Academic study of religion can resolve conflicts

Religion in the classroom is a good thing. And no, I’m not talking about daily morning prayers.

I’m referring to religious studies, an objective and comprehensive exploration of religious traditions from around the globe. While this discipline is an emerging field in the nation’s universities, it now has potential to gain popularity as an undergraduate core curriculum requirement.

Harvard University has recently proposed making religious studies a requirement. It will be referred to as “Reason and Faith.”

Including religion is a great idea, but it should have been implemented years ago in every university in the country. With the amount of nationally known scholars in USF’s religious studies department and the diversity found on this campus, the University – which has relatively more majors than most colleges in the southeast – has the potential to spearhead such a movement.

The fact that this isn’t happening leads me to believe the academic study of religion is misunderstood. Unlike theology, which has been around much longer and explores religion from an insider’s perspective, religious studies – which emerged in the United States in the 1960s – offers insight from an outsider’s point of view. Because it is so dynamic, religious studies includes a variety of disciplines, which are ideal in providing students with a liberal arts education. Unlike “Math for Liberal Arts,” in which students learn skills like how to divide an awkwardly shaped cake into five equal pieces, religion is something that affects all people’s lives, even if they don’t realize it.

The main goal of religious studies is to be comprehensive. Because it is a multi-faceted field, one has the opportunity to study how religion relates to fields such as psychology, pop culture and anthropology. There is plenty of room for the atheist within religious studies. Just look at Sigmund Freud, whose work in religious studies, though radical and often unfounded, is considered quite relevant.

To lose objectivity in a field that analyzes religions’ traditions – many of which have distinctive answers for questions of what the late scholar Paul Tillich called “ultimate concern,” or the meaning of existence – would be incongruous.

But there are notable hurdles to cross before this objectivity can be achieved. Students may have trouble opening their minds academically to other religious traditions. They may fear – rightly – that what they learn in class could contradict their faith. However, that’s not reason enough to prevent it from becomingmandatory.

What may help students overcome these challenges is learning to compartmentalize. That is, learning to isolate their ideas about faith into two categories – academics and personal beliefs. In other words, when you step into the classroom, ideas of faith are temporarily put aside for the sake of keeping an open mind and understanding other religious traditions. Thinking critically about one’s faith, especially in the intellectually formative college years, can be difficult, but it also provides a healthy dose of self-reflection.

Religions and their believers are constantly misunderstood and misrepresented in the media, as well as within stereotypes. Ironically, the one place that promotes universal religious understanding and tolerance, academia, seems to be equally misunderstood and overlooked as a crucial step in promoting the peaceful coexistence of peoples of different religious backgrounds throughout the world.

Discussions of differing faiths among students – and nations – can be overwhelmingly argumentative when taught from a theological perspective. All religions cannot be true at the same time.

But many can benefit personally from studying the vast range of beliefs and values practiced all over the world. One is also likely to discover overlapping ideals between different religions. After all, it is logical to root the study of religion in scientific inquiry, not theology.

There are “secular” facts one must accept in order to find the academic study of religion enriching. This may not be easy for devout believers. On the other hand, students disenchanted with their own faith or confused about what to believe may benefit from studying this field.

Religious studies has the potential to educate students on how beliefs affect the way people live their lives around the world, the way they treat others and, ultimately, how a greater understanding of those beliefs can affect intercultural exchange. After all, religion can provoke people in violent, undesirable ways, and understanding it can prevent such occurrences.

The value of knowledge of various religions should not be in question among officials in academia, given that religious intolerance still leads to violence around the globe and the politics that run this country have many religious overtones. Rather, in this ever-shrinking global society, it should be considered an undeniable necessity.

Iris Sela is a senior majoring in journalism and religious studies.