What’s in Your Religion Syllabus?: Joseph Laycock

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In this new series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars of religion to share with our readers what’s in their religion syllabus, from a new class or a class they’ve taught for years, reflecting on what has worked, what has been modified, and how it has proven useful for covering a particular topic in the study of religion. For other posts in this series, see here.

by Jospeh Laycock

Every semester I teach world religions at Texas State University. Originally known as “Southwest Texas Normal School,” Texas State has undergone explosive growth in the last few years. It now has over 36,000 undergraduates including many first-generation and non-traditional college students. I love working at Texas State, but the campus is not without its controversies. Every day I walk past our “free speech zone” where self-described “confrontational evangelist” “Brother Jed” can often be seen trading insults with students. Turning Point USA, the conservative group behind the “Professor Watchlist,” sometimes has a card table near the free speech zone too. (They gave this professor a free “I Heart Capitalism” button!) Under Greg Abbot’s “Campus Carry” law, my students can bring concealed handguns to my class if they have the right license, so my syllabus includes a class policy in the event someone’s gun becomes “unconcealed.”

Texas State also made national news the day after Trump’s election when childish signs were glued to a men’s room mirror calling for “vigilante squads” to “arrest & torture those deviant university leaders responsible for spouting off all this Diversity Garbage.” These are strange times and some of my students have expressed that they fear for their safety. But I also feel that what I do in the classroom matters––especially in the world religions class. One student told me after the election, “I think it’s more important than ever to study world religions . . . while we still have a world.”

I have two main goals for the course: First, I want the students to be conversant in world religions. Second, I want them to understand that “religion” is a second order category and that a lot is at stake in how this category is defined. I want students to be able to achieve these goals even if they are entering college with deficient academic skills. But I also want my exceptional students to be challenged.

My textbook is Stephen Prothero’s God is Not One. This is supplemented with selections from religious texts and current news articles. There’s a lot to recommend about this book. Some of my students don’t have much money and God is Not One costs $2.99 on Kindle. It’s also available as an audiobook, which matters for my students who commute to campus. I like that Prothero’s writing comes across as a real person making arguments rather than an impersonal assemblage of information. The first day of class, I like to show Prothero’s interview on The Colbert Report. Students seem more interested in the book when they’ve seen the author’s face. Colbert’s satirical questions also model engaging and arguing with Prothero’s thesis rather than memorizing the data presented.

Finally, Prothero’s rejection of perennialism comes as a great relief to my evangelical students who are often wary of religion professors. (One freshman explained that her parents made her watch God’s Not Dead before the first week of college.) I tell students that, if anything, comparing religions will give them a greater appreciation for how unique their own religion is.

Of course, God is Not One has no shortage of critics. When my students are ready, I like to discuss some these critiques openly with the class. For example, the problem-solution model is useful for thinking about the differences between Christianity and Islam for the first time. Later in the course, I ask my students whether this model fits the Yoruba tradition or Judaism as neatly as it did Christianity.

Assessment consists of a mid-term, a final, and weekly writing assignments. I always give feedback on the writing assignments. I try to impress on students that thinking like a religion scholar is a special skill that they are cultivating. Through the writing assignments I am coaching them in a new skill.

Four of these writings assignments deal with the definition of religion. I want students to understand the history of the category “religion” and how this history relates to colonialism and other issues of power and politics. But I prefer to explain this history through lectures rather than assigned readings. Some of my students don’t know much about major historical developments like the Protestant Reformation. Lectures let me probe to see what they already know and fill in gaps as needed. (Also, one clip from the cartoon “Metalocalypse” is especially useful for beginning a conversation about religion as a second-order category.)

After we have studied Islam and Christianity, I ask students to create a definition of religion and show how their definition applies to these traditions. What do Christianity and Islam have in common that makes them “religions?” How do they meet the criteria of religion outlined in the student’s definition? We do this again after we study Confucianism. This time, I also ask students whether things like nationalism or science count as religions under the definitions they created. And if they do, is this a problem? We do this exercise a third time near the end of the course when they have studied most of the eight religions included in God is Not One. For the final exercise, we consider a case involving whether a high school girl who is a member of the “Church of Body Modification” can claim a religious exemption to the school dress code. The students have to create a definition of religion and say whether the Church of Body Modification fits the criteria in their definition or not. If they argue that it is a religion, they are required to show what The Church of Body Modification has in common with the other traditions we have studied. If they argue it’s not a religion, they are required to explain what the Church of Body Modification lacks that the other traditions all have.

Of course, the object of these exercises is to wrestle with the questions, not necessarily to produce a flawless answer. (One student complained that defining religion gives him a headache. I told him that was the point). Some of my students go on to take advanced classes in religious studies where they can explore theory further. But I know that for many of students this will be the only religion class they ever take. My goal is that when they graduate and encounter claims like “Islam is a hate group, not a religion,” they will be able to discern the interests and rhetorical mechanisms at work. If I do my job right, students understand the difference between having a new analytical skill and “Diversity Garbage.”

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