I read Jolyon Baraka Thomas’ piece “Teaching True Believers” last week and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. In it, Thomas discusses the difficulty of getting students to think critically about religious belief. Here’s a taste, but I encourage you to read the entire piece.
We do not tell our students what to believe, nor do we tell them not to believe, nor do we deny the importance of their familial traditions or personal convictions. But we help them see that it does not have to be this way or that. We encourage them to move beyond the obfuscatory personal example, and to speak about religion as a social construction or an anthropological conceit or a legal category bearing geopolitical effects. We help them see that “religion” is historically bound and culturally contingent. Together, we acknowledge that there are lots of different ways that people interact with non-obvious beings and empirically unverifiable realities. We show that ideas like karma, sin, heaven, a chosen people, and rebirth are all articles of faith and figments of the irrepressibly fecund religious imagination. We train them to not assume that everyone operates within the same imaginaries.
What this piece really made me think about was the fact that in teaching – and often in my scholarship – I encounter problems not with the true believers, but with the students and scholars who have little framework for understanding religion or belief but nonetheless have very fixed ideas about how religion operates.
I teach in New England, where fewer people attend religious services than in other parts of the country, and where I’d also say people are “quieter” about it. As such, many of my students who did not grow up in a religious tradition have virtually no framework for understanding the major religions of the United States or how to talk about religion. Moreover, many of my students simply don’t believe in belief. They think people in the past were simply stupid and superstitious. As a result, a few things happen pretty consistently, especially when I’m teaching the first half of the U.S. survey
- I draw chart after chart of Christianity. Students often struggle to name any Protestant denomination beyond Congregationalism, and that is only because they’re from New England. That makes teaching U.S. history rather difficult at times.
- I have to repeatedly emphasize that Catholicism is a form of Christianity. Sometimes students are making a theological point with this, most of the time they are not.
- We talk about contemporary popular concepts of things like “evangelicalism,” “fundamentalist,” “revival,” and “biblical literalism.” Sometimes I am able to historicize them, sometimes I am not.
- I have to draw attention to and personally footnote lots of references in the material we read; they can look words up in the OED, but Biblical references confuse them.
- Invariably there are complaints that we talk about religion too much. All I can say is that I definitely don’t talk about it enough, given how important it was to the people we’re studying.
Despite not thinking religion is important to study or understand, they bring a lot of ideas about religion to the classroom, and I work to problematize those as well. Among the most common are:
- Before some nebulous point at which “modernity” began, everyone was religious and had absolutely no capacity for individual thought at all.
- Religion isn’t really a thing anymore. No one believes in that stuff. If pushed, students often articulate the Reformation as the turning point for this, for reasons I’ll discuss below.
- Religion is mostly just a cover for racism, economic competition, sexism, etc. It reflects other views but has no capacity to shape those views in return.
- Religion and science are diametrically opposed, you can never be a believer and a scientist, and at some point science took over and fixed inequality that religion had created and perpetuated.
- Religion is inherently repressive.
Trying to teach students with these views about religion who also lack the conceptual framework to discuss religion is really daunting, and I struggle with it constantly in my teaching.
I’ve had to abandon a document set I used to use that featured Cotton Mather extolling the virtues of inoculation and science and a trained physician decrying inoculation. Students either told me that inoculation was clearly bad because the doctor said so, or told me that the documents said the exact opposite of what they did because it simply did not compute that a minister would be saying science was a gift from God.
As a TA in western civ classes, I got hundreds of blue books over the years that told me that Catholics believed in predestination and Protestants believed in good works because Catholics are stricter than Protestants.
I teach from John Winthrop’s diaries every year to show the importance of signs and proper order in Massachusetts Bay society. When Winthrop marvels that a hurricane swept through and destroyed the new houses but spared the old, rather than try to see what Winthrop would have seen in this odd occurrence, students often write that this happened because people back then didn’t know how to build houses. I point out that they are doing what Winthrop did – using their understanding of the world to make sense of a strange thing – but also have to remind them of ships and cathedrals and that “they didn’t know how to build things” makes less sense than “God did it.”
Now students come in with all of these ideas and we work hard to disrupt them. But I’m not sure we actually do work that hard. Is it any wonder that students think people stopped being religious centuries ago when western civ classes don’t talk about it beyond the Reformation and the “Scientific Revolution?” Or that they think Luther was the first person ever to question the Church when we start with him and never really discuss any other controversies before or after? And when we start with Luther, talk about “science,” and then never talk about religion ever again, is it any wonder that students sort of think that Luther told everyone they could read the Bible, they did, realized it was hooey, and stopped believing in God, heralding the dawn of a modern, progressive age?
And perhaps most important, is it any wonder, given how lots of courses and popular depictions describe religion and science, that students panic when confronted by scientific racism, eugenics, and a hundred other scientific topics in the 19th and 20th centuries? In general, the response I get from my students to science that is not liberatory, from a modern perspective, is “that’s not science.” We can’t control popular depictions, but I think it’s important for scholars to think about how their courses reify problematic ideas about religion, modernity, progress, and science.
All of this is to say that teaching religion is probably the hardest thing I do, and I don’t even teach a course that’s focused on religion. I know – you read all the way to the end of this and I have no solutions! Honestly, the one semester I think students changed how they thought about religion was the semester where I had a student identify himself as Pentecostal early on in a discussion. By putting himself out there as a believer, he opened students up to thinking about belief in new ways. But I can’t have that every semester! Instead, I just keep trying and hoping, but I would love to know any thoughts people have on how to approach these issues: course design, assignments, thought puzzles, interpretive dance, etc.
[I think studying religion and justifying its integration into “regular” history is difficult and frustrating in other ways, but that’s another post!]