Teaching Religious Studies

American society today exhibits a profound lack of interest in ideas, thinking, or anything else deemed too intellectual.  In America today, people are much more concerned about money because the economy is still not good, and earning money looms larger in people’s minds.  For this reason, education is focused almost exclusively on getting work, and the humanities suffer.  Fewer students enroll in religious studies classes, and fewer are interested in learning about religious traditions as such.  Not many are interested in learning about God, either, especially the traditional monotheistic God.  For many, “thinking is less important than doing,” and doing is better even if one doesn’t know what to do or how to do it.  Thinking just takes too much time, and besides, it’s boring.  It’s far more comforting and enjoyable to be in a crowd, make noise, and just do something.

This attitude has severely affected religious studies programs in higher education.  Religious studies departments seem to be more worried about addressing the interests of their students than they are to attending to their discipline. Rather than preserving and enlarging the knowledge and forming the students, they try to make their classes “relevant” in order to increase enrollment and revenue.  I suspect that many of these efforts to achieve relevance end up merely watering things down, and the students who complete these programs do not actually have the thorough understanding of the subject that they should have.  This is a loss for the discipline, the college, and for humanity itself.  Integrity is sacrificed for economic gain.

One good change is the interest in a more generic spirituality.  The trend toward being spiritual but not religious (SBNR) is growing, and according to the Huffington Post, this is “where the future of religion is going.”  In spite of increasing anti-intellectualism, this is encouraging.  However, without an understanding of what they are doing, many of today’s new SBNRs are likely nothing but dilettantes who will abandon their efforts after boredom sets in.  Spiritual work is hard, and one needs good tools to do the work successfully.  The understanding provided by a grounding in liberal arts and religious studies in particular is key.

Even while breathtaking advances in science are taking place, the liberal arts are languishing, and people do not really learn how to think critically any more.  I hope that someday soon our educational system will provide a more holistic and integrated way of teaching so that learning becomes more the acquisition of knowledge and understanding and not simply the memorization of information.  Knowledge and understanding can show us how to live fuller, richer lives.


Copyright © 2016 Teresa Chupp.  All rights reserved.


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