Should Public Universities have Religious Studies Departments?

Here at UMass Amherst we do not have a religious studies department, even though student interest in religion is on the rise.

Courses on religion that are offered in the history department or part of the university’’s certificate program (a kind of minor, as opposed to major) are very well enrolled. The student interest has two sources, I think. One is the growth of religious feeling itself. Our whole nation has been experiencing a surge of religious belief for the past 15 or so years. Here in Massachusetts the religious revival is not as noticeable as it is in more conservative states. But it’s definitely there. During the summer, for example, the Mullins arena is often hired out for use by religious groups holding mass meetings.

The second reason has to do with what’s in the news. We hear a lot about Islam: the headscarf controversy in France and Turkey, the supposed link between Islam and terrorism, and so forth. The prominence of Islam as a factor in international politics makes it clear that religion is an important force that Karl Marx and other key modern thinkers were wrong when thee suggested that religion was in process of disappearing, to be replaced by a view of the world grounded only in scientific understanding.

So student demand for a religious studies major is there. The question is whether a public university ought to respond by creating a religious studies department.

One argument against is that a public university should be religiously neutral. In fact, the First Amendment of the Constitution requires that government not become entangled in religion or appear to endorse religion.

This in turn raises interesting questions about the very purpose of religious studies program. Imagine that to be admitted to a religious studies major, you had to prove that you belonged to a religion, or that you supported religion. Or imagine that all the professors in the program had to be members of the clergy, or that they advocated religion in the classroom. Such features would make a religious studies program completely unacceptable. A public university cannot have a theology or divinity department whose purpose is to train people to be religious.

However, many state universities do in fact have religious studies programs now. The idea here is that religion can be approached as a purely scholarly field. This is something I very much support.

The idea of religious studies is not to express one’s faith but to learn about the history of religious organizations and the nature of religious beliefs. The approach is ideally interdisciplinary, with students learning about different religious through comparison. Students should also learn about the role religion plays in shaping apparently non-religious institutions, such as law, politics, social ethics, the entertainment industry, and many other sectors of society that appear to be secular but are really shaped the religious customs. The better students in this field would also be devoted to the study of foreign languages Hebrew, Sanskrit, Chinese, etc.

The professors would be models of impartiality in a field that is loaded with ideologues in the world outside the university. In fact, this is the most important reason for having religious studies programs. If students don’t learn about religion from dispassionate academics, they will learn about religion only through the religious struggles in society. In this struggle, the voices of extremists are often dominant.

The role of universities is to demonstrate that society’s hottest topics can be framed in scholarly ways. For example, is Islam intrinsically tied to terrorism? Is Judaism fundamentally different from Christianity, or are the two closely related? What makes India, as a society in which the majority are polytheistic Hindus, different from the U.S. as a predominantly monotheistic society? Does this religious difference correspond to any political and social differences?

These are interesting questions. To gather people of different religions, as well as people who are not religious, into one setting for exchange, debate, and inquiry is a very inspiring concept. That’s what religious studies is for.

Author: Dan Gordon

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