Dinner conversation can be dangerous. Especially when you are new to a college town and everyone inquires, “What are you studying?”
Yes, I am a PhD student. I am studying religion in the Americas.
The follow-up question is predictable, lamentable, and unnerving — “What are you going to do with that?”
The assumptions behind the question are frightening. The presumption is that studying religion is impractical, unemployable, & irrelevant.
Maybe they are right. After all, the first piece of advice I received from a mentor when I started the process of applying for my PhD was, “Don’t do it.” Why? There is no money, great opportunity, or vast interest in the topic of religion these days.
And that’s horrifying.
I am not worried about my reputation. I am not even concerned about job prospects. What I am fearful of is a multi-generational, multi-national, and multi-cultural case of religious ignorance — what Stephen Prothero calls “religious illiteracy.”
The United States, in spite of its established secularism, is a thoroughly pluralistic nation with robust expressions of myriad world religions everywhere from the wheat fields of Iowa to the buckled asphalt of Los Angeles.
Yet, we are simultaneously “a nation of religious illiterates” who flunk the most basic of quizzes on religion — even missing questions from our own traditions.
When asked who led the exodus out of Egypt, some will think Abraham was the man. What religion was Mother Theresa? She was Hindu…she worked in India right? What are the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism? Trick question, surely. They don’t exist. What does the holiday Ramadan commemorate? What religion is it a part of? “God helps those who help themselves” is in the Bible. True or false?
You could continue with the line of questioning and the odds are that the average American will only get half of the questions right. That’s 50%. That’s an, “F.” A failing grade. Sorry, you’re going to have to take this one over.
When I teach students, I usually find that failing grades are symptomatic of apathy, not lack of effort. It’s not that we don’t know, it’s that we don’t care. We don’t think religion matters any more.
Although proponents of the secularization theory claim that as civilizations modernize so too do they, and should they say the “New Atheists,” secularize, the world remains a vibrant religious milieu.
Religion is a principal and permanent feature of humanity. As religion and American studies scholar Thomas Tweed wrote, religion helps us “intensify joy and confront suffering by drawing on human and superhuman forces to make homes and cross boundaries.” Religion, through its embodied practices & global social networks helps us feel secure, it protects us from chaos. Religion is part of who we are, how we interact with others, and what we do in the world. It’s not going away. Religion will continue to shape global, and local, circumstances for millennia as we continue to come into contact with “the religious other” and cross borders and boundaries together in an ever more globalized and transnational world (see Thomas Tweed - Crossing and Dwelling).
Therefore, not only is rampant religious unenlightenment embarrassing, it’s hazardous.
Look to the crisis in the Middle East and its ancient religious motivations; to the battle over Orthodox-orthodoxy in Ukraine; to the intersection of religion and public life in the U.S. Supreme Court; and to your new neighbors next door. In each of these situations, religion matters. People believe. People believe things that effect, and affect, their entire lives and the lives of those around them. People orient themselves around symbols, myths and rituals. People ascribe value to what they see and experience based on their conception of what is sacred, what is secular. People believe things to protect their way of life from lawlessness. Sometimes, people believe things that cause them to marginalize, oppress, or attack others. Other times, belief and religious practice manifest the most magnificent examples of art, music, & human creativity.
Is my degree irrelevant? Impractical? Effectively useless?
Far from it.
The truth is, I’m not studying religion; I’m studying how the world works. I'm investigating what makes people tick. I'm, as Michelle Boorstein highlighted from Krista Tippett's recent White House honor, ‘thoughtfully delving into the mysteries of human existence.’ I'm exploring why we believe. I'm also fascinated with why many of us don't care about religion anymore.
Advocates of religious literacy say that one of the crucial components in combatting religious ignorance and its antecedents of bigotry and religiously motivated violence, is better education.
David Smock of the U.S. Institute of Peace wrote, “One antidote to hatred among religious communities is to teach communities about the beliefs and practices of the religious other.”
Yet, books and lectures alone are insufficient.
As Yehezkel Landau said, “we need to develop educational strategies to overcome the ignorance that leads to prejudice, which in turn leads to dehumanizing contempt, which in turn breeds violence.”
So, champions of religious literacy will encourage individuals to study other religions in the presence of “the religious other,” and to make sure that what they are learning is true to that religion’s own perspective and grounded in its local experience. Such experiences “re-humanize” the religious “other” more than any lecture or in-class discussion.
That’s why I need your help. I can’t be the only one studying religion. My job is to study, to learn, and to pass what I learn on in popular, as well as academic ways. But I can’t be everywhere to answer every question you have about religion.
Pay attention. Listen to, and learn from, your Buddhist neighbor. Visit a mosque when invited. Sit down for dinner with your Hindu co-worker. Have a conversation with your agnostic cousin.
Learning about religion can be dangerous and difficult, you might be changed by the conversations you have. But the flip side is even more perilous. The consequences of continued religious ignorance are too menacing to do nothing.
In addition, learning about other religions can be fun. It invites us to see the beauty in the strange and unknown, to journey with a sense of wide-ranging wonder, bridging worlds, cultivating our curiosity, and finding delight in humanity's differences. Plus, you will kill it on religion questions in Trivial Pursuit.
So let us enjoy learning and take delight in new discoveries, knowing all the while we are making the world a better, safer, more religiously literate place.