The challenges I face in the Religious Studies classroom today are unlike any I have encountered in more than three decades of teaching. While it has never been more important to study religion critically than it is today, it has never been more difficult to do so. The respect for religious studies has lessened precisely at the time when we need it the most. Whether or not we are in the midst of a fourth Great Awakening, more students are practicing traditional forms of religion today than at any time in the recent past. One might assume that with religion playing such an important role in their personal lives, not to speak of its geopolitical significance, students would be flocking to courses in religion. But this is not happening. To the contrary, it seems that the more religious people become, the less willing they are to engage in critical reflection about their faith.
For many years, I have begun my classes by telling my students that if they are not more confused and uncertain at the end of the course than they are at the beginning, I will have failed. But now, as rarely in previous years, a growing number of religiously committed students consider such a challenge a direct assault on their faith. At first glance, the flourishing of religion on college campuses seems to reverse social and cultural tendencies long criticized by conservatives and neo-conservatives. But, in truth, something else is occurring. Right and Left have become mirror images of each other. Religious correctness has become the latest version of political correctness. For those who are religiously correct, critical reflection breeds doubt and must, therefore, be resisted.
Twenty years ago, I taught a course entitled “Nothing.” Drawing on religious writings from the Christian and Buddhist traditions as well as philosophy (Jean-Paul Sartre), literature (Herman Melville and Samuel Beckett), art (Ad Reinhardt and Mark Rothko), music (John Cage) and film (Ingmar Bergman), I explored different ways of imagining and responding to the experience of nothingness. That course still holds the record for the highest enrollment of any class I have ever taught (eighty students). With world conditions more precarious than at any time in my memory, I decided to teach an updated version of that course next semester. Only four students have enrolled, which will be the smallest course I have ever taught. A colleague recently told me that one of his best students reported that she did not like the course she is now taking from me, After God, because “it did not make her feel good.” I responded, “That is, of course, precisely the point.”
The chilling effect of these attitudes was brought home to me two years ago when a university administrator at another institution where I was teaching called me into his office and asked me to defend myself against the charge of an anonymous student who claimed that I had attacked his faith because I urged him to consider the possibility that Nietzsche’s analysis of religion called the belief in absolutes into question. I was not given the opportunity to present my side of the story. The administrator assumed I was guilty as charged and insisted that I apologize to the student. While I refused to do so, my experience provides a cautionary tale. The principle of academic freedom notwithstanding, in a time when colleges and universities engaged in multimillion or even multibillion dollar capital campaigns are obsessed with public relations, faculty members cannot be confident that they will always remain free to pose the questions that so urgently need to be asked. These difficulties are further compounded by public officials eager to make their own political capital with their religious constituents by interfering in the affairs of colleges and universities.
My experience is not unique. Today professors court harassment or worse by including “unacceptable” books on their syllabi or by studying religious ideas and practices in ways deemed improper by religiously correct students. Distinguished scholars at several major universities have been subjected to credible death threats for proposing psychological, sociological and anthropological interpretations of religious texts in their classes and published writings. In the most egregious cases, defenders of the faith insist that only true believers are qualified to teach their religious tradition.
In the face of these troubling developments, it is imperative to create new approaches to the critical study of religion. Any responsible curriculum for the study of religion in the twenty-first century must be guided by two basic principles: first, a clear distinction between the study and the practice of religion, and second, an expanded understanding of what religion is and of the manifold roles it plays in human life. In the current culture wars, both defenders and critics have too limited an understanding of religion. Contrary to popular opinion, religion is not confined to churches, synagogues, mosques and temples but pervades all culture. Neither side in these raging controversies realizes that the very secularism defenders of religion attack and critics of religion defend is itself actually a product of the Jewish and Christian theological traditions.
The aim of the critical analysis is not so much to pass judgment on religious beliefs and practices as to examine the conditions necessary for their formation and to consider the many functions they serve. Such an approach must be multi-disciplinary and comparative. The hyper-specialization of the university today makes this a formidable challenge. Nonetheless, investigators must draw on the insights of the natural and social sciences as well as the arts and humanities to understand the social, psychological and cultural needs religion addresses. It is also important to explore the similarities and differences between and among various religions. Religious traditions are not fixed and monolithic but are complex networks of symbols, myths and rituals, which evolve over time by adapting more or less effectively to changing circumstances. If we fail to appreciate the complexity and diversity within as well as among religious traditions, we will overlook the fact that people from different traditions often share more with each other than they do with many members of their own tradition. In an era that thrives on both religious and political polarization, this is an important lesson to learn.
For the critical study of religion to be effective, investigators must subject the presuppositions of their arguments to the same kind of analysis that they bring to bear on the religious beliefs they are examining. All too often interpreters of religion are as uncritical of their own assumptions as people they regard as hopelessly naïve. Their analyses, therefore, tend to be simplistic and reductive: religion is nothing more than a manifestation of economic interests, expression of psychological drives or function of biological needs. While there is an element of truth in all of these arguments, no single perspective can do justice to the complex origin and function of religion. If the critics of religion were also willing to consider the conditions necessary for the formation of their own beliefs and practices, they would discover that many of the theories they enthusiastically promote actually derive from the very theological traditions they summarily dismiss. It was, after all, John Calvin, not Adam Smith, who first invoked the image of the invisible hand; Marx stands in the long tradition of Jewish prophets; Freud’s theories would have been impossible without the Jewish mystical tradition; and the genome is, in effect, a latter-day version of Plato’s forms or what Christian theologians call the Logos or Word of God.
Since religion is often most influential where it is least obvious, it is imperative to examine both its manifest and latent dimensions. If critics develop responsible analyses of religion’s diversity and complexity, they might begin to see in themselves what they criticize in others. And if defenders of the faith become reflective about their own beliefs, they might begin to understand that religion serves not only to provide answers that render life secure but also to prepare them for the unavoidable complexities, insecurities and uncertainties of life.
Until recently, many influential analysts argued that religion, the vestige of an earlier stage of development, would wither away as people became more sophisticated and rational. Obviously, things have not turned out that way. It is now clear that religion is not going to disappear. Indeed, the twenty-first century will be dominated by religion in ways that were inconceivable a few short years ago. These conflicts will be less struggles between belief and unbelief than they will be clashes between believers who have the faith to doubt and those who lack it. The warning signals are clear: unless we establish a critical dialogue within and among all kinds of belief, ranging from religious fundamentalism to secular dogmatism, the conflicts some people welcome and others fear will surely become even more deadly.
Mark C. Taylor teaches religion at Williams College and is the editor of Critical Terms for the Study of Religion. He is the author of numerous books; including, most recently, Mystic Bones. More about Taylor can be found on his website, www.markctaylor.com.
Posted 19 January 2007. ©2006 by Mark C. Taylor. A different version of this essay was published in the New York Times on December 21, 2006.