What is the Study of Religion?

Or: the difference between Sunday School and Monday-Friday School

One of the biggest challenges religious studies teachers can face is misunderstanding. This misunderstanding has two distinct, but related, forms: the first is a general misunderstanding about religion in general. The second is misunderstanding about the study of religion/religious studies as an academic discipline. This post will be an effort to clarify the latter. Ideally, this entire blog is part of a larger effort to clarify the former!

Devotional and Academic Study of Religion

This is one helpful distinction that has been made by the American Academy of Religion and the First Amendment Center. Here are their distinctions:

  • The school’s approach to religion is academic, not devotional
  • The school strives for student awareness of religions, but does not press for student acceptance of any religion
  • The school sponsors study about religion, not the practice of religion
  • The school may expose students to a diversity of religious views, but may not impose any particular view
  • The school educates about all religions; it does not promote or denigrate religion
  • The school informs students about various beliefs; it does not seek to conform students to any particular belief

To my mind, these guidelines are excellent and provide helpful reminders when reflecting on a course or unit in broad terms and when thinking more specifically about a lesson or activity. More than anything, they speak to a particular ethos that is necessary for the study of religion, whether in an entire course or a shorter unit: an inquiry-based, reflective, and academic approach that takes diversity seriously.

Peter Awn, a beloved professor of mine from college, once told our Islam class that religious devotees often emphasize unity in a religious tradition while religious scholars often emphasize diversity. This distinction speaks to the devotional/academic distinction. A devotional perspective is often concerned with the “One True”: the One True Faith, the Right Way To Practice, the Authentic Lineage, and similar terms. These understandings are a central part of human religiosity over time. However, as normative statements about reality they do not have a place in a religion classroom as normative statements. Rather, he would say, the classroom emphasizes Islams, Buddhisms, Judaisms: it draws attention to the diversity of ways in which people have understood themselves to be/what it means to be Muslim, or Buddhist, or Jewish.

In other words, we can learn about how some people believe in the One True Faith, but we cannot learn that Religion X is the One True Faith. That latter move is a devotional one, not a study of religion one. It’s the difference between learning about and learning the truth that.  In the study of religion, we learn about some Hindus who believe that Vishnu has 10 avatars, or about idea held by many Christians that God is three and one. No problem. We can learn about these people and about these beliefs.

What we do not do, however, is learn the truth that Vishnu has 10 avatars, or the truth that God is three and one. That kind of normative instruction has a place – an essential one – but that is for devotional settings inside of religious institutions and traditions. As the title of this post suggests, that kind of learning is for Sunday school, not Monday-Friday school. The work of religious studies is different: it seeks to ask questions of meaning, to understand human tendencies toward belief, to understand rituals, to understand the way religious ideas and language influence politics, literature, scientific debates (to name only some areas of culture), to look at the roles that race, class, gender, and sexual orientation play in religious communities – among many, many other questions.

With this distinction in mind, we can see just how well-chosen the language of the AAR and the First Amendment Center is: we want students to be informed about religion, but we do not want them conforming to a single viewpoint; we want students to have awareness of religions, but we do not seek acceptance of any one religious expression as the truth.

3 thoughts on “What is the Study of Religion?

  1. What a rich and interesting post. I really appreciate the Sunday School / Monday – Friday School framework for understanding the academic study of religion. I wonder: does the Monday – Friday school framework change when the school is question is a religious private school? What about a religious private school that has a tradition-based allegiance to a particular religious institution, but at present accepts students of all faiths? Keep writing, teacher.

    • Dear Michael,
      Thank you for your reply, and welcome to the blog!
      You ask a very important question — one that perhaps should be the subject of an entire post. But let me offer a couple thoughts here. The most important is that of intentionality in teaching: it’s important for us to be aware of what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. A school with a religious affiliation may choose to teach Theology classes — normative classes in the correct way of understanding God and His (or Her) universe. To my mind, that seems fine — as long as students and teachers and the school are clear that that is the goal. Then Monday-Friday school (or at least one class of it) becomes Sunday school.
      The other option, of course, is for a study of religion course to take place within the context of a school committed to a particular religious tradition. Then the same considerations apply as above.
      There’s more to say here, but in the interest of keeping comments somewhat brief, I better stop here. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Pingback: A Language Map of South Asia | Teaching (mostly) Asian Religions

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