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.