New Faculty
Stephen Bush Assistant Professor of Religious Studies Credit: Mike Cohea/Brown University

Stephen Bush
Assistant Professor of Religious Studies

By Sarah Kidwell  |  September 1, 2010  |  Email to a friend

As an undergraduate at Rice University, Stephen Bush devoted a good part of his freshman year to chemical engineering, took on the study of business during his sophomore year, and by junior year had declared a major in philosophy, with an emphasis in religion.

“When I happened upon philosophy and religious studies, what excited me about both majors was that they were dealing with questions of great, even ultimate, significance: Does God exist and what is God like? What is reasonable to believe? What makes some actions right and others wrong? What are knowledge and truth?”

Bush had arrived at a point where the questions in philosophy that interested him the most concerned religion. Princeton’s Department of Religion became his home for six years, and he finished with an M.A. and a Ph.D., and spent a year as a lecturer.

He explains that his fascination with the subject carried him through graduate school and will sustain him throughout his career.

“Religious people make claims about unseen realities and immaterial beings and value such things very highly in their private lives. Religion comes into our public life as we see over and over again in the news media. You only need to look at the ongoing controversy over building a mosque in downtown Manhattan to know how large religion looms in our daily life.”

Within the broad discipline of religion Bush focuses on theory of religion, philosophy of religion and religious ethics. In his new post as assistant professor of religious studies at Brown, he will have the latitude to pursue many directions in all three areas as well as their intersection. “That excites me a great deal,” he says.

Bush is further animated by the strength of the department he is joining. “It provides intellectual freedom to a very high degree, and my colleagues are fantastic — I respect them tremendously as scholars and enjoy them as people.”

Susan Harvey, who chairs the department, is equally enthusiastic about Bush’s forthcoming contributions to the department.

“Steve brings exciting and innovative work on religious experience, with strong interests in mysticism and political and social theory.”

Two ongoing book projects consume time and energy. The first looks at changes in the way religion has been conceived for the last 100 years, a journey through experience, systems of symbols, and most recently social and political power.

The second book focuses on William James, the influential late-19th century psychologist and philosopher. Bush is exploring the intersection of his political and religious views.

“James’ political philosophy has often been overlooked and at times disparaged. A small group of scholars has recently begun examining his political views, but we still need an account of how his political and religious views influence each other.”

If there’s any temptation for young faculty to ease into teaching, Bush does not succumb to it. His first course, “Religion and Torture,” is an examination of what light, if any, religion can shed on the ongoing debate about torture. “I want to examine our notion that humans are inviolable or sacred. Everyone is against torture, of course, but when the stakes are very high, will there be an absolute prohibition?” Bush says religious ethicists need to explore the topic further.

Harvey agrees. She calls the class and the inquiry “bold, of urgent importance in our current political context, and deeply engaged with current debates about religion and democracy.”