Ten Things You Learn in Religion 102

I've decided to write a second list due to questions and comments I received about Ten Things You Learn in Religion 101. After listening to a recent episode of the podcast Homebrewed Christianity about the ten not-so-shocking things you learn in Religion 101, I thought I would share what Journalist and Adjunct Professor Greg Horton and Trip Fuller spoke about and add in a few of my own. But this time, in 102, we'll focus on learnings from religion courses that are more directly social and political.

Remember, we're continuing our exploration of ways faith and science can work together, and in this list, faith is working with many social sciences - archaeology, anthropology, sociology, history, economics, etc. So here we go. These are more concepts that you learn in Religion 102 that you somehow don't learn growing up in certain faith communities. Let's start with two items from the 101 list.

  1. God is not a man - This is self-explanatory and really points out that the language we use is not just descriptive but formative and performative causing all types of unconscious biases, partialities, and prejudices.

  • The Bible is a human text, as are all sacred texts - This is an interpretation and depends on what one means by the words "inspired." However, it points out that to use language is human, and therefore by nature written documents are human documents. What makes them sacred is the use of them by a community that has decided to derive value from it and lend authority to it.
  • Religion has a historical origin - We don't know when humans first became religious. However, there is archaeological evidence such as the use symbolic art with red paint and burial rituals that start at specific points in our prehistory according to scientific dating techniques.
  • Religion is inherently political - Many religious texts have social edicts and commands, like "love your neighbor," which actually affect civic action, what bills you vote on, policies you support, or for whom you vote. Additionally, in certain sacred texts, when words traditionally translated as "righteousness," are (some would say correctly) reinterpreted as "justice," you begin to realize the societal and policy-based nature of the text because justice is not something you can do in isolation.
  • Atheist critique of faith and public policy is valid - In the 1960's, it was said that a Catholic president could never be elected, due to the US bias towards electing Protestants. Then President Kennedy was finally elected. Strangely, in the 2008 presidential race, I know friends with a Protestant Christian bias against Mormonism who would have never voted for Mitt Romney, but when faced between Obama and Romney, preferred a Mormon over a Democrat or just President Obama himself. In the west, people are more likely to vote for a theist than an atheist. The irony of this is that it is not clear that Christian religion has ever made a large difference in the office of the president. Christian presidents have taken us into controversial wars, cut welfare, dropped atomic bombs, sanctioned coups in parts of the world, etc.
  • Economics functions as a religion - Previously, economic, political, and religious authority were combined, for example, in European feudalism. Today, those realms, though overlapping, are increasingly separated especially in the West. So people have easily challenged religious authority, but we have been slower to challenge other "religious" authorities outside of explicit religion.
  • Most 20th century theologians, regardless of their theological positions, were socialist in some form - This is interesting because the US is considered a majority Christian nation, and yet, in the US and in American churches, socialism is viewed negatively (look at critiques of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders). Contrastingly, socialism was supported by many theologians who influenced or contributed to current versions of the mainstream Western Christianity we have in the US today.
  • Religious identification is messy - A question Greg Horton always asks is "Are you something because you say you are that thing?" Or is there a minimum test you must meet to be that label? In other words, if have a pork feast, drink of a ton of whiskeys, and then kill a 1000 people in the name of Allah, are you a Muslim? Predominantly in the US, people are considered a religious member by self-identification, regardless of their actions and practices.
  • Questions about empire dominate all major world religions - Islam, Christianity, and Judaism all emerged from and through minority groups during imperial times and regimes. Today, minority movements in religious studies and theology, like post-colonial critique as well as feminist, womanist, queer, and various liberation theologies, are marginalized by certain mainstream scholars. However some of these liberation theologies can be seen as more centrally housed in the thread of original challenges to and questions about empire from major world religions.
  • Religion has constantly been defined by white men who define what it is and what is good - When you look at a list of systematic theologians, the vast majority are white men. Yet, countries in which a majority of the population are Christian (or Christian syncretist) include all of Central and South America as well as much of sub-Saharan Africa. If you have time, try reading The Cross and the Lynching Tree, The Politics of Jesús, or The Cross and Gendercide.
  • What others can you add to the list from your religious studies?