Religion & Philosophy Department

Lebanon Valley College

North American Undergraduate Conference in Religion & Philosophy

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The Department of Religion and Philosophy at Lebanon Valley College is pleased to be hosting the 7th Annual North American Undergraduate Conference in Religion & Philosophy this spring.

Activist, scholar and minister Monica Coleman from Claremont School of Theology will be the keynote speaker. Find information about her at

The conference is being jointly planned by a LVC faculty member and student, Dr. Matt Sayers and Daniel Kimmel.

Details for the conference can be found at

2013 Fall Report


We have had an active couple of months in the Department of Religion and Philosophy at LVC. The semester kicked off with our first BRAINSTORMS meeting (see photos here: in which we celebrated the publication of the book of essays from our undergraduates on the work of Catherine Malabou (check it out at The essays were the product of last year’s team-taught undergraduate research symposium. The symposium course and the book publication were such a success that we have plans to make them both annual events. In other words, we want LVC to be the destination for high achieving students who want to take on the challenge of conducting undergraduate research and whose quality of work will be ready for the scrutiny of public presentations and publication.

It is with that in mind that we have commenced our second annual team-taught undergraduate research symposium course. The topic for this year is “Race and Religion.” Students will be working in a collaborative learning environment with three LVC professors from the department as well as with Professor J. Kameron Carter from Duke Theological School, who is serving as the symposium course’s external scholar. Students are enrolled in the class by the permission of an instructor and commit to an entire year of study and conversation. During the spring semester, students will present their research in two public forums. The first will be at the North American Undergraduate Conference on Religion and Philosophy in which LVC students will be competing with students from across the country for awards in outstanding scholarship and presentation. The second will be at the public symposium where Professor Carter will be serving as the official respondent, providing commentary and critique on each student’s work. Based on the feedback the students will be receiving from these various events, as well as the writing conferences held with individual professors over the course of the spring semester, students will revise and finalize their papers to be ready for publication in a collected book of essays in summer 2014.

In addition to this intensive learning experience, we also have four students completing the senior seminar course this semester. This course as designed as the capstone course for the Religion and Philosophy major. It requires students (1) to compile a portfolio of their best representative work over their time as an undergraduate, (2) to write an intellectual autobiography, and (3) to complete a senior research thesis on a topic of each student’s own choosing. This is the class where students synthesize and bring coherence to their various courses and demonstrate their capacities at critical thinking and in oral and written communication. It provides interested students with a writing sample that can be included as a part of their graduate school applications. And it is a means by which students can convey to potential employers their capacities for completing tasks independently, problem solving, intellectual discernment, effective communication, and self-confidence. The course is required of all majors. It gives students the opportunity to work one-on-one with an individual faculty member. And it is yet something else that helps to distinguish our department’s philosophy of teaching and learning in a liberal arts environment from many of the other good programs in Religion and Philosophy from our region.

Finally, we are pleased to report on the outstanding work done by one of our graduating seniors. Ashley Ferrari is not only a student leader on campus who is involved in many different extracurricular activities, but she is also a successful triple major in Philosophy, International Studies, and Spanish. She has studied abroad in Spain, and has engaged in a collaborative research project with an LVC faculty member in Mexico. She has just recently completed her application for the Fulbright Scholar Program. As stated on the CIES website, “The Fulbright Program is the flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government and is designed to ‘increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries.’” Students are chosen for the Fulbright based on their academic merit and leadership potential. If chosen, the Fulbright Scholar is given a full year’s of funding for the opportunity to study, teach and conduct research on a shared international concern. Ashley’s proposed research project builds on her work from last year’s undergraduate research symposium on Catherine Malabou. She was assisted in preparing the application by faculty in the Religion and Philosophy department and her advisor in International Studies. She is proposing to spend a year at the University of Barcelona under the direction of the philosopher Santiago Zabala. We are extremely hopeful for Ashley’s prospects and proud of the seriousness of purpose she has already shown in readying her application materials.

Research Symposium on Catherine Malabou

Malabou Symposium

Malabou Symposium 2


LVC’s Symposium on a Living Philosopher culminated last week with Catherine Malabou’s extended visit to campus.  Malabou, who lives in Paris and works at the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy at Kingston University in London, came to LVC in between trips to Duke University and Villanova University.  During her three days here she conducted study sessions with faculty and students, gave a public lecture entitled “What is a Psychic Event? Psychoanalysis and Neurobiology on Trauma,” and served as the official respondent for the Undergraduate Research Symposium held on her work.

The Research Symposium was the culmination of a yearlong seminar course.  Five LVC students (Dylan Matusek, Ashley Ferrari, Halley Washburn, Devan Glenny and Marquis Bey) presented their original research on Malabou directly to her in an open, public forum.  They were joined by Jordan Skinner from Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, MI.

The students were poised, knowledgeable, and confident, even as they sparred with a contemporary thinker of world significance.  Malabou herself was warm, gracious, and exacting.  She spoke affirmatively of the high level of scholarship the students produced.  And perhaps what she found most impressive was how each of the students developed her work in new and distinctive ways–from explorations of how her philosophy provides a viable form of political resistance and the possibility for real change, and how it contributes to notions of freedom and individuality, to applications of her work in considerations of the phenomenon of bullying and the persistence of racial and gender discrimination.

All told, this was one of the most significant and exciting weeks for our department in recent memory.  The students’ successes from this class–first at the North American Undergraduate Conference in Religion and Philosophy, and second with their direct engagement with Malabou herself–provides ample proof for us that this model of integrating undergraduate research into the humanities is a genuinely high impact learning experience.  We are committed to building on this success and believe that it provides our graduates with an unparalleled education in philosophy and religion.

Sayers at the 2012 PA State Atheist/Humanist Conference

In September of 2012, I was invited to sit on a panel discussing the role of religious people in establishing and maintaining a secular government. The panel was entitled “Secular Government, Bringing Believers into the Fold, and it featured an even balance of atheists and religious people. The videos from the entire conference have recently been posted and can be viewed here. The hour-long panel on Secular Government, featuring me, Matt Sayers, can be seen here.

LVC Students Present at the North American Undergraduate Conference in Religion and Philosophy



On Saturday March 23rd several students from LVC presenting their work at the North American Undergraduate Conference in Religion and Philosophy. Professors Jeff Robbins, Matt Sayers, and Noelle Vahanian (with an appearance by Professor Diane Johnson) accompanied seven LVC students who attended and presented at the 7th annual undergraduate conference held at St. Francis University on March 22-23rd.

Five of the students presented papers they wrote for the Symposium on a Living Philosopher, a full-year seminar on the philosophy of Catherine Malabou. Marquis Bey, Devan Glenny, Ashley Ferrari, Dylan Matusek, and Halley Washburn each presented shorter versions of papers they have written for this class, papers they will present to Dr. Malabou herself later this Spring semester here at LVC. Each related the work of Dr. Malabou to topics that interested them. Bey connected the notion of plasticity to identity formation among African American women, Glenny related themes from class to the issue of bullying. Ferrari engaged Malabou’s critic of capitalism. Matusek challenged Malabou’s conception of the synaptic self. And Washburn tackled the connection between neuroplasticity and change.

Daniel Kimmel and Haisam Hassanein both presented works from different classes. Kimmel engaged the religious theory of Erik Erikson and Hassanein described the situation of Coptic Christians in Egypt. All the papers connected the students’ individual work to the conference theme: “New Frontiers of Reason.”

Two LVC students took prizes for most outstanding papers of the conference:  Dylan Matusek (1st place) and Ashley Ferrari (3rd place).  Presenters included students from Rutgers, SUNY Buffalo, Emmanuel, and Iona College and as far away as Brigham Young University. Dr. Robbins’ pictures from the conference are available on Facebook at this URL. Photos by the conference organizer, Dr. Art Remillard of St. Francis University, are available here.

Plans are in the works for LVC to host the North American Undergraduate Conference in Religion and Philosophy next year.

Itinerary for Malabou Symposium

Malabou Symposium  We have the schedule of events set for the culmination of the yearlong Symposium on the Catherine Malabou.

Professor Malabou will be here at LVC meeting with students and faculty from April 9-11th.

There are three public events.

  1. Malabou’s public lecture on “What is a Psychic Event? Psychoanalysis and Neurology on Trauma.”  This will be held in Chapel 101 on Wednesday, April 10th at 4:30pm.
  2. The Undergraduate Research Symposium on the Work of Malabou:  This features the independent research projects of the eight students who from the yearlong course.  Professor Malabou will serve as the official respondent as each student presents his/her thesis on her work.  This will be held in the Bishop Library Atrium on Thursday, April 11th from 4:00-6:00pm.
  3. The reception in celebration of the students’ work and to meet and honor Professor Malabou will be immediately following the Research Symposium.  It will be held in the Lobby of the Neidig-Garber Science building from 6:30-8:00pm.

Becoming a Brain

An event has been planned at Union Theological Seminary in New York for the purpose of celebrating and discussing the publication of my book with Clayton Crockett. It will include me and Professor Crockett (obviously). Mark L. Taylor of Princeton Theological Seminary and Cornel West of Princeton University and also of Union Theological (see will part of the program as well.

It should be very interesting and a lot of fun.

It is free and open to the public. But if you think you might attend, you will need to RSVP via

Here is the official press release from Union Theological for the event:

In 1967, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was scheduled to deliver his famous ‘Beyond Vietnam’ speech at Union Theological Seminary. The speech connected racism, materialism, and militarism not only in the struggle for civil rights in the US, but also in the war in Vietnam. Due to tremendous public interest and Union’s limited ability to host large audiences, Dr. King’s appearance was moved to The Riverside Church.

In that same spirit of engaged social justice, Union will host Dr. Jeffrey Robbins and Dr. Clayton Crockett, two prolific scholars working out of the lineage of American radical theology. Both have argued for the need to critically interrogate the latent political quietism, if not conservatism, of that tradition. They have a shared interest in critically interrogating the intersection of religion and politics, as evidenced by their co-authored book Religion, Politics and the Earth: The New Materialism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). In doing so, they have helped to focus contemporary theological discussions on the values implicit in money and the environmental, social, and political degradation associated with the apparent triumph of global capital. This radical political theology has emerged as an important new alternative for religious scholars and activists committed to issues of equality and social justice, and has an obvious connection to the voices of liberation theology.

Union’s Cornel West and Princeton Theological Seminary’s Mark Lewis Taylor will join the conversation.

Please note: This event is free and open to the public. However, due to space limitations, there is no assigned or reserved seating. We strongly encourage attendees and their guests to arrive early so that we may manage our space more effectively. The doors will open 45 minutes before the start of the event.

Registration is required. RSVP online.


Religious Tolerance

I recently read a piece by Marilyn Sewell on the Huffington Post Blog (read it here) and a reply by Paul Louis Metzger (read it here) and their thoughts stirred an ongoing effort to think about how best to promote a pluralistic society.

In “Saying Goodbye to Tolerance” Sewell describes her experience being the religious “Other” talking to students at seminary. Her experience is quite similar to that of Ravindra-svarupa Das (read it here) in that they are both brought into seminaries to engage in “interfaith dialogue”, but find their audience less interested in dialogue than in the spectacle of someone who believes something different, either intentionally as with Das or unintentionally as with Metzger. The motive, in both cases was the promotion of “religious tolerance.”

However, “tolerance” is not enough. Years ago I saw Elie Wiesel speak and he addressed the inadequacy of the word tolerance when applied to a pluralistic society. Not only is religious tolerance not enough; it is insulting; it reinforces a power differential that is oppressive; it fails to stimulate real exchange or respect, or, even the possibility of more.

The Oxford Dictionary online defines tolerate in two ways 1. allow the existence, occurrence, or practice of (something that one dislikes or disagrees with) without interference and 2. be capable of continued subjection to (a drug, toxin, or environmental condition) without adverse reaction, and informs the reader that it comes from the Latin tolerat, “in the sense ‘endure pain’”. The first definition highlights the power dimension that Sewell and Metzger seem to recognize, but do not address well. Only those in power “allow” the existence of differing beliefs and practices. The sense of subjection in the second definition gets to the way this word is usually used. That is, when we tolerate, we “put up with” we “endure” something unpleasant.

As an example, Obama’s recent speech at the UN has been lauded as a call for religious tolerance and some have claimed that America offers a model of religious pluralism. However, if you read carefully how Obama uses the word “tolerate” you will notice he always uses it with negative things. “We can either accept that outcome as inevitable, and tolerate constant and crippling conflict.” And later: “That effort must begin with an unshakeable determination that the murder of innocent men, women and children will never be tolerated.” And finally, “The people of the world want change. They will not long tolerate those who are on the wrong side of history.” I think the word “religious tolerance” implies similar, insulting things about “other” religions.

Further, in this first sense religious tolerance is used by those in power to either de-legitimate those who are different—that is, they must be “put up with”—or deployed by those who are in power, but feel oppressed, to legitimate the encroachment of religious belief into improper places. “In God We Trust” on our money has certainly established a monotheistic belief in a secular nation, but efforts to change this, or the pledge, are characterized as religious intolerance.

In the second case the motivation is acceptance; some people truly try to respect everyone who is different. How positive this sounds! But how troubling it really is. Could you find it in your heart to respect my beliefs if I told you I was God? Could you respect my religious practice if I told you I thought bodily mutilation of infants was a key part of my religious practice? Could you respect me if I decided to fly a plane into a skyscraper?

These examples are not taken at random. Sai Baba of Shirdi was understood by some of his followers to be the incarnation of Krishna, that is, God incarnate. Many Americans practice male circumcision, but are outraged (rightly, I think) when it happens to girls in Africa. The last example is tricky. We don’t respect the terrorists of 9-11, we clinicize their behavior. They were crazy. They were evil incarnate. They weren’t religious. But they were! They understood their behavior to be deeply religious. We respect all religious beliefs, unless we don’t like them, then they aren’t in fact religious.

However, if we ignore this fact we refuse to face up to the fact that some people religiously justify bad behavior, some religions call on us to do evil. The Hebrew Bible sanctions genocide. Jesus called a woman a dog. The Laws of Manu tells us that women should not ever be independent during their life.  Buddhists in Sri Lanka go to war. Shintos ruthlessly oppressed Buddhists in the past.

If we ignore the blemishes of religions we take a juvenile attitude toward religion. Consider an analogy. If I ignore all the bad stuff my significant other does, telling myself “that’s not her” or “she isn’t being herself”, then I fail to love her for who she is. When we dismiss anything bad done in the name of religion, we similarly hold a naïve idea of what religion is. This works if we want religion to be only the good stuff, but it isn’t really religion then, is it?

When we practice a blanket, unconditional tolerance we commit a similar juvenile engagement with the world. Some people hold to bad ideas. We should demand that people’s ideas make sense. We should not tolerate evil, even if it is done in the name of God. We should not accept the denigration of anyone just because a book—written about God by men—says they are sinners (or worse those we trust tell us it says that and we fail to look for ourselves). We need to have those tough conversations. Interfaith Dialogue is a key instrument in creating a positive pluralism, but if we fail to address the tough questions and it always ends with us singing Kumbaya, then we fail to respect each other. We need to respect each other enough to disagree and argue. Not fight, but argue. Disagree without being disagreeable. If your belief is worth your faith (and even atheists have faith in their beliefs, though most like to believe they just see the world as it is) then you should be able to engage a real conversation without feeling threatened.

Metzger is right when he says tolerance is not enough. Sewell is right in that we should not ally with those who do harm. While I think Metzger is more hopeful (which I am cherishing more as I grow older), I find Sewell’s reaction more mature and healthier. I think her piece is a courageous attempt at a constructive rejection of the dangerous idea that we need to respect everyone’s beliefs. We need a more mature way to interact in a world wrought with difference.

We need, first, to get rid of this word “tolerate”. But what to use? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer. Look what the simple word “tolerance” got us. Coexist? Respect? Cooperate? Engage? In which situation do you want to use it? What ideas does the word promote? Which would help us get along with others better? Which would produce the pluralistic society you would want to live in?