I switched my second major from psychology to religious studies about six months ago for a few different reasons.
First, RELI classes are easier to get into than PSYC classes. And second, I felt like I needed a better understanding of religion in order to really understand violence and conflict, the focus of my first major — peace, war and defense. I’m a semester in, and already my new major has been so much more.
Bart Ehrman, a renowned New Testament scholar and historian, believes that religion is the perfect subject to study in college because it forces you to challenge your own world view. “They take a class like this and they realize ‘Oh my God, I had no idea,’” he says.
He was right — my first few RELI classes nudged me into a minor existential crisis.
The department of religious studies isn’t a divinity school. We study religion as a cultural, historical and very much human phenomenon in order to better understand the world. Like it or not, religion has shaped the way we live since the beginning of humanity.
The department’s faculty, which includes historians, anthropologists, philologists and other specialists, is not in the business of proving or disproving any particular belief. Ehrman says it best in his RELI 208 syllabus — his class “will not be taught from the perspective of faith, but also not from a perspective of disbelief.”
Ehrman says he presents historical facts to his students, who can decide for themselves — “I can talk about historical factors but somebody can still say ‘well, God was behind it all,’ and other people will say ‘no, He wasn’t.’”
I fall into the ever-growing group of Americans that consider themselves spiritual but not religious. My family doesn’t go to church, but as a little girl, every night I asked God, in a sing-song voice, to bless my family, friends and stuffed animals. I believe in God, because I’ve always needed to believe that someone is looking out for me and the people I love.
During the darkest times in my life, I’d imagine myself as a little bird cupped in God’s hands.
In my three RELI classes this semester, I’ve learned just how arbitrary some aspects of organized religion can seem. The New Testament, which Christians everywhere take, as well as gospel, could have included completely different books with different ideas, some of which challenge or contradict what is in the New Testament today.
For a while — and this is the existential crisis I’m talking about — I wondered how something so seemingly random can possibly be correct. If it was just by circumstance that orthodox Christianity ended up believing that Jesus died for humanity’s sins, instead of being here to teach us the secret knowledge for salvation like the Christian Gnostics — what if orthodox Christianity was wrong? And if modern Western civilization developed based on the wrong version of Christianity, is it such a stretch to conclude that maybe everyone is wrong about God, that God doesn’t exist? How do we know?
As one of my friends told me over waffles at Carolina Coffee Shop, we don’t know. That’s why it’s called faith.
I started to think that religion, all types of religion, is humanity’s attempt to keep the faith. So many of us need to believe that life isn’t random, and religion provides us with rituals and stories to help us keep believing that. Religion helps us keep the faith.
Studying religion, including both broad institutions like Islam, Hinduism and Christianity, as well as how individual people interact or don’t interact with these institutions, provides us a window into that society’s hopes and dreams and fears. It allows us to see how people who lived before us or live lives different from our own keep the faith, and that tells us so much about who they were or who they are.
Until now, I believed my own faith to be separate from the institution of religion, but I realized that I have my own religion — my own version of Christianity, my own rituals and stories that help me keep my faith.
It began when I started asking God to bless my Winnie the Pooh.