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In Defense of Religious Studies


In Defense of Religious Studies

Thomas Whitley

Two weeks ago on our weekly podcast Thinking Religion Sam and I asked whether religion departments were doomed. We settled on a shaky maybe. It of course depends on larger national conversations, public funding, etc. Then, in a hopeful moment last week we asked whether you should major in religion, apparently assuming that's a question some undergrads would have the opportunity to ask. Today we learn that UC Berkeley is canceling its undergraduate degree in Religious Studies. The future of the study of religion at UC Berkeley is unclear, as Carrie Schroeder has pointed out on Twitter. (They have a Center for the Study of Religion, but it is not clear whether they will house the major. Also, they have recently received significant grant money from the Henry Luce Foundation to examine "public theology.")

To be sure, this does not necessarily suggest that all religious studies departments will be gone in 5 years. I don't know any of the particulars regarding the situation at UC Berkeley and how this decision was reached. This move, though, serves to highlight the increasingly difficult predicament of religious studies departments across the country (and elsewhere, like the UK). Further, this move comes in the midst of a time when little seems as important to local, national, and international conversations as religion. Here's how Carrie Schroeder put it after tweeting about the canceling of the major at UC Berkeley.

Because apparently, ISIS, Charleston, Chattanooga, gay marriage all show the utter irrelevance of religion for understanding the world.

Indeed, in a time when more and more news organizations are devoting more resources to covering religion - and often doing a less than stellar job - now seems to be exactly the time to double down on our commitment to the academic study of religion at the university level. Emily Vork, a Religious Studies major at Alabama, gets it.

After taking just a handful of classes in the department, each of which covering a variety of different topics, I’ve found that my capacity for critical thinking has increased tremendously. Things are no longer quite so cut-and-dry. News headlines that I would have previously accepted without a second thought I now find myself wondering: who wrote that? How did they write it, and why did they write the way they did? On top of that, I notice now that I’m more willing to take a step back from anything and give it a critical glance. Why are social norms the norm? To quote one of our department’s business cards: “Why do we cheer for the home team?”

While I don’t have all the answers—give me a break; I’m only a sophomore—I can certainly say that I am a better student for having thought about the questions. When I took the Introduction to Religious Studies course my first semester, I didn’t just think about these questions—I realized that they existed. That realization has been one of the best things to happen to me as far as my academics are concerned. I’ve applied the knowledge that I learned in just one Religious Studies class to courses in History and American Studies, my other two majors. I wish that every student—Humanities, Social Sciences, Engineering, anything—would take that introductory class. They’d be better for it, and, subsequently, so would everyone else, since eventually we the students will be the ones in charge.

We religionists are often quite poor at explaining why what we do matters to the "real" world (I took a stab at it when discussing the new Noah movie here). The headlines of late should make that an easy enough conversation, but we often fall back on the amorphous ideal of "critical thinking." Yet we fail to adequately explain just what that means. Vork has done that here as well as I've seen from many long-time religion professors.

The academic study of religion does not just teach good reading and writing skills (though it certainly does that), it does not just teach content about various "religions" and traditions (though you'll certainly pick up more than your fair share along the way), it does not just offer the opportunity to learn new languages (though it does and you should seize those opportunities without hesitation), the academic study of religion teaches you that questions exist which you never knew existed. The academic study of religion pulls the veil back on the world around us and examines its attempts to present as "natural" that which is arbitrary and contested. It tells us that history is never objective or neutral. It gives us the tools for recognizing the rhetorical work being done in political speeches, viral illustrations, and the latest sci-fi movie.

As Bruce Lincoln put it in his Theses on Method:

To practice history of religions in a fashion consistent with the discipline’s claim of title is to insist on discussing the temporal, contextual, situated, interested, human, and material dimensions of those discourses, practices, and institutions that characteristically represent themselves as eternal, transcendent, spiritual, and divine.

We need religious studies - not to tell us what is true or what is the meaning of life, but rather to show us how such claims work, how they naturalize themselves, and what they hope to gain.

There is a phrase over the main door to Dodd Hall on Florida State's campus, the building in which our religion department is housed, which says, "The half of knowledge is to know where to find knowledge." We cannot expect our citizenry, our journalists, or our politicians to understand religion if we do not know where to find those best suited to explain it to us. If we continue this nationwide attack on the liberal arts in general and on the study of religion specifically, there will be nowhere left to look for this knowledge that we so badly need.


Edit: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that the Center for the Study of Religion at UC Berkeley was solely concerned with public theology.