When we think of religion, we usually associate it with those who believe they have answers, usually about questions of existential significance: when the world will end, why bad things happen to good people and so on. The group that believes the world is ending May 21, 2011, comes to mind for eschatology. Or Westboro Baptist Church, who asserts that America is being judged daily by a God who likes to play Risk with real human lives just to punish us for accepting homosexuality, as to why soldiers get blown up on a near daily basis. The list could go on forever with any person who flaunts their religiosity as the basis of their worldview. Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich and other 2012 Republican nominee hopefuls would also be part of this group. Prothero calls this an “answer bank” theory of religion. It’s most popular with religions focused on orthodoxy, or correct teaching. Christianity is notorious for this in the form of accusations of heresy by the Catholic Church towards many thinkers, including Thomas Aquinas in at least one isolated incident, I believe. Origen and Eckhart, on the other hand, are better known by heresiologists (yes, that’s a word), those who study heretics. In Christianity, if you don’t believe the right things about God, Jesus, salvation, etc, more often than not, you’re regarded as heretical, teaching false doctrine or other expressions depending on denomination and level of education. On the other end of the spectrum are people who are more flexible in the long run than their counterparts. The ones I speak of focus on orthopraxy, or correct practice. The common example is Judaism, though from my experience Buddhism can work just as well. But Judaism serves as a more accessible faith for a counterexample to the faith it un/intentionally spawned. The distinction of cultural and religious Jews attests to this, not to mention the “relative” coexistence as I see it from my limited understanding of the Jewish community, excluding Zionists, I suppose. Jews care less about the precise teachings and more on practicing what you preach, though that tendency does exist in Christianity as well. This is where the divisive and confusing nature of studying people’s beliefs comes up.
The importance of religious studies shouldn’t be overstated, but it shouldn’t be underestimated either. When people hear I’m a religion major; or even if they hear my major expressed as religious studies; I guarantee 50% will ask this question first, “Are you going into the ministry/Are you going to be a minister?” It’s ironic that saying you’re a religion major is such a conversation starter, when talking about religion outside of an academic framework, on the other hand, is more often than not a conversation stopper. But religious studies’ value lies with the questions it inspires rather than the answers various writers and traditions pose to those questions, such as you’d find in theology. Many of the faithful would no doubt object to this, on the grounds that they feel more comfortable with having these big questions settled to a certain extent, even if they also admit they have faith in these things. Religion is more of a starting point, not the end of human endeavors. But many religious people, such as Augustine of Hippo (Christian) and Averroes (Muslim), said that religion and philosophy can have a mutual relationship, though I wouldn’t reach the same conclusions they do. Faith seeking understanding is one thing, but balancing it with understanding seeking faith can work in a paradoxical sense in the discipline of religious studies.
Interestingly enough, a college in South California has brought up what may be called the flipside of the coin that religious studies offers in terms of the big questions about life. When you bring up a “secularism” major in a conversation, I imagine people would react with confusion or hostility, depending on their understanding of the term “secularism”. If they view it as the enemy of everything good in the world or a progenitor of the New World Order, either way, they’ve already missed the point. Secularism isn’t perfect; I don’t think anyone would claim that. But it does try to solve questions in terms of substantive issues; whether something is true or not; as opposed to the problem of interpretation in religious studies; let alone its distant parent theology, who sired the notorious bastard child I’ve studied under for years alongside its ancestor.
The growth of secularism intrigued Phil Zuckerman, a sociologist of religion who’s written books and articles on the spread of nonbelief and cultural distance from religion. This was a large part of his desire to start this major as the first of its kind, along with its relevance in a growing secular culture even in America. One can only hope that this spreads across the country, if only to inform people more of atheism, agnosticism, freethought and such. As people begin to understand that irreligious/nonreligious people are not necessarily hostile to religion when they have ceased to believe in God/etc, the relationship between believers and nonbelievers can improve by leaps and bounds. Once you understand why skeptics are slow to believe in such things as the resurrection and auras, you may also begin to see why people choose different belief systems in general, supernatural or natural. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.