By Craig Martin
The AAR just announced that the Dalai Lama will be speaking at their 2012 Annual Meeting in Chicago as part of a Templeton event:
His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader whose long-standing engagement with multiple dimensions of science and with people far beyond his own religious traditions has made him an incomparable global voice for universal ethics, nonviolence, and harmony among world religions, is the 2012 Templeton Prize winner. The Dalai Lama will deliver an exclusive video presentation to the Annual Meetings in conjunction with a dialogue with Dr. John M. Templeton Jr., President and Chairman of the John Templeton Foundation, and Dr. Richard J. Davidson of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin.
As a member of the AAR I am embarrassed by this decision, and I know that I am not alone. To allow an overtly theological group such as Templeton to have a booth at the conference is one thing; to highlight the institution by allowing them what looks like a keynote lecture is quite another. In addition, to invite the Dalai Lama, whom they describe as a “spiritual leader,” strikes me as crossing the boundary between “being religious” and “studying religion” that many of us strive to maintain. The Dalai Lama may be a great social or political leader, but he is not an academic scholar in the study of religion. Indeed, one of his recent books—subtitled The Convergence of Science and Spirituality—claims that we must approach “reality” through multiple perspectives, including “spiritual” inquiry. To me, inviting “his Holiness”—a title that might imply he carries an authority that goes beyond the human realm—to talk about science and “spirituality”—a term that is as loaded as the word “cult”—strikes me as clearly problematic.
This is, more importantly I think, embarrassing for me as a member of the AAR because it signals to the public that in religious studies we are religious. At my institution—which, it’s worth noting, claims to have a Catholic heritage—students avoid religion classes because they think the classes will be religious. Some of my students tell me that they already know everything about religion from twelve years of Catholic school. Every semester I struggle for weeks to convince my students—who are initially resentful that they have to take at least one religion course to graduate—that I’m not going to try to convert them either to Christianity or to some sort of generic religiosity (“classroom religion,” as some call it). They never believe me until we’re weeks into the semester and my teaching method and treatment of the material becomes clear. Many times administrators have recommended to me that I partner with the campus ministries program to increase enrollment in religious studies courses. Like with many other institutions, a number of our courses are taught by adjuncts selected from the local clergy.
However, why would anyone think it should be any different? The leading academic institution for the study of religion in North America invites religious leaders to speak at their annual national conference. The signal we send with such choices is that of course the study of religion and being religious go hand in hand. No wonder the Huffington Post thinks that the AAR and the SBL are “religious organizations” whose members are “professors who train the next generation of religious leaders.”
Such choices on the part of the AAR create barriers between me and my students and misunderstandings between me and my peers in other disciplines—ultimately making my job harder than it should be.