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Author: Institute for Religious and Cultural Understanding

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ReligionWise features educators, researchers, and other professionals discussing their work and the place of religion in the public conversation. Host Chip Gruen, the Director of the Institute for Religious and Cultural Understanding of Muhlenberg College, facilitates conversations that aim to provide better understanding of varieties of religious expression and their impacts on the human experience. For more about the Institute for Religious and Cultural Understanding, visit
25 Episodes
In this episode we talk with Nicole McGalla, Director of Communications and Community Engagement at the Parkland School District, in Eastern Pennsylvania. This conversation considers both the inclusion of the topic of religion into public school curricula as well as how religious diversity among both staff and students is addressed in the contemporary context.
This episode of ReligionWise features Dr. Bob Machamer who teaches courses on Health Care Ethics at the Pennsylvania College of Health Sciences. In this conversation we consider both the historical context for considering healthcare ethics and the changing dynamics of the field, particularly as it addresses the implications of a more diverse patient population. As a teacher, counselor, and pastor, Dr. Machamer brings a multifaceted approach to these questions; this discussion deals primarily with the practical considerations and implications that he deals with in his wide experience with students and clients.
Many current news, such as the overturning of Roe v Wade, the ongoing war in Ukraine, or recent investigations of unidentified aerial phenomenon, have increasingly become fodder for integration into fringe worldviews that we often refer to as conspiracy theories. This episode's encore presentation invites us to consider this development in our information ecosystem from another perspective. Rather than simply considering the claims themselves, what might we learn by considering how these theories contribute to  individual and community identity formation? This discussion invites us to contemplate these discursive strategies for their social significance and how they foster a sense of community around certain beliefs.  This episode of ReligionWise features a conversation with Dustin Nash, Associate Professor of Religion Studies at Muhlenberg College.In this conversation, we discuss conspiracy narratives and how the methods of religious studies can help us understand why individuals believe what they believe. Additionally, we consider how belief can lead to action as well as support an individual's view of self and identity.Show Notes:Dustin Nash article: Fossilized Jews and Witnessing Dinosaurs at the Creation Museum: Public Remembering and Forgetting at a Young Earth Creationist “Memory Place” (
This episode of ReligionWise features Rev. Dr. Falres Ilomo, Chair of the Faculty of Theology at the University of Iringa, Tanzania. Dr. Ilomo's work considers the intersections of traditional African religious systems with Christianity in Africa, as well as the history and development of Christianity in Tanzania and the surrounding region. In this conversation, we discuss the perceptions and realities of the varieties of religious expression in Africa and consider several aspects of the belief and practice of the Christian tradition in Tanzania.Show Notes: Cultural and Natural Heritage in Tanzania: A Case of Southern Highlands ( Dialogue in an African Context ( Translated by Berlin Missionaries in Southern Tanzania: Some Eschatological Implications of Translation ( Religion: A Basis for Interfaith Dialogue Today, Dar es Salaam University Press, 2013
In this episode of ReligionWise, we talk with Sonja Thomas, Associate Professor of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Colby College. In addition to her work on caste, class, and racial privilege in Kerala, India, Dr. Thomas has become a leading voice arguing against caste discrimination in the United States. This conversation considers caste alongside of race, gender, sexual identity, and religion as cite of discrimination and the efforts that are being made to confront it.Show Notes:Privileged Minorities: Syrian Christianity, Gender, and Minority Rights in Postcolonial India (
In this episode of ReligionWise, we talk with Michal Bar-Asher Siegal, Professor of Rabbinic Judaism in the Goldstein-Goren Department of Jewish Thought at Ben-Gurion University in Israel. Though her research considers the intersections of Rabbinic thought and the development of the Talmud with early Christianity, she is also keenly interested in thinking about the role of the humanities in the context of the modern University. Through her collaborative work in a variety of institutional and governmental contexts, she has developed a novel perspective on the value of the humanities.
In this episode of ReligionWise, we talk with Dena Davis, Presidential Endowed Chair in Health and Professor of Bioethics at Lehigh University. In addition to her work in healthcare ethics, Dr. Davis has written on a brewing controversy over a group of ultra-Orthodox religious schools in New York. These Yeshivas concentrate their instruction, not on English, math, and science, but on the study of religious texts. The result of this curriculum is that students of these schools graduate without basic competence in skills necessary to navigate the modern world. Dr. Davis provides legal and ethical context for the collision between these religious and secular institutions.
This episode of ReligionWise features the Reverend Janelle Neubauer who currently serves as the College Chaplain and Director of Religious and Spiritual Life at Muhlenberg College. Prior to holding that post, Pastor Neubauer has had a number of experiences in ministry abroad, including as a missionary pastor for the Lutheran Church of Rwanda. In this conversation, we discuss the contemporary practice of global mission work in the post-colonial experience as well as the opportunities and challenges of this type of work in the global south.
This episode of ReligionWise features Chris Borick the Director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion. In this conversation, we consider how pollsters try to understand religious identity and sentiment, the limitations of those methods for considering religious minorities, and how the rise of a religiously unaffiliated public has shown up in recent polls.
This episode features Reverend Frederick Davie, who among other roles, serves as the Senior Advisor on Racial Equity for Interfaith America. In this far ranging discussion, we talk about the role of interfaith dialogue in wider public discourse, the shifting understanding of religious freedom, and the relationship between governmental policy and the priorities of religious communities.Show Notes:Interfaith America ( Commission on International Religious Freedom (
This episode features Rangina Hamidi, who, until the fall of the government in 2021, served as the Education Minister for Afghanistan. In this conversation, Hamidi talks about her life in public service and discusses the complicated relationship between religion and education in contemporary Afghanistan.
Today’s episode features Matthieu Aikins, an award winning journalist and reporter who covered the war in Afghanistan and the subsequent refugee crisis.In this conversation, we consider both his reporting from Kabul after the fall of the Afghan government as well as the plight of refugees as they flee the country and the Taliban. Show notes:Matthieu Aikins' website ( Naked Don't Fear the Water ( Aikins' articles (
This installment of ReligionWise features Kocku von Stuckrad, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.In this conversation, we discuss discourse analysis and its utility in the academic study of religion. In particular, we consider examples from Professor von Stuckrad’s two most recent books: The Scientification of Religion (2015) and A Cultural History of the Soul (2022).Show Notes:A Cultural History of the Soul: Europe and North America from 1870 to the Present  ( Scientification of Religion: An Historical Study of Discursive Change, 1800–2000 (
This installment of ReligionWise features Tim Loftus, a recent Ph.D. from Temple University who studies contemporary forms of Buddhism.  In this conversation, we discuss Buddhism in various geographic and cultural contexts. In particular, our conversation turns to the way that Buddhism is imagined in the contemporary world and the relationship between that narrative and the historical record.
In this episode of ReligionWise, we talk with Tom Robinson and Hillary Rodrigues, two professors at the University of Lethbridge who direct the Robinest project, a website that provides digital resources for the academic study of religion. In this conversation we talk about these resources, and more generally about dispelling misconceptions of the academic study of religion in contemporary higher education and public discourse.Show notes:Robinest - Digital resources for teaching world religions (
In this episode of ReligionWise, we talk with Jodi Eichler-Levine Professor of Religion Studies and Berman Professor of Jewish Civilization at Lehigh University. Our conversation considers the way that storytelling helps individuals and communities organize their lives and imagine their own identities, particularly when processing traumatic events.Show Notes:Suffer the Little Children: Uses of the Past in Jewish and African American Children’s Literature ( Pomegranates and Needlepoint Rabbis: How Jews Craft Resilience and Create Community (
This installment of ReligionWise considers the place of teaching about religion and religious diversity in public secondary education. Our conversation features Greg Soden, who has taught courses on world religions in various high school contexts. Together, we think about the benefits and challenges of a religious studies curriculum in a public context.Show Notes:The Classical Ideas Podcast (
In this episode of ReligionWise, the discussion features Jessica Cooperman, Associate Professor and Chair of Religion Studies and Director of Jewish Studies at Muhlenberg College.  Our conversation focuses on the materials and methods that a historian uses to paint a picture from the past, including publicly and privately held archives.Show Notes:Making Judaism Safe for America: World War I and the Origins of Religious Pluralism (
This episode of ReligionWise features a conversation with Khurram Hussain, Associate Professor of Religion Studies at Lehigh University.In this far ranging conversation, we discuss the often overlooked humanistic elements present in Islam, reflect on ill-conceived narratives of intercultural interactions, and consider better ways of facilitating understanding across difference. Show Notes:Islam as Critique: Sayyid Ahmad Khan and the Challenge of Modernity( Muslim Speaks( Oxford Handbook of Humanism: Humanism in the Middle East(
This episode of ReligionWise features a conversation between Carrie Duncan, Program Specialist for the Institute for Religious and Cultural Understanding and Jill Peterfeso, the Eli Franklin Craven and Minnie Phipps Craven Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Guilford College. In this conversation, we consider how an element of American popular culture, the Disney corporation and in particular Walt Disney World, can be better understood using the tools of religious studies. Dr. Peterfeso not only teaches on the confluence of Disney and religion, but took a group of students to the Magic Kingdom as part of the “Fantastic Journeys” curriculum at Guilford. This conversation demonstrates a different way of thinking about religion itself and asks you to consider similarities and differences between traditional religion and broader cultural experiences.
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