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In the past few years, the relevance of religion has been growing rapidly, not only in politics and in the media, but also in the academic world. The reason seems to be clear: religion, previously thought to be in retreat, is now entering every realm of our daily lives. The interaction between religion and society - often peaceful, sometimes violent - can hardly be overlooked.
It is disturbing however to see that, while religion influences our lives in many different ways, most people remain incapable of understanding its meaning. The latter is all the more important as our society goes through a painful process of change, whether in the realms of public policy and ethics, religions in Canada, health and environment, war and peacekeeping, or even in the changing perception of our own origin.
From the loss of influence of the mainline Christian churches to the growing influence of other world religions, from inter-cultural and inter-religious disputations and apologetics to new dialogues and jurisprudences, from old dietary laws to new ones, from Western dress to unfamiliar dress codes, and, last but not least, from hostility against foreigners to terrorism and counter-terrorism, all of these new phenomena beg for a response that would enable us to continue building a society open for everyone and above all a vision of how society should look in coming generations. This, however, is impossible without having a better interpretation of religion in all its manifestations. Whereas answers and attitudes from the past often do not satisfy us anymore, new models that investigate the roles and influence of religion in society are now being explored.
McGill University is able to play a leading role in Québec, in Canada, and in the world in this effort to make the interaction among religion, society, and culture more intelligible for everyone and to develop concepts for the future. This is due to McGill's long history, its international reputation, and its ongoing contribution to scholarship; most prominently of its Faculty of Religious Studies and also the Faculties of Arts, Education, Law and Medicine.
Montreal's climate of tolerance and openness, reflected in its hospitable, friendly and diverse population and a vibrant multicultural religious life, is an element that is much taken for granted by the city's residents but which may be striking when coming from another continent, Europe for example. Such values are very much practiced in the McGill community itself.
This and the expertise in world religions and cultures, as well as the manifold research interests focused on the impact of faith and religion on social, artistic, and health issues that exist at McGill, provide an inspiring context for the creation of a Centre for Research on Religion that can draw on all those interests and provide a meeting ground for further development and cross fertilization.
McGill's obvious strength in the field of religion is reflected in the presence of a Faculty of Religious Studies, with a broad scope of teaching and research activities ranging from Judaism and Christianity to Hinduism and Buddhism, and the presence of a well established Institute of Islamic Studies and Department of Jewish Studies in the Faculty of Arts. But all faculties and departments at McGill are, in one way or another, involved in the study of religion, whether of single aspects of it or of more complex constellations.
Many of their members are experts in social and religious changes, in the fields of health care, human rights, minority politics, and public policy, in Canada and in other parts of the world, such as South India, Indonesia, East Africa, and the Middle East, as is witnessed by an impressive number of different and fascinating research projects.
Those researchers now are resolved to join forces in an international Centre for Research on Religion, in which religious phenomena are studied from interdisciplinary and interfaculty perspectives. The Centre is bringing together the best scholars from fields such as anthropology, classics, education, law, medicine, philosophy, psychology, and sociology, and those studying the world's religions, in compact and highly effective research groups, which target specific areas of research and debate issues of present-day relevance (see below).
This new initiative does not depend on past collaborations as far as interdisciplinary research is concerned, although some individual projects can go back several years in time. It seeks rather to foster and build on collaboration among researchers at McGill and beyond. Avenues of collaboration have been explored and stimulated by the colloquia and scholarly meetings organized in the preparatory phase of this proposal. The collaborative interests expressed at such meetings and colloquia have already resulted in a number of interdisciplinary research projects (see section II.b.), which without the Centre's