Judah Siekkinen is a graduating MA student in REL, who earned his BA from Youngstown State University (in Religious Studies & Geography).
On March 15, 2022, I had the privilege to advocate for federal funding for the Humanities on behalf of the state of Alabama. The event was organized by the National Humanities Alliance (NHA). The NHA works to fund various Humanities organizations, most notably the National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH). I advocated alongside a colleague from Samford University who just happened to work in their religion department.
Throughout the day we had five meetings with legislative assistants who worked with Alabama representatives and senators. Of these five, four worked for Republican representatives. During our meetings we showed off the NEH’s website which highlighted specific programs in Alabama. We attempted to link these programs to the representatives’ interests in hopes they would see their value.
Of the many things that happened in these meetings that a critical scholar of religion may find interesting (although not entirely surprising), a particular interaction stood out to me concerning the place that ‘religious studies’ had within the ‘Humanities’. We met with one legislative assistant who happened to be an alumna of Samford and who graduated with a MA in political science. After our pitch about the importance of the humanities we ask if they have any questions. The person did, which was a bit uncommon. They asked: “Is ‘religious studies’ normally a part of the humanities or is it a social science?”
I do not exactly remember what I said, but I recall thinking that I had to frame this in a way that would a) be understandable, b) be a satisfying answer and, c) not estrange my colleague. So I began by stating that ‘it depends on who you ask’, which is a bit of a cop-out but gave me some time to form my answer. From there I talked about how the Humanities are often situated within Liberal Arts or Social Sciences and yet at other times ‘the Humanities’ function as a larger umbrella under which the Social Sciences may also fall. After this my colleague added “Yes, it is a part of the humanities.”
The strategic identifying of the categories we use to locate ‘religious studies’ has real world ramifications — in part, the future careers of young religious studies scholars. So I think it is important for us to consider who benefits from this positioning and who is at risk.