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Academic Study of Religions vs Church Dogmas

Updated on February 11, 2010

Academic Study of Religion

A Conversation on the Study of Religion in College –

By Michael M. Nakade, M.A.

(A high school senior is asking his teacher what it would be like to major in Religious Studies at a public university.  His teacher, Mr. Smith, was a religion major in college.)

Student: Mr. Smith, I am looking at this course schedule for the upcoming semester at my college, and I am thinking about taking a class in Religious Studies.  You were a religion major in college. Maybe you can tell me what it would be like to take courses in Religious Studies.

Mr. Smith: The biggest challenge for most young people is to be objective when studying religion in college.  I remember that some students couldn’t separate their personal religious beliefs from the academic materials presented by their professors.  Many of them became frustrated because they did not get to hear what they wanted to hear.

Student: Will you give me an example?

Mr. Smith: Sure.  There was one student who was a member of an evangelical Christian church.  He was a true believer, and he saw everything from his evengelical point of view.  As a result, he couldn’t learn anything. Other religions were all false to him, and he enjoyed telling his classmates why his particular school of Christian religion was better than all the other religions.  Our professor had to talk to him, and eventually he became quiet in class.  He was a classic case of someone who wasn’t suited to study religion in an academic setting.

Student: I can see that.  A guy like that should just go to his church and have his minister tell him what he wants to hear.  I think it is rude to go to a college class for the purpose of evangelizing.  I hope he was an exception, Mr. Smith.

Smith: He was an exception in my religion classes.  But, in a big public state university, there are many students who go to classes with strong convictions.  You may find a diehard activist or two in your history or political science classes.  The trouble with this type of student is that their mind is already made up.  They refuse to look at certain evidences that are inconvenient to their convictions, and they often resort to the tactic of demonization. 

Student: So, what do the rest of the ‘normal’ students to do?  I am already apprehensive about having people like that in my classes next fall.

Smith: I say the classroom management duty belongs to teachers.  My religion professors were all very good in setting rules in class.  They made sure that college religion courses were not the same as church classes.  Faith statements and confessions of faith were not to come from students in class.  Instead, my classmates and I read those faith statements objectively.  For example, we read the Jewish creed “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One,” not as Jewish followers in class but as students who are learning about the Jewish creed. We didn’t argue if this creed was true or false.  We just learned that the Jewish people recite this creed twice a day. We treat it as a piece of information.

Student: I see what you mean by objectivity.  Students in religion courses are to treat information as factual and learn it without getting worked up.  Right?

Mr. Smith:  What religion professors do is to explain historically what certain passages in the sacred scriptures actually mean.  It is not always easy to read writings from antiquity and understand accurately what they mean.  Methods used in religious studies are almost always historical.  My religion professors were all historians with outstanding linguistic abilities.

Student: It sounds academic.  Those professors do not give sermons on the Good Samaritan story, do they?

Mr. Smith: No, they don’t.  Giving sermons to inspire people to be nice is the job of a minister.  A professor can explain the parable of the Good Samaritan within its proper historical context and have students see how radical Jesus’ teaching was to the people of his time.  You see, the Samaritans were despised by the Jews at that time.  Jesus’ words must have been shocking to his Jewish audience because it was the Samaritan man who showed kindness to the injured Jewish traveler.  Historians explain things like this.

Student: I see. Okay. I guess the historical approach to the study of religions can be interesting.  Are there any other approaches? 

Mr. Smith: Before answering your question, let me tell you that the phrase ‘study of religion’ is much like the phrase ‘the study of science.’  If you meet someone who is a science major, you may wonder which branch of science that person is studying.  It could be Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Geology, etc. The same thing applies to the phrase ‘the study of religion.’  I can be an expert on one of the major religions of the world as a textual scholar, or I can be a student in philosophy of religion or in sociology of religion or in psychology of religion.  The field of religion is very broad.

Student: Okay. I like the sound of psychology of religion.  It must focus on the psychological aspects of religious people.  Right?

Mr. Smith: That’s right.  But, I’m not a big fan of this approach since it reduces religion to psychological experience.  Scholars in the field study such figures as Marx, Freud, Jung, and William James.  In the process, they get to zero in on the experiential aspect of religion, but they seem to ignore other aspects.  I did, however, enjoy a class on new religions.  My professor applied the psychological research method to find out what went on inside the collective minds of followers.  We visited different churches and communes and interviewed people.  It was fun.

Student: It sounds like you were studying different cults.  Weren’t you scared?

Mr. Smith: Not at all.  But, let me emphasize that we weren’t allowed to use such a label as “cult” because this label isn’t content-neutral. We were taught to approach each group without any preconceived ideas.  If we label any of the new religious groups as cults, we give up our academic responsibility of being objective in our research.

Student: What about the sociological approach?  How is this different from that of psychology?

Mr. Smith: We all had to read about the scholar named Emile Durkheim who saw “religion as an eminently social thing.”  He studied several primitive tribes and made the observation that each society derived its identity from religion.  He was convinced that religion served as the glue that held the society together. Common beliefs and rituals had the power to bond primitive people.  If not, people might have fought amongst themselves all the time and guaranteed their own self-destruction.  That was Durkheim’s thesis. So, yes, we can study religions and observe how people under these religions are held together. 

Student: This approach sounds interesting, too.   What about the philosophical approach to the study religions?  Did you enjoy that?

Mr. Smith: I surely did.   I think most 18 or 19-year-old students decide to study religions of the world because they want to learn what religions teach regarding life’s big questions.  For me, it was the question of discernment regarding God.

Student:  Please tell me more about your quest to find out what God was.

Mr. Smith:  I was involved in an organized church at that time, and I was aware that my religion had three distinct aspects just like a tripod has three legs.  The first aspect is religious practice, which can be defined as the observances based on a religious commitment.  Things like regular attendance at church, moral living, works of charity, etc. The second aspect is theology, an intellectual aspect of this religion, Christianity.  I was taught to do God’s will, but didn’t always know for sure how to deepen my understanding of what God wanted me to do.  So, theology was a good discipline to study. And, the third aspect is faith, which entails arriving at some knowledge claim; for example, “that God sustains all forms of life.”

Student: I am confused. It sounds like you were too subjectively involved to be an academic student in college.  The study of theology to me requires faith in one particular religion.  I can’t imagine that a public university would teach it.  I would think that a school like Notre Dame would offer lots of courses in Theology so that Catholic students can learn about Catholic theology.  Was it possible for you to study theology at a public university, Mr. Smith?

Mr. Smith: At my Alma Mater, we didn’t call the class “theology.” Rather, we called it philosophy of religion.  The difference between theology and philosophy of religion is small.  While theology is Christian philosophy, philosophy of religion is a study of religions through a philosophical reflection.  We examined the meaning of human life and different arguments for the existence of God, etc. What I liked about the subject was that it gave an opportunity to examine interesting religious statements such as “human life has meaning” and “there exists an eternal and transcendent truth.”  We all knew that anyone could study these statements philosophically and not get worked up over which religion gave the best answer.  In other words, we could study subjective faith statements objectively by giving philosophical reflection on them.

Student: So, Mr. Smith, do you believe that human life has meaning?  Do you think that there is an eternal truth that we all should live by?

Mr. Smith: Interesting that you ask if I “believe.”  I can certainly believe it, but it neither proves nor ensures that human life has meaning.  As a philosopher, the real challenge is to articulate this belief and be able to explain how this belief is consistent with the creed of one’s religion.  Philosophy of religion and theology are rational.  They honor people’s ability to think and reflect so that religious beliefs are understood and communicated better with one another.

Student: I see, but I still wonder how you tie your philosophical reflections to intensely subjective religious experience and confessions of faith.  What I mean is that philosophy and religion seem to be two different “animals.”  One is objective, detached, and cool, while the other one is subjective, passionate, and personal.

Mr. Smith: Your observation is correct.  They are different.  But, we can give a philosophical reflection on claims made by religions.  The job of philosophers is to examine claims and clarify what each claim may mean, philosophically.  Sometimes, religions get too personal, confessional, and subjective.  I have seen a bumper sticker that says, “God reveals his will in the Bible.  I believe what the Bible says, and that settles it.”  Unfortunately, this attitude is the kiss of death for intellectual clarity and development.  Religion philosophers remind religious people to expand beyond the dogmatic mode.

Student: I see.  I enjoy this kind of discussion on religion and philosophy.  I am glad that I can study the discipline called philosophy of religion at a public university.  It seems like the most interesting approach to the study of religion.  I like the idea of being objective and philosophical over my beliefs and values. Maintaining objectivity over subjective experiences sounds like a good intellectual challenge to me. I want to try this in college.

Mr. Smith: This challenge is what philosophy of religion is all about.  I wish you the best.

 (Certain information indicated in this work derived from two sources: 1) The Teaching Company’s 2006 Lecture Series on Science and Religion, Lecture 3, “Faith and Reason – Scripture and Nature” by Lawrence M. Principe, Ph.D. and 2) The Teaching Company’s 2007 Lecture Series on Introduction to the Study of Religion, Lecture 6, “Emile Durkheim – Society’s Mirror” by Charles B. Jones, Ph.D.)


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