Aug 162018
 August 16, 2018

Early in August, the Kenan Institute for Ethics, in partnership with Ireland’s largest multi-cultural newspaper, Metro Eireann, and the Gallery of Photography Ireland, hosted the Fourth Annual Intercultural Young Writers and Photographers Competition. The national competition is part of Kenan’s more than ten-year effort to work with the Irish government and a range of NGOs to usher in a new Ireland that reflects the country’s increasingly multicultural population and culture. Young people were encouraged to depict the ethical challenges of this newly emerging Ireland through fiction and photography. The submissions in this year’s competition came from across Ireland, from native-born Irish as well as from recently arrived migrant and refugee youth.

One of this year’s winning submissions was a short story narrated by a teenager who is forced to decide whether to welcome the arrival of Syrian refugees in his small rural town or join his closest friends in violently opposing the newcomers. Another entry was a set of poems depicted Starbucks as a crossroads of the many different cultures in Ireland. Another prize-winning short story explored the meaning of Blackness in Dublin.

The competition’s award ceremony was held at the Royal College of Physicians in downtown Dublin, and featured remarks from Dublin’s Lord Mayor Ardmhera Nial Ring, Senator Aodhan O’Riordain, and novelist and poet Rebecca O’Connor.  In speeches that looked both backward to Ireland’s past as a country of senders, and forward to the possibilities of an increasingly diverse nation, the audience was encouraged to play an active role in shaping the new Ireland.  The ceremony concluded with a reflection from Duke sophomore Andrew Carlins, who spoke eloquently about his experiences working this summer with the Irish Refugee Resettlement Program (IRRP) in the Department of Justice and Equality in Dublin.

Aug 142018
 August 14, 2018

Imagine these scenes:

Christian and Jewish scholars of the New Testament and the Hebrew Bible discussing the Quran with a Jerusalem Imam, while Duke undergraduates and Divinity students ask questions and soak it all in.

An Italian Muslim, who trains teachers in religious pluralism, talking to scholars and students from six universities and three continents about ISIS and the Quran.

These and other similar encounters happened this July in Leipzig, Germany, where the International Network for Interreligious Dialogue and Education (INIRE) held its annual weeklong conference and summer school, this year on “Normative Religious Traditions and their Authority.”

“These interactions are the world as it should be,” says Malachi Hacohen, Senior Fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics. A professor of history, political science, and religion at Duke, Hacohen was an organizer of this year’s program as well as a participant.

Supported by the Religions and Public Life program at the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Duke Center for Jewish Studies, Leipzig University, and other members of INIRE, eight Duke students—from Trinity, the Graduate School, and the Divinity School—attended, studied, and socialized with faculty and students from Israel, Egypt, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States. These researchers in history, the Bible, the Quran, theology, and sociology of religion discussed questions that included whether “holy texts” are relevant for “secular people” today, and what role they play in the dialogue between religions and discourse in our societies.

In addition to discussions and presentations, the Leipzig conference and summer program actively integrated lived experiences and practices to its program. “We not only participated in seminars and academic discussions, but also read and sang sacred texts together, broke bread together, and worshipped together,” said participant Peace Lee, a ThD candidate at Duke Divinity School. “We each experienced the grace of being received into religious traditions not our own…It is the integration of theory and practice, learning and living together, that makes this program truly meaningful.”

The INIRE represents the collaboration of six universities—from Europe, America, and Israel—and a global network of scholars from different disciplines and fields. Religion is approached from interdisciplinary and multi-confessional perspectives, with a view to promoting religious literacy and encouraging interreligious dialogue among scholars, students, and the public. The 2019 INIRE conference and summer program will take place in Groningen, Netherlands, with the topic “Religious Heritage in a Diverse Europe.”

Emily Bowles

Jul 242018
 July 24, 2018

From July 9th through 14th, John Rose, Associate Director of the Arete Initiative at the Kenan Institute for Ethics, and several Duke professors led a seminar in ethics, philosophy, and religion for 22 rising high school seniors from around the country. The seminar posed questions regarding the foundations of morality and human rights, such as: Are religion or God necessary for morality and human rights to make sense? If not, what are their bases? Utility, social contracts? In what sense are basic rights “self-evident,” as the American founders claimed, given that people are born of different strengths and privileges?

Students also reflected on the relationship between philosophy and religion, as well as the relationship between religion and science, raising the question of whether the natural sciences provide us with ethical direction or a justification for morality. Evaluations showed that the students found the seminar to be intellectually rewarding and influential in their lives. As one student wrote, “I know I’m going to carry the things I’ve learned here for the rest of my life. Thank you.” Another remarked, “This seminar was amazing, and I’ll never forget it. I feel like I can’t even review it objectively because it’s become very dear to me.”

Jul 242018
 July 24, 2018

From June 25th to 29th, Professors Farr Curlin (Duke) and Chris Tollefsen (University of South Carolina) led nineteen students in the first annual Arete Medical Ethics Seminar on Duke’s campus. Most of the students had already begun their medical education—at institutions such as Johns Hopkins, Stanford, and Dartmouth—while others were preparing to enter medical school this fall. The seminar offered the students a chance to reflect philosophically on the purpose of their intended occupation. The seminar began with the question, what is health, or, put differently, what is medicine? Is the goal of medicine to increase patient satisfaction, to reduce suffering, to respect patient autonomy, to promote health? Do these answers ever come into conflict? If so, what then does good medicine require? For all their sophisticated educational offerings, medical schools are often reluctant to address this question. How the medical profession understands “health” can and will affect how a doctor may think about hard cases like euthanasia and abortion.

In a time when burnout rates among doctors are at all-time highs (and continue to rise), it is crucial for physicians-in-training to reflect on why they do what they do, why they put up with the grind of medical school, the trial of rotations, and, for some, the endless charting required in certain subfields of medicine. The faculty and students in the seminar grappled with these hard questions in the spirit of finding truth. In evaluating the seminar, one participant wrote, “[it] came right at the perfect time in my life and has given me a clear context to view medical ethics going forward in practice as a physician, and as a citizen in greater society. It was a true privilege to be a part of the seminar.”

Jul 182018
 July 18, 2018

Theologian Norman Wirzba and law professor Jedediah Purdy, with support from the Henry Luce Foundation and the Kenan Institute for Ethics, have convened a group of scholars from across disciplines to discuss how the academy might better respond to the environmental crisis. When the Luce Anthropocene Working Group had their first meeting on June 27-29 at the Kenan Institute for Ethics, Purdy opened by inviting participants to reflect on what issues and problems has led each of them to their current work, and to share one or two questions that they find particularly difficult. Quoting Donna Haraway, Purdy encouraged working group members to “stay with the trouble,” that is, to seek out those areas of their field that resist solutions.

The responses were diverse, but connected. Historian Kate Brown said that she struggles to write narratives of the landscapes and people harmed by nuclear industries that are not so depressing as to lead readers into despair: how, she asked, do we write stories of environmental crises that give people tools for survival? Anthropologist Tim Ingold spoke of the important distinction between optimism and hope; while optimism lulls us into comfort by leading us to believe that science will fix everything, hope makes room for each generation to be a new generation, to begin again. As educators, he said, it is tempting to think it is our job to say what the end will be, but instead we should help our students cultivate hope by leaving room for the kinds of uncertainty that make hope possible. Willie Jennings pointed out that from his point of view as an African American theologian, hope is a discipline shaped inside a melancholy situation. “I do not have to stay with the trouble,” said Jennings, “the trouble stays with me.” Jennings pointed to two troubles in particularly: the ongoing commodification of everything, which makes black life in the West a constant negotiation with commodification and exploitation; and the problem of projection – so much of our educational pedagogies revolve around the idea that the world does not speak to us. This idea limits the ways in which students are invited to connect with and experience landscapes. Physicist Rhadika Khosla, whose work focuses on issues of energy and climate change in urbanizing environments, spoke of forms of optimism rampant at the intersection of physical and social sciences. She explained how a vocabulary of solutions allows scholars to avoid thinking about complex issues that defy quick fixes. This, she said, has produced a divorce between what academics write and the lived realities of communities, the latter of which do not always conform to sellable stories of improvement.

These opening comments gives you a sense of the range and complexity of the working group’s conversations over the next two days. In addition to the people already mentioned, participants included writer Robert Macfarlane, biologist Robin Kimmerer, theologian Janet Soskice, professor of Law Douglas Kysar, literature scholar Kate Rigby, and historian Micah Muscolino. “We have invited scholars from multiple fields in order to discuss urgent questions posed by the planetary crises,” said Wirzba. “It is a special privilege in academic life to participate in sustained and rigorous conversation with such diverse and generous guests over topics of great urgency and complexity. It was an outstanding beginning to a project that promises to be both generative and creative.”

Some of the topics covered at this first meeting were analytical. What conceptions of humanity, the non-human world, political economy, democracy, and justice can help us navigate this time? What assumptions must come into question – about species and nature, about politics and agency, about economics and value? Others are more practical. How might academics reach non-academic audiences? What forms of publishing are appropriate for this time? Are there means of communication available beyond the written word and how might we utilize them?

Muscolino suggested that attention to aesthetics – to making beautiful books, for example – is one way of engaging audiences beyond academia and of cultivating hope. Rigby, Brown, and Kimmerer imagined making survival videos based on 1950s nuclear bomb drills; using humor and parody, they proposed, is one way to express the scale of the problems facing us without overwhelming audiences. Macfarlane highlighted story-telling. He pointed out that when Kate Brown had told a story of the Red Forest near Chernobyl, everyone in the room leaned forward, eager to listen to her narrative. Perhaps, he said, the best way to engage people in the questions of climate change is not to start with theory and questions, but to start with stories.

The Luce Anthropocene Working Group will continue these conversations and others next summer, when they will again meet at the Kenan Institute for Ethics. Their work will culminate in a conference in 2020, at which each member of the group will share writing and other projects inspired by the collaboration of the group.


Illustration courtesy of Jackie Morris

Jul 152018
 July 15, 2018

Circle up: That’s how 40 Duke faculty, administrators and staff spent this past Wednesday when they gathered for KIE’s workshop, Building Restorative Communities @ Duke. This new initiative, led by Kenan Associate Director Ada Gregory and a campus wide steering committee, is introducing restorative practices, to create intentional community around shared values in residential and co-curricular spaces at Duke. The goal is collaborative cultural change at Duke.

The same polarization, isolation and incivility that mark the nation increasingly also mark Duke’s campus. Anger, animosity and distrust spills into social media as much as our everyday interactions. Racial and other bias incidents, hazing, sexual assault, harassment and plain indecency sometimes mar what should be an environment of self-discovery, purpose and meaning. But on Duke’s campus as elsewhere such incidents are met with a punitive or paternalistic response which does little to change behavior over time. Building Restorative Community@Duke (BRC@Duke) is based on the fundamental premise that people are happier, more cooperative, more productive and more likely to make positive changes when they work with others in authority to address concerns. The restorative practices model provides a guiding philosophy to foster community that proactively develops positive relationships, creates shared values, and manages conflict through social discipline that restores relationships by acknowledging and repairing harms. In so doing, social wellbeing, belonging and civic participation increases while misbehavior, harassment and violence decreases. This relational approach includes a continuum of practices guided by restorative principles that focuses on needs and obligations that we have to each other in community. Circle processes, conferencing and affective expression/questions provide individuals with a mechanism to dialogue, express feelings, ideas and experiences and reflect on how their behavior affects others.

To see how restorative community works in practice, the workshop provided an overview of key concepts, conversations with practitioners, and experiential opportunities. Marcia Owen and Kacey Reynolds of RJ Durham shared their experiences and lessons learned using restorative practices in the community; and the afternoon was filled with various kinds of restorative circles—even drumming circles—to build community, recognize shared values, and create dialogue around issues on campus or in the community. Participants described the day as “meaningful”, “life giving” and “transformative.”

Gregory is energized by the possibilities restorative community could offer Duke, “Because restorative practices free us from looking only through the lens of rule or law violations, we have the opportunity to address all kinds of behaviors and harms with which we often struggle. When the right to free speech seems to provide no means of accountability for something that is perhaps legally protected but nonetheless disconcerting, ugly, or even abhorrent, restorative practices provide an opportunity for us all to engage as a community to articulate how we want to be.”

As one participant noted, the movement has begun.

Jul 062018
 July 6, 2018

The Religions and Public Life Initiative at the Kenan Institute for Ethics invites applications for graduate scholars for the academic year 2018-19.

Overview and Theme

The call is open to graduate and professional students, as well as postdocs, wishing to take part in monthly interdisciplinary student-led seminars on “Pain and Joy, Polemics and Praise in Religious Communities.” Projects exploring the ways in which members of religious communities represent, interpret, and act in response to suffering and good fortune, or to clashes between traditions and values, are especially welcome. However, the program conceives of religious experience and discourse broadly and will consider any project that investigates the extension of private devotion or ethical struggles into public contexts.

Religions and Public Life at the Kenan Institute for Ethics explores the role of religions in historical and cultural context as they influence the lives of their adherents, interact with each other across time and geography, and contribute to the formation of institutions that make up the public sphere. A joint endeavor with the Duke Divinity School, it is an interdisciplinary platform that puts scholars, students, and practitioners in conversation with one another through collaborative research, innovative teaching, and community engagement. Funding for the graduate scholars also comes from generous support from the Duke Center for Jewish Studies.


The graduate scholars will have the opportunity to develop their research interests and discuss recent scholarship. Members take active part in the events of Religions and Public Life and commit to attending monthly meetings throughout the academic year. Graduate scholars will write a think-piece or blog post relating their research to contemporary issues, to be published on the Religions and Public Life website at the Kenan Institute for Ethics. Additionally, scholars will take part in an end-of-year conference.


Graduate scholars receive $1,250 for participation. The sum is provided in two payments, one in November and one in April. Ten (10) awards will be made.

Application & Deadline

To apply, please submit the materials listed below to Deirdre White ( by August 6, 2018, with the subject line: “Religions & Public Life graduate scholars.” Awards will be announced by August 15, 2018.

  • Curriculum vita
  • Project description (1-2 pages) describing how it connects to the theme of “Pain and Joy, Polemics and Praise in Religious Communities.” Please include your topic and research objectives.
  • Research budget

Click for a PDF of this page.



Jul 022018
 July 2, 2018

Non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) are far more prevalent than the average person realizes writes Dr. Ruth Grantsenior fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics and Duke University professor of political science and philosophy, in a new Wall Street Journal op-ed piece. In addition to their abundance, she says, “NDAs, aren’t limited to allegations of sexual misconduct,” such as the recent and very public case of Stormy Daniels. “Often they involve public money. The agreements regularly undermine the accountability of the powerful and protection for the public.”

Among some promising recent measures are laws in several states prohibiting NDAs if they conceal “public hazards,” such as dangers to general health or safety. “Accountability requires transparency,” says Grant, “as more policymakers are realizing—and there is public harm in allowing defective products to stay on the market, masking sexual predators or restraining whistleblowers.”

Read her WSJ op-ed here:

Jun 292018
 June 29, 2018

Kenan Institute for Ethics senior fellow Norman Wirzba has been appointed the Gilbert T. Rowe Distinguished Professor of Christian Theology at Duke University Divinity School. His distinguished professor appointment begins July 1, 2018.

A faculty member at the Divinity School since 2008, Dr. Wirzba also co-leads Facing the Anthropocene at KIE, an initiative supported by the Henry Luce Foundation that considers humanity’s place in the world and what it means for social and political change. Wirzba’s research and teaching focuses on the intersections of theology, philosophy, ecology, and agrarian and environmental studies. As of July 1, he will also begin a new appointment as Associate Dean of Faculty Development.


Jun 282018
 June 28, 2018

Brianna Nofil, the 2012-13 Stephen and Janet Bear Postgraduate Fellow at the Duke Human Rights Center at the Kenan Institute for Ethics, is the author of a TIME magazine article on the history of detaining migrant children in the United States.

While a Bear Fellow at KIE, Brianna researched transnational corporations and human rights grievance mechanisms, and travelled to Mongolia as part of the United Nations Working Group.

Brianna is currently a doctoral candidate at Columbia University, specializing in the history of U.S. immigration policy.