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