Study Religion


  Acting, anatomy, geography, geology, news media literacy, coding, statistics. Poetry, public speaking, first aid. Gender studies, ethnic studies, math. Art history. Wittgenstein. At Slate this week, contributors were asked what classes they would recommend that students take - high school, college, or adult learners - and why. These are some of their recommendations, and the reasoning is fun and interesting, everything from 'this will change the way you see the world' (geology, ethnic studies) to 'this is literally life and death' (anatomy, first aid) to 'do something new and different and that probably scares you' (acting, coding, public speaking).

You can probably guess that no one mentioned religion (although readers are invited to offer write-in recommendations). And it probably won't surprise you that I think studying religion should be near the top of everyone's list. I would recommend that everyone learn the basics of at least the world's most major religions: Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism. Not just because it is a good idea to grasp the foundational beliefs of the vast majority of the population of the world, whether you understand them or agree with them or not. And not just because I am a Christian and a priest.

I recommend studying religion because I don't think we can understand the world at all unless we grapple with our place in it. And we absolutely cannot do that without considering God: what others believe about God, and what we believe about God.

When I was a freshman at Georgetown University, all incoming students were required to take a class called 'the Problem of God.' I am not sure that it is still required, but it is still offered (in 14 sections), and part of the class description reads: 'This is a course that grapples with deep and difficult questions about life, meaning, purpose and fulfillment. In other words, it explores the notion of God and fundamental aspects of belief in such a being. The course explores questions pertaining to the concept, nature, existence and efficacy of God.'

This course changed my life, and set me on a path towards ordination - although I wouldn't realize this for another decade after college. But at the time, it helped me clarify my own theology, the fact that I definitely believe that God exists, and that I definitely profess the Christian faith. Not everyone may have the same clarity, of course, but to engage with the world, and everyone else in it, we simply cannot avoid thinking about how it all works. And to do this, we have to engage the questions of faith.

Too often today, I think we either allow ourselves to believe that religion is some kind of superstition, or we slide by with some vague idea that God exists, but don't think about how or where or why. 'God is love', we say, but we don't take this further and then ask the questions about why there is suffering and evil if this is true, and how the basic faith traditions answer this. Or we say that God does not exist, but don't take this further and ask why and how love exists without a higher being, or why and how life exists at all. And ultimately, everything we study, every endeavor we have as humans, has to answer the question why - what is the meaning and purpose of life, what happens when we die, why are we here. These are the questions that religion concerns itself with every day, and even if we reject religion, we need to get close to it in order to do this.

Fewer and fewer Americans practice religion today, although most of us profess a belief in God of some kind. But because we are exposed to less and less religious education - we are not going to church, and religion is taught less and less in school - we are losing the opportunity to learn what religion teaches us: a framework of belief about who God is and how God works in the world and how we live in the world in relation to God and each other. This is, of course, radically different from religion to religion. And it is radically different from every religion to say, for example, 'I believe in a little bit of everything,' or 'it's all one God no matter what you believe.' Each religion (or no religion, or pan-religion) has unique claims of truth, and all of us, ultimately, claim one. We have to, in order to make sense of ourselves the world around us. It is worth our while, I think, to consider what our religion really is, and how it compares to others.

It matters, every day, in everything we do, what we ultimately have faith in. Which, to me, makes religion a subject everyone should study.