice as abusing children's and women's rights and serving no health purpose whatsoever. Despite activism and senior religious voices condemning FGC, however, the practice persists, affecting over 200 million children and girls worldwide. The topic raises fundamental questions about why this practice is linked by many to religion and how states and activists can intervene most effectively to bring a cruel practice to an end while respecting the dignity of all concerned.
The battle over what to do with the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has been bitterly fought and still isn’t over, but many pro-life Republican legislators have supported new bills proposed by both the House and the Senate, despite their potential to greatly reduce maternity benefits and to limit healthcare and access to healthcare for some of the most vulnerable in our society—the very sick and the very poor. While the newly proposed bills are not receiving much popular support, the ACA—which aimed to provide coverage to more people, including those most vulnerable in the United States—was also incredibly unpopular, especially among conservative voters who in 2012 were 87 percent in favor or strongly favor of repealing the law.
An extraordinarily demanding agenda will face the leaders of the G20, the world’s richest and most powerful nations, when they meet in Hamburg, Germany in early July. The global response to the crisis of forced migration belongs right at the top of their agenda. And the G20 leaders should take some lessons from the example of world religious communities, both in their common concern for refugees and in their practical commitment to action that will move us beyond the current grievously inadequate global response to the crisis.
Amidst the myriad conversations about violent extremism and radicalization, a distinctive voice breaks through the din. For generations, women have been at the forefront of advocacy for peace and have long shown a unique willingness and capacity to bring together rival groups in the search for common ground. In the women-led peace efforts of recent years, advocates have been successful in convening diverse actors and creating the conditions for consensus to be built. By engaging those whom society has written off and calling for reconciliation, dialogue, and cultural sensitivity to build social cohesion—not only as an end goal but as an operating principle—the voice of women peacebuilders has increasingly demonstrated its indispensability.
The European Union may bind together people across the continent, from Portugal to Poland. However, differing culture, language, and attributes remain. From German efficiency, to the British lad culture, stereotypes exist for just about every European group. My time in Spain has reinforced this.
There’s a palpable sense of urgency as leaders of the world’s largest economies prepare to meet in Hamburg, Germany early next month for the G20.
Mental health is something of a frontier zone in public health in many world regions. I have heard people scoff at Western preoccupations with the topic as a luxury of indulged societies. But mental health is a universal challenge, accounting for an estimated six to seven percent of the global burden of disease. It causes untold suffering, with effects that ricochet across societies. Stigma and discrimination accentuate the problems, arising both from lack of understanding and the grip of ancient beliefs and taboos.
Last week, I stayed in Seville for almost three weeks; the longest time since my first trip out of Spain. I had a week off from classes, so I spent my time celebrating—in the most Spanish of ways—by attending the Feria de Abril festival here in Seville. Literally meaning the “Fair of April,” the festival was unlike any cultural event I had ever seen.
Can the new science of mind and brain help overcome longstanding perceived divisions between believers of different faiths? Members of one faith may think of members of another faith as fundamentally different from themselves. Viewed through the lens of modern cognitive and brain science, however, the basic characteristics of a brain are the same no matter where it lives or in which religious context it develops. Thus, it is likely that the brains of diverse believers actually manifest belief similarly, and that shared neuro-cognitive pathways lead to the development of belief across disparate faiths.
The "Cognition of Belief” conference is convening leading scholars to explore this issue. Leading up to the conference, the Berkley Forum is asking participants to reflect on the following questions: In an era of "alternative facts," what exactly are the thought processes leading people to believe in some things rather than others? What forms the basis of belief, and what role do science, objectivity, and religion play in forming that basis? Does religious context affect the cognition of belief and, if so, how?