The Field of Religious Studies
This post will be slightly off from my usual topic of religion on the internet. But I just read an article (and two more it referred to) that stuck an emotional chord. The original articles was Mark Hulsether's Studying Religion is Suddenly Popular at Religion Dispatches. In it he analyzed Newsweek's article on "Religious Studies Revival." Both pieces mention University of California, Santa Barbara, where both my wife and I got BAs in Religious Studies and where we actually met. Here is what the Newsweek authors, Johannah Cornblatt and Nayeli Rodriguez, had to say about our alma mater:
At the University of California, Santa Barbara, long home to one of the country’s most innovative religion departments, two new courses illustrate religious studies’ shift in emphasis. One, The Evolutionary and Cognitive Science of Religion, looks at the religious impulse of the human mind; the other, Origins: A Dialogue Between Scientists and Humanists, is cross-listed as a physics course and is UCSB’s answer to the broader culture’s larger “faith versus reason” debates.
That sounds rally positive, right? However as Hulsether's analysis shows the underlying tone of the Newsweek piece overall is that the field is struggling to become less esoteric, less connected to its Christian origins and has uniquely strong associations with social activism. None of these are correct and are based on stereotypes that the article strengthens in readers not familiar with the field. When we were attending UCSB it already had 5 major programs (Buddhist Studies, Center for Middles East Studies, Jewish Studies, Sikh and Punjab Studies, American Indian & Indigenous Studies) and was in the process of setting up the sixth, the first Christian one: Catholic Studies. This is not what I would call of trying to get out of Christian focus. Just the other way, trying to engage with it, in addition to all the other areas it already had. I can offer anecdotal evidence against Newsweek's assumption regarding social activism too. At UCSB I also earned a BA in Sociology. When I compare the students at the two departments I find that the Sociology students were more interested in actively bettering the world, while the religious Studies students were often more introspective. Finally, I didn't feel or was made to fell at any point during my academic career that the field would be esoteric in any sense. I know that from a scientific point of view, my single example is not enough to disprove Newsweek's points, but I had to mention them, as they contradict my personal experience.