Past projects

New Directions in the Study of Prayer 2011-2015

Advisory Committee Chair

Public capstone conference at the Italian Academy, Columbia University, February 6-7 2015

Social Science Research Council and the John Templeton Foundation

Reverberations: the program’s web and project page.

The New Directions in the Study of Prayer program was developed to invite sustained scholarly attention to the embodied, social, political, and affective aspects of prayer, and thus to move well beyond the narrow academic debates about whether prayer “works” that preoccupied an earlier generation of social scientists. Through varied and diverse research projects, our funded scholars have taken on the challenge of investigating prayer simultaneously as constellations of practices and activities shaped by (and shaping of) local contexts and as a historically developing comparative term that has rendered some religious practices (but not others) open to scholarly inquiry. Scholars in this project approach prayer as a complex and sometimes unstable nexus of action, speech, relation, affect, politics, ethics, and imagination, through which modern people both imagine and experience relationships with other and the divine, live through and negotiate powerful ethics of the body, engage in and experience political authority, formulate community and individual ethical potentials, and develop particular cognitive capacities.

Participants in our program have rarely seen eye to eye, however, about the value or the contours of our object of inquiry. Bringing psychologists, anthropologists and historians into interdisciplinary conversations about research on prayer as practice has provided welcome opportunities to reflect on the ethical and epistemological stakes of varied research programs and disciplinary commitments. The “study of prayer” itself has laid bare many of our familiar disciplinary constellations of scholarly affect, ethical commitments, and politics of academic inquiry. This fruitful scrutiny and debate promises to articulate not a “better” view of prayer but, more broadly, a new set of conditions and frameworks for the comparative study of religion.


Spirituality, Political Engagement and Public Life

Co-chair, Social Science Research Council Working Group


Project Publications:

“Mapping a Field: Why and How to Study Spirituality.” Courtney Bender and Omar McRoberts Curated by Kathryn Lofton and John Lardas Modern

The SSRC’s Religion and the Public Sphere Program launched a project in 2009 on Spirituality, Political Engagement, and Public Life, with support from the Ford Foundation. The project will explore how spiritual practice, identity, and experience shape social action, political participation, and public life in the United States. It is fundamentally concerned with how contemporary spiritual identity and practices present alternatives to–as well as critiques of and cautionary tales about–what it means to be socially and politically engaged in the United States. The project will convene a working group to explore the myriad forms of spiritual identity, social engagement, and political action.


Religion on the Edge: Decentering and Recentering the Sociology of Religion

Co-organizer, with Wendy Cadge, Peggy Levitt and David Smilde

Project Publications:

David Smilde and Matthew May, “The Emerging Strong Program in the Sociology of Religion.” SSRC working paper.

Wendy Cadge, Peggy Levitt and David Smilde. “De-Centering and Re-Centering: Rethinking Concepts and Methods in the Sociological Study of Religion.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. 2011.

Courtney Bender, Wendy Cadge, Peggy Levitt, and David Smilde, eds. Religion on the Edge: Decentering and Recentering the Sociology of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press 2012.

This collaborative project explored ideas for developing and promoting a more vigorous future for sociology of religion within the discipline. This project commenced with a two-day collaborative workshop hosted by the Princeton Center for the Study of Religion in October 2008. In addition to engaging a recent discussion on The Immanent Frame, collaborators developed an edited volume, working papers, and an online syllabus collective.