Why Study World Religions?
The academic study of religion is a traditional element in a liberal arts education. The Religious Studies minor at EOU has two principle aims: 1) to introduce students to some of the major religious traditions of the world and 2) to acquaint students with the main philosophical, psychological and historical methodologies employed in the study of religion.
One might ask, just how does the study of religion fit into a liberal arts education? Why study world religions?
Columbia University’s Department of Religion provides what we consider a partial, but eloquent, response to these questions:
Religion has been and remains to this day one of the most powerful forces shaping human history. The spread of religious movements and the clash of religious ideas have had a profound affect on the world’s cultures, societies, and civilizations. Countless wars have been fought and lives have been sacrificed in the name of religion, and the role that religious beliefs play in contemporary conflicts continues to be substantial.
Religion, however, has been more than just a destructive and violent force. Many of the world’s greatest thinkers, poets, and visionaries have been religious figures. Religion continues to serve as a rallying cry for social activism and support for those in need. For many individuals and communities, religion provides a framework in which to structure and make sense of their lives and experiences. Surveys consistently show that a vast majority of Americans believe in God and practice religion in one way or another.
Religion, far from becoming irrelevant in the modern world, continues to shape world events, national policies, daily life, and cultural production in communities throughout the world. Militant movements with religious overtones have altered the political landscape of the twenty-first century, and religion [has played] a critical role in conflicts in Bosnia, China, Indonesia, Ireland, Israel/Palestine, and Sri Lanka, to name but a few. ………
[In sum] the way in which religion shapes human thought and action, human history and current events, is exceedingly complex and vital to understanding the world around us ….
The contemporary academic study of religion strives toward objectivity in its examination of religious traditions and how they shape the lives of their adherents. Its purpose is not to promote or “disprove” religion in general or any belief system in particular, but rather to understand how religion or a belief system functions and develops over time. ……
But belief systems do not just develop over time, nor are they diverse simply because they develop in diverse locations and historic circumstances. Religious belief systems address fundamental and enduring human problems, questions and hopes – and offer a variety of answers. The academic study of religions brings students face-to-face with these questions in an objective and reasoned way, and looks at how religions have answered some of the critical questions facing human beings. What are good and evil – and how do these concepts originate? Who and what am I – and am I other than what I appear to be? What is a meaningful and fulfilling life? What – if any – are my responsibilities to family, community, state and world? What are the limits of human understanding – can humans understand Ultimate things? And perhaps most importantly for the 21st century global community, how do we deal with the claims of each religion to have “the truth” – when the “truths” appear to be different from each other?
These are some of the questions we ask in the Religious Studies program as we explore some of the main religious traditions of humanity and investigate how religions have provided a framework for people to “structure and make sense of their lives and experiences.”