UW Religion Today Column for July 25-31: Is Religious Studies a Zoo?
July 21, 2010 — "Religion Today" is contributed by the University of Wyoming's Religious Studies Program to examine and to promote discussion of religious issues.
By Paul V. M. Flesher
As a field of study, Religious Studies aims to teach about different world religions. This can be Western religions such as Judaism or Christianity, or Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Jainism. It can teach about large religions, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism, or small ones, like Zorastrianism and Santaria.
As a professor of religious studies, I have taught most of these religions plus many others over the years. While I could not be a member of more than one of these religions, I enjoy teaching them all. I try to present each religion in an objective yet sympathetic fashion so that students can understand how the religions work and why people find membership in them attractive, comforting and "the right thing to do," at least for those who belong to them.
Students who come to Religious Studies courses for the first time often arrive with a quite different perspective. Many come from a strong background in one particular religion. They grew up in and were surrounded by family, friends and community members who belonged to that religion. And they led their lives and viewed the people and world around them through that religion. This description applies to many students, whether Catholic, Baptist or Methodist, whether Christian, Hindu or Moslem.
Such students also assume that the experts in their religion have always been members of that same religion. So when they come to the university, they bring with them an expectation that their religion class teachers, as "experts," will also belong to the religion being taught. The teacher of Introduction to Judaism will be Jewish, they assume, and the teacher of History of Islam will be Muslim.
Not to put too fine a point on it, they assume that Religious Studies is like a zoo, and that the teachers represent the religions they teach. Just as in a zoo, the signs say, "This is a bear," or "This is a moose," there is an implicit assumption that Religious Studies will display members of religions, "This is a Jew," "This is a Christian," and "This is a Hindu." This is simply not the case.
Students have a range of responses when they discover their professor does not belong to the religion being taught in the course.
First, if the course is about a religion to which the students do not belong, the response is an intellectual one. "Oh. OK. Uh, how did you learn so much about it?" is a typical comment.
Second, if the course is about a religion to which a student belongs and the professor belongs to a different religion, the initial response is one of doubt. The teachers need to prove themselves to gain the students' acceptance. This is a common process in Religious Studies courses and usually takes the first few weeks.
Third, it sometimes happens that a course about a student's religion is taught by a teacher who belongs to a religion that the student views with hostility. A course on American Christianity might be taught by a Mormon, a course on Paganism might be taught by a committed Christian, a course on Christianity or the New Testament might be taught by a Jew, and so on. How do students react then?
Students who have taken a Religious Studies course before usually will give the teachers a chance to demonstrate their knowledge. If this is the students' first Religious Studies course, they may drop out before they discover that their teacher brings objectivity and fairness to the class, along with great deal of knowledge. This is disappointing. When this tendency can be overcome and the students are persuaded to give the course a chance, they often become highly interested and involved in the course.
Some faculty attempt to avoid these problems by not divulging their religious identity. I have settled into this strategy over the years. One of these approaches is that students engage in extensive speculation. In the years of my teaching, students have suggested that I might belong to three different religions, several types of Christianity, and might even be an atheist. If nothing else, this shows that the "zoo" model of Religious Studies does not work. If the students cannot identify my own religious background, then they must take me as the teacher I am, namely, a teacher of different world religions.
Flesher is director of UW's Religious Studies Program. Past columns and more information about the program can be found on the Web at www.uwyo.edu/RelStds. To comment on this column, visithttp://religion-today.blogspot.com.