What We Claim to Be

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Mark Ortiz is a senior double-majoring in Religious Studies and New College with a depth study in Political Ecology. He is especially interested in climate politics and that bundle of things and stuff we call “nature.”

Continuing a project I recently blogged about, I decided to make use of the American Academy of Religion’s (AAR) online “Syllabus Project”: a database of syllabi submitted voluntarily by professors and teachers in the field. I was looking for “Introduction to Religious Studies” course syllabi to better understand how professors around the United States approach the introductory class. What I found was a bit surprising and, I would like to suggest, indicative of a major issue in the discipline.

When one types the word “introduction” into the AAR’s Syllabus Project search engine (found here), 149 distinct syllabi appear. According to my count, 75 of the 149 syllabi available — just over 50% — take decidedly Christian subject matters as their focus. Many of the courses I included in this count are introductions to the New Testament or Theology (I did not include introductions to the Old Testament in my count, although there were many courses of this variety). Some of the courses I found were explicitly less scriptural and more, shall we say, practice-oriented.

For example, I noticed several “Introduction to Missions” and “Introduction to Preaching” offerings, and even one course purporting to be an “Introduction to Church Planting.” A course outcome lifted from a syllabus posted on this site, entitled “Introduction to Missions,” is below.

 5. Unreached People Group Analysis: Submit a short research paper on an unreached people group or a population segment (different from the student’s own). A strategy development guide will be provided. The student will select a people group and have it approved by the instructor (via email, telephone, or in class). A two-three page paper will be written describing the people group: population makeup, customs, values, religious practices, geographical setting, typical lifestyle, etc. With this research complete, the student will develop a strategy to share the gospel with this chosen people group. This strategy will be presented to the class in a five to ten minute presentation on the last weekend of the class. (People Group Paper- 30 points; Class presentation- 30 points.)

Though I am aware of the limitations of drawing broad conclusions from a sample of voluntarily shared syllabi, I do think this data can be considered at least partially representative of the field at large, since I have drawn from the largest professional society for the study of religion in North America.

I must say, the results are worrying.

I have two social sciences/humanities majors — both of them interdisciplinary — so I’ve taken a number of courses in disciplines similar to religious studies. Personally, I have a difficult time thinking of any other field in the modern academy with such an explicit bias and anti-critical orientation. Not only are over 50% of the syllabi mentioned above from courses related to Christianity in some way, but many of them are designed to teach students how to proselytize. This would be analogous to offering an introduction to political science course with the explicit goal of teaching students how to strategically “spread democracy,” “nation-build,” or export their indigenous political and legal systems elsewhere (which actually probably does happen in select classrooms). My point is that most introductory courses in the social sciences and humanities aim instead to familiarize students with the ways of studying things like culture and politics, while many of the intro to religious studies syllabi that I’ve sampled from other schools and that are posted on the AAR’s site have been more concerned with teaching students how to better be “religious” (read: Christian) and to more successfully persuade others to do the same. The critical potential of introductory courses in religious studies, and indeed the scope of the academic study of religion, is severely limited by the normative centrality of Christianity to the field. There can be no properly critical practice so long as that practice has as its goal the expansion of the Christian flock.

To recapitulate: it is not my intent to argue that if intro to preaching and other practice-oriented courses are included under the umbrella of religious studies then the same should be true for other “religious” modes of practice, but rather that the study of religion should be what it claims to be: a critical, analytical, contextual study of these things we call “religions” rather than some initiation into them.

4 thoughts on “What We Claim to Be

  1. So, I was expecting a review of “Introduction to Religion” or “Introduction to the Study of Religion” or “Introduction to Religious Studies” courses. But apparently your count was of all courses labeled “Introduction”? It seems like you focus here on the perhaps startling fact that there are also so-called “introduction” courses in a number of other subjects (besides “study of religion”) that get taught in so-called “religion” departments. I can’t imagine that “Introduction to Missions” would ever be confused with “Introduction to Religion,” but what I’d really like to see is how different are the syllabi of the “Introduction to Religion” courses at Bama for example, and at the school that includes the sectarian “Introduction to Missions” course. Or does that school not do a “Intro to the study of religion” type of course? (Maybe not.)

    • The point is not that these would be confused but the lamentable fact, to my way of thinking, that our main professional association in the US sees itself as an umbrella or home for such divergent (and I’d say contradictory) sets of interests and approaches. Also, I admit I can’t imagine that a school that offers an introduction to missions course has any interest in an introduction to the study of religion, however organized.

      • Your point is well taken. Myself, I think that “religion” as a term for a field of study is somewhat broken and that confusion is therefore inevitable. Nobody ever assumes that the study of abnormal psychology includes indoctrination in crazy, but when it comes to the study of religion…

        Anyway, I can easily imagine that a school that does Intro Missiology may also have Intro Religion. Not as you would introduce it of course. (If the post included disclosure of the home context we could consult their catalog online we could check.) Notice that the Intro Missiology outcomes statement (such as it is) mentions that students are expected to characterize religious beliefs and practices common in the mission field they report on. In the context of a sectarian school that trains “religion” students to proselytize and/or do a specific form of religion “better,” my hypothesis would be that Intro to Religion consists of an overtly comparative/phenomenological approach geared towards understanding basic doctrines and beliefs and incorporating a theological response and criticism of them specifically as false.

        After all, where do you think textbooks like this one:

        http://www.zondervan.com/understanding-world-religions

        or this one:

        http://www.amazon.com/Baker-Pocket-Guide-World-Religions/dp/0801071607

        Get used?

        • No disagreement–but the question is not the breadth of how the category religion gets used but why a professional association of scholars thinks it ought to include this sort of work under its umbrella. All kinds of people talk about the mind but associations of psychology scholars don’t seem to feel compelled to include them all in their annual meetings.

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