10 Things Every College Student Needs to Know About Religion

I love teaching students about religion. But we’d go deeper and further every semester if everyone understood these 10 basic ideas.

I’m about to take 100+ college students through their first course on religion, as I do every semester. Here’s what I wish they knew coming in (and, what I wish I’d known myself as an undergrad):

1. You don’t know what a “religion” is.

We tend to think of religion in terms of our own experiences with our own traditions. But religion is a slippery word. Did you know, for example, that the United States Armed Forces counts both Buddhism and Atheism as “religions”? Would your definition be wide enough to include them? Probably, because most of us agree that religions are sets of beliefs and practices shared by a community (and note: we can leave belief in a god out of the equation). But then, if you expand your definition just a little bit, Red Sox Nation or ComicCon cosplay start to look awfully “religious.” Are we cool with that?

As you study religion, your definition of it may get bigger, weirder, more slippery. I argue that the category of “religion” ought to remain a contested space, and what we hold to be elemental about our own tradition is not necessarily so for others.

2. History will screw with your beliefs.

Caesar did not call for a census that drove Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem — it just didn’t happen, despite what the Gospel of Luke says. Also, Buddhists have often been perpetrators of astounding violence, not only in contemporary Myanmar, but also in Japan, Tibet, and Thailand — peace, compassion, and mindfulness be damned. Religions tend to rewrite history, and the sooner we can come to terms with the discrepancies, fabrications, or willful ignorance of religious traditions, the better.

Just like it’s uncomfortable to confront the fact that slaves built the U.S. Capitol Building or that American settlers committed genocide against the Native People, the history of any religion forces us to grapple with the ugly realities of ourselves. This isn’t your professor being anti-Christian or anti-Buddhist — it’s just historical information. What you do with that information, however, matters. History doesn’t ask you to throw away a faith or dismiss religion altogether. Nor should it make you distrust academia for disseminating some nefarious agenda. Instead, at its best, history can help us ask how we make the future better.

3. If you call yourself religious, you might want to know something about your own tradition.

Some passing familiarity with the texts and traditions you hold sacred would be great. Some understanding of what makes your religion or sect different from religions a lot like yours would be wonderful. I’m not asking for the ability to cite scriptures chapter and verse, nor to explain John Wesley’s break from the Anglicans and the Moravians. But a general awareness about what one believes — and why, and why not — would be super helpful.

Too often, in intro courses, adherents of, say, Lutheranism, think they can skate through the Christianity unit, failing to recognize that Lutheranism and Christianity are not the same thing. Unfortunately, students usually have institutions and parents who do not foster a sense of consciousness about the peculiarities of their position. Once students recognize this, disenchantment often begins. That is never a professor’s intent, but students would be bettered fortified if they understood their tradition as having developed in particular ways and for particular reasons.

And if you can differentiate the Sermon on the Mount from the Ten Commandments, all the better.

4. All religions are not the same.

This issue is so critical that one of my mentors wrote a book about it. Different religions make different claims to truth, and the exclusivity of those claims matters. Students tend to accept and defer to pluralism without considering how they might be running roughshod over the claims of their own traditions. This is a good thing for civil society, but a problematic thing when it comes to explaining tensions between religions.

I spend weeks working to help people realize that while their neighbors’ faith may not (to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson) pick their pocket nor break their leg, it does seriously impinge upon assertions that one group of people is chosen and another is not. This matters. If it doesn’t, then you’ve sacrificed a part of your beliefs upon the altar of good manners. Not that I’m against manners, but we should know the consequences of our bargains.

5. Religions have good reasons for what they teach, do, and believe.

It might seem crazy to make offerings to a god with an elephant’s head, but only if you’re not familiar with Ganesha’s story and the obstacles he overcame to become who he is. From someone else’s perspective, it can appear equally nuts to worship a guy who managed to get himself arrested, beaten, and executed: what’s so great about martyrdom? Isn’t that rationalizing failure?

If you want to understand why people do and think as they do, you need to find a way to understand them from the inside. That does not mean not critically evaluating beliefs, or understanding them solely as functional, but there are rationales for much of what appears strange or different. They may not be your reasons for belief, but they are reasons nonetheless. You don’t get to dismiss them, especially if you have not examined them.

6. Religion is not just about what people believe.

The study of religion is often an exploration of how and why religious communities work — often in spite of what they say they believe. Indeed, belief is often secondary or even tertiary to what people do or observe or remember. If we want to understand most of what constitutes religious activity throughout human history, we must recognize that what people say they believe often has very little to do with their lives.

Also, we are entirely capable of believing contradictory things. For instance, one might be a professed Christian who worships her ancestors without feeling any sort of cognitive dissonance. People do what they do and believe what they believe not because there is incontrovertible, scientific evidence, but because association with a particular identity helps us understand who we are in the world.

7. The world is very big and very diverse.

It’s worth finding out what really goes on in the world, as best as you can manage. Yes, this might challenge some of what you think you know, and that is for the best; if it doesn’t, then we have big problems. A little perspective can go a long way, but we can gain that perspective only if we are willing to recognize a basic truth: I am not the end of the story.

As you learn just a little about the world, it can start to look very different very fast. Might it change how you think, for example, if you’re told that there are more Protestant Christians in Nigeria than in Germany or that there are probably more Muslims in China than in Saudi Arabia? The shape of the world is likely quite different from what you assume.

8. Sometimes, it’s NOT about religion.

Religion is always in the news — we’ve seen lots in the media recently about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the appearance of the so-called “Islamic State” in Iraq and its persecution of Yazidis, Christians, and Shiites; various memes about Pope Francis and his attitudes towards capitalism and/or communism; or the U.S.’s own debate about gay marriage. There are religious components to all of these events, but none of them are reducible to religious conflict.

Sometimes we use the label of religion to characterize disputes in shorthand, and sometimes groups use “religion” as a justification for a dispute that is really about something else. Sometimes religion is used as a cudgel to defend something we are hesitant to admit. It’s thus all the more important that we are careful about defining our terms and discerning how, when, and to what degree religion plays a role in human striving.

9. Your professor is not opposed to your faith.

It might feel like it sometimes, but challenging facts or assumptions is not the same thing as challenging faith. As a teacher, I seek to balance insider and outsider accounts of any given tradition, to be fair both to historical reality and to how believers understand their tradition. But inevitably, tensions arise between these two accounts, and it can be uncomfortable to see your tradition from the outside. When this happens, I like to make recourse to the great Danish thinker Soren Kierkegaard, who insisted that faith is choosing to believe despite the absurdity of it.

10. Religious Studies is not Theology.

When I became a major in religion, the first question I got was, “You’re going to become a priest?” After clearing up that misconception by explaining that I was interested in lots of different religions, the next question was often, “So, you want to disprove God?”

A major in Religious Studies is not (necessarily) about either a vocational calling or rampant atheism. The endeavor to prove God’s existence, or to explain God’s nature, or even to argue for the erroneousness of one set of beliefs — these things are the province of theology. Religious Studies might study the theology of a tradition, but it doesn’t do theology. Theology is the realm of insiders talking to, with, or for other insiders. The academic study of religion has worked hard (though with admittedly imperfect results) to differentiate itself from the seminary.

Bonus item for parents: Please don’t be freaked out if your child decides to study religion in college, at least not any more so than you would if she declared a History or English major. While there aren’t many jobs with the title of “expert in religion,” there also aren’t many things in this world that have not been shaped some way by religion. In fact, I’d argue that the study of religion can provide insight into all manner of human activity, and as such can prepare us to understand the world in all its depth, complexity, ugliness, and beauty. The study of religion can open many doors, from economics to the law to medicine. A major in religious studies might be much more practical than you imagine.

Martyn Oliver
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  • Ghulam Chatha

    Whosoever seeks finds the God but religions deny this inborn equality of humans and each religion claims to be an exclusive permit holder.
    A loving heart the only eligibility is to have faith in the God; those who do not qualify need not seek in books or prayers.
    Free thoughts take out of religions, meditation on universe and nature takes into spirituality. One true God/ man made religions

    Any ism is insistence on a certain concept and established rules or thoughts. It may be Buddhism, atheism or religious-ism. Spirituality or faith is freedom from all dogmas.

  • Marta L.

    I found this really very interesting. Until recently I was a doctoral student working on philosophy of religion, and I often touched on these issues as part of the courses I taught. This list would have been very useful, and definitely reflects what I was trying to get at in my own teaching.

    I would question your definition of theology, though, because it implies you can’t have theological conversations between religions, or even that theologians have to participate in the tradition they’re working with. If a Reformed Protestant and a Roman Catholic, or for that matter a Reformed Jew and a Roman Catholic, tried to understand whether true speech about God was possible, they each might bring pieces from their unique tradition and make the case for why its insight is useful or good. I’d say they were having a theological discussion though they’re clearly not going to accept all of each others’ starting points. And similarly, if an atheist wanted to argue that (say) Aquinas’s definition of omnipotence fails to adequately resolve the problem [from Mavrodes, I think? Going off memory here and may have the precise source wrong] of how God could create a boulder so large he couldn’t lift it, I’d say he’s doing theology, even if he doesn’t himself believe God exists, because he seems to be working within that tradition intellectually without really being a part of it personally.

    Of course, that may come down to the difference between philosophy of religion and theology. I was never much good at understanding the precise demarcation between the two of them, if such a point exists; you seem to get different definitions from different people, even in the respective disciplines.

  • Montjoie

    This guy is a professor. Great. Quite a bit of false history in here. Typical.