Community Outreach Program

Is religious freedom for everyone? What does outer space have to do with religion? When did history replace God? What is a cult? These are just a few of the many pressing questions being posed by UC Berkeley graduate students. If any of these questions interest you, continue reading to learn how you can participate in a discussion on these topics.

BCSR is offering free interactive presentations to classes and community groups about the place of religion in our world today and the history of religion since antiquity. A vital part of the BCSR’s mission is to share research on religion at UC Berkeley with a broader and more diverse audience off campus. This program is aimed at general audiences of all ages to provide broader access, and the talks are designed to be non-sectarian and engage those without prior knowledge of the subject. Through these presentations we hope to broaden access to these conversations and foster relationships between the UC Berkeley community and the wider public.

UC Berkeley graduate students will join your class or community group and will adapt their presentations to the needs of your group. The sessions are carefully designed to engage audiences in big questions about religion and society. They are suitable for History, Social Studies, Ethics, Philosophy classes.

This program is being supported for this first year by the Democracy and Public Theology Program, generously funded by the Henry Luce Foundation.

The program for 2021-22 is now over. Please check back later for our Fall 2022 and Spring 2023 offerings.


Fall 2021 - Spring 2022 Program

“Is Religious Freedom for Everyone?”

Religion is everywhere—and in the United States, religious freedom can seem like a buzzword. This presentation invites participants to think about how religious identity is understood in the United States: who counts as religious? Whose religious freedoms are protected? And why does this matter?

This talk is available online or in-person in the East Bay Area.
Suggested Audiences:
- Age: High school, AP, and community college
- Courses: United States History


“Religion in Outer Space Over Time”

In most ancient societies, the night sky had been observed and interpreted within a religious context. Constellations were explained in mythologies and the appearance of celestial phenomena, e.g. comets and eclipses, were understood as omens. Although today outer space is mainly a place of scientific inquiry, scientists over time have maintained the traditions of ancient religions by using the names they gave to celestial bodies and continuing to draw the names for new discoveries and space missions from ancient cultures. Furthermore, popular culture’s interest in astrology today, e.g. the zodiacs and horoscopes, stem from astrological beliefs found in ancient religions.

This talk is available in-person in the East Bay Area.
Suggested Audiences:
- Age: Middle school, high school, AP, and community college
- Courses: World History, Humanities, Astronomy


“What Does Christian Conversion Look Like? From Saint Paul to the Reformation

How do you know someone has arrived at “true religion” if you can’t take their word for it? This question confronted missionaries with special urgency during the Protestant Reformation, when claiming Christian identity became particularly controversial. This talk will explore how preachers, missionaries and inquisitors in the 1500s and 1600s tested for “real” conversions. It will begin with Biblical precedents that depicted conversions, like the exemplary case of Saint Paul, and show how experiences of religious conflict and Christian missions beyond Europe challenged them. Those missions and their violent encounters with non-Christian religions presented alternative forms of conversion.

This talk is available online or in-person in the East Bay Area.
Suggested Audiences:
- Age: Middle school, high school, AP, community college
- Courses: World History, European History


“Meeting on Sacred Ground: How Do Multi-Religious Communities Interact in Religious Spaces?”

From Jerusalem to Ayodhya to the Caucasus, the recent past has seen sacred sites (mosques, churches, temples and monasteries) often become battle-zones with communities fighting each other for control. But how did people behave in these historical spaces in the deeper past?

This lecture will utilize some historical examples of social interactions from South Asia to ask how ordinary people outside the contemporary West have lived with the sacred sites that dot their everyday lives: tombs, temples, monasteries, shrines and mosques. Second, it will ask how we can soundly handle this material. How do historians cope with the differing sensibilities of religion that have developed from pre-modern to contemporary times?

This talk is available online or in-person in the East Bay Area.
Suggested Audiences:
- Age: Middle school, high school, AP, and community college
- Courses: World History, World Religions/Comparative Religions, Human Geography


"When God Became History: the Philosophical Origins of ‘Systemic’ Injustice?”

Why do we tend to treat a social system as a cause of social patterns, having its own features and qualities as if it were a human being? Why do we tend to talk about present injustices by pointing to the historical origins of injustice? It was once common to agonize over how God can permit injustice; we now agonize over how history and society can permit injustice. This presentation will examine how famous philosophers like Immanuel Kant, G. W. F. Hegel, and Karl Marx replaced God with history as the cause of systemic good and evil, justice and injustice. This presentation would be appropriate for classes on ethics and philosophy and for groups interested in philosophy and history.

This talk is available online only.
Suggested Audiences:
- Age: High school, AP, community college
- Courses: World History, World Religions/Comparative Religion, Sociology


“The Long History of Religious Fundamentalism” 

In recent times, the disturbing images from the Hamid Karzai International Airport at Kabul have startled the world population. The rise and ascendancy of the Taliban forces in Afghanistan have centrally placed the question of the role of religious fundamentalism in modern-day politics. But religious fundamentalism is not new. This presentation will focus on the history of religious fundamentalism in the last five centuries across South Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. The presentation will include discussion of religious fundamentalism in Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity.

This talk is available online only.
Suggested Audiences:
- Age: High school, AP, community college
- Courses: World History, World Religions/Comparative Religion, Sociology



“Cult Talk: The Language We Use for New Religions and Fringe Movements” 

This talk will address the use (and overuse) of the word "cult" in popular and political discourse. What is a cult, and what do we mean when we accuse our enemies of cult-like behavior? What is the distinction between a religious or political movement and a cult, if such a thing exists? This presentation explores the evolving use of the term, partly through recent historical case studies: The Peoples Temple and the Unification Church, two groups who have at certain times gained political recognition as religious movements/churches, and at other times have been deemed the prime examples of cults.

This talk is available online or in-person in the East Bay Area. 
Suggested Audiences:
- Age: High school, AP, community college
- Courses: US History, Sociology, Psychology, Journalism

"Changing Peoples, Changing Steeples: Religion in Manhattan, 1939–1999”

This presentation investigates how religious congregations (churches, synagogues, etc.) in Manhattan changed during the 1939–1999 period and shows how key urban trends may have driven the change. Unexpectedly, the number of congregations was increasing while the population of Manhattan was decreasing. This presentation argues that white flight and increasing black wealth led the number of congregations per capita in Manhattan to increase from 1939 through the mid-1960s. From the mid-1960s onward, as depopulation and urban decay prevented black wealth in Manhattan from continuing to rise, the number of congregations per capita stagnated. A substantial increase in immigration prevented congregations per capita from dropping. There is reason to believe that this story of religion in Manhattan may apply to various other large U.S. cities as well. This presentation is suitable for social studies classes and groups interested in religious trends in contemporary America.

This talk is available online or in-person in the East Bay Area.
Suggested Audiences:
- Age: High school, AP, community college
- Courses: United States History, Principles of Economics, Human Geography, Urban Studies, Sociology, Ethnic Studies


“God? Martyr? Saint? The Divine Emperors of the Roman Empire”

Starting from fascinating written and visual sources, this presentation will introduce the audience to the divine Roman emperors from the birth of the Roman empire to its collapse (31 BCE–476 CE). What were the challenges facing Roman emperors and their advisors in finding appropriate ways to represent the divinity of the emperor? What if the emperor was a boy, or even a Christian? In this presentation, we will try to answer these questions. In particular, we will focus on how Christianity radically changed the conception of the emperors’ divinity.

This talk is available online or in-person in the East Bay Area.
Suggested Audiences:
- Age: Middle school, high school, AP, community college
- Courses: World History, World Religions/Comparative Religions, Humanities, Comparative Government and Politics