Thursday, January 03, 2013

The Dispassionate Study of World Religions

This coming Monday, with the beginning of a new semester, I begin a new TA assignment. This time around, though, the assignment is an old assignment, which I sign up for every time the offering comes up. The course is Dr. Arvind Sharma's RELG 207: Introduction to the Study of World Religions. This will be my fourth time.

You might say, having TA'ed for the course as much as I have, I am in a position to teach the course. Actually, my intention is prepare myself to teach the course at some point down the road. The prevailing wisdom the the Faculty of which I am a junior member seems to be that no one, except perhaps the most erudite scholar is in a position to teach such a wide ranging course. In conversation, fellow students seem to shy away from the prospect as well, for similar reasons. As a consequence, I don't see myself being offered the chance to teach it at McGill. But the course is popular here, and, as far as I can tell, everywhere else. So there seems wisdom is acquiring and cultivating the broad-based expertise required to teach it.

Every once and a while I am asked a question about a typical response from students to the course. Almost without fail, the assumption driving the query has to do with a secular-scientific antagonism towards all things 'religious', and vice versa. Whether pious believer, trained scientist, or business professional, so long as the age of the person asking the question is roughly 35 or above, the assumption remains firmly in place. My experience with students, however, is markedly different. Dr. Sharma's class fills its capacity year after year, and the course cap usually has to be extended by three or four to accommodate those students who want to attend, but don't seem to be able to secure an empty spot in the class by the usual means. Very few of the students seem hostile to the idea of believing in something which informs the realm of ordinary, verifiable experience, but exists beyond it, and is apprehended only through subjective experience . A slightly larger margin--ever so slight, mind you--seem hostile to 'organized religion'. But, in fact, most come to the class with a sort of dispassionate interest in the topic of religion. They are interested in the subject matter--they may even find themselves intellectually stimulated by the subject matter--but they have very little emotional investment in whether this or that religion is 'true'. Going to church, gurdwara, mosque, synagogue, or temple on a regular basis rarely seems to be a problem, only so long as they themselves aren't required to go.

Not so with the aforementioned group of middle-aged inquirers. Some express concern about the culturally relativistic nature of such a class. Some are exasperated that people (like myself) still find the quaint views of religious folks interesting. And some express surprise that a course on world religions would attract as much interest as it seems to be able to do. My usual response is to ask them to look at the spread of Islam around the world, to consider whether everything that goes on can be explained on purely economic or political terms, and to consider if we aren't better served knowing a bit about what Muslims might think important. Mind you, I find I can only ask the questions; since, in matters of religion, people are not so much convinced by the arguments of others, as they find ways of changing their own mind. Questions, in this sense, function like flashlights or binoculars. A different question may open up a different view of things. So it's my job to provide good questions.

What's the difference between these two generations? I suspect a much older generation of grandparents and teachers did such a thorough job of  critiquing the moral ineptitudes, philosophical inconsistencies, and scientific deficiencies of religion, the new generation of students, on the whole, is like a blank slate waiting to be written on. The collective WE no longer remembers why religion is bad a thing. Hence students are interested again, but their interest is devoid of the emotional content of a moral imperative know the truth of things. They are interested because they know they don't know.

The clarion call to intellectual militancy by the prophets of dispassionate scientific inquiry, the so-called New Atheists like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens, also makes sense in this dispassionate academic context. Which is, no doubt, ironic.

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