5 Ways The Study of Religion is Changing

Graduation Diploma Mortar Board Book Cap Hat University
Graduation Diploma Mortar Board Book Cap Hat University

A chairperson's job is never done. Yes, it's the end of the academic year and students and faculty will disappear for the summer and escape from tests and papers, classes and committee meetings. But even as one academic year ends, another one is already on the horizon even before the first stirrings of the summer season make their appearance.

As we prepare for the fall semester and line up our course offerings for the undergrads in the 2016-17 academic year, the Department of Religion at Emory University, like so many other humanities departments across the country, is facing some serious challenges: How do we turn around our decreasing numbers of majors? Is our curriculum adequately coherent and relevant to the educational and intellectual development of young adults in the twenty first century? How do we measure the value of our contribution to the liberal arts and to the long-term consequences of the knowledge we are providing to current students?

My cynical self wants to throw up my hands and just bury my head in the sand. There is no hope. Anti-intellectualism, a deep-rooted strand in American cultural and social history, is rampant and, coupled with shifting economic priorities, destroying the liberal arts and snuffing out the life of the mind. STEM and purely technical know how is what too many governors believe in, imagining this kind of educational plan will give students the tools and talents needed to get hired and contribute to state economies. Forget philosophical reflection ("naval gazing" to many), critical thinking ("who needs that?" they ask), or interpretation theory (anyone for a "surplus of meaning"?)--any kind of humanistic inquiry that is not deemed practical for the acquisition of "real" jobs and workforce success is a waste of time in these troubled times, a low educational priority in a climate where thinking is less important than doing. We're doomed, my cynical self thinks.

But I have more than one self, and my more optimistic, let's-change-the-world-one-student-at-a-time self, wants to think strategically and deal with the world we've got. While the landscape of higher education continues to change dramatically with the humanities especially facing increasing financial doubts and public distrust, chairs like me must work closely with departmental faculty and other colleagues to make our case and keep the enrollments up and interest levels high. Many Philosophy, Classics, English, and other humanities based programs are taking steps to adjust and adapt to the new environment, and trying to anticipate the winds of change that will determine their fate.

It has become apparent to me through talking with others in religion programs and working in the trenches (sounds better than "in the ivory tower"), the winds of change are taking us in new directions, and older models and mentalities will be replaced, sooner or later, if we are to survive. In the academic study of religion, or what some call religious studies, five key trends are emerging that will contribute, I think, to how we change our curriculum and departmental profile, or what some call, our brand.

1. Bye bye canon: In olden days, the question of "canon" or what bodies of knowledge students should learn from a religious studies department was highly contested. Some believed in order to study and understand religion, certain key texts and thinkers needed to be included in the curriculum. It was often difficult to agree on the canon, and indeed heated intellectual battles (the best kind of battles) broke out over the issue. Those days are gone. In the current educational climate where difference, diversity, and distinctions are celebrated, the study of religion cannot be driven by notions of common literacy or essential readings.

2. Themes over tradition: Students in general seem less interested in taking a course focused on the basics of one tradition whether it's Judaism or Hinduism, or Christianity or Islam. Buddhism may be the exception but overall there has been a realization that a religious studies department cannot be defined by the notion of "coverage" of traditions. Students often look for classes that are more thematic, where religion is explored as it relates to key and pressing aspects of human experience: death, healing, the arts, sexuality, science, ethics, popular culture, the environment, and so on. One of our colleagues here is teaching a course on "Black Love" that will be a smash, another teaches a course on dance and embodiment, also an important cornerstone of our curricular offerings.

3. Gone God: Do I have to say it? God just isn't as relevant as it/she/he was in bygone days. Not for faculty and certainly not for the young adults inhabiting our classes. Of course the God I'm speaking of is the more traditional, biblical-based monotheistic God. If you're talking about God as a universal spirit, or multiple gods and goddesses, or Eric Clapton as God, on the other hand, then we've got that covered in our research and teaching. This is certainly tied to generational changes in the faculty as well as interests and sensibilities emerging from undergrads trying to figure out religious meanings in their lives.

4. SBNRs Rule: That is, "spiritual but not religious" is all the rage. You read about in religion sections in the media, surveys that demonstrate the growing power of this view, and definitely see it on college campuses across the country (Rice just recently had a fantastic gathering). This is where the religious action is, and where the future of religion is going. More books will be coming out, more celebrities will publicly embrace it, and more. Increasing numbers of courses will attempt to address this phenomenon and put in its historical, cultural, social, and political contexts.

5. What's religion got to do with it? What's religion got to do with it? Well duh! Everything. This may be our salvation in religious studies--students and deans now more than ever see the driving, powerful influence of religion and religious sensibilities in so much that is happening in our world. Good and bad. Equipping students with the knowledge and intellectual tools to make their way into the world and professional life, as a believer, atheist, agnostic, SBNR, or whatever, is a valuable social good. I don't see this as selling out to the preprofessional mentality that is so strong these days in the educational tracking of young folks. Our curriculum should, I think, draw in and contribute to the education of pre business, pre med, pre law, and other career-minded students. Indeed, it is my impression that medical schools and business schools and other kinds of professional training programs will be drawn to students who have the capacity to talk seriously and with sophistication about the role of religion in markets, patient care, global affairs, local politics, etc.

It may be impossible to imagine no religion, but until that becomes a reality, the study of religion is and will continue to be a key ingredient for anyone in or out of school.