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Religion Should Be Studied at California's Universities

No less than philosophy or politics, it is essential to a grasp of world affairs.

March 30, 1997|BENJAMIN HUBBARD and NINIAN SMART | Benjamin Hubbard is chairman of the Religious Studies Department at Cal State Fullerton. His book, "America's Religions: An Educator's Guide to Beliefs and Practices," will be released in June. Ninian Smart is J.F. Rowny Professor of Comparative Religions at UC Santa Barbara

The UC system has, in every main campus, departments of philosophy and political science, but only one which offers a full menu of religious studies, including doctoral studies. Is it because of prejudice? Or because the subject is new? You thought it had to do with Christian (and maybe Jewish) theology. No, and it is not some kind of religious indoctrination. It is the wider study of all religions, in principle, considering their power in the world in the past and now.

We hardly can understand Middle Eastern politics without understanding Islam or Judaism, or the new Russia without knowing about the Orthodox Church, or India without some grasp of Hinduism, or America without its religions. World religions and public affairs go together.

Consider further the following:

The FBI and the media judged David Koresh to be the "Wacko from Waco," though he had a consistent, if highly eccentric, interpretation of the Bible. Government and the media both succumbed to the cult model to explain Koresh's behavior, rather than in calling in, and taking seriously, religion scholars. They might have made sense out of Koresh's labyrinthine lectures and inner motivations and prevented a needless slaughter.

Recent studies have shown that there is a remarkable connection between prayer and healing. Religion scholars, medical practitioners and anthropologists need to explore the implications of this link.

Multiculturalism and religious pluralism are closely intertwined. For instance, Muslim rules of modesty can cause consternation in schools when a young girl is wearing a head covering (hijab) in class or refuses to dress in shorts and a short-sleeved shirt in gym class. Or consider the Hindu student who is a vegetarian but finds no meatless choice on the lunch menu. Religions and cultures dictate these choices: the teacher needs to understand.

Jerusalem's history is so steeped in religious feeling that, without a thorough evaluation of the religious factors, any negotiation toward a final settlement between Jews, Christians and Muslims and between Jews and Palestinians is dead before it starts.

Religious fundamentalism (though this is not always the right word) is a complex phenomenon which does not always fit into geopolitical models. Understanding it involves an appreciation of absolute faith, the interpretation of sacred scriptures and knowledge of the roots of religious extremism.

As philosopher and religion scholar Huston Smith has written recently, we belong to a nation where religion is practiced more fervently than in most countries, yet where it is marginalized and trivialized by much of the elite. Consider its mostly superficial treatment in the news media.

How many people are aware that churches, synagogues, mosques and temples in America employ nurses to assist parishioners with their physical and spiritual needs, or that both the "pro-life" and civil rights movements started in churches?

In short, many government officials, academics and media professionals ignore religion to their detriment and to that of a balanced running of society. In 1995, only 1% of network news was devoted to stories about religion, according to the Media Research Center in Washington.

So what are universities doing to educate students and a wider public about religion's profound impact on society? Consider the situation at California's two university systems. As we have seen, the field is much neglected in the UC system. In the California State University, which has a vigorous set of departments, only seven of the 22 campuses offer a religious studies major. Yet by contrast, all of the UC campuses offer undergraduate majors in philosophy and political science and seven of the nine have doctoral programs in these fields. The point is not that political science and philosophy should be cut back, but that studies in religion should be given equally serious attention.

Religious studies or world view analysis, to describe it differently, is often viewed askance because of concerns about church and state; and some academics have biases about the validity and importance of studying religion academically. Granted, it is a subject so personal and sensitive that it must be taught in an objective and scholarly manner. But in the 30 years that courses in religious studies and comparative religion have been offered in higher education, the field has gained wide respect among most professors and students, and has helped to enrich the curriculum without creating any problems about attempts at proselytizing students. It is a creative and exciting approach to the human and social expressions of human life.

It is time that administrators in California higher education started taking seriously the need to offer studies in religion more widely at all campuses.

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