Why universities – and the remainder of us – want non secular research
(RNS) – This week, the University of Vermont announced that two dozen academic programs, including the entire religion department, are being canceled. This is surprising given the caliber and credentials of the faculty of the department. Not only are they productive scientists, but they also regularly receive scholarships, awards, and scholarships for teaching and research.
The real shock of the UVM announcement is the timing: devaluation of religion following an electoral cycle in which the presidential spiritual advisor asked African angels to intervene in election results as our elected president restored the “soul of our nation” when the Supreme Court is busy reassessing the settlement clause and the outgoing Secretary of State has tried to redefine religious freedom.
What is even more worrying is that this is not an isolated incident. The University of Vermont proposal is in line with a larger pattern of cutting religious programs in academic institutions.
Religious education is not just about understanding politics. It’s also about building cultural literacy and making sure our young people are familiar with the different people they meet on the street. University brass often refers to this type of literacy as a civic good, but as a brown-skinned, turbocharged, beard-loving man in Donald Trump’s America, I admit that knowing who I am and appreciating my religious heritage can mean the difference between life and death.
Think about it from the minors’ perspective: by undoing our commitment to religious diversity, we are actually making our communities less secure.
At a time when everyone is demanding more resources for diversity, equity and inclusion, why should an institution take away resources that are already there and cannot be easily replaced?
The counter-argument is that cutting programs like this is strictly business: the departments don’t bring in enough majors and therefore don’t serve the bottom line of the university.
We have spent most of the last few decades viewing our education as a path to a professional career. Look what happened to our society. We may have a better workforce, but at what cost? There is nothing wrong with going to college for a well-paying job. But what do our educational institutions do to shape our moral and ethical views?
What expanded me more than anything in college was coming to terms with the reality that my path wasn’t the only or the best path. Learning about the beliefs and cultures of others challenges our self-centered chauvinism and helps us meet others where they are.
If done right, the work of the humanities is the work of anti-racism. If this sounds limiting, let me put it this way: it’s the work of undercutting assumptions and stereotypes about the people around us and making our perspectives nuanced so that we stop seeing in black and white and start seeing the richness of ours to see human experiences.
I want to add that it makes business sense too. At this moment, when companies and institutions focus on diversity, inclusion and equity, some still see religion outside of this framework. I’ve consulted with companies long enough to find that religion is uncomfortable. Of the traditional categories represented in diversity and inclusion work – race, gender, religion, sexual orientation – religion is often overlooked and neglected. Organizations often feel uncomfortable talking about religion because they fear they are doing something wrong.
Public universities often worry about the separation of church and state. However, this concern refutes a fundamental misunderstanding of what a religious scholar actually does. While many worry about being charged with proselytization, religious scholars try to understand historical developments in context. We are scholars with an interest in religion; not by imposing our views on religion.
Take for example a practicing Sikh who has spent much of his academic career teaching Islamic studies and Buddhist history. I wish I had a dime for every time someone asked me how to teach a religion other than my own. They don’t understand that I am not going to seek conversions; I am about to open hearts and minds and help people to deal with the beautiful diversity of our world.
If we want our children to grow up to appreciate people from all the different backgrounds they will encounter in their lives, we must first equip them with the appropriate knowledge. Not to do this, to tell them that understanding the faith is not important, is to make them fail.
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