On the Supposed Irrelevance of Religious Studies: The Case of Environmental Change

I cannot speak for all religion professors, of course. And I’m sure that there are places where this “narrative” holds sway even more than at my institution (pictured is Butler Hall, the seat of the Lindenwood School of Humanities with its Religion department). Nonetheless, I often get the sense that in higher education today and in public consciousness (to the extent that the public these days can be said to be conscious…), the discipline of religious studies is met with something like polite incredulity about its meaningfulness. Indeed, sometimes this incredulity is far from polite. Like the humanities tradition in general, religious studies often seems to be backed into a corner and asked to justify its continued existence and consumption of relatively very modest resources in today’s universities.

Part of the problem, in my humble opinion, is that humanities professors – including professors of religion – have done little to contest this narrative, much less advance a compelling counter-narrative. It sometimes suits us to be considered irrelevant. Our classes get smaller, our advising duties get lighter, our voices speak very quietly on committees so who cares if we ever show up, etc. This leaves us more time for our “life of the mind,” “research,” or latest holistic hobby craze.

In terms of advancing a counter-narrative, the case can be made (and it isn’t that hard to do) that the humanistic disciplines are at least as important today as they have ever been, and perhaps even more so. Thinking within the late capitalist system (on life-support though it – hopefully – is), the mercenary-minded student might be interested to know that many major companies have realized that hiring business majors - at least those without a strong liberal arts grounding - is a bad idea since while they may know how to use Excel and put together a business plan (thereby saving the company money in the short term by cutting down on training time required), they are not generally creative, flexible, well-rounded, critical thinkers (ultimately costing the company money long-term for all the sort of holistic reasons that are so hard to discreetly quantify; but, if I were to try, I’d start with money spent on re-training employees over time). Thinking with more depth, creative, flexible, well-rounded, critical thinkers are precisely the sort of folks we need if we are to envision a new more just, equitable, and sustainable system (admittedly, it isn’t hard to improve upon late capitalism on this score, but we might as well try to make the next one really good rather than just less bad…). Of course, it often seems as though our society simply isn't interested in envisioning much less working to create such a thing.

But I digress from my theme. While reading the JAAR today I came across the below which, it seems to me, not only articulates the sort of “irrelevance” dynamic that I noted at the start of this post but also indicating the sort of concrete, practical contribution that can be made by religious studies to “real world” issues – like environmental change. So with altogether too much ado already…

Sara J. King, "The End of the World as We Know It? Apocalypticism, Interdisciplinarity, and the Study of Religion," JAAR 83.2 (2015): 427.
I fear that scholars of religion have become so accustomed to others' belief in their irrelevance that somehow we have forgotten the importance of our knowledge, and what it can contribute. Many scholars of religion have seen "those" looks pass over the face of their academic peers as soon as the word religion is used, and are effectively silenced. . . . [But] if addressing environmental problems was simply a scientific issue, then human-induced environmental change would already be a thing of the past, since the scientific consensus has been so clear for so long. But somehow we humans have failed to act. The study of human experience - of culture and religion - helps us to understand how and why we are stuck, and then to see how to create movement, to bring change.

[Note: Although my Fall semester began yesterday, I meet classes for the first time today - two sections of REL 15000, World Religions, to be exact. I thought it fitting to mark the occasion with this apologia on the usefulness of such an endeavor.]

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Comments

I like it.

Quick question, though, apropos of the ed. note: What's with the "15,000" course number? How many religion courses do y'all offer down there, anyway? :-)
Both plenty and not enough.
Geoff said…
I agree with you that religious studies and the humanities in general are worth keeping in the universities. I even think that self-training in the humanities is one of the most important goals an individual can pursue. That being said, I'm not sure that connecting the reason for keeping the humanities to a scientific consensus or to the failure of business colleges makes sense.

You make this claim:
Thinking within the late capitalist system (on life-support though it – hopefully – is), the mercenary-minded student might be interested to know that many major companies have realized that hiring business majors is a bad idea since while they may know how to use Excel and put together a business plan (thereby saving the company money in the short term by cutting down on training time required), they are not generally creative, flexible, well-rounded, critical thinkers (ultimately costing the company money long-term for all the sort of holistic reasons that are so hard to discreetly quantify; but, if I were to try, I’d start with money spent on re-training employees over time).

I agree with your assessment of business majors, but how many humanities majors are actually creative, well-rounded, critical thinkers? I mean, look through the average humanities department for a logic class in the degree requirements. Without logic there is almost no creativity because incongruities or differences from current norms cannot even be discerned, let alone, enacted. Even in STEM fields, logic is neglected. All business colleges need to do is add more logic and rhetoric to their curriculum and then the humanities are irrelevant again.

I'm also a bit skeptical of your remark that humanities majors have a list of qualities that make them capable of envisioning a better future. I've worked at colleges and I have a masters in humanities (back in school for engineering) and I've worked/worked in the private sector in education as well as software development. Having people who don't know math deal with data is almost invariably a disaster. I know humanities majors by the dozen who can't read ancient languages, only speak English, cannot perform basic Algebra, and hardly read (not even self-help books!).

It seems that your argument is an argument for better humanities programs. Because if humanities professors learned the liberal arts (all seven of them) before they specialized, then making the case for relevance would be trivial (heh...trivium).

It seems that there are better justifications for religious studies that do not have to piggy back on scientific literature that the professors may not even grasp (the differential equations in fluid systems like the climate are difficult) or censuses that may change:
1. Said religion is true and therefore ought to be studied.
2. Hector Avalos wants to help students out of religions he deems false.
3. It could become a form of sociology that should be coupled w/statisics and psychology.

Justifications for humanities exist beyond connections to science too as well as at the foundations of science:
1. Humans are not mere calculating machines.
2. Thinking is more than deduction and prediction (but not less either).
3. Learning to listen/read well protects us from being fooled by hucksters.
4. Mathematics is a liberal art.
5. Aristotle taught inductive reasoning, so science is a humanity (boom! take that university system).
The comments about humanities majors are certainly idealized - the actual people approximate the form to a greater or lesser extent, sure.

Nice with the trivium joke. :-)

Your three points on religion are problematic since the first two are outside the bounds of proper religious studies, and the third is already something that is part of religious studies - we have folks in religious studies departments doing sociology of religion.

Your five points about the humanities are certainly true. The purpose of the rhetoric employed in my post, and in the article that I quote from, is aimed at convincing the sort of people who demand that religious studies justify themselves. Left to its own devices, religious studies and the humanities would describe their value in altogether different ways. But part of the task is jamming a toe in the door and saying, "Look, even by your own lights - misguided as they may be - these things are important."
|Thank you for saying this! Although our numbers are strong, the narrative is often there.

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