Max Planck Research Award for two pioneering thinkers in the fields of religion and modernity

The Alexander-von-Humboldt Foundation and the Max Planck Society honour Hans Joas und Bryan S. Turner for their research

July 16, 2015

What is the significance of religion in our day? How can the universal validity of human rights be justified? What ensures cohesion in multicultural societies? Hans Joas from Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and Bryan S. Turner from the City University of New York have been presented with the Max Planck Research Award 2015 for their explanations and proposed solutions to such questions. The award winners will each receive 750,000 euros. This will support them with their future research efforts, especially with regard to international cooperation.

Social scientists have long assumed that religions will disappear from public life owing to increasing modernization, and that religious conflicts will cease to occur at some point. However, the attacks of 11 September 2001 abruptly reminded the world of religiously motivated violence. With a mixture of incredulity and perplexity, the West has since observed the activities of groups such as the Taliban and Islamic State which are sometimes directed against the western social order but even more frequently against other religious doctrines within Islam. Fundamentalists also appear to be becoming increasingly violent in other religions, such as radical Buddhists in Myanmar who are persecuting the Muslim minority in Rohingya or evangelical Christians in several African countries who are repressing and attacking homosexuals.

The focus topic of this year’s Max Planck Research Award “Religion and Modernity - Secularization, Social and Religious Plurality” is therefore not just of academic interest but also highly topical politically and socially. The Max Planck Research Award is one of the most highly endowed academic prizes in Germany. It is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research and is awarded annually by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and the Max Planck Society to one researcher working in Germany and one working abroad. The topic of the invitation for proposals is alternated annually between the fields of the natural sciences and engineering, the life sciences and the human sciences.

The award winners, Hans Joas and Bryan S. Turner, have long been conducting research into this year’s focus topic of “religion and modernity”. Both have provided major impetus for a new understanding of faiths in our time. The two men are regarded as luminaries in their field. Both the social philosopher Hans Joas and the religious sociologist Bryan S. Turner believe the much-vaunted secularization of our society represents a perspective that is too one-sided. This is because people who are not religious also have fundamental convictions and hold particular values.

Joas believes the experience of self-transcendence plays a special role. This refers to the experience of a meaning of life, a higher goal or also a loved one for whom a person wants to be there. His colleague Turner looks at fundamental norms against the background of the question of what holds society together at its core. He attaches great importance to law as a central and decisive institution in modern societies. In his view, the framework in which a pluralistic society can develop is constituted by universal civil and human rights which are substantiated by the vulnerability of each individual. Joas also considers human rights to be of fundamental significance. He attributes them to a historical development whereby human dignity has played an increasingly defining role in our conception of the human being.

The work of the two Max Planck Research Award winners is far from concluded. Hans Joas and Bryan S. Turner continue to conduct research into controversial issues and also have a high profile internationally. Joas maintains close contact with colleagues in the US while Turner is establishing cooperation with the University of Potsdam. The prize money will enable them to involve young academics in their research work, to promote them and thus also obtain fresh impetus themselves.

Hans Joas (66) has been an Ernst Troeltsch honorary professor at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin since his retirement, and he is Professor of Sociology and a Member of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. As a young academic, he initially worked at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development after gaining his doctorate. After holding positions at universities in Erlangen, Berlin, New York, other US cities and Vienna, he carried out research and lectured as a Max Weber professor at the University of Erfurt and later at the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies.

British-born Bryan S. Turner (70) holds the position of Presidential Professor of Sociology and Director for the Study of Religion at the City University of New York and he is Director of the Institute for Religion, Politics and Society at Australian Catholic University. His career path has taken him to the US via various universities in the UK, Australia and Singapore.

The Award Ceremony will take place on December 8, 2015.

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