Why study Religion at Bishop’s?
University department brochures or Web pages usually have a section entitled “Why study…?” Generally, they attempt to sell students on the value of their courses by giving a few reasons why taking those courses will be of benefit. One supposes that business departments can do this easily — perhaps it is so obvious that they don’t need to justify themselves. Science departments can appeal to a fascination with the natural world. Psychology departments can appeal to the intriguing subject of the human mind and behaviour.
The Humanities disciplines have a more difficult task here. Their appeal is to the ability to think critically, to analyze, to express one’s self intelligently, to be a good citizen, etc. Humanities courses can appeal to satisfying one’s curiosity about metaphysics, history, literature, music, or drama, to name just a few. It is often pointed out that those with a solid Humanities education advance further in the vocational world than those who lack that educational background. Everything else being approximately equal, employers would, no doubt, prefer to hire such a person.
Departments of Religion, however, have a particular disadvantage in regard to attracting students. Prospective students often don’t know what Religion departments and courses entail. Many assume that Religion courses are like advanced Sunday-School classes, or that they are doctrinaire and “preachy.” As such, Religion courses are to be avoided unless (a) you are seeking salvation, (b) you want to become a cleric, or (c) you want to memorize Bible verses. Conversely, some think that Religion courses are designed to destroy faith and morals and undermine sacred texts. Other Humanities departments are not faced with such misconceptions.
So, what is a department devoted to the academic study of Religion all about? We are not in the business of either promoting or demoting faith. We deal with questions concerning religious traditions: the different ways faith is expressed and practiced; the historical and cultural contexts of religions and their texts; expressions of religious positions and views about religion and faith; the multifaceted ways in which religion interacts with cultures and social groups; the artistic treatment of religion and religious symbols, etc. For example, we don’t deal with the question of whether Jesus is the Messiah, but with the development of the idea of a Messiah, its meaning(s), and its attribution to Jesus. Thus, whether a student does or does not believe in the Messiahship of Jesus, s/he will understand what the debate is all about.
If one asks a teacher of History, Politics, or Fine Arts what they wish their students knew more about, they will almost invariably include religion in the list. This is not because they wish their students were more religious, but because the students simply are not able to understand much of the subject matter without some knowledge of religion. Indeed, religion is an inescapable component of daily news, whether it be religiously motivated violence, the political influence of religion or the latest influential decree from a religious leader. The movie and book industry is producing works like The Da Vinci Code or critiques of religion such as those by the biologist Richard Dawkins and the journalist Christopher Hitchens. The so-called “Science vs. Religion” war is being publicly fought in American schools.
Yet, it has been pointed out by many observers and scholars that while Americans, for example, are overwhelmingly religious, they are also deeply ignorant about religion – including their own. To give but one example, in some surveys 10% of the respondents thought that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife! Canadians are likely no more knowledgeable about religion than Americans. The result is that it is difficult for people to evaluate intelligently the claims made on behalf of religions, or those that are critical of religion.
How knowledgeable are you?
Try to answer the following basic questions:
(Answers are given below.)
- What is the first book of the New Testament?
- What is a Protestant?
- What is the name of the most sacred book of Islam?
- What are the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism?
- What are the Vedas in Hinduism?
- What is the Torah?
- Was Jesus a Christian?
- To what event does “Exodus” refer?
- Are all the statements made by popes considered infallible?
- What distinguishes Judaism, Islam and Christianity from each other? What do they have in common?
If you were unable to answer some of these, you might consider taking courses in Religion!
Here are some more difficult questions, more for reflection than for easy answering:
- Are sacred texts such as the Bible subject to various interpretations — each with equal validity? (Augustine took this position back in the early 5th century.)
- When one is looking at scientific, historical or archaeological evidence that seems to be inconsistent with biblical claims, upon which should one rely? More importantly, why?
- Why do innocent people sometimes suffer? (Job’s question)
- Why does God require a sacrifice (generally animals) for the forgiveness of sins? Is God under the constraints of the legalities of sacrifice, or is sacrifice (including the Christian belief concerning the death and resurrection of Jesus) essentially concerned with something other than “paying the price” for sins?
- Does morality ultimately require that there be a “higher power” of some kind?
- Is religion just a way of dealing with, or avoiding, personal problems and fears?
You may not find the answers to these questions in Religion classes, but they will be discussed. Moreover, the skills you will acquire will benefit you immeasurably in many areas of your life. You might even consider writing an Honours thesis on any of them.