Religion Today

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Is Religious Studies a Zoo?

As a field of study, Religious Studies aims to teach about different world religions. This can be Western religions such as Judaism or Christianity, or Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Jainism. It can teach about large religions, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism, or small ones, like Zorastrianism and Santaria.

    As a professor of religious studies, I have taught most of these religions plus many others over the years. While I could not be a member of more than one of these religions, I enjoy teaching them all. I try to present each religion in an objective yet sympathetic fashion so that students can understand how the religions work and why people find membership in them attractive, comforting and "the right thing to do," at least for those who belong to them.

    Students who come to Religious Studies courses for the first time often arrive with a quite different perspective. Many come from a strong background in one particular religion. They grew up in and were surrounded by family, friends and community members who belonged to that religion. And they led their lives and viewed the people and world around them through that religion. This description applies to many students, whether Catholic, Baptist or Methodist, whether Christian, Hindu or Moslem.

    Such students also grew up with the experience that the experts in their religion were members of that same religion. So when they come to the university, they bring with them an expectation that their religion class teachers, as "experts," will also belong to the religion being taught. The teacher of Introduction to Judaism will be Jewish, they assume, and the teacher of History of Islam will be Muslim. Not to put too fine a point on it, they assume that Religious Studies is like a zoo, and that the teachers represent the religions they teach. Just as in a zoo, the signs say, "This is a bear," or "This is a moose," there is an implicit assumption that Religious Studies will display members of religions, "This is a Jew," "This is a Christian," and "This is a Hindu." This is simply not the case.

    Students have a range of responses when they discover their professor does not belong to the religion being taught in the course.
 First, if the course is about a religion to which the students do not belong, the response is an intellectual one. "Oh. OK. Uh, how did you learn so much about it?" is a typical comment.

   Second, if the course is about a religion to which a student belongs and the professor belongs to a different religion, the initial response is one of doubt. The teachers need to prove themselves in order to gain the student's acceptance. This is a common process in Religious Studies courses and usually takes the first few weeks.

    Third, it sometimes happens that a course about a student's religion is taught by a teacher who belongs to a religion that the student views with hostility. A course on American Christianity might be taught by a Mormon, a course on Paganism might be taught by a committed Christian, a course on Christianity or the New Testament might be taught by a Jew, and so on. How do students react then?

    Students who have taken a Religious Studies course before usually will give the teachers a chance to demonstrate their knowledge. If this is the students' first Religious Studies course, they may drop out before they discover that their teacher brings objectivity and fairness to the class, along with great deal of knowledge. This is disappointing. When this tendency can be overcome and the students are persuaded to give the course a chance, they often become highly interested and involved in the course.
Some faculty attempt to avoid these problems by not divulging their religious identity. I have settled into this strategy over the years. Student reaction to this approach is often to engage in extensive speculation about my religious background. Over the years of my teaching, students have suggested that I might belong to three different religions, several types of Christianity, and might even be an atheist. If nothing else, this shows that the "zoo" model of Religious Studies does not work. If the students cannot identify my own religious background, then they must take me as the teacher I am, namely, a teacher of different world religions.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Immigration, Religion and the Supreme Court

July fourth provides a moment when Americans consider our nation's founding as well as how our ancestors came to this country, that is, about our personal "founding" as Americans. We celebrate our forebears' search for a better life, how they worked long hours to overcome hardships, and how they and their children became Americans.

That storyline often overlooks the fact that immigrants were usually unwelcome. Even when government policies invited people to come to America, migrants were frequently treated as outsiders. Newspapers, politicians and even average citizens often railed against large groups of newcomers who threatened the American way of life.

At different times, these negative attitudes have been directed at people of various nationalities: the Irish, Italians and Poles, the Scots and the Chinese, the Japanese and the Germans, and more recently the Hmong, the Hispanics and peoples from the Arab and Muslim world.

In the end, this unwelcoming attitude formed another difficulty to overcome. And for those whose families have been here several generations, their triumph over that particular adversity belongs to their July fourth story. This holiday, more than any other, celebrates our identity as Americans; it comprises a moment when we set apart our differences and celebrate "our" country, those who founded it, and those who have protected it.

The problem of immigration is not solely one of nationality and of the transition from belonging to the country of one's origins to membership in the new country. It is also one of religion. Immigrants often came with their own religious beliefs and practices. And unlike their national loyalties, immigrants and their children usually kept their religion rather than change it.

America's freedom of religion helped with that in the legal area, but not elsewhere. This country's discrimination against immigrants and their offspring makes that clear, especially following the waves of immigration before 1930. If we could not keep them out of our country, then the response was often that we could keep them out of our other institutions.

Religion made that exclusion possible. At the start of the 20th century, Catholic children were effectively excluded from public schools by Protestant insistence on using the King James Bible in them, which Catholics viewed as anti-Catholic. Major educational institutions, such as Yale and Princeton universities, enforced restrictions against admitting Jews into the 1950s and the 1960s. And many men's clubs, some even into the 1980s, did not allow Catholic or Jewish members.

These attitudes have changed over recent decades, and those changes have finally reached the Supreme Court, which for most of this nation's history was exclusively Protestant. If Elena Kagan is confirmed as a justice, as expected, then there will be no Protestants on the court. Instead, there will be six Catholics and three Jews.

There does not appear to be any major objection to this outcome. Instead, many editorial essays note this lack of controversy and see it as a sign of our nation's maturity. I agree in part.

There is another explanation. The Protestant political coalition has fallen apart. One side predominantly consists of evangelicals (and conservatives) while the other side stems from the mainline churches (and liberals). The split has largely come over social issues, especially abortion and homosexuality.

Instead of working together to bring in Protestant candidates, they can only agree on non-Protestant candidates, and for different reasons. To lay this out in over-simplified terms: Catholics are acceptable to the evangelical side because Catholicism in general holds similar social views. Catholics are OK for the mainline side because that side is more welcoming of differing views.

Similarly, the stereotype of Jews' politics is that they hold liberal views (even though many do not) which makes them acceptable on the mainline side. Jews tend to be less acceptable to the evangelical wing, but that faction's strong support of Israel usually mitigates that opposition.

Thus immigrants and their descendants move from being defined in terms of nationality to being defined in terms of religion. That redefinition may permit discrimination, but also provides a fit into our country's freedom of religion, which leads to greater acceptance. In the end, ultimate acceptance may come through political maneuvering.