* This post originally appeared on the Practicum: Critical Theory, Religion, and Pedagogy blog.
“Let’s start at the very beginning (a very good place to start).”
“Everything seems to be up in the air at this time.” –Camper van Beethoven, The Ambiguity Song.
Our undergraduate major in religious studies requires that students take a class in theories and methods within the first year of declaring their major. We call it “Orientation to the Study of Religion.” We work a lot on writing, speaking, and reading skills in it, including how to construct and support a thesis argument, how to cite sources, what questions to ask when reading a text, and how to present research and lead discussions on readings. The class is offered every semester and we have between fifteen and twenty students enrolled. Three or four of us in a department of thirteen tend to trade off teaching the course annually. We have no set canon of readings for the class. Different instructors will have slightly different readings, though there will often be overlap, author-wise. I taught it for the past two semesters, and my reading lists included Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Victor Turner, Bruce Lincoln, Meredith McGuire, Pierre Bourdieu, Sarah Pike, JZ Smith, Robert Orsi, Judith Richardson, and others.
Many, and some semesters most, of our students enter the class having absolutely no idea what it will be about. Many find their way into the major by taking a course with one of our professors, loving it, declaring the major, and the next semester sitting in the theories and methods class. While a few know that this will introduce them to some approaches in the academic study of religion, some students think it will be a world religions course, others that it will be a ministerial practicum (we are located in the American southeast). For the most part, everything seems to be up in the air on the first day. Because of this, I have found it useful to use about a third of the first class meeting (after introducing ourselves, looking at the syllabus, and working in groups on definitions of “religion”—the class meets once a week for two hours and forty-five minutes) discussing four points about the academic study of religion. I should note here that these are my points, and I am certain that some of my department colleagues and readers of this blog will disagree with some things in them. But I ask students to keep these in mind (if not on their desks) as the semester progresses. They are:
1. The academic study of religion is multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary. It primarily uses historical, sociological, anthropological, literary, and philosophical methods, but others too. In other words, there are lots of ways to study what gets called “religion.”
2. One thing that we do not do in the academic study of religion is theology, in which religion is examined from a particular religious point of view. We may study theologies as primary sources for analysis, but never as a secondary source for thesis arguments. Given this, the arguments scholars make who study religion academically can be equally persuasive to people regardless of whether they self-identify as religious or non-religious.
3. In other words, the study of religion does not involve examining the “truth” of religious concepts and practices, nor does it require the belief, practice, or disbelief in any religions or supernatural being(s). Instead, the study of religion is the study of humans, in groups and as individuals, and what they think and do that they, or we, call “religion.” Our task is to try to figure out what, how, and why they think and do what they do. It means stepping back from our personal preferences, likes and dislikes, and examining the subject at hand.
4. The academic study of religion also acknowledges that there isn’t simply a “thing” out there called “religion,” but rather that religion is a term that has many meanings, is a word that is contested, and that there are many conceptions of religion proposed by both scholars and religious practitioners. A definition of religion can help us focus on certain aspects of the social world, but always at the expense of other aspects.
Do these four points immediately have the effect of explaining the boundaries and approaches we will have in class? Not even close. Each statement needs unpacking, words defined, examples given. It is only a starting point, a broad guide to the semester’s work that must be demonstrated, not just stated. But it is a start . . .