Why Study Religion

Tori Gate
Students built this Torii gate in the Crum Meadow as a project for Professor Mark Wallace’s course Religion, the Environment, and Contemplative Practice.

by Mark Wallace

Why is it important to study the world's religions in the college and university curriculum?

    Religious Studies is intellectually exciting because it provides access to the mystery of the other.

    Religion is one of the primary disciplines for investigating the boundary questions of life and death, of love and hate, that characterize the human condition.  All persons crave for self-transcendence in one mode or another.  Religious Studies provides the opportunity to understand, with depth and nuance, the many beliefs and rituals that move persons to appreciate the alternative world of the religious reality.

    Religious Studies is academically enriching because it is a transdisciplinary mode of inquiry that engenders deep intercultural literacy.

    Serious study of the world's religions inculcates unique cultural sensitivities among students.  Since it straddles the boundary between objective evidence and subjective experience, religious studies is methodologically diverse, globally aware, and academically transgressive.  Religious studies is rigorously and playfully open to a multicultural and international way of being that bursts the boundaries of the conventional and the everyday.

    Religious Studies is personally meaningful because it raises questions of purpose and value along with developing important life skills.

    Religious studies enables the development of crucial aptitudes -- critical thinking, communication competence, interpersonal awareness, and intercultural literacy -- necessary for success in a global society.  The aim of liberal education -- healthy, holistic education -- is about gaining wisdom, not the accumulation of knowledge as such.  Practically speaking, religious studies can enable students to better practice the task of selfhood by both building self-esteem and making possible the acquisition of competencies crucial for one's well-being in increasingly diverse world cultures

    What role should religion play in the curriculum?

    To learn about the religious dimensions of world cultures is essential to a fully informed and multicultural educational curriculum.  But it should be noted that teaching about religion on a comparative, educational basis is not the same as teaching religion. 

    To teach about religion is to study the religions of the world in a manner that is comparative, factual, and fair-minded, and that avoids any hint of faculty or students trying to persuade other faculty or students to subscribe to this or that religious (or non-religious or anti-religious) belief-system. 

    To teach religion, on the other hand, is a rhetorical exercise that attempts to persuade students to believe (or not) in a particular religion or system of ideas.  To teach about religion, then, is strictly and most importantly an educational effort that aims to give students ready access to the rich and exciting world of different philosophies, mythologies, moral-systems, and ritual practices that makes the deep understanding of world cultures such a stimulating subject of intellectual interest.  Teaching about religion and teaching religion, therefore, are two different and, in their essential aspects, opposing efforts.

    If the goal of liberal education is to equip students with wisdom for personal well-being and success in an increasingly complicated world, what role does religious studies play in this process?

    Earlier we said the goal of liberal learning, including and especially religious studies, should be wisdom, not knowledge for its own sake.  It was not simply knowledge about the world, but wisdom about right relationships within the world, that propelled many agents for change in our own time -- from Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. to Rachel Carson, Nelson Mandela, and Bono -- to challenge the dominant culture in their efforts to make the world a more just and caring place for everyone to enjoy.  We often know a lot about these and other important persons -- that is, we know something abut their politics, their moral vision, and their impact on society -- but we generally know little if anything about the spiritual sources that animated (and animate) their commitments to a larger good. 

    Progressive educators have generally abandoned the so-called IQ measurement as the gold standard of educational success.  The current consensus is that young persons need to develop a variety of different types of intelligence to be genuinely successful in an increasingly multicultural world society.  They need emotional intelligence, scientific intelligence, multilingual language intelligence, artistic intelligence, moral intelligence, and so forth.  Spiritual intelligence needs to be added to this list as well.  Without this type of intelligence young people are not fully equipped with the resources necessary for their full participation in a world that cries out for engaged and compassionate leaders.

    -- October 1, 2006

    Professor Mark WallaceMark Wallace is Professor of Religion at Swarthmore College and author of Finding God In The Singing River: Christianity, Spirit, Nature (Fortess Press, 2005).