A 'Heretical' Argument for the Personal and Professional Value of Studying Religion

Each semester, I teach courses on religion to undergraduates. On the first day of my introduction to religion course, "Exploring Religious Meaning," it is evident the students' enthusiasm for the class can be quite low. If I were one of them, I would likely feel the same. In fact, I was, and I did.

I entered college to become a lawyer, not to hear the same "superstitious, religious nonsense" that structured my life for eighteen years. At that time, leaving for college felt like being released from a dogmatic prison. Upon arrival, learning that I had to study more religion felt like being mandated to serve additional hard time.

My undergraduate students, whether they were raised as Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, or atheists, often register for my introductory religion course for the same reason I did: they have been required to do so.

Now, this is not a discussion of how I became a true believer. But I have come to value the study of religion. What does it mean to value the study of religion without becoming a true believer?

If we analyze the skills and lessons necessary to ensure future success, expressed through the pre-collegiate and collegiate educational system, as well as numerous popular culture mediums, studying religion is typically not a part of the success plan. After all, such studies will not help in the job market, right?

Yet, if we tilt our head and listen closely to the accumulated whispers of those deemed wise in the past and the present, they seldom urge us to work unfulfilling jobs for persons/companies we dislike or distrust, severely limit our creative expression, and obediently conform to mainstream values. Though we say things to our children like "money does not buy happiness" and "think independently," our institution-based dogmas (religious and secular), popular culture values, and approach to politics teach something else.

If the thoughts and practices from the world's religious geniuses are taken seriously enough to be engaged with as worthy of deep of reflection, critically examined, and treated on equal footing, the study of religious belief, mythos, and ritual practice provides students with an opportunity to enhance self-examination, as well as their beliefs, whatever they may be.

If we perform these same analytical procedures on typically under-examined secular beliefs, mythos, and rituals, the results are often eye opening for the students. In an anonymous online review from ratemyprofessors.com, one student wrote:

"Exploring Religious Meaning sounded like a class I'd dread, full of mystic drivel. Instead, I found myself immersed in a new world of critical thinking and revolutionary concepts. This class has nothing to do with my major or minor, but I don't hesitate to call it one of the most useful and pleasant courses I've taken"

At this point in time, discussing religious thought in a safe, productive, and sane manner can be "a new world." Because much of history's inspiring and provocative thinkers have been religious, studying their insights promotes critical thinking useful for understanding and deconstructing secular myths and rituals -- whether national, institutional, or personal -- to explore how they function synergistically to create, maintain, and enforce a range of worldviews, each of which may or may not benefit us.

As Jeffrey Kripal explains in Comparing Religions, "Myth and ritual are about performing the world ... Ritual is [a] crucial component of 'programming' a people into a particular religious [or secular] world ... It is not enough to talk and tell stories. One has to act out those stories, over and over and over (and over) again" (2014, 116).

Exposure to how we all ritually enact various narratives (or myths) for most of our lives, often unknowingly, can be "revolutionary" for some students. For most, it is, at the very least, useful. It encourages us to be more self-reflexive, creative, and critical thinkers better suited to choose our own values/lifestyle/career -- rather than have these things chosen for us.

The opportunity to choose how we define the meaningful -- rather than unthinkingly following the latest en vogue iterations defining a meaningful life -- is the beauty of living in an infinitely complex, surprisingly malleable, and largely socially constructed world. Acquiring the tools necessary to make this choice, as well as the self-awareness to realize that all choices have consequences, good and bad, is one of the values of studying religion.

For these reasons, there is neither a personal pursuit nor a profession I find more meaningful. This type of value judgment should not be applied to other persons and professions. The statement is subjective, as it should be. It describes the life I chose.