Why Study Religion?

When I ask my students why they signed up for a religion course I get the typical answer: "Because it’s a G.E." Sometimes students confess their strong religious background and their desire to learn about other religions so as to strengthen their belief in their own. It is rare that I hear one say simply because this is a darn interesting topic. When I am graced with such a response I can’t help but feel a bit stoked. As might be expected, from my perspective religion is one of the most fascinating of subjects. It has been around since the beginning of the primal world and it still permeates our society in all its multifarious forms. Religion informs our thoughts, structures our world, and determines our culture. To ignore this subject is to dismiss a significant aspect of the human being and of the world at large.

Studying world religions can also help build a more tolerant individual and society. The more we learn about something foreign usually the greater the affinity we have for it. I remember taking a course in African literature in my sophomore year at UCSD and developing a craving to visit Africa. It no longer was a scary continent filled with ebola viruses but a rich tapestry of different counties with beautiful poetry and charming folklore. When something is totally new to us there is a tendency to label it "strange" or "weird." Learning about how Vedanta Hindus meditate, why Tibetan Buddhists spin the prayer wheel, or the significance of Muslims going on a pilgrimage to Mecca can develop an appreciation for them. The student of religion can burst through the tunnel vision they have been imprisoned in and see the world from entirely new perspectives. Hopefully, empathy can replace provincialism. Perhaps at the semester’s end one’s worldview remains undaunted but at least one had the opportunity to stretch one’s mind in fresh directions.

On a few occasions students identify with one particular philosophy and pursued an affiliation with the respective group. A couple of semesters ago on my evaluation day with the Dean observing the class four students entered with Hare Krishna hair cuts (shaved with a tuft in the back). These male students were not interested in becoming Hare Krishas per se but after interviewing members of the group and learning that the hairstyle symbolized renunciation of the material world they decided to make a similar statement, perhaps in rebellion against yuppie culture. When pushed further they admitted that they thought the hair cut was "cool." But when one of my students recently dropped out of school, gave away all his possessions, and flew to Alaska to meditate and to search for Truth, inspired by the life of the Indian mystic Ramana Maharshi, I think he may have taken the material a little too seriously. I cannot help but feel a little guilty since he read Ramana’s autobiography in my class. Overall, however, the assignment to visit other religious centers allows students an opportunity to interact with the subject they are reading about in books. Very often friendships are formed and students on their own return to the site for worship, discussion, or a friendly meal.

Thus, the study of world religions can tear down unnecessary social divisions. How one interacts with others may be affected now that one understands why Indian women wear a bright dot on their forehead, why Jains refuse to eat meat, or why traditional male Sikhs carry a dagger. Having learned the greetings of the many religions several students report a great thrill in addressing devotees with them, whether at the work place or local bus stop. For instance, the Indian greeting is "namaste," translated as "I bow to the Divine in you." (Hindus revere all life forms as a part of the Divine.) Last year a female student revealed how pleased she was to greet an Indian customer in her check out line with the phrase. For a brief moment in her life she bonded with someone of a totally different background and orientation.

Furthermore, many misconceptions can be shattered in this course. One realizes that very few Muslims are terrorists, that Wicca has no connection to Satanism, that Hindus do not worship the cow, and that there is not one Christian religion but almost one thousand different Christian groups. By appearance students commonly mistake Islamic Saudi women for Hindu women and turban-wearing male Sikhs for Hindu males. Recognizing the classic symbolic attire for each group (yamakas for male Jews, silver bracelets for male Sikhs, saris for Hindu women, nudity for certain male Jain monks, etc.) lessens the chance to misidentify and to offend.

Never before has the study of religion been so necessary. Living in the pluralistic world that we do, sometimes referred to as a "global village," we have the opportunity to interact with faiths and cultures from around the world in our own hometown. One has only to walk down the boardwalk in Laguna Beach on a Sunday afternoon to observe a Christian preacher chastising the heathens passing by with quotes from the New Testament, Hare Krishnas in orange or white attire joyfully chanting with tambourines in hand near the basket ball courts, and Buddhist monks wearing brown robes and with clean shaven heads gingerly walking with great mindfulness. Today’s global village is the result of technology. Travel to foreign countries and communication with them is now available at record speed. No longer are we distinct clans separated by geography but we resemble a colorful collage of faces that if looked at closer blend into one.

America’s pluralism flourished in the 1960s when L.B. Johnson rescinded the immigration restriction laws set back in the 1920s. The reason they were established in the first place was because immigrants were given I.Q. tests when they entered this country and most failed. That the tests were in English and usually administered in crowded conditions explains why the scores were below par. Nonetheless, it was argued that "moron" blood was entering into America and the interbreeding with Americans was bringing down American intelligence. When Calvin Coolidge bought the argument few immigrants were allowed access to US soil. This certainly hurt German Jews seeking refuge during WWII. For decades America was essentially a Judeo-Christian nation of Caucasian predominance. Then in 60s the landscape changed as numerous foreigners were allowed to make America their home. We witness the onslaught of Indian teachers and an increased interest in mediation and eastern philosophy at this time. Moreover, centers of the world’s religions were springing up throughout this country. Of course, America already had some Buddhist and Hindu temples, Islamic mosques, and other distinct places of worship but these were few and far between. Today, thirty-five years later, the society we live in is vibrant with all different types of religious organizations, from Bahai to Scientology to Sufism to Gnosticism to traditional forms of religion.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, one should study religion and philosophy in general simply to be a well-informed, educated person. That is the whole point of G.E. classes—they are considered so important for a well-rounded education that they are required. To graduate college thinking that Muslim and Islam refer to distinct religions (Muslim refers to one who follows Islam) or that Hindus are all polytheists (many are pure monists) would be an indication that the educational program was not complete. Think how embarrassing of a social faux pas it could be while in the work place a lawyer gives one’s male Islamic partner gold jewelry of some kind or one serves meatloaf to a Jain businessman. One is not simply studying religion but cultural values and how to properly address others.

Overall, the study of religion is a benefit to both the individual and to society. This discipline creates a better informed and hopefully more tolerant person. Each step taken in this direction adds to a world that is a bit more livable and less prone to bigotry and intolerance. While wars may not cease at least the religious affiliated ones may be somewhat diminished. While parents will still be hyper critical about who their daughter is dating perhaps they won’t freak out when they find out he is of a different faith. While in the job market where there is a rigorous screening process maybe the hiring committee will find the Hindu women in sari attire a fascinating asset to the company. Religion is so much apart of our lives affecting our politics, our relations, our place in society, it needs to be taken seriously.