Secularism and Religious Education: Part 1

By March 29, 2010

Taylor P. holds a MTS and receives a ThD (May, 2010) in New Testament and Early Christianity from Harvard Divinity School.  His BA in Philosophy and Religious Studies is from Pace University.  He currently works as the Assistant Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Study of Religion at Harvard University.  He is a founder of the Mormon Perspectives Series in Boston and a main organizer for two recent conferences for Latter-day Saints in Religious Studies.


Lisa Miller’s Newsweek article “Harvard’s Crisis of Faith” frames the need for religious eduction as driven by the fact that other people are religious.  While the article appeals to secular resistance to the study of religion in the university, it also engages in the same kind of dismissal of the religious as worth taking seriously when she justifies ignoring the Harvard Divinity School faculty who teach courses “about belief from people who are, by tradition, believers.”  While this characterization of the difference between the study of religion at Harvard College and Harvard Divinity School represents a gross misunderstanding of both, the message is clear: we need to learn about religion because of all the problems it causes in the world but not from those who are religious. Of the many things that can be said about this, I’d like to make the case that those who are religious should take seriously the critical study of religion, not so that they can better understand “them,” but so that we can better understand and be “us.”

How can the critical study of religion contribute, neither as a reductive “explanation” for “their” beliefs, nor as the inculcation of “our” religious doctrines, but as a critical engagement for the religious believer?  Are the religious and the secular necessarily antagonistic?  To say that the secular study of religion has some important theological and ethical implications is not to suggest that it does so primarily, or even necessarily.  Rather, it is embedded in the same kind of project of the humanities in general, to understand the human condition. Max Mueller (not the one of JI guest-blogging fame) famously said of religion, “if you know one, you know none.”  Such a course of study suggests that to understand one’s own religion, one must also understand another, and vice versa.  The critical study of religion constitutes a sympathetic understanding of religious phenomena of all kinds.  This approach challenges both the ardent believer and the ardent secularist.  It presents an alternative for thinking about religion entirely differently.

Contrary to popular representation, the study of religion is not a “neutral” activity, but is rather embedded in a set of assumptions, presuppositions, and values, particularly those of the modern academy.  Yet, these values cannot be dismissed as arbitrary, or even as necessarily antagonistic.  There are two values in particular that I find especially helpful.  First, if the study of religion is invested in sincerity, making the religious other more human (including the “good” and the “bad” of religion and of humanness), it should also make its practitioners more humane.  Such an approach is neither confessional nor resolutely “secular,” but occupies a third way, in between both.  As Robert Orsi puts it, “It is willing to make one’s own self-conceptions vulnerable to the radically destabilizing possibilities of a genuine encounter with an unfamiliar way of life” (Between Heaven and Earth, 198).

Second, the critical study of religion requires that one interrogate the values and assumptions of the study itself.  This, I suggest, is the most important value, not only for the scholarly practitioner but also for the religious practitioner.  The need and ability to question, interrogate, consider, reevaluate, and sympathetically understand is ideally not antagonistic to religion.  These practices should not only be essential to the critical study of religion from without, but also within our religious communities.

Both the values of sincerity and critical thinking discussed here are explicitly moral reflections on the encounter with the religious, the study of religion, and, ideally, the way that one learns to critically practice his or her own religion.  In this way, the critical study of religion is important not only so that its practitioners can understand “them,” but so that we can be better at being us by practicing sincerity and analysis.


Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. those who are religious should take seriously the critical study of religion, not so that they can better understand ?them,? but so that we can better understand and be ?us.?

    You’ve hit the nail on the head, Taylor. Thanks for your thoughts.

    Comment by Christopher — March 30, 2010 @ 8:39 am

  2. …the critical study of religion requires that one interrogate the values and assumptions of the study itself.

    I agree, and would extend this to many fields of study, including communications and history. Thanks for your thoughts.

    Comment by BHodges — March 30, 2010 @ 9:16 am

  3. This was wonderful, Taylor; well put.

    Comment by Ben — March 30, 2010 @ 3:07 pm

  4. Taylor–

    Thanks for including this at JI. As you put so succinctly, scholars of the study of religion–at least the good ones–are constantly reevaluating the assumptions we take into our studies and, hopefully without too much navel-gazing, make our own selves (implicit) objects of study. This allows us to be changed (not necessarily converted, as I well know) by the people and ideas we study and thus better able to articulate our informants’ ideas in ways that are understandable to their fellow members of the civil society.

    Yet, I do want to offer one caution, or perhaps addition to your theorizing about the “study of religion”. While I whole heartedly agree that scholars of religion should avoid making judgments about “good” and “bad” religion, as members of the civil society with special expertise about the history of religion(s), we should not feel constrained by the dictates of our discipline (what Marie Griffith calls “critical empathy”) to declare a public sentiment or an act articulated in the name of religion “misguided”, “historically inaccurate” or outright “wrong”. Here I’m thinking of Good Friday sermon delivered by the Pope’s personal priest equating the recent accusations against Benedict and the Catholic hierarchy–many of which come from the Church’s own faithful–to persecution of the Jews. The reason that such comparisons should be roundly challenged by scholars of religion–the significant differences in relative power between ghettoized Jews and the Vatican, the complicity of the Vatican in the Holocaust to name the most egregious–can run for pages. We, scholars of religion, not in our academic positions but as members of a civil society, need to be willing to this “bad” religion and bad history. Because it is.

    Comment by Max — April 3, 2010 @ 9:38 am

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    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » The Study of Religion and the Modern Divinity School — April 5, 2010 @ 8:29 am

  6. I think it would be unfair to pressure Universities to add courses purely of one religion. There are too many to count. Most people would find Philosophy sufficient.
    Religious Education in Your Life

    Comment by SherwinJTB — April 13, 2010 @ 4:37 pm


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