REL100 in Retrospect, Part 1

The following post is the first of a three-part series on students’ reflections written as part of a final assignment in Prof. Vaia Touna’s REL 100 “Introduction to the Study of Religion” in Fall 2022.

Maxwell Jacobson is originally from North Carolina, a freshman majoring in Business.

I would say there are many things I have learned this year that are going to change the way I think about religious discourse. The thing that sticks out to me the most, though, is the idea of classification and what something is classified as. I never even thought to consider why things are called what they are called and why it is that we call them that. Like a table, a mountain, or even a religion. I have grown up being taught by other people what these things are and what they symbolize. I never questioned it once or doubted it. While taking this class, I realized I could question absolutely everything. For example, religion, the word’s primary use, remains as “a tool of classification to describe an incredibly diverse class of objects, ideas, practices, and institutions” (Religion in 5 Minutes, p. 9). What does that make Christianity? Does it fall into that category? Does Christianity classify as a religion? We still have not considered who it is that gets to classify it. Once I went down this rabbit hole, I realized how open to interpretation everything can be. I found an example that sums this idea up very well: “So if tools are designed to accomplish interests, but if those interests are forever in motion, then the devices that we use to make the world knowable (those things that we commonly call concepts, categories, systems of classification, etc.) must continually be re-tooled and sometimes even discarded all depending on our ever-changing interests, and curiosities” (Studying Religion, p. 111). This is true in the sense that as our ideas and views change, what do the tools we use to classify them change to? “Between classifiers, their system of classification, and that which they are classifying, everything is completely up to interpretation” (Studying Religion, 112). I have learned to question everything, and to look at the world from a much different perspective.

As a general introduction to the academic study of religion, REL 100 focuses in detail on the problem of defining religion, the insider/outsider problem, theories of religion, and the implications of classification. The course has 90 students enrolled and as a final assignment they had to answer three questions. Each answer had to be between 250-300 words where students have to critically synthesize things that they learned in the class by making reference to the class’s reading material. One of the questions that students had to answer was to reflect on one thing they learned that has changed the way they understand religious discourses. While many of the students’ responses reflected on what their assumptions were about religion, that is, prior to taking the class, each of the ones selected for this series nicely exemplify what they now understand to be the study of religion. The course uses Russell McCutcheon’s Studying Religion and his co-edited volume with Aaron Hughes Religion in 5 Minutes.