Understanding, Not Endorsement

American Academy of Religion releases new guidelines on what undergraduates should understand about all religions prior to getting their degrees.

October 29, 2019
 
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The American Academy of Religion has released new guidelines for how religion should be taught to undergraduates and what students should know about religion by the time they graduate.

The recommendations lay a groundwork for a level of cultural competency that contributors to the project thought was necessary for undergraduates to possess by the time they get their degrees.

According to the guidelines, graduates should be able to “discern accurate and credible knowledge about diverse religious traditions and expressions, recognize the internal diversity within religious traditions, explain how religions have shaped experiences and histories, interpret how religious expressions make use of cultural symbols and artistic representations, [and] distinguish confessional or prescriptive statements about religion from descriptive or analytical statements.”

The guidelines were designed so they could be equally and similarly applied to public and private, as well as two-year and four-year, institutions. The recommendations are broad enough to serve as suggestions to curriculum builders regardless of whether the institution has a specified faith or not.

The program was co-led by Diane Moore, the director of the Religious Literacy Project at Harvard Divinity School, and Eugene Gallagher, a professor emeritus of religious studies at Connecticut College and adjunct professor at the College of Charleston.

“We think it’s pretty important for anybody with a college degree to have some exposure to the serious academic study of religion,” said Gallagher. “That it’s not just an arcane field that only interests a few people, but that religion intersects with so many human pursuits in so many different ways that it’s extraordinarily helpful for people to have some sense of how to approach it in an academic fashion.”

The guidelines are meant to guide faculty and administrators at two- and four-year institutions to better build curricula and courses. The authors intended the guidelines to be usable at any institution regardless of whether or not it has a religious study program.

“As scholars of religion, we know that there are a host of foundational assumptions about religion that we feel are important for citizens of the world to understand,” Moore said.

She said they wanted the document to be succinct, accessible and relevant to a wide audience.

“There are very few places where students across the K-through-college spectrum have exposure to understanding the study of religion,” Moore said.

The team wanted to give teachers and professors language and information about how to incorporate the study of religion into fields they already teach.

“Religion is already embedded in a lot of curricula across the disciplinary spectra, and to give professors in those disciplines opportunities to think about an explicit focus of ways that religions already intersect with what they’re teaching,” Moore said.

Moore said the study of religion is relevant in all contexts, and that it is broadly understood that students should be exposed to religious studies beyond one faith. She went on to say that a fundamental assumption is that religion is embedded in human experience, and faculty should consider their work through the lens of religion.

For people outside the academic study of religion, Gallagher said these guidelines could serve as an opportunity for conversation.

“It’s pitched at a fairly basic level. For people who are professionals in the study of religion, the idea that religions are internally diverse, for example, is not new news,” said Gallagher. “But there remains some misunderstanding on a lot of campuses about what actually happens in courses devoted to the study of religion. It’s not uncommon to have colleagues think that the study of religion is engaged in making people more religious, often from a particular perspective, and that’s not the case.”

Moore made it clear that these guidelines were not declarative for all professors or institutions, but to be used as suggestions and resources for interested parties.

“The experience of religion touches on all the mentions of human agency,” Moore said, explaining that religion is both a set of identities but also social forces.

She said that one of the things these guidelines are trying to promote is to encourage people to think of religion outside of the academic spheres in which religion is normally thought of, which typically fall under the humanities umbrella.

AAR provided suggestions on how institutions can use the guidelines in different classes or degree fields -- for example, considering different religious practices regarding illness and death, how an ancient astronomer's religion influenced their view of the stars, or how to prepare a religious event for hospitality students.

Both Gallagher and Moore said that bringing diverse voices and perspectives into the forming of the guidelines was important.

“We wanted to get a wide range of voices and perspectives represented,” Moore said about the respondent committee.

Gallagher said that with the guidelines, they tried to be neutrally disposed toward all religious traditions and encourage understanding instead of endorsement and analysis rather than criticism.

Gallagher said that when bringing together the steering and respondent groups, they wanted to have diverse types of institutions represented.

“I do hope they spark conversations,” Gallagher said of the guidelines.

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