Apr 09, 2020

Virtue in studying diverse religions

The three R’s of education, as everyone knows, are reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmatic.

Should religion be the fourth?

Stephen Prothero, Ph.D., and Mary Poplin, Ph.D., think so.

Prothero and Poplin both spoke at Wednesday night’s Veritas Forum in the Satellite Student Union. Poplin argued that because more than 90 percent of Americans identify as Christian regardless of denomination or practice, it’s important for people to understand what Christians believe.

Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University, extended Poplin’s statement to world religions. How, he asked, can diplomats to India do their jobs effectively if they have no understanding of Hinduism? He went so far as to say that if Americans had a better understanding of Islam, the war in the Middle East would be more effective.

He made a lot of sense, I thought. But at the same time, I wondered where this open attitude toward religion could be found. It certainly hasn’t been apparent to me in the, cough, six years, cough, that I’ve been at Fresno State.

Religion is, by nature, an emotionally charged subject. But if emotion were all religion was about, it would have fizzled out in this society where most people are suckers for a cheap thrill or a tearjerker.

But something else is there. There’s an intellectual element that is often ignored today. Stephen Prothero explained that prior to the 1900s, Christianity had a long tradition of intellectual involvement. But during the Evangelical movement, the focus shifted from head to heart. Now, most Christian factions focus on warm fuzzies and feelings. As someone who grew up in an old-school Baptist church with old hymns, which focus on Biblical doctrines rather than mere emotions, I sometimes have a hard time not looking down on churches that teach their congregations to be afraid of facts.

When you’re exposed to viewpoints that contradict your own, one of two things happens. You may realize that you’ve been in error. Upon further investigation, you can formulate a new way of thinking. Mary Poplin’s description of her religious discovery is almost exclusively a product of this thinking.

Or you may realize that you’re right, but maybe you didn’t present your views very well. This happens to me frequently. It usually leads to some contemplation about what gaps in my knowledge I need to fill in order to meet questions about my faith the next time they arise. In turn, that solidifies my views and helps me understand why I believe what I believe.

Establishing and arguing your viewpoint is like the scientific method, in a way. Hypothesis, then testing, then revision of hypothesis. It takes a lot of testing before you come up with a rock-solid theory.

This doesn’t just apply to your own, personal faith, though I personally believe that it needs to start here. When I was in high school, I was required to take a course in world religions. At the time, I thought it was ridiculous that a Christian school would make me learn about Buddhism and Seventh-Day Adventism. Since then, I have realized that that exposure gave me a deeper understanding of people in those religions. In this world of snap judgments and first impressions, anything that helps you step in others’ shoes is a good thing.

So does religion need to be taught in schools? I would argue for it. Religions are and have always been a major force in the world, whether or not you agree with them. They aren’t likely to just disappear, especially with continuing strife in the Middle East.

Regardless of agreement, the world’s history has a major influence on current events. Much of that history is rooted in religion.

How can we afford not to learn about it?

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