Why I Still Teach World Religions

Every fall term I get to teach REL 100: An Introduction to World Religions, which is pretty much what it sounds like. In the misguided footsteps of generations of Western professors before me, I take my undergraduates on a whirlwind tour through humankind's "great" religions - which is to say those few religions that Westerners have deemed most important to being religiously literate.

Using Stephen Prothero's God Is Not One as our main textbook, we discuss the Abrahamic traditions in chronological order (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) and several Asian traditions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism). Prothero inexplicably leaves out Sikhism, humanity's fifth largest religion and the one most often mistaken for Islam by Westerners, so I usually add supplementary readings; I also often add readings on Native American traditions. He includes Yoruba among "the eight rival religions that run the world," but I sometimes leave that out due to the time constraints of a fourteen-week term. Every year I switch up the list a little bit, but every year I can be relied upon to gravitate back to the traditions that I think my students are most likely to encounter over the course of their lives. I could squeeze in a few more if I were willing to give up reading primary texts and scholarly articles that call assumptions about each tradition into question, but I'm not.

I could also squeeze in more if I didn't insist on perhaps my students' least favorite portion of the course: spending a couple of weeks defining "religion." Prothero's text offers a bare-bones (and largely Buddhism-inspired) approach to understanding "religion": a problem, a solution, techniques, and exemplars. I contrast this with an older, more Abrahamic model in William Paden's Religious Worlds: every religion constructs a meaningful "world" through myth, ritual, gods, and purity/pollution. We also talk about other classic definitions of religion as "a feeling of absolute dependence" (Schleiermacher), a childhood neurosis (Freud), the opium of the masses (Marx). We talk about the similarities between sports fans and religious people, and whether there's a difference between "spiritual" and "religious." All semester I bring them back to definitions as a way of reminding them that religion is a slippery concept in need of explanation.

At the beginning of the term, my students are required to write an essay offering their own definition of religion, and explaining how they came to that definition. Ideally the assignment causes them to reflect on how much their own historical and cultural context has influenced their understanding. It is a paper about themselves as much as it is about "religion." Some of them get it, others don't, but that's OK because they must write the paper again at the end of the term. This time they must (re)define religion, reflect on how they came to that understanding, and specifically reflect on how their definition has changed or developed as a result of the course.

This exercise is not fun for them. Definitions, as it turns out, are rather esoteric and potentially quite boring. It's not as much fun as watching Vodou videos, inventing their own religions, taking a field trip, or making a presentation on Scientology (all of which have also taken place in my class at one time or another). It is very difficult for them to believe that there is a whole club of scholars who willingly get together every year and spend time arguing over what religion is - if it indeed exists at all - and how best to study it.

I don't ultimately have any answers for them. I am well aware of the deeply problematic nature of "religion" as a category and "world religions" as a course. I am also aware, though, that many students are still curious about religion - whatever it is - and that undergraduate business or pre-med majors in need of humanities distributive courses will more readily sign up for a World Religions course than for something more narrowly focused (like Reformation, or theory and method). Religious literacy will also benefit them in real life; most of my students will spend most of their lives in Michigan, a surprisingly diverse state with among the largest Muslim populations in the USA. So despite calls for religion scholars to be critics, not caretakers, the way I see it ANY education for "human-heartedness" in this bizarre nation of ours is a good idea.

Thus, my course goals are extremely modest. I am almost certainly not training future religion scholars. But if I can encourage young adults - the nation's future nurses or teachers or social workers or business leaders or parents - to question facile statements they hear in mass media like "Islam hates us," to be kind to strangers, or to avoid anti-Semitic "jokes" in their daily lives, I consider my time well spent.