Dr Monalisa Goswami

Religion is...


I am an academic entrepreneur and founder of Spark904, a start-up from the University of Amsterdam. Besides being a scientist, I have always been interested in engaging in activities that would allow me to step out of the chemists' and natural scientists' community and to meet people with different academic and cultural backgrounds. After spending most of my academic life in research labs, I shifted my focus towards making better use of R&D infrastructure by enabling access to external stakeholders such as start-ups, other institutes or independent researchers. During my PhD, I witnessed that there are a lot of small and medium sized companies in the sustainability industry, whose innovation capacity is limited due to the lack of infrastructure. University, on the other hand, has the advanced resources and infrastructure as well as expertise that is not necessarily fully utilised. This is what I try to bridge by my work in Spark904.

Born and brought up in a Hindu Bengali family in India, I have experienced religion and interfaith in various formal and informal, explicit and implicit and binding and unbinding ways. My parents are disciples of the Ramakrishna Mission but are not formally initiated. My mother has an altar at home where she offers her prayers every single day but I was never urged to do so myself. The town where I grew up in India one could hear the Azan five times a day if one was paying attention and yet the majority of the Muslims lived in designated parts of the town, in the so-called Masjid Patti. In contrast to that, I have been living in one of the most tolerant cities in the world, Amsterdam, for the last nine years. I am still trying to find out in what ways I want to practice my religion and more so, what elements of it do I and can I pass down to my son who is born in a Dutch-Bengali family in Amsterdam in 2019.

When I arrived in the Netherlands, I noticed that religion was a very taboo topic within in the academic circles in the natural sciences. It was here that I realised the real meaning of the word tolerant. Here it is common to come across statements like this during coffee or lunch break conversations: "One cannot possibly study quantum physics and believe in god at the same time." "One cannot possibly study Darwin and be a church goer at the same time." I have even come across colleagues who would conceal the fact that they are practicing a religion for the fear of being judged, not taken seriously or hurting their academic reputation. So much for tolerance. Atheism and Humanism is the norm in these circles. In contrast to this, a very dear friend of mine studied physics as an undergraduate and then went on to study religion. Today he is an academic in religion studies at a renowned institute and works on Hinduism. It is the sociological aspects of religion that interest me immensely. The interfaith between religion as we generally understand as opposed to the encounters between religions and science. I am interested in understanding the conditions that might be conducive for science and religion to coexist.

However, I had never had a formal training on these topics and had little knowledge and understanding of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. An introductory course on the three Abrahamic faiths offered in the course Religion is… was very well suited. Coupled with the lockdown posed because of COVID-19, it allowed me the time to sincerely follow the course and benefit from this free course offered by the Woolf Institute. It is a fantastic starter course on the topic of interfaith, the traditions and festivals of the Abrahamic faiths, religious leadership, role of women in these religions, freedom of speech in this context and finally, charity and relief work performed by religious groups. What I particularly liked was that the content was a good combination of historic and recent happenings. This made it possible to pinpoint the relevance of religion in today's world whether or not some of us might like to acknowledge it. I am looking forward to more such courses with the Woolf Institute and other ways of engagement.

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