One of the requirements for graduating philosophy and religion majors is to reflect upon what they’ve achieved during their time at Drury. Did I gain a clearer understanding of ethics? Have I developed my own narrative voice? Did I learn anything? For me the answer is a resounding yes to all. Perhaps due to a mild existential crisis brought on by graduation, I also find myself asking, did I chose the right majors? What have I gained, as person or citizen, from majoring in theology and philosophy? What can others gain?
The short answer is a lot. I’m fond of saying that philosophy teaches me how to think or work; religion teaches me to live. Many people find that to be a strange answer since I’m not strictly religious in the traditional sense. What could someone who has no interest in the correct combination of Gods, Goddesses or variant thereof gain from religious studies? Again, a lot.
Whether we deny it or accept it, religion is a pervasive part of our life. We live in a world where large nationalist-religious movements have changed, are changing and will continue to change the world—for better and for worse. Agree or disagree, it does not matter. In so long as you react to religion—and you cannot help but to —you are guided, in some part, by religion. When you react to something or someone, you are responding to their actions, not your desires or motivations. On that basis alone, it’s worth taking a class or two in religion. It pays to be educated—although not necessarily in the monetary sense—about yourself and the world around you.
Ironically, religious studies can help you avoid a condition that professionals call “acting like an ass hat”. I realize that sounds a little strange. After all, people have been using religion to justify extreme ass-hatery for thousands of years. Of course, secular people have been extreme ass-hats as well.
Disavowing one of the most influential forces in human history won’t change anything but understanding it might. For example, I was deeply and conservatively religious as a young child. I had an intense dislike for non-Christians and their sinful ways. I grew older, cynical and, in my mind, wiser. I begin to hate Christians. I thought to myself, those guys were the real bad guys. They are causing all the trouble. After a lot of arguably justified angst and bitterness, I realized that Christians and non-Christians had a lot in common. Both seek answers to the same big questions—like what does it mean to be human or what is “the good”? Nether path was inherently superior. In fact, once stripped of their ideological motivations the actions of the two might be indistinguishable. Does this insight make me a virtuous person? No, but at least I’m less of a hypocritical ass hat.
Perhaps you’re already a paradigm of moral excellence. You’re already aware of this and have long regulated ass-hat tendencies to uncouth and unkind. I’m being sarcastic—I’m still a bit of an ass hat after all. But this is the humanities; we’re in the business of dealing with hypotheticals. So, let us assume that you are. So what can a religion class do for your?
For starters it will challenge your belief system on a fundamental level. This is a good thing. We have a lot of deeply-held but completely unfounded beliefs. Engaging with different faiths or religious views is the easiest way to challenge yours. If you allow it, weaker beliefs will be cast aside and the remaining beliefs will be reinforced. Informed belief or disbelief is superior not in virtue of itself but in virtue of its support system. Which belief is more informed, more respected? The child that believes lamps magically produce light or someone that has an understanding of the electrical process behind the light? Refusing to challenge your beliefs is a sign of a weakness, a lack of commitment and a fear of the unknown.
A good portion of the world is religious. As a result, knowing various religious traditions allows you, on some level, to relate to people of differing religious backgrounds. It might even stop you from performing a faux pas—like serving non-kosher food to your Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist or Hindu friends. Moreover, you want to be informed about American politics, the Middle-East or ethnic conflicts in Mainland China? You better start brushing up on your religious studies. The same goes for various fields of study like English, Philosophy and History.
But hey, not only are you a moral exemplar but you’re also a cultural genius! You don’t need anything from these “stories”. I gotta tell ya though, these are really good stories. The Abrahamic texts have not been around for thousands of years just because of their authoritative power. There’s enough sexy violence and violent sex in there to make George R. R. Martin blush. You want a killer soap opera plot? Look up Genesis 38.
So take a class or two in the religion department. They’re cool people. I mean, look at me. No one is going to judge you for your beliefs. No one is going to laugh or point. The skills gained may not be financially tangible but they will pay dividends in the future. You’ve got everything to gain and nothing to lose—especially if you approach it with an open mind.