Reflections on RELS 161: Contemporary Problems in Religion and Culture


by Ian Alexander Cuthbertson

Note: This post originally appeared on the Practicum: Critical Theory, Religion, and Pedagogy blog.

Last year I redesigned a first-year religious studies course at Queen’s University in Kingston Ontario. The course is one of two full-year intro courses offered at the School of Religion, the other being a typical introduction to world religions course. In past years, the course had been split between two instructors and tended to be taught as a religion ‘and’ course where each instructor developed content in line with her own interests (religion and sex, religion and the environment, religion and science). Given the opportunity to teach the entire course myself, I developed a new syllabus with the goal of giving first year students a broad introduction not to ‘religion’ per se but rather to the academic study of religion. The theme for the course became ‘religion in modernity’ and topics included secularization, religious fundamentalism, new atheism, and new religious movements. Owing to my own interest in critical theory, I attempted to integrate a critical perspective into the course readings using Malory Nye’s excellent introductory text Religion: The Basics along with excerpts from J.Z. Smith, Talal Asad, Russell McCutcheon, and others.

Entering the classroom last September I naively hoped that my students would become as excited about critical theory as I am. They didn’t. And although the course wasn’t a complete flop, it did not live up to my expectations. For the most part, the students hated the theoretical components that I included. Or perhaps they simply couldn’t understand why I seemed so interested in pointing out what religion isn’t – that it isn’t just beliefs or churches – that ‘it’ isn’t really an ‘it’ at all and is instead made up of countless acts of classification performed by self-interested actors. What came across instead was that different people see religion differently. Yes, the students seemed to say. We get it. But we want to learn about religion, not what people say about religion.

This summer I had some time to reflect on the challenges of including critical theory in a first-year intro course and went back to the drawing board. First, I identified some of the major challenges I had faced and then developed some strategies for addressing these. In what follows I briefly outline these challenges and strategies.


1. Preconceptions (lack thereof): I had originally decided to focus almost exclusively on Christianity in the first half of the course – not only because Christian categories have so deeply influenced the academic study of religion, but also because I assumed my students, who had been for the most part raised in a society dominated by Christianity, would be familiar (at least in general terms) with that religion. They weren’t. In fact, most students came to the class with very little base knowledge of religion. Of course some students were themselves religious and had insights into their own particular traditions and denominations. Still, most seemed only dimly aware that there were different kinds of Christianity in the world, let alone religions in which god(s) are largely peripheral figures. It became difficult, therefore, to criticize dominant conceptualizations of religion (the world religions paradigm, say) when students had never taken a world religions course to begin with.

2. Relevance (lack thereof): Precisely because the students had very little basic knowledge of religion, it became difficult to show why they should care about any of the critical theory that I kept talking about. I was clearly very excited about critical theory, and that helped. But the relevance of critical theoretical approaches was lost when I would introduce a dominant way of understanding religion (as sui generis, say) and then proceed to critique that view. For one thing, I typically had hard time showing the students that one approach was, in fact, dominant. But my explanations (that this view renders religion apolitical, say) also failed to stick either because each view (religion as sui generis and ‘religion’ as culturally determined) seemed just as plausible as its opposite or perhaps because students couldn’t see why this actually mattered outside of the classroom. The satisfaction that comes with questioning a taken-for-granted way of understanding something was lost because any given way of approaching religion was never taken-for-granted – it was always a brand new idea presented by me.

3. Trust. A final challenge is that the students trusted me. When I designed the course I included primary source readings thinking the students would not want to trust my interpretations and would instead prefer to read the original sources themselves. But for the most part, students preferred to have me (or secondary sources) tell them what early twentieth century Protestant fundamentalists thought or what contemporary new atheists are all about. The problem was that this basic trust also made it difficult for the students to understand that I was presenting various opposing views that were not necessarily my own and that none of them were ‘right.’ Students seemed to have a hard time understanding that any particular view depends upon an historical context and is contradicted by a host of other, equally plausible and well-argued opinions. Rather than view a given theoretical approach as being better or worse for some particular issue or problem, students simply accepted each in turn.

Obviously I had a lot of re-drawing to do. Here’s what I’ve come up with.


1. Making the Taken For Granted: My goal this year is to encourage the students to take certain things for granted – at least at the outset. To do this, I will depend largely on the trust issue outlined above. This year, rather than providing a wide variety of opposing ways of understanding and approaching religion at the start of the course, I will consistently take a single approach. I plan to stick with the overall ‘religion’ in modernity theme and to keep secularization, religious fundamentalism, and new atheism as topics. But rather than question the ways fundamentalists, new atheists, and (some) scholars describe religion in terms of belief, I will present this view uncritically. The fate of religion in the modern world, I will argue, is really all about the struggle between religious and secular/scientific beliefs. Rather than presume, as I did last year, that students will come to class with a host of preconceptions about religion, I will work to create these views in my students.

2. Breaking the Spell: The title of the first lecture of the spring term will be: “Everything We Learned Last Term Is Wrong.” In the first few lectures of the second term I will give concrete examples of the preconceptions under which I (we) operated in the first term. Religion, I will reveal, is not only about belief; it is also about practices. In other words, I will wait until students have developed opinions about what religion is before working to critique and expand these views. Only in the second term will we do readings on ritual and habitus – readings that I had originally included in the first weeks of the course. Our exploration of ritual and habitus will not, of course, be limited to ‘religious’ ways of being and doing in the world, which will (hopefully) lead the students to wonder why certain kinds of ritual are deemed religious while others are not.

3. The Other Jay-Z: Having shown students (and not merely told them) that there are vastly different ways of studying religion, I will be better able to introduce them to Jonathan Z. Smith, Russell McCutcheon, and other critical theorists. At this point the students should be better equipped to see not only that there are different ways to study religion but that these approaches trace the contours of the very thing they seek to analyze and describe. The students will have had the experience of operating under a set of preconceptions (religion is about what people believe) and will have seen how this view led us to be interested in certain kinds of phenomena (fundamentalism, new atheism). They will also have had the experience of criticizing this view and replacing it with a different one (religion is about what people do) and will have seen how this new perspective caused us to turn our gaze to other kinds of phenomena (rituals, clothing, meals). They will have experienced, first hand, that there is no data for religion and that religion is, instead, “created for the scholar’s analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization” (Smith, 1982). In other words, the students will experience first hand that the kinds of things that counted as religion in the first term depended upon the approaches we opted to take.

4. So What? I mentioned above that I found it difficult to explain why the students should care that different ways of studying religion actually create the object of study. I think this might seem more relevant once the students experience this process at work, but I would also like to focus on some other practical ‘real world’ implications as well. Last year I ended the course with a section on new religious movements (neo-paganism, Scientology, Satanism) and ironic and ‘hyper-real’ religions (Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Jediism, Dudeism). I plan to do the same thing again this year. But rather than focusing on how these phenomena fit into the larger underlying theme of religion in modernity, I will focus instead on struggles concerning classification and authenticity. The fact that Scientology is a religion in the United States and a cult in France along with controversy over Satanists’ plans to erect a monument to Satan in Oklahoma will become real-world examples of how different ways of understanding religion determine what is, or isn’t, acceptable/authentic religion.

Of course I have no idea whether this new approach will work and will likely find myself back at the drawing board again this time next year. Fortunately, it is exactly this opportunity to learn from my mistakes (or earlier attempts to put a more positive spin on things) that I love most about teaching.

Ian Alexander Cuthbertson is a PhD. candidate in the Cultural Studies program at Queen’s University.

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