Tuesday, October 22, 2013

On Religious Studies and the Death of the Humanities

Se-Woong Koo, a lecturer at Yale (poor fellow), recently wrote about the death of the humanities in Inside Higher Ed. Here are some highlights:

In all those years I was pursuing a Ph.D. in religious studies, thee [sic] question of what my profession really stood for rarely came up in conversation with fellow academics.
So those in religious studies rarely discuss what the discipline is really up to. Critical thinking apparently is something applied to others, never themselves.
I saw my teachers and peers struggle against the tide of general indifference aimed at our discipline and succumb to unhappiness or cynicism. It was heartbreaking.
So the practitioners of the discipline are unhappy and cynical and the public is apathetic. This matches my experience too.

The author went to teach in Bangladesh.
My new students came from 12 different countries, and many of them had been brought up in deeply religious households, representing nearly all traditions practiced throughout Asia. They, however, knew about religion only what they had heard from priests, monks, or imams, and did not understand what it meant to study religion from an academic point of view.
So the intrepid author was ready to teach these poor benighted rubes about what religion really is about. After all, he had a degree in religious studies.
But what was meant to be a straightforward comparison of religious traditions around the region quickly slipped from my control and morphed into a terrible mess. I remember an early lesson: When I suggested during a class on religious pilgrimage that a visit to a Muslim saint’s shrine had the potential to constitute worship, it incited a near-riot.

Several Muslim students immediately protested that I was suggesting heresy, citing a Quranic injunction that only Allah should be revered. . . . Instead of provoking a thoughtful discussion, my idea of comparative religious studies seemed only to strike students as blasphemous.
So here was someone who knew a little about a bunch of different religions trying to teach a group of students about their religions about which he knows a little and they know a great deal. He did not know enough about their religion to know that some of the things that he was saying were deeply offensive. In other words, he knew a little, but not enough.

I have found that, in general, those in religious studies do not understand blasphemy very well. They have no visceral response to it, whereas those who are actually religious usually do. Practitioners of religious studies also do not understand that the basic ideas of religious studies are largely blasphemous. (A kindly man once pointed out to me that my calling his faith a religion was, itself, offensive; I changed my paper accordingly.)
With my early enthusiasm and amusement depleted, I was ready to declare neutral instruction of religion in Bangladesh impossible. But over the course of the semester I could discern one positive effect of our classroom exercise: students’ increasing skepticism toward received wisdom.
Increased skepticism is a positive effect? I think his earlier conclusion was wiser. Religion is not neutral ground. Anyone who thinks differently does not understand it.

The author continues his narrative and came to the conclusion that:
The humanities is not just about disseminating facts or teaching interpretive skills or making a living; it is about taking a very public stance that above the specifics of widely divergent human ideas exist more important, universally applicable ideals of truth and freedom.
Yes, some things are more important than others and it is important to be able to articulate what they are. Specifically,
humanistic endeavor is meant to make us not only better thinkers, but also more empowered and virtuous human beings.
When scandal befell his institution (which involved appointing someone to fill an administrative post without proper academic credentials--in this case any academic credentials), most of his colleagues advised him to do nothing.
Several of my colleagues on the faculty, though wonderful as individuals, demurred from taking a stance for fear of being targeted by the administration for retribution or losing the professional and financial benefits they enjoyed.
Neal A. Maxwell once wryly observed:
Professors of philosophy often discuss the reality of reality, sometimes with great intensity and sometimes with bemused detachment-but they always cash their paychecks.
(Things As They Really Are, footnote to chapter 1)
While some faculty, at least those who are not cynical, might still have some devotion to ideals, administrators tend to have no vested interest in being virtuous or promoting virtue, and are often petty tyrants.
It was simultaneously flummoxing and devastating to hear a humanist say that when called to think about the real-life implications of our discipline, we should resort to inaction.
 He notes that his students
gave up and succumbed to cynicism about higher education and the world, seeing many of their professors do nothing to live by the principles taught in class, and recognizing the humanities as exquisitely crafted words utterly devoid of substance.
 So, the author too concludes:
I can only conclude, with no small amount of sadness, that most humanists are not, nor do they care to be, exemplary human beings.
And so,
the humanities will always appear irrelevant as long as its practitioners refrain from demonstrating a tangible link between what they preach and how they behave.
It seems to me that Koo has provided two interesting insights, one intentionally and one unintentionally. The first insight, which was unintentional, is that the branch of humanities that he studied, religious studies, is a blasphemous parasite on the religions it studies. (This is not to say that it has to be that way or should be that way, but that mostly it is that way.) The second is that the humanities has failed to make people better people. It fails as a religion. Hugh Nibley recognized this more than half a century ago in a discussion of his own education:
Typical was the committee's rejection of my first subject for a thesis: I wanted to write about the perennial phenomenon of the mob in the ancient world; the the committee found the subject altogether too unreal, too irrelevant to the mood and spirit of the modern world, to appeal even to normal curiosity. How could you expect such men to be aware of the desperately lonely and unhappy young people all around them, seething with resentment and building up to some kind of an explosion (which occurred in the sixties), frustrated at every turn as they asked for the bread of life and got only processed academic factory food served at an automat? (CWHN 17:13).
Those searching for the bread of life will not find it in the humanities, much less in religious studies.

Time after time, scholars note that various ancient cultures have no word for religion. (Notice that English has to use a loan word from another language.) Religion was just what one did because of one's relationship with God. Religious studies, as presently practiced, does nothing to improve behavior and neither does the humanities. They are a poor substitute for religion or faith itself.