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PostPosted: 08 Jul 2008, 21:38 
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CSER Announces Bold Initiatives in the Scientific Study of Religion


Founded in 1983 in response to regressive trends in American religion, the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion (CSER) has announced a new agenda to celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary as part of the Center for Inquiry. CSER is poised to become the leading critical voice in the serious, nonparochial study of religion. “CSER began as a small group of concerned scholars who worried that the gains made by the religious Right would have devastating effects on public policy, the judicial system, and hence on American cultural and intellectual life,” said R. Joseph Hoffmann, CSER Chairman and a founding member of the organization. “Events since 1983 have shown that the concern was prophetic.”

CSER began as a project of the Council for Secular Humanism but became an independent CFI department in 2003 when Hoffmann took over duties as Chair from Dr. Gerald Larue, a University of Southern California professor of archeology. Other founding members were James Robinson of Claremont Graduate School, Robert Alley of the University of Richmond, Randal Helms of the University of Arizona, and John Priest of Florida State University. The group was formed by Professor Paul Kurtz, the founder of the Council for Secular Humanism. “Our relative autonomy within the CFI family has always been significant,” said Hoffmann. “CSER was designed to be less about advocacy than making sure the public is well informed about religion. We are interested in religious literacy in the same way that CFI, more generally, has been a strong advocate for science literacy in the last generation.”

Foremost among the new initiatives is the launch of an expanded journal, Caesar: A Journal for the Critical Study of Religion and Human Values. Sponsored by the Fellows of the Committee, the journal will explore the intersections between religion and science, religion and public policy, and the history and development of individual religious traditions, beliefs, and values. “The difference between Caesar and the many academic journals on the market is that Caesar does not regard religion as a privileged field of inquiry. When we say it can be approached ‘scientifically,’ we mean that it is possible to answer questions about where texts and traditions come from, what proportion of them are borrowed from antecedent cultures, why smart people sometimes believe preposterous things, and what inroads are being made by the sciences in explaining how human values are formed and why people are ‘religious’ at all. No question about religion is off limits for us.”

Fellows of the Committee include biblical scholars Gerd Lüdemann (Goettingen/Vanderbilt), Justin Meggitt (Cambridge), and Robert Price (CFI); historians Joyce Salisbury (Wisconsin) and Sol Schimmel (Hebrew University); sociologists Carol Delaney (Brown) and Stewart Guthrie (Fordham); anthropologist Pascal Boyer (Washington, St. Louis); linguistics scholar Daphne Patai (UMass Amherst); and philosophers Keith Parsons (Houston) and Erik Wielenberg (DePauw). “We learned a long time ago that religion was less about a static subject matter than approaches to a diffuse set of properties we call ‘religion,’” said Hoffmann. “In the variety of fields represented by its fellows, we try to respect this peculiarity, and Caesar will respect it as well.”


CSER’s frontline activities for 2008–2009 include two related projects on “The Sources of the Book.” The twin projects were founded and announced at a conference at the University of California at Davis in 2007: The Jesus Project is an investigation into the origins of the Gospel traditions about Jesus. Its first formal meeting is set for December 2008 in Amherst, New York, to discuss the methods of inquiry to be used in future sessions of the seminar. According to Hoffmann, the project is “methodologically agnostic” about whether a historical character named Jesus of Nazareth ever lived: “Our purpose is to examine the evidence for the origins of Christian belief about Jesus, wherever that may lead,” he said. “It is to reconstruct the earliest stratum of those beliefs in a methodical way—a constructive chore—not to disprove reigning opinion about ‘who Jesus really was.’”

The newly founded Inârah Institute for Research of Early Islamic History and the Koran, in cooperation with the Religious Studies Department of the University of Saarlandes, Germany and the Europäische Akademie Otzenhausen, Germany held its first International Conference on the Origins of the Koran and Early Islamic History. Inârah consists of a group of (primarily) European scholars inspired by the work of Christoph Luxenberg and representing an academically neutral position concerning the origins of the Koran: Alba Fedeli (University of Milan, Italy), Claude Gilliot (Aix-en-Provence, France), Markus Gross (Germany), Ibn Warraq (U.S.A.), Pierre Larcher (Aix-en-Provence, France), Christoph Luxenberg, Noja Noseda (University of Milan, Italy), Karl-Heinz Ohlig (University of Saarlandes, Germany), Volker Popp, and Gerd-R. Puin. Prometheus books will publish papers delivered at the conference under the title The Obscure Origins of Islam in 2009.

A subcription to Caesar is $20 for one year (two issues), $35 for two years (four issues), and $50 for three years (six issues). A $40 CSER Associate Membership includes a one-year subscription and a 20% discount on CSER national events. To order, write Caesar c/o Center for Inquiry, P.O. Box 741, Amherst, NY 14226-0741 or call 1-800-335-1095. Questions? E-mail Managing Editor Andrea Szalanski at aszalanski@centerforinquiry.net.

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