Studying Religion and Conflict


R. Scott Appleby

John M. Regan Jr. Director of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and Professor of History at University of Notre Dame

Interviewed by Micaela Cayton Garrido, 2005

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

When I was a student at Notre Dame I took some courses here that influenced me. One was called "Evolution of Church History" which sounds pretty quaint today. But it was really a riveting course: 5 credit hours for two semesters, taught by a professor named Bill Storey who's still in town, and it just portrayed the history of Christianity as a very exciting, vivid, story of saints, sinners, killers, and of nonviolent and champions of justice. It was better than Star Wars or Lord of the Rings combined in terms of engagement, and it was real, it was true! Just the fascination of the history of people questing after God and the silly and heroic things they've done. So on that level of having my imagination engaged, courses like that, that I took as an undergraduate reinforced the kind of lifelong interest in religion. Having been raised in a Catholic family, I've always been fascinated by it. So when it came to decide what to do after college, I was on a track to go to law school and be a lawyer and so forth, yet my passion was really to study theology and religion. And I remember my father saying "do what your passion is." And he was one of the people I thought who most wanted me to be a lawyer - and he was - so that was kind of a liberating moment. So I went to a place called University of Chicago Divinity School - Divinity is the kind of archaic way of saying Religious Studies in the Protestant world. So it was basically graduate school of the study of religion.

And from that point on, I started to study History of Christianity in detail, but when I wrote on modernism for my dissertation, my mentor Martin Marty - a wonderful person, a Lutheran scholar, a great historian and just a marvelous human being - invited me to work with him as a junior partner in this global project on fundamentalisms. That was a turning point for me intellectually. It required me to grow in my reading and scope and understanding, yet it put me into contact with people much smarter than I was, and much more learned, and that was intoxicating. I wanted to learn and read and discuss as much as I could about this global religion. And again, my original fascination now was given a new home in the comparative study of religion. Which is just as fascinating as the study of the history of any one faith.

So it just luckily has been a topic of endless fascination, the different cultures and religions and their entry into politics, the formation of their own believers, and the fact that coincidentally, during the time which I was doing my study and developing as a scholar, religion became a very prominent question in world affairs. And so I got pulled into all kinds of avenues and expressions that the Fundamentalism Project generated. So I wanted to kind of atone for the Fundamentalism Project, where we spent all these years studying people who are intolerant, who were dogmatic, some of whom were violent, some of whom were none of those things, but still were fundamental, and I wanted to look at the side of the ledger that was committed to tolerance, to openness, to peacebuilding.

So the Ambivalence book was the attempt to see the bigger picture of religion beyond the fundamentalists. So it's been preoccupying - and then I worked on projects on Catholicism, which is my original expertise, and I am very lucky that it's a topic that I love and I find very fascinating and they pay me for studying. So that's just a great gift.