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A Student's Guide to Religious Studies

  • by Darryl Hart


“BELIEVE THAT YOU MAY UNDERSTAND.” Over the centuries Saint Augustine’s assertion about the relationship between religious belief and knowledge has inspired much reflection on faith’s cognitive aspects. But his wisdom could prove frustrating to students hoping to understand religion better through the field of religious studies. As much as faith may benefit academic inquiry in many subjects, within the religion departments of most colleges and universities religious commitment is generally regarded as a barrier, rather than an asset, to understanding and wisdom. Believers are generally considered narrow- or close-minded and therefore incapable of investigating religious subjects in a neutral, objective, scientific manner.

Such prejudice against belief reflects not only the triumph of secularism in American higher education. Many factors have contributed directly to the suspicion with which personal faith is regarded in religious studies departments. Some of these factors will become apparent in the pages that follow. Certainly both the dominance and findings of the natural sciences during the last century have contributed to religion’s decline in the university. Yet the rise of religious studies as an academic discipline also shaped the role that faith is usually allowed to play in the study of religion. Consequently, to understand the history and aims of the academic study of religion is important for students desiring to use such instruction and research for their own edification. Religious devotion is not likely to take one very far in most religion courses. At the same time, if students’ expectations are appropriately modest in such classes, they may actually acquire tools that nurture both belief and understanding. After all, Saint Augustine’s conviction about the priority of faith in knowledge does not exclude the necessity of acquiring wisdom through the kind of reading, critical thinking, and writing involved in the contemporary study of religion.

Of course, “faith seeking understanding” is not the only motivation for studying religion. Because Western civilization is unthinkable without the contributions of Judaism and Christianity, a desire for greater insight into the thinkers, artists, statesmen, and historical events shaping the West may also lead many students to take courses in religion departments. But disappointment may result even with this motivation, for the field of religious studies has generally followed the lead of other humanistic disciplines in adopting the view that Europeans—especially males—are responsible for the oppression of minorities, sexism, and an endless list of other cultural ills. In other words, the dominant perspective is that because Western civilization’s most important religious texts and institutions were oblivious to contemporary notions of race, class, and gender, those texts and institutions should be approached with skepticism, if not outrage. Thus, if one enrolls in a religion course hoping to better understand and appreciate the religious ideals that fueled the West’s artistic imagination, provided the basis for its philosophical insights, and informed its institutional and associational life, one should have realistic expectations about the probable prejudices of the professor.

Despite the disappointments that religious studies is sure to yield to the idealistic student, the academic discipline of religion nevertheless possesses resources that will truly benefit those hoping to acquire greater wisdom about the human condition or the contribution of faith to the West’s development.

This guide is designed to help students navigate the study of religion in American higher education, to discover the best that our universities and colleges have to offer. First, we will explore the history of religion in American higher education, the rise of religious studies as an academic discipline, and several characteristic features resulting from this complicated history. Then we will recommend the best ways to approach the West’s greatest religious thinkers and most significant texts. If students approach the academic study of religion understanding this background and with realistic goals, religious studies may prove a hospitable environment for faith and understanding not only to coexist, but to flourish.

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