Getting Ready for World Religions

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What exactly are we learning here?

The small liberal arts university where I occasionally teach offers courses in “World Religions.” The discipline of Religious Studies questions the “world religions approach” these days, for good reasons, along with the very idea of “religion” as separate from things like “society” or “culture” or “knowledge,” but the courses are staples of the curriculum. So World Religions has been slow to change. My self-interest is involved here, as well, since these are some of the courses I am prepared to teach, so I have not been an advocate for change on this front, although I do always ask “east of where?” when students and I approach the prospect of looking at “World Religions I – Eastern.”

Over the dozen or so years I taught world religions, I’ve tried a number of different approaches. We’ve looked at them from the paradigmatic humanities perspective, “what is a/the good life?” and the different answers given by “the religions.” We’ve looked at them from the perspective of the archetypal hero, and the values and practices associated with that particular hero story (particularly congenial for Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, but not all that foreign to others; Rama is a great hero, Arjuna is not bad, Mahavira is a hero, the Confucian and Taoist sages are exemplary individuals …). We’ve looked at them as “living religions” and “traditions,” we study primary texts (arduously).

I keep coming back to this problem: the point of studying religion in college has got to be more fundamental than providing the students with a basket of religious trivia, for future good experiences with Jeopardy or some random question at the office (“How did you know that?” “Idk, some class I took in college maybe?”). The main justification for studying religion in school is, it seems to me, to promote that elusive thing we call “critical thinking,” the ability to notice that you think according to paradigms that you have, for the most part, received without question from the people and world around you, and to begin the challenging and sometimes disturbing process of exploring the good reasons for those paradigms. Challenging, because sometimes they are difficult to locate, and disturbing, because sometimes you find out they’re not there at all, and that your paradigm demands revision. I doubt we can achieve this purpose without focusing directly on the problem of truth: what criteria for truth do we use, what do we say we accept as true, and what do we accept as true in practice, such that we make it the ground of our decisions?

The religious studies approach has been criticized, rightly, for dodging the question of truth. One year I announced to the class that it was probably not in their best interest to continue with the unit on Islam, because as long as they didn’t know anything about Islam, they would have an excuse on the Day of Judgment, but once I presented the truth claims of Islam, they were going to be responsible for accepting or rejecting them, which was going to make a terrible outcome on that day more possible for them. I said I wanted to make sure I had their informed consent to do that. They all acted like that was a really good joke; I was not entirely sure I was joking. I was tired of treating the religions’ truth claims as if they didn’t matter.

But the methodology works against us here. The phenomenology of religions approach makes “bracketing” the truth question a core methodological commitment. “Methodological atheism” and various forms of reductionism deal with it by assuming all the truth claims are false. Ironically, this approach fails to deal with the existential problem. Assuming all the religious professionals are lying – at least to themselves, if not to others – lets us unmask the social and cultural functions of religious assertions and commitments. But in that process, methodological atheists abandon people (students) who could benefit from a more systematic exploration of their grounds for accepting this but not that religious claim or commitment – as if they are being asked to take the last step on the “critical thinking” journey before they’ve even taken the first one. (And whether that is, in fact, the necessary last step remains disputable.)

All of which leads up to my thoughts about re-tooling the World Religions – Eastern course, again. I am thinking about beginning with the truth claims question directly; seeing whether we can as a class identify some of our existing commitments to truth claims, and associated practices; and then exploring the way the religions under study challenge, support, are or are not potentially compatible with those commitments – that is, engage the “web of belief” directly. The downside might be that it gives too much aid and comfort to the idea that “religion” is synonymous with “beliefs” (or as students are wont to write, “believes”), or “belief systems.” That weed is difficult enough to root out; it doesn’t need any fertilizer. But we could presumably also explore the way religious practices express identity or group solidarity without a corresponding commitment to specific beliefs, in the context of examining existing “web of belief” commitments.

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