Studying Religion is Suddenly Popular

What is the future of the study of religion in US colleges and universities? Most RD readers probably agree that maintaining, indeed increasing, quality education in this area should be a high priority in a society where religious conflicts inform a wide range of public debates. More than ever, we need well-informed critical thinking about religious differences.

Yet we live at a time when US higher education is in crisis, reaping the whirlwind of years of corporate downsizing. Everyone in academia—from administrators balancing budgets to students managing time—faces acute zero-sum choices about priorities. Parents wonder if studying history, literature, and critical thinking is a safe career move for their children, while gifted students ponder whether pursuing a Ph.D. is a mere postponement of unemployment. Meanwhile politicians clamor for cuts; so that at some schools virtually any area (except administration and major sports) may become a candidate for the chopping block. In this context, programs in Religious Studies, or the Academic Study of Religion (ASR), may be vulnerable.

Last month Newsweek online launched a special section devoted to education—and, in somewhat of a shocker, offered the good news that Religious Studies is experiencing a burst of popularity on college campuses. 

The article, “Religious Studies Revival,” holds interest for anyone who has a stake in keeping the academic study of religion strong. And at first glance, this coverage seems like a public relations dream for embattled Religious Studies programs. But Newsweek’s presentation of the academic study of religion is a two-edged sword in fact, its underlying logic is worrisome.

Anguished Parents? 

First the positives, which are substantial. The article begins with a nice definition of Religious Studies as an “interdisciplinary major in which people study how religious beliefs and practices affect history, culture, politics, economies, and the world.” The following talking points—that the academic study of religion is important in “a world defined by religious conflict,” and that religion is now the most popular subject for professional historians—are both highly significant.

Much of the article continues in a similar bullish vein: growth trends, fascinating new subfields that intersect with other disciplines, advantages of relatively small departments, and the fact that ASR programs are often well-attuned to cultural diversity. I was pleased that the Newsweek writers flicked away the obligatory question whether “learning about religious belief and practice is equivalent to religious indoctrination,” dismissing it to focus on more interesting things.

And let’s not forget that the article’s lead writer, Lisa Miller, is a major voice who has been doing important work for several years as Newsweek’s religion editor.

So what’s not to like?

For starters, there’s the characterization of Religious Studies as an “esoteric” field, against a background premise that it is not “useful” and that common sense would lead “anguished” parents not to recommend it to their children. True, the narrative presents the study of religion “reviving” from this baseline, moving beyond the baggage that seems to define its reputation. But what are the costs of granting this premise in the first place?

By its conclusion, the article is referring to Religious Studies as less “esoteric” than “do-gooder”—although the final sentence recommends the field for “students earnestly interested in the Meaning of Life,” so it circles back to a middle ground between esotericism and do-gooder-ism.

The overall logic seems to be that the academic study of religion is a “growth industry” mainly insofar as three things apply: First, that it is no longer “elitist,” as it presumptively has been in the past. Second, that it is virtuously out of step with most Ivy League schools. Third, and most crucially, that it is running away from what is clearly coded as a shame or embarrassment: its “legacy of Christian origins.” Apparently the problem is that some Religious Studies programs—notably Harvard’s, from which Robert Orsi luckily “fled”—still train some of their students for careers related to Protestant Christianity.

Now, virtually everyone in the field wants to diversify beyond a “seminary model” centered on just one religion and a preponderant focus on theology and Bible. The question is whether this requires starting over on completely new foundations, as opposed to evolving from roots that are passably healthy. Since Protestantism is the majority religion of the United States, one might hope that quality work in this area is not mere esoteric elitism.

And although everyone knows about the disturbing aspects of Religious Studies legacy on this front (in my view, neither more nor less damning than the legacies of Anthropology, American Studies, or Orientalism) still we might hope that none of these fields needs to reinvent the wheel entirely. Yet what comes through in Newsweek’s article—whether originating from its journalistic frame or the scholars it quotes—is embarrassment that the discipline still has to contend with such unfortunate legacies at all. We are to understand that they lead to excessively WASP-ish and monolithic student bodies (even compared to the none-too-impoverished environs of Macalester College and the University of California at Santa Barbara.)

Intentionally or not, one effect is to underplay the importance of economic class as a focus of attention. Can the religious concerns of white working-class Christians (or for that matter the concerns of non-white immigrants, who are predominantly Christian) be valorized as part of ASR’s bold new future? Within the logic of this argument, must such groups present themselves as just one more form of “global diversity,” deserving about the same amount of resources as Ancient South Asia or Chinese Religion in the Twelfth Century?

Far from being embarrassed that Religious Studies is a good place to study how the history and current practice of Christianity shapes everyday American life, I maintain that this is a major reason the discipline has thrived—both in the past and present. In fact, the relatively “esoteric” parts of religious studies are more likely, on balance, to be its parts that do not focus on such matters. And importantly, its less esoteric subfields (that is, by my logic rather than the article’s) have a proud legacy in the academic study of religion and its precursor movements. They don’t fit the script of revival from irrelevancy because they were not esoteric or marginal in the first place, although at times they may have been underappreciated.

The Dual Challenge of Religious Studies

So it is pernicious to imagine Religious Studies as a phoenix rising from the ashes of a failed esoteric project. This strikes me like a meal that at first seems delicious, but leaves a nasty aftertaste. I prefer an image of struggle to build on the best legacies from the roots of Religious Studies in a current era when these legacies could easily collapse due to the dual dynamic of (wholly appropriate) efforts to diversify and (scandalous) corporate downsizing. This dual challenge now spreads many Religion programs precariously thin.

Newsweek’s stress on “do-gooders” is also worrisome. True, Religious Studies is often a good fit for students who care about activism and social justice. This is surely a strength—although not one unique to the field. In fact, on balance Religious Studies is somewhat less practice-oriented than departments of political science, law, business, or music. It is just that these fields are not embarrassed if their students feel they can study politics or law and also be activists or lawyers, or study music or business and also play music or start businesses. They simply take this for granted. Why, in the case of religion students, is this treated as a problem or trivialized?

Will allies of the academic study of religion be pleased if they follow Newsweek’s link, “Related: The 25 Best Schools for Do-Gooders”? Apparently the winners were not measured by actual curricula in social ethics, community development, public health, human rights law, and so on—much less interdisciplinary study of how religions relate to sociopolitical issues. “Do-gooderism” is simply a composite score of ROTC enrollments, Peace Corps volunteers, and service-learning initiatives. How exactly is this related to exploring “how religious beliefs and practices affect history, culture, politics, economies, and the world?” Might not Religious Studies equally well make students cynical or indecisive—or so fascinated with intellectual life and committed to the rigors of interdisciplinary work that they don’t have time to march on a picket line?

This is a slippery issue, because the article’s writers do have a point. It is indeed important that Religious Studies deal with real-world matters of ethics, cultural conflict, and activism. But to imply that growth in such leadership correlates with recent changes in the discipline is misleading. In fact, it is an open question whether the changes in Religious Studies since the 1960s—especially its shift in center of gravity toward public universities—represents an advance or a decline on this front.

Here again the premise that Religious Studies was a weak blend of esotericism and elitism prior to recent years, but is reviving through putting all that in the past, is wrong on factual grounds. More perniciously, if this analysis informs institutional strategies in an era of downsizing, it could be downright dangerous for the future of the discipline. 

At the end of the day, I’m not certain whether Religious Studies’ moment in the media spotlight represents a clear advance. Although we should not rule out using this article to defend and promote the academic study of religion in some contexts, let me register my concerns loud and clear: Religious Studies and its institutional allies should not march under this banner, with these talking points, without thinking carefully about the pitfalls embedded in its logic.

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