How dispensible is Religious Studies to the mission of a modern university?
To the mutual chagrin of the faculty colleagues in my department, we recently learned that the chancellor of one our affiliate schools, UNC Greensboro, was considering closing down their own very fine Department of Religious Studies ( the UNC “system” has 16 public universities, over which there is a President; each university has its own Chancellor as its chief executive officer).
We have signed petitions in support of the department, and several of us have written letters to explain our support.
I thought it might be interesting for blog readers to see mine, since it explains why I consier Religious Studies (as a discipline) significant for university education. There’s a lot more that I could say, of course, but that would take a book, not a letter.
In any event, we are hopeful that the message gets through, since all of us understand how imporant the academic study of religion is, especially in our times.
January 23, 2024
Dear Chancellor Gilliam,
I’m a professor of Religious Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill, and I am writing to express my concern over the possibility of shutting down the Department of Religious Studies at UNCG.
I fully understand the need for fiscal responsibility and for you as chancellor to do what is in the best interests of your university in both the short and long term. With that in mind, and as a long-time contributor to the UNC system, I would like to explain from my religious-studies-insider’s perspective why your department and the academic study of religion itself are so vital to the mission of our great university system, the academy at large, and even more to the issues and problems we are facing as a state, nation, and international community.
On the surface it may seem that “religion” is a somewhat fringe field of academic study of rather marginal value to higher education and the need to train our students in areas important not just for their own lives and careers but also for the future of our society and culture. Isn’t “religion” better studied in divinity schools and seminaries? What does it have to do with life in the “real world” or the progress we need to make as we look to the challenges that lie ahead of us? This surface view quickly dissipates once you dig deeper into historical, cultural, social, and political realities.
On just about any level, the academic study of religion is vital not just for understanding our world but for navigating through it in our increasingly difficult times. There are some eight billion people in our world. The vast majority of them are connected with, committed to, or even fiercely committed to their particular religious traditions, and that demographic reality has played, does play, and will play an enormous role in just about everything connected to society and culture, from regional conflict, to national and international political policy, to social agenda.
Here are some examples chosen at random, none of them strictly “religious,” but all of them intimately tied to religious traditions, issues, and agendas.
- 9/11 and Islamic fundamentalism.
- The Current Israeli-Palestinian conflict: with religious roots going back three millennia, with ultra-religious on both sides urging on the clash.
- The connected, perennial, and now heightening problems of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.
- Other major regional conflicts, historically: not just crusades, inquisitions, and pogroms, but, in more recent history, Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, Soviet communism and orthodox Christianity, Muslims and Hindus in India, Sunni and Shia in the Middle East;
- And on a smaller but devastating scale, such disasters as the David Koresh disaster at Waco ( driven, oddly enough, by a bizarre interpretation of the book of Revelation).
Making sense of these conflicts, and knowing how to deal with them, is not simply a matter of history, political science, and cultural studies. It requires a deep understanding of the religious underpinnings of the different groups, and that requires actual expertise in major religious traditions: Christianity — from American Evangelicalism, to Roman Catholicism, to Seventh-Day Adventism, and on and on – Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and many other religious traditions, all of them, as in Christianity, with their own complicated internal groups and conflicts. It is impossible to deal with an “enemy” or resolve conflicts between two bitterly opposed sides without deeply understanding their commitments and antagonism toward the views of others.
It is also impossible to understand many of our current national debates without recognizing their religious roots:
- Abortion rights: Argued vehemently on biblical grounds, by both sides, neither of which, in most cases, has any idea what the Bible actually teaches about it.
- LBGTQ issues: The same can be said.
- Immigration: Yet again.
- American support for the state of Israel (The decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem was intimately tied to fervent Evangelical eschatological beliefs, going back to the 1830s)
- American attitudes, support of, and policies connected with climate change (why are people of some religious persuasions so indifferent, as clearly shown in polling)
These are issues connected not only with the Bible, but obviously with American religious history, a completely different area of academic expertise, in which historians and political scientists are generally not well trained.
For Future generations of voters and leaders facing these and yet other social and political issues, even worse than literally “knowing nothing” about, say, Sunni Islam, orthodox Judaism, American evangelicalism, or Native American religions is assuming that common knowledge picked up from social media, TV, or films is “good enough” to form an opinion or make a decision.
Only training in religious studies can provide the expertise needed. That training has to come from institutions of higher learning, colleges and universities where experts instruct students in what they need to know about religion to understand their world. (Divinity schools and seminaries for the most part provide partisan ministerial training in their students’ own religions). But religious studies is an unusually vast field (or rather, set of fields), and no one person can possibly master even a significant chunk of it. It requires a department.
From the standpoint of university structure and coherence, it is also worth noting that departments of religious studies departments are virtually unparalleled in their inter-disciplinary character. Studying religion is a multifaceted venture, involving history, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, literary analysis, philology, cultural studies, American studies, women’s studies, and … It’s quite a range. Scholars of religious studies are trained in various ones of these fields (sometimes two or three, but never the range) and so contribute to the wider mission of the university in extraordinary ways.
Your Department of Religious Studies at Greensboro is a valuable asset to your university, to the university system, and the state. I and all my colleagues here at Chapel Hill very much hope that you will be able to retain and even strengthen it.
James A. Gray Distinguished Professor