REL100 in Retrospect, Part 3

The following post is the last of the 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.

Sydney Tieber is originally from Bellbrook, Ohio, a freshman majoring in Biology with a minor in Spanish.

When I signed up for the REL100 Intro to Religious Studies, I thought I would learn about different beliefs, symbols, texts, and practices of world religions. However, this course taught me so much more. The most important thing I learned in this class was that the act of classification does matter. The criteria and reasoning that people use when defining things are important to study because they can have a lasting effect on society. On page 16 of Studying Religion,Russell McCutcheon states, “the names we give to things may, instead, tell us more about the namer than they do about the thing being named.” It is difficult for those that do the classifying to remain impartial because they have their own experiences and agendas and can be influenced by others who have their own opinions and interests. Also, how much power someone holds has a large impact on what and how things are named, from tomatoes, to mountains, to people. Classification isn’t a neutral or innocent activity; it is fraught with ulterior motives, as McCutcheon explains on page 18 of Studying Religion. So, when it comes to how something is defined, you must recognize the potential political, social, and economic motivations someone could use to name something one way or another. On page 204 of Religion in 5 Minutes,author Steven Ramey discusses how important it is to look at the opinions or assumptions that someone holds and what they aim to accomplish when they define something. Now when I think about religious discourse, I know that I need to inquire and identify the social, political, economic interests someone has and see if there is any bias involved when someone is defining religion in this or that way or what the function of religion is. Defining religion is a complicated task, but one should only attempt it if they are knowledgeable and can remain unbiased.

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 writing assignment students had to answer three questions. Each answer had to be between 250-300 words where students had 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. 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.