Global Reformations: Religion and the Making of the Modern World

Global Reformations:
Religion and the Making of the Modern World

May 6 & 7
8:30 am - 5:00 pm
University Club Building

​University of Wisconsin-Madison

Religion is omnipresent in modernity, and in spite of twentieth-century theorists who saw secularization as intrinsic to the process of modernization, shows no signs of disappearing. After discarding secularization as a plausible historical model, how do we understand the changes in religion that made way for the experience of modernity around the globe? From India to Ethiopia to Latin America to Safavid Iran, religion has remained a vital force in shaping the trajectories of non-Western modernities. And yet, no scholarship to date has provided an adequate model to account for changes that take place in religion around the world starting in the early modern period (ca. 1500-1800), which played a crucial role in shaping the varied experience of modernities that arose independently outside of the European Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment.  In this conference, we aim to rethink global transformations in religion during the early modern centuries by raising the following questions in global perspective: Did religions across regions of the globe experience a synchronic series of reformations integral to their entry into the modern age? Do we witness any changes in the concept of religion or its place in society across continents as a result of these reformations?

Over the past few decades, scholars across disciplines have raised scrutiny to the singularity of the concept of modernity, such that the concept of multiple modernities has gained widespread currency across the humanities at large. As a result, recent scholarship has begun to lift the veneer of universalism once associated with the concept of a singular modernity: namely, the historical transformations experienced in Western Europe. And yet, the decline of religion—and the secularization of public space and discourse—stands out among metanarratives of European modernity that has left the study of religion today with a rather ambiguous legacy.  In the contemporary Western world, observers have expressed considerable dismay at the apparent reversal of secularization, previously understood as an intrinsic aim of modernity itself. Many seeming anomalies of religion in the contemporary world—pluralism, communalist conflict, sectarian rivalry, the resurgence of religion in the public sphere—demand a more nuanced contextualization in both historical and global perspective. 
We propose, succinctly, to center our inquiry on the following sub-themes of religion in global early modernity: 1) Religion and the Public Sphere, 2) Religion and Philology, 3) Sectarianism and Religious Conflict, and 4) Religion and the Concept of History. We aim to foster interdisciplinary approaches from across the humanities and social sciences and projects that cross geographical boundaries, as a diverse methodological toolbox will serve us well in addressing questions that defy the confines of disciplinarily and Area Studies. Our fifteen total participants examine the global reformations of diverse world regions of the globe and religious traditions, bringing together disciplinary perspectives including History, Religious Studies, Comparative Literature, the History of Science and Medicine, and Archaeology.


Ali Humayun Akhtar [Bates College]

Wendy Laura Belcher [Princeton]

Alexander Bevilacqua [Harvard]

Shmuel Feiner [Bar Ilan]

Elaine Fisher [UW-Madison]

Pablo F. Gómez [UW-Madison]

Janet Gyatso [Harvard]

John Stratton Hawley [Columbia]

J. Michelle Molina [Northwestern]

William Noseworthy [UW-Madison]

Babak Rahimi [UC-San Diego]

Daniel Sheffield [U. of Washington]

Darryl Wilkinson [UW-Madison]

André Wink [UW-Madison]

Jiang Wu [University of Arizona]

Ali Yaycioglu [Stanford]

All conference presentations will be free and open to the public. Made possible by the Anonymous Fund of the College of Letters & Science, the Institute for Research in the Humanities, the Center for the Humanities, and the Center for Russia, East Europe, and Central Asia.