Turning Students into Citizens, Religious Studies Edition

In last week’s column here on RD, Ivan Strenski argued strongly against American Academy of Religion President Laurie Zoloth’s call for religious studies to be “interrupted” by a focus on climate change, writing that “asking a religious studies professor to do something about climate change is absurd, or at the very least, peripheral.” He goes on to pose an important question for all branches of academy study: “Must every discipline have some significant contribution to make to every social problem we face?”

Of course climate change is not just any ordinary problem. Indeed as Evan Berry, quoting Mike Hulme, notes in his rejoinder to Strenski, climate change is “not so much a discrete problem to be solved as it is a condition under which human beings will have to make choices.” The question then becomes, what is the responsibility of higher education to prepare students to make responsible choices under this unprecedented condition?

In short, climate change is a game-changer for the whole of higher education. Laurie Zoloth realizes this, but Ivan Strenski does not.

Strenski advocates a model of higher education rooted in the disciplines of the 19th century. In this model the goal of a religion department is principally to train scholars of religion and not to engage in social activism. The same would be true for economics or physics departments: to train more economists and physicists. From this perspective disciplinary education is an end in itself and does not need to be oriented instrumentally towards some social goal.

But as universities have become providers of education for the masses of advanced societies, the narrow goal of disciplinary education is no longer fit for purpose. The academy does not need thousands of economists or physicists to keep these disciplines going; we need only a small number of brilliant minds. And yet the academy, because of its conservative disciplinary nature, insists on training legions of economists, religionists and physicists. If graduates of these programs find themselves able to enter the workforce or engage in responsible democratic citizenship, they do so in spite of their disciplinary education, not because of it.

In short the 19th century model of disciplinary education risks a staggering waste of talent at a time of global crisis. No wonder many people are wondering whether it is worth it to invest tens of thousands of dollars and four years of their lives majoring in the traditional disciplines.

In 2050 the world’s population will reach 9-10 billion, and much of its economy will be driven by hyper-dense, increasingly multi-ethnic, environmentally challenged megacities of up to 100 million people. No current economic system, scientific thought, cultural value system or political philosophy on its own has relevance for this new world. The key problems of the 21st century demand holistic thinking, multidisciplinary education and cross-cultural communications. These problems include:

  • How do we develop the economy for a world of 9-10 billion people in 2050 without destroying the ecosystems and environments that make life possible?
  • How do we discover the appropriate place for cultural differences in a multipolar, hypermodern world without resorting to fundamentalism, separatism, and ethnic violence?
  • How do we foster meaningful human relations and quality of life in a world transformed by science and technology?


The current disciplinary education model risks failing to prepare the next generation for the world that they will actually live in. For universities to safeguard the status quo is to risk their social legitimacy, and to risk disastrous consequences for the West’s future prosperity, not to mention humanity as a whole.

From this perspective, AAR President Zoloth’s demand for scholars of religion to imagine how their discipline can contribute to forming responsible citizens in a time of climate crisis is a master stroke. It immediately gives purpose and relevance to the thousands of students who are majoring in religious studies. It asks them to consider how their studies of Buddhism or Christianity will help them negotiate a world whose climate is changing rapidly and without precedent. It asks them to make a creative leap across disciplinary boundaries. It asks them to apply their knowledge to the problems of the real world.

Surely it is far more important that thousands of young people can think critically about the nexus of religious worldviews, values and politics that shapes the diversity of the world’s responses to climate change, rather than the religious ideas of Medieval Chinese Daoism (which is how I began my academic career)!

Ivan Strenski is right that the discipline of religion needs scholars who are purely focussed on the academic problems of religion. But this is not what the vast majority of undergraduates needs; it is not what our society needs; and it is not what the planet needs.

If ever there was a time when our disciplines should serve the future needs of our students, and not the other way around, it is now. While I sympathize with Ivan Strenski’s call for academic departments to advance pure academic knowledge about their fields, now is not the time to prioritize this function of higher education. Laurie Zoloth’s call for radical interdisciplinary social engagement is timely, urgent, and a model for other disciplines to follow if our universities are to prepare students for the world of 2050 and beyond.


  • steven.ramey@ua.edu' Steven W. Ramey says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with your assertion that we need to train young people to “think critically about the nexus of religious worldviews, values and politics” rather than reproduce ourselves as a discipline. I find the most effective way to train students for these tasks involves an emphasis on critical theory that encourages students to recognize the assumptions and structures within which they (and their professors) remain enmeshed. I read Zoloth’s call to the AAR to be a different endeavor than this.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    The disconnect here might be over what religion studies is all about. You want to apply the forces of religion to helping solve this problem. You see that as the best that could be done. Another viewpoint might think we haven’t yet got to the bottom of what religion is, and before turning religion loose on this problem we should have some understanding of religion and what is does. Problem solving, such as global warning, might be best left to secular humanism, or to a politics that tries to keep church and state separate.

    Applying religion has backfired so many times on humanity throughout history, and we never learn the lessons. You can see it today in this issue. Christianity has linked with the forces of the rich to be the problem, not the solution. If you force Christianity to work on the solution, you are likely to end up with some kind of deception that seems to be working on the problem while they actually still have their end times agenda in the back of their minds, and humanity will once again fail to recognize the disconnect until too late.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    There are two kinds of religious studies. There is the study of the history of religion, and how it fits in the world and what it does to society. Then there is also teaching the theories of apologetics to preachers so that they can lead congregations. These two are very different studies for totally different purposes, and it is important that the apologetics side never interfere with or try to influence the side that studies the historical truths, although that might be an impossible goal. If some in the apologetics side do want to change from being climate destroyers to climate protectors that would be great, but they shouldn’t try to influence the study of religion.

  • judithmax@comcast.net' Judith Maxfield says:

    This article seemed a bit hared to follow, maybe because of all the ands and ifs presented. In response, I would question why is it only religious studies seen to be responsible for being the bearers of civic and ethical discourse – (which I assume and hope would be a function of their religious studies anyway). There are other fields of study in which these specific areas would naturally be a part on one’s learning. It does seem to me that critical thinking skills must contain ethics and civic responsibility.
    I remember being in an university level Humanities discussion where we students questioned a visiting scientist if science was responsible for the invention of the atomic bomb and turning it over to the government knowing how it would be used. This was In the 60’s; he said “no”, (not withstanding we had to have the knowledge before Nazi Germany). But we did not drop the bomb on Germany but tried it out instead on Japan. The arguments of doing so are now under scrutiny by younger generations.
    If all students are not getting a higher education that includes ethics and critical thinking skills, I personally would not want to pay taxes to support public education that turns out people who feel no connection to democracy or giving back to society. Wall Street is not the end game. You may not be an activist, but at least understand history and not repeat it. We turn out professions who did not have a wide breath of education and don’t have a clue about personal ethics. The question “Why?” must be addressed and be an integral part of the goal or we are really done for.

  • judithmax@comcast.net' Judith Maxfield says:

    On one point I beg to differ in that the study of religious history and apologetics cannot be separated. All the Christian hating on this site supports what I am saying. The U.S. has forms of Christianity that I wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole. There are those who claim a religion so they are socially acceptable, or just self righteous idiots. Even in a religious community, if you don’t understand the ongoing evolution of its history, you are stuck in a belief system no longer relevant to society. In that case, lock the church doors and go home to stare at your navel. I know so-called Christians who only know their form of it, invented in the late 19th century, having had a bout of amnesia to anything that happened before the Reformation, oh, except for a supernatural version of the Nativity.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    We may not always agree, but normally I can understand what you are saying. Maybe tomorrow you can try explaining it.

  • judithmax@comcast.net' Judith Maxfield says:

    Well, let me introduce myself. We’ve done a lot of reply stuff. On which you would want a little more? I am CA born and UCLA taught in the visual arts; an artist,working in contemporary issues/questions. I see the visual work as a language. I do read a lot and love learning. I am a serious Episcopalian in a CA liberal seaside town. Trying to organize “words” is not so easy when you see everything connected to the human story. I’m happy to hear you can understand most of the time. Actually, this fun blog stuff except when some overuse generalities and tend to run amuck as an excuse not to actually think. I do try to avoid that myself. So, this is with whom you are communicating. This the the context for me. I’m curious about you because you’re on this site a lot.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    That’s good. After reading what you wrote earlier today I started thinking either I am getting too old for these conversations, or maybe you had a little too much to drink today. I was from CA until 20 years ago. I am from a Christian family, but when I was young I started to take it too seriously and I joined a cult and left UCB to go to school in Pasadena where after a few years I think I learned my lesson and I have been out of Christianity for over 40 years. I am trying to figure out how to explain the problems with Christianity to other people.

  • So, Steve, you’re a Critical Theory guy. Fine. But why don’t you think training ” young people to think critically about the nexus of religious world views ” is NOT doing something like what CT does?

    So called religious studies that trains clergy is not what is in play here. Advocacy and activism is its lifeblood and duty

  • I happen to agree with Zoloft in her assertion that religious studies should be more socially responsive, especially on the issue of climate change. I agree for one simple reason – all faiths were charged with stewarding the Earth. That means protecting it, nurturing it, caring for all that derives life from it, both human and animal and plant. We have failed miserably at doing this, often embracing that which makes for a good bottom line rather than that which makes a good life for all.

    Until practitioners of faith take their obligation to God seriously, and put it first so that when we have 9-10 billion people on this planet we also have a planet we can live on, we will all be the losers, or rather our children and grandchildren will be. Teaching new preachers about climate change and how it can be used to motivate people of faith is not a bad thing, but rather one that should be encouraged and supported by actually teaching it as a part of their textual understanding of their faiths, regardless of the faith. This is especially true when you have so many fundamentalist/Pentecostal Christians denying climate change and their preachers so willing to pander to this falsehood rather than preaching against it.

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