“I often say that if I headed back to college today, I would major in comparative religions rather than political science … because religious actors and institutions are playing an influential role in every region of the world …”
This quote from Secretary of State John Kerry has been posted to my office door since last fall, when it appeared in an op-ed he wrote in America: The National Catholic Review. Of course, the idea of understanding religion and religious individuals resonated strongly with me, a professor of religious studies at a liberal arts college. But I believe the reasons for this sentiment are lost in the public discourse around both education and religion in the contemporary United States.
Turn on the evening news, open the morning newspaper or log on to any news page online and you will find a wide variety of stories that have some reference to religion. Syrian immigrants, evangelical voters, the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party in India, anti-Muslim rhetoric, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, neo-Catholicism under Pope Francis -- all of these recent stories and more would be fundamentally illuminated if viewers and readers had knowledge of the religious actors. Contemporary discourse in America, both in the public domain and in academe, is often quick to posit that these stories are “really” about politics, power, class, social standing and the like, and people often refuse to take the religious aspects of the narrative seriously. Yes, of course, any of these issues can be understood within a broader context of social and cultural concerns. Nevertheless, this contextualization does not give license to disregard the religious angle as superficial or otherwise unimportant.
Whether we like it or not, individuals and communities are inspired by their religious identities to take action in the world. Those actions can have positive effects on the world, such as social outreach or providing a sense of community to adherents, or negative ones, including violence against rivals or intolerance for others. The fact remains, however, that their actions are often rooted in religious ideals, or their worldview. The principal concern of religious studies is to expose differences in those worldviews so that we might understand the beliefs and practices of a wide variety of cultural actors. Different religious groups imagine the world differently, and that affects how they respond to contemporary concerns.
The academic discipline of religious studies does not train students to be Catholics or Buddhists or Jews any more than political science trains students to be Democrats or Republicans. Even though I teach at an institution that is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, my department is not wedded to Lutheran doctrine or even Christian identity, but to a scholarly desire to understand the world’s inhabitants and cultures. We train our students to read closely, think deeply, write cogently and, above all, analyze carefully the important -- and sometimes decisive -- role that religion plays in the lives of cultural actors across the globe. I often tell my students that it is our responsibility to use a “dispassionate third-party perspective” when viewing the religious phenomena, to understand and analyze while withholding judgment.
If the only people who understand Christianity are Christian, or Islam are Muslims, or Hinduism are Hindus, we are condemned to a world of misunderstanding, conflict and sectarianism. If we cede understanding of religious ideas to religious individuals, we lose the capacity to comprehend the motivations behind the thoughts and actions of anyone beyond our own religious tradition.
Don’t get me wrong, the discipline of religious studies is not imagined as a substitute for religious training. Faith communities will always have a strong desire and need to train members and leaders for service in their own religious communities; that enterprise is a permanent fixture in traditional religious practice.
However, for those aspiring to leadership in the 21st century, knowledge of the religions of the world from a nonconfessional perspective is not a luxury but a necessity. Study of the variety of religious traditions around the world makes it abundantly clear that different people operate under different assumptions about the way the world works. To understand their actions, we must also understand their motivations.
That distinction between the discipline of religious studies and training within religious communities is often lost when considering the topic of religion in an educational setting. But, as Thomas Clark, a former Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, wrote in the majority opinion of Abington v. Schempp, “It might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion …” This sentiment is, perhaps, more true now than when Justice Clark wrote it in 1963.
This “complete” education that Clark mentions includes the habits of mind that we cultivate in our students. By combining the ability to understand motivations beyond ourselves with other disciplinary perspectives within the liberal arts, we train students to interact with the world in a responsible and informed way. The broader context of this type of education opens our students to a wide variety of skills, including language study, quantitative and scientific reasoning, and the various perspectives offered by the social sciences. All those tools and disciplinary lenses contribute to a nuanced view of the world that goes beyond vocational training. It also equips our graduates with agile minds that can solve problems and understand perspectives that we are yet to encounter.
In an environment that increasingly stresses skills that are immediately marketable, humanities departments often feel that we must justify our existence and our usefulness to employers. Consequently, you see the publication of brochures and the creation of websites that emphasize problem solving, critical thinking and cogent writing. Those are fine goals and, I would argue, our curriculum equips our graduates with these skills.
But the most important attribute that the academic study of religion offers to our students is even more vital and far more concrete: the ability to understand others. In a world in which we are increasingly exposed to difference of all types, what could be a more vital skill for navigating the future?
William "Chip" Gruen is an associate professor of religion studies at Muhlenberg College.
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