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Religious Literacy is Social Justice

This week’s podcast with Professor Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst explores the University of Vermont’s new “Religious Literacy for Professionals” certificate. Framing religious literacy as social justice, Morgenstein Fuerst explains how her program is trying to reach undergraduates in other professional tracks at the 10 colleges around her university. With a powerful message for her students about the impact and relevance of religious studies coursework, this new program looks to prepare students for the modern America where religious affiliation is down but the need to be skilled “readers” of religion in culture is more pressing than ever.

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Religious Literacy is Social Justice

Podcast with Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst (27 January 2020).

Interviewed by David McConeghy

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/religious-literacy-is-social-justice/

David McConeghy (DMcC): Welcome. I am David McConeghy, and today I am joined by Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst PhD, an Associate Professor of Religion and Associate Director of the Humanities Centre of the University of Vermont. Her research centres on Islam and Muslims in South Asia; theories and histories of religion, race and language; and imperialism. She is the author of Indian Muslim Minorities in the 1857 Rebellion: Religion and Rebels and Jihad, published in 2017 – but fresh in paperback, in just a little bit, here in 2019. She’s also the author of numerous articles on Islam, Islamic studies and religion in South Asia. Thank you so much for joining us here today.

Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst (IMF): Thank you so much for having me.

DMcC: Now we’ve brought you today – and I’d love to have you back a second time to talk about Indian Muslim minorities – but we have you here today because there is something really interesting happening at your programme at the University of Vermont. Before we share the exciting new addition that you have to your programme, can you tell us a little bit about the University of Vermont and what it’s like there?

IMF: Sure. Well – shocking no-one – we are in Vermont! And we are the land-grant flagship University of the State of Vermont. Folks mostly know us for our leaves and our snow, and Ben & Jerry’s, and maybe a guy you’ve heard of named Bernie! But Vermont is actually a really small state, despite how much out of its weight class it punches in the national imaginary of New England. We have about 650,000 residents. So we’re really tiny. So the University – while being a land-grant which, in theory, serves the state of Vermont – ends up serving more of New England, broadly, and the mid-Atlantic states of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut a little bit more than it serves exclusively Vermont. So, as a student body, we’ve got about ten thousand students, most of whom are drawn from Massachusetts, and New York, and New Jersey, with Vermont being the fourth kind-of representative here.

DMcC: Right. And you’re right there, on beautiful Lake Champlain!

IMF: We are. We’ve got a monster and everything. It’s a religion professor’s dream!

DMcC: I know! It’s hard to compete. When I was at Santa Barbara, a long time ago, everyone always said, “How can you get anything done with the beach being right there?” But having visited Vermont when I was a college student, I felt the same way. “How does anyone get anything done?” And I fear there’s a good answer, and it comes from the sky – during a very particular time of year!

IMF: I think faculty employees do get a ski and snowboard discount at a local mountain! But I’d like to describe myself as an indoor cat. No thank you! (Laughs).

DMcC: The fireplace is nice. And watching it fall outside is great. But . . .

IMF: It’s better on the inside.

DMcC: Yes. So at the University of Vermont the religion department probably wears, like in many universities, a lot of hats. Are the majority of your students general education students, and you’re doing part of the university’s general curriculum? How many kind-of majors do you have in your programme?

IMF: That’s a really good question. So, yes – we are a teaching-and-service-heavy department. We serve quite a lot of students, and we serve a number of different programmes at the university. But our majors are pretty small. We’ve got about . . . . We graduate between a dozen and twenty majors, let’s say, a year. And the count of our majors over four years is really challenging, because most first year students don’t come in as religion majors. So we’ve got that same hustle that every other religion department has, where not only do you have to exist in a sea of options, but we need to both un-teach what folks think about religion, and then re-teach the study of religion from that secular academic perspective. But the department is really interdisciplinary, like most religion departments. Until this year, we had four directors of other programmes located in our seven-person department. Including the Middle-East studies, African Studies, Asian Studies and Jewish studies. And I’m the reason that that’s not true anymore. Everybody but Middle-East studies (5:00). I turned that over to another colleague, as I stepped up into the role of Associate Director of the Humanities Centre.

DMcC: Right.

IMF: Our classes count as many as you can imagine. They count across the university: gender, women and sexuality studies; cross-listed with history; anthropology; political science; the Honours College. Our Gen. Ed. diversity requirements are a big draw for students in our field. But in terms of majors and minors it’s a relatively small population.

DMcC: Right. And within your programme – and I know every programme is a little bit different about this – but in general, where do your majors typically go on after they complete their degrees? Is there a common theme among them, or is it as diverse as many programmes find for the graduates?

IMF: I would say . . . . We did our survey about this, I guess, in 2014, now. And at that time the data showed that we’d got a pretty good spread amongst private sector/public sector: health professions, education and social work. But I would say, most of our graduates go on to what we’ve been calling the “public good”: things like education, social work, non-profits, or private sector businesses that have social missions. And so we’ve been using the language of public good, in part because it dovetails with UVM’s mission statement. We have . . . . We call it the “common ground”, where there are certain values we’re supposed to be teaching the across the curriculum and across disciplines.

DMcC: I see.

IMF: But we noticed that a lot of our students really do want to contribute. They want to “help the world”, and that can mean really different things, for all the obvious reasons. But the trend we see, if any. . . . We don’t see. . . . Even the students that go on to law school, the kind of law that they articulate wanting to practice is more along the lines of social justice kinds of legal pursuits than corporate law. Not that there’s anything wrong with corporate law!

DMcC: I find it really interesting the way that you’ve framed that. Not only are you integrating with all of these departments – so you start off from an interdisciplinary kind of approach, you can’t help it – and then, because of the situation at Vermont with its mission, you can kind-of directly draw those lines to how the perspectives of what you’re doing within the religious studies orientation within the university really can play a huge role in the kinds of employment that students might be thinking about after they finish. It leads us directly into, I think, your new certificate programme. So can you share with us the brand new programme that you’ve got?

IMF: Yes. I would love to! So, like many religion departments, we – and Humanities, I think, across the board – were thinking about things like: how do we go from limp years of graduating six majors to something a little bit bigger than that? And if we can’t do that, then how do make sure that the value that we bring to the university is evident and clear both to our students and the other publics that we serve as a land-grant institution – but also to the bean counters in central administration, you know, at the next rank above us? And so one of the things that we played with were these ideas of a certificate, and drawing on expertise we already have. We think our major and our minor already do work in the fields of religious literacy and the public good. But we also notice that students . . . . So, UVM is a university with technically ten colleges that comprise that university. And a number of those – we’re in the College of Arts and Science – but a number of those colleges are essentially professional schools. The Business School, the School of Education and Social Service, the Nursing School. And what we’ve noticed for years is that students in those professional schools do not have the flexibility in their curriculum. They are not liberal arts degrees, and so they do not have the spaces for electives. However, when they do have an elective they come to us. And then they leave their student evaluations, emails, you name it, begging for more classes and more opportunities (10:00). And so we really created what we’re calling the Certificate in Religious Literacy for the professions, with those students in mind. How can they complement their nursing degree, their education degree, their social work degree, their business degree with limited time in their curriculum to graduate in a four-year schedule? And so they don’t have the space for a minor – so how could we reach them where they are, and get them something that they’re already saying is attractive to them?

DMcC: It’s such a smart move, right? You have students that are in your programme for one course, and they don’t have room for five or six courses, but maybe they have room for two related courses? And so, you just get that next level of ask from those students – that second course. And then you reward them very clearly for it, right? You give them a clear expectation of what they get out of it. And you really have, across those ten schools – I’m looking at Agriculture, and Life Sciences, and the Business School, and Education and Social Services, and Nursing, like you mentioned. And I have nursing students. They have such a demanding schedule at my university. And they are so stressed out. And they want to have the opportunity to take electives that are interesting, but also relevant to their professional aspirations. And I think you’ve really captured a kind of way to do that at your institution.

IMF: Yes. And so when we were doing research about religious literacy programmes, obviously Diane Moore’s path-breaking work at Harvard has been inspirational and important. And I know that the AAR just last week released their guidelines for what religious literacy would look like at the university. But when we searched – and we researched I think something like thirty-five schools across the country – no one was doing this at the undergraduate level. It was all on the model of master’s students or returning students. So, for example, K12 teachers who are getting credits above their master’s, or going for recertification based on state guidelines. And one of the things that we thought where we could fill a niche that would serve our public – which is the University of Vermont’s students – is to really look at these professional schools and say: “Listen, these professional schools are essentially setting up programmes that are either master’s inclusive” – so a five-year programme where you come out with a BSNS or a BANA – “or they’re meant to subvent the master’s where you don’t need it. You come out with a degree and the certifications you need.” And so these master’s level programmes are important and wonderful, but they’re missing this population – and, frankly, an aspect of this generation of students who are coming out saddled with all sorts of debt, and may not want to go to a master’s degree. And, on top of that, may not then add on this extra component. But I think undergraduates, regardless of their programme, are really mindful – and whether that’s a mindfulness in an intentional, optimistic way, or a deeply cynical “How will I get a job after school?” way (audio unclear) (Laughs). But I think what we have seen at Vermont is that students really want to learn. They want to know how to do their next phase well. And they want to be able to point to something on their transcript, on their résumé, that gives them the credential to do it. And so we really do think that pitching religious literacy as a job skill, and as a social justice intellectual pursuit, works at the undergraduate level here.

DMcC: Right. Can you talk a little bit about some of the responses you’ve had before? I know on Twitter, when you were sharing the development and the announcement of the programme with all of your Twitter followers, that there was a lot . . . you commented that you had got a lot of emails from other faculties, other programmes that were really interested in it. But within your university – from students, and other faculty members, and the administration – what has the initial response been like?

IMF: Yes. So we’re launching two things at once. So we’re kicking off the certificate. The only required course for the certificate is called Religious Literacy and we’ll offer that in the spring (15:00). And so the certificate is technically live, but the one requirement hasn’t yet been offered. And so we are running . . . we’re calling it the long month, the long religious literacy month, because it started at the end of September and will end at the beginning of November, so it’s – you know, I’m a nineteenth century historian, so it’s a long month!

DMcC: (Laughs).

IMF: And those events have been wildly popular. We’ve had three out of five of events and we’ve had no fewer than sixty students attend each event.

DMcC: I saw the pictures . . . . Every seat was gone!

IMF: We had . . . . I mean, it’s really been surprising. I don’t know what other universities are like, but in the end we don’t have a zero period. So there’s classes all the time. And so whenever you schedule an event you’re always scheduling against classes, or labs, or other events, obviously. So getting students to come out can sometimes be challenging – just based on what scheduling looks like here. And we’ve been shocked. I mean for Simran Jeet Singh’s talk, which was the kick-off event, we had over a hundred and twenty students come!

DMcC: Rock star!

IMF: We hosted a panel in conjunction with indigenous people’s day – it’s the first indigenous peoples’ day in Vermont. They changed the holiday – rightfully so. And we facilitated a panel featuring Abenaki practitioners. And that is a room that seats a hundred and ten, but there were over two dozen people in the aisles! So we don’t even know what the head count for that was, because we couldn’t see everybody. So we’ve been floored by how these events – which are meant to create a little bit of buzz, get people interested in what we’re doing – we’ve been really floored by the student response. We expected faculty to come; faculty always go to these events.

DMcC: Right.

IMF: But student response has been really impressive.

DMcC: That must be so rewarding, to have initiated a new thing and have this talk series, and have the students respond so powerfully to it.

IMF: Yes. It’s been a lot of work – I won’t lie – but it’s been really wonderful. You know, it’s one thing to have a thesis right? And we’re testing it out. We think that this is important. We think that this will fit with the student body, here at UVM, and we think that there is a demand for it – even though we don’t necessarily see that demand paying out in our minor and major. So to take this gamble and see it paying off a little bit, even, is validating, right? And then I think, also, what’s been really validating has been that our senior administration has been unbelievably supportive. So, in order to get the certificate passed, we needed to work with other units across the university. So the dean of . . . at the time, the dean of nursing – who has since been promoted to the provost’s position – wrote us a really glowing letter in support, saying that “it would only bring benefits to the nursing school”. And now, in her role as provost, she’s come to a number of these events and her office is a co-sponsor. Because five events, plus all the other hoopla that goes with it, is an expensive endeavour. So she’s been really supportive from the top down. The dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Bill Falls, has been to three of our faculty meetings. He has been actively stumping for this certificate in other places. And as we think about ways to expand it out beyond just the undergraduate programme – you know, on a two-three-five-year timeline – he’s really doing a lot. And his office are doing a lot of legwork in making connections with the state department of education, with chambers of commerce across the state, with other deans of the university, so that it’s not just our seven-person department, screaming from the rooftops. So we’ve felt really supported. And, you know, that makes all the difference. I don’t feel like we’re swimming up . . . . We might be swimming upstream, in the way that Humanities departments feel embattled. But I do not feel like we are fighting our administration, or our students, to demonstrate that this is a valuable programme.

DMcC: That’s so comforting to hear. Because we often hear about how imperilled the Humanities are. But we have an instance here, where we’re really seeing that the students are responding to the work that we do in the field, and are responding in high volume to it. (20:00) Which is. . . for those of us that worry about every time that another chronicle of higher education or the New York Times or Wall Street Journal article comes out, where it says the Humanities are dying and everybody should do STEM and have a professional career track, that it really feels like a nail in that coffin. But that’s not what I’m hearing here. And if you have goals for your students over the next two-to-five periods, as the programme develops, what are the goals that you see for students that are coming out of the programme, and for what things look like five years from now?

IMF: Yes. I think we’ve got similar goals that religious studies departments have across the country. I want folks to be able to read a newspaper article, a TV show, a situation, a comment and ask the question about “What is religion here?” Right? I always say, “Religion is what people do.” And to quote Megan Goodwin, she always says, “You might be done with religion, but religion’s not done with you.” So I think . . . . And that’s a line, you know . . . . Consider that stolen! It’s good to have best friends that are quippy! Because, you know, Vermont is the least religious state, or the most unchurched state, in the Union based on Pew reports. And we can debate the validity of those, and how we count heads, and whether what we mean by that is white Christians and not everybody else. But the truth is that we get a lot of students at UVM who identify strongly with spiritual-but-not-religious. And my sense is . . . what I want from students in this programme is: “That’s great. But spiritual-but-not-religious is still a religion question! It is still . . . . Religion is still in the room. It’s still part of that discussion. And if you can see that, then” – because we’re targeting pre-professional students – “you will be better at your job, whatever that job is.” Because if you work with people, you think about religion. If you work in communities, religion is in the ether. And I think making sure that we’re making that loud and clear is a really big piece of this. I think the other piece of it is that as a department we’re drafting articles about this. We’re doing real research. This isn’t just a passing fad to get butts on seats, so to speak. We’re actively . . . at least, devoting some of our collective research time to it. There’s a couple of co-authored pieces that Vicki Brennan and I are working on. And what we see as adding to the debate around . . . or conversation, not debate, around “How do you do this kind of work in the study of religion?” And I think what we’ve come up with is unlike interfaith conversations – that assume faith-based commitments, or at least a starting place of faith – and inter-religious studies – which is doing slightly different work around education and intertextual kinds of debates – I think where we see ourselves coming at this, is the study of religion plus social justice. So that this is not just about some theoretical turn where we can all quote all of our great theorists, and our students can all come out saying “Religion is complicated. Religion is what people do.” That’s great for the major and minor. But I think what we’re explicitly doing – we do in the major and minor too, but we have more time to do it – is to explicitly position religious literacy as an issue of social justice. The first line Simran Singh said, when he came to talk about religious literacy was that, for people who look like him, religious literacy is a matter of survival. For everybody else it’s matter of social justice. And that is what we asked him to come and talk about. That’s how I pitched this series for him. That’s how I saw him contributing. And I think that’s the piece that we’re really trying to get at. If you’re a nursing student and you want to treat a body, you have to treat their whole person. And for many people, even people who claim to be atheist, that is still within that frame of religious studies. I think that’s . . .

DMcC: Right. This is, I think, more and more what I’m hearing from a variety of places about how scholars in this moment are really thinking about religious literacy. Some are willing to go, if they have a faith of their own and they’re speaking from their faith, then the interfaith perspective is really a way to kind of generate those conversations. I’ve read Interreligious/ Interfaith Studies; it’s a book about the new fields that Eboo Patel, and Jennifer Howe Peace, and Noah Silverman put out (25:00). And there’s a lot of really interesting conversations that are going on there. Whether people are asking, “How can we acknowledge that religion isn’t going to go away, it’s an important part of people’s lives, and at the same time as an academic field we have critical methods that we want to bring to it? And I hear you saying that for you, that combination of things is the religious literacy work that you’re doing right now. Is that how you feel about it?

IMF: Yes. And I think it’s also about being clear about our pedagogy. I think many . . . at least the folks I run with – so that might tell you more about me than in other fields – but most of our pedagogies . . . . Look, I’m in Islamic Studies. When I started my PhD adviser, Carl Ernst, flat out said, “You might not have a choice of being a public scholar. People are going to hound you, because Islam – whether we like it or not – is seen as controversy”. And that stuck with me. Because my training was not allowed . . . there was no possibility for my training to be inward-looking, navel-gazing. And so my pedagogy has always been about un-teaching. And I think I take Simran Singh’s quote, here, really vitally. Like, that un-teaching is a matter of survival for some of my research subjects. And so I think, for me, it’s really about naming our pedagogy as a process of social justice, and not shying away from the ways in which activism might be part of our universe. And I don’t mean activism like marching and rabble-rousing in our classrooms. But I do mean activism like there is a political intent to everything we do. There is no such thing as neutrality. And we name that in our classrooms. And we’re not that good at naming it programmatically. So I think the Religious Literacy Certificate is naming that programmatically, right? There are people you will encounter that you need to be able to make sense of, and not in a: do you know what the Qur’an is? That’d be great. But: can you read the situation? Can you figure out why someone might be comfortable, uncomfortable, threatened, not threatened? Can you imagine why ethical systems might be different from each other? So it’s less about knowing facts and more about applying theory. And for me, that’s an activist position.

DMcC: Yes. And this feels like, you know, you’re saying the things that I try to say to my students. “I’m trying to teach you to read religion in all the places that, if we were more literate, we would naturally see and find it.” We need the glasses that . . . you know, rose-tinted or green glasses, to look out at the world and see, “Oh! It really is absolutely everywhere!” And, for so many people, every day. Is that message the winning message for religious studies? Because I worry that there’s a longer conversation that we’re skirting the edges of here that, you know, maybe goes back to Timothy Fitzgerald and earlier, where folks worry that somehow there’s an illusion that there’s this sliding into non-academic discourse when we start talking in this way about the goals of our field. Is that a risk that you think is present? Or do you think that there’s a problem with that presentation of how we think about our programme?

IMF: Yes. I don’t, right? I think that, again, to come back to what I study, my sense of it is that there is no neutrality. And so simply saying “I’m a scholar of Islam”, I am already a politicised body. My comments are already politicised. I do not think that makes my research any less rigorous. I don’t think that makes my teaching any less rigorous. I don’t think in demanding students make applications and connections that are historically contingent, critical, across time, and place, and region, and sometimes language, I don’t think that that’s anything but academic. And so this idea that we need to be really careful about the future of the field, I mean, fields are supposed to move and change (30:00). And I think that naming what we do is an important way, in a time where the humanities are imperilled, I think precisely because we can’t put our finger on the deliverable – and I don’t like that language – but . . . I think I said this on Twitter: “I don’t like living in a neoliberal hegemony, but I do”. And so ignoring that, and pretending like I have some sort of rarefied data set that no-one else could possibly understand, that just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. And I also think that that is. . . I think that’s a lie. I think that all of us are always translating these high-level, particularly specific sets of information that we have spent our whole careers mastering – knowing full-well that mastery is impossible, but working on aspects of that – and we translate that to our Intro level students all the time. We translate that to our senior level students because . . . . Because. And so, I think I’m not worried about that in the way that I hear other folks being worried about it. I hear the critique, but that’s . . . I don’t find it especially convincing.

DMcC: Yes. I think one of the problems with the critique . . . . I bring it up because I know that it’s kind-of the potentially straw person that’s waiting out there, to rebut: “Well, how can you have an academic field that is organised around social justice?” And I agree with you. I’m not sure that that’s necessarily a problem, right? I’m not sure that that’s how I, personally, would frame it. And I think the challenge with that approach is that social justice is different, potentially, depending on the agency and position of the person that you’re speaking to. And I think, when we look back at kind-of the narrative that has come from Fitzgerald about the ideology of religious studies, that when we move forward in time it’s always about who gets to claim that role. And when we tell our students, “Well we’re not really sure how to define religion. Here’s the definition we’re going to use right now – let’s see how far it goes.” That’s one kind of move. But then when you add social justice, you can make the same moves against that. Whose social justice, and for whom is it working? And why do we want it to work in a particular way? And, I think, opening that allows our students to actually make those choices. They can see social justice differently than we do. And if we open that possibility then they can make their own choices, critically, about how to apply that term – just like we ask them to make choices critically about how to apply the term religion.

IMF: OK. And I think . . . so Vicki Brennan and I are working on this article right now. And one of the first questions we ask is . . . . We’re pushing this thing, we’re talking about religious literacy, because its feels like it’s a marketable thing here at UVM. It’s clearly struck a nerve in other ways, because of the response we’ve gotten. But one of the questions we’re asking now, and one of the questions that we’re asking on this course that we’re teaching is: who is allowed to be religiously illiterate? Right? So, even the framing of religious literacy, to me, is already about cultural and social structures that are never apolitical and they are not neutral.

DMcC: Right. It’s the fish! It’s the old joke: the two young fishes are in the water and the old fish swims by and asks, “How’s the water today?” and the young fishes are like “What’s water?”

IMF: Exactly. So look. UVM is an overwhelmingly white school. We are an overwhelmingly white state. I think the last time I checked this data point, we are the second most white state in the nation. We have very few religious minorities, though that’s changing with patterns of refugee resettlement and other kinds of related issues. But this idea of like, who needs religious literacy? The elephant in the room is that it’s white, either post-Christian or Christian students who exist in the water and do not know they’re swimming in it. And so I think again, from the outset, religious literacy is already a politicised term, because it assumes that one was illiterate and now has become literate. And we know that for other folks – to go back to Simran Singh’s really poignant phrase – for him religious literacy is a matter of survival. And one of the things he talked about was that he cannot be religiously illiterate. He needs to know what’s going on around him (35:00). Often for his own personal safety. So when . . . again I get the (audio unclear) I’ve read all those theorists, but I think it feels unconvincing to me. Both because of my own intellectual commitments, my intellectual training as an Islamicists, and just again: who’s allowed to not know, always is a power. It’s always about power and hierarchy.

DMcC: Right. I was just about to say, is part of the argument that religion is about what we do, but religion is also about something else, right? The power structures that are using religion or being used by religion that we may not recognise.

IMF: That’s exactly right.

DMcC: Do you think that for your students, going forward in the programme, that the primary goal for them is to reveal the necessity of literacy in the sense that part of what we’re being religiously literate about is the fact that we assume that religion works in certain ways, and then we just don’t talk about it, right? This is the “water” that we’re doing. And that, with the rise of religious nones, that this is only an accelerating problem. That students that we get now . . . It used to be that they might have been, even if they were not Christian, that they might have been culturally Christian, and now we can’t even assume that. We’ve lost even that, as a starting point for where the conversation can begin.

IMF: I think that’s right. And I think that’s where, you know, we offer classes in our department – like many other departments – on secularism. The religion department teaches secularism, precisely because of these issues. And I think we’re all really well-versed and so on. But we want our students to become more equipped to see that.

DMcC: Yes. Well it’s been such a delight to talk to you about this today. I’m so happy for your students at the University of Vermont to have this really interesting conversation about it. If folks would like to continue the conversation with you about it, can they find you on Twitter?

IMF: They sure can. I am @PROFIRMF and they can also follow the department on Twitter which is @REL_UVM.

DMcC: That’s perfect. Thank you so much for joining me today.

IMF: Thank you for having me. This was a delight.

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Straight White American Jesus, the podcast

In this week’s podcast, Skidmore College Professor Bradley Onishi speaks about Straight White American Jesus, a podcast he co-hosts with Dan Miller that blends insider religious experience with academic expertise about American Evangelicalism. “The goal is never reduction,” Onishi argues about the mix of insider/outsider frames. Instead, he shares how the podcast tries to provide better access to complex religious worlds and how careful historical framing and rigorous critical analysis can humanize rather than demonize evangelicals. Looking honestly at religion, warts and all, is worth the effort since it leads us to increased religious literacy outcomes designed to understand the “human condition writ large.”

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Straight White American Jesus, the Podcast

Podcast with Bradley Onishi (25 November 2019).

Interviewed by David McConeghy

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/straight-white-american-jesus-the-podcast/

PDF at https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Onishi_-_Straight_White_American_Jesus-_the_Podcast_1.1.pdf

David McConeghy (DMcC): Welcome. My name is David McConeghy. And today I’m joined by Dr Bradley Onishi, Associate Professor of Religion at Skidmore College in New York. He’s the co-author of Christian Mysticism: An Introduction to Contemporary Theoretical Approaches; the author of The Sacrality of the Secular, a major work about the philosophy of religion. Today he’s here as the co-host, with Dan Miller, of the really excellent podcast, Straight White American Jesus. Brad, thanks so much for joining us today.

Bradley Onishi (BO): Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.

DMcC: So I’ve been listening to your podcast for a while now, and I know you share it with everyone. But for those that haven’t come across this yet, where did you get the idea for this podcast?

BO: So in the kind-of aftermath of Trump’s election Dan and I got together and talked about wanting to share our stories, and also wanting to share kind-of our scholarship on evangelicalism and American religion. For those who haven’t listened, my story is basically that I converted to evangelicalism when I was fourteen. And by the time I was twenty I was a full-time minister, I was married, and I was really on my way toward a kind-of life in ministry and in the evangelical world. All of that changed, of course. And I’m still in the religion game – as I like to say – but just from a much different perspective. And so, for Dan and I, we wanted to help folks have an insider perspective and understanding of white evangelicalism in this country. We also wanted to provide a kind-of historical and social scientific lens on white evangelicalism. Our major goal is basically this: we want to explain, basically, why Donald Trump appears more like Jesus than any other politician white evangelicals have ever encountered. And so we do that through both the telling of our stories and a kind-of tracing the history of evangelicalism in this country.

DMcC: I found that mix of personal experience blending in to academic rigour, blending into full-on interviews with really important scholar like R. Marie Griffith and Randall Balmer. It’s really compelling. Did you know from the beginning that you had that kind-of really effective dialogue between those two halves? That you and Dan both share, right, share a background?

BO: Yes, you know it all comes so naturally. Because evangelicalism was my world. I mean I was. . . . It’s hard to explain how zealous I was, when I converted. I was that sixteen year-old kid who went from sneaking around the back of movie theatres to do teenage stuff, to standing out in front of the movie theatre, trying to convert people. And so when evangelicalism is that much a part of your life reflecting on it is sometimes painful, but it comes very naturally. So Dan and I knew we could do that. We also knew we had a passion for enabling . . . or creating a platform for scholars to help a wider audience understand, like: how is that more white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump than for George W Bush, or Mitt Romney? How does that happen? Well, we knew there were people out there who could help us understand that. And so we wanted to just provide space for those analytical, historical, critical, sociological perspectives.

DMcC: What I take from the moment that we’re in right now, is that we really have a great opportunity, right, as scholars, as outsiders, to kind-of present some of the research that’s been done, especially into those theoretical perspectives that the public often doesn’t see. Because they’re framed in language or framed in books that are hard to market to public audiences. But the insider approach really gives you that colloquial, fundamental access to an authenticity, when you speak about it, that makes it – when you switch, then, to the academic narrative – so much more alive. When you say it’s hard to convince audiences of how zealous you were, there was the moment when you were describing in the podcast, how you would go, in the high school lunch room, up to students that were your high school peers and evangelise to them at lunch. Because you were convinced that their mortal souls were at risk, and if you did not do everything you could do at that moment that you were going to leave them behind.

BO: Yes. And you know one of the goals is not to soften, or make more palatable the politics and culture of evangelicals in the Trump era. We are not here to sort-of “make nice” in any case. But what I do want to do, by telling stories like the one you just mentioned, I want people to be able to think themselves into the places of the evangelicals, not so that they can agree, not so that they can accept it, but so they can see the human element in it. It’s so easy to reduce those we disagree with – especially those who seem to be harming our public sphere – to just reduce them to something demented, something that’s not right. And just sort-of push them away as hopeless and helpless and whatever. My hope is by sharing my story, and Dan’s too, that we can show folks that this is a very human culture. It’s a very human set of events. It’s a very human community. And if you can get a window into that, maybe it can help you when you’re at a school board meeting, or you’re at your election for the city council, or when you’re dealing with parents on your kids’ soccer team, or having a Thanksgiving dinner. Maybe it can give you a better approach to how to discuss these things with your neighbours, with your fellow citizens, with your colleagues – whoever that may be. And so all that is to say, for me, that the personal element is really, really important. It adds something, I think, that makes it easier for a general audience to identify with. And it also makes it easier for those who are ex-evangelicals, like I am, to feel that they have a way in to understand more of the sort-of academic discourse surrounding the culture that they’re arguing from.

DMcC: Right. And for those perhaps outside of the US, it’s been a very kind-of English language discussion and very much on Twitter with folks like Chris Stroop, and others who #Exevangelical, are talking about their de-conversion experiences. There really is that kind-of two sides to what’s going on, in the sense that there are some folks that worry that perhaps the level of honesty that you’re approaching this topic with is unfair to evangelicals. And I think, all of the folks that I’ve heard from have been really forceful advocates for: “We’re not going to dismiss what’s wrong here, and we’re going to call out things that we see are wrong, and we feel like we have a space to do that.” But on the other hand it is about explaining experience and opening dialogue and trying to find the allies that are there for you. On the other hand, though, do you think . . . ? (Laughs) I’m guessing that maybe there’s been some push-back as well? Can you talk about the kinds of different responses that you’ve received from those that have been very supportive, as ex-evangelical community members, to those that are remaining evangelical, and may have some less than kind words for the work that you’re doing.

BO: Yes, I mean just to go to the beginning of your question there: my goal is not to. . . . I’m a scholar. And even when I’m talking about my own experiences, I want to be able to have an analytical lens. And so on our podcasts and with the work we’re doing, the goal is never reduction; the goal is never demonisation. The goal is always to say: “We want to examine these issues as best as we can.” And that includes returning to sources. That includes returning to documents and facts and histories that have been covered over that people don’t know about. We did this in one of our very first episodes with the abortion myth. Randall Balmer came on and . . . . Let me outline the history for you regarding the formation of the religious right. It was not about abortion. And the idea that it was is revisionist history in service of an evangelical propaganda or mission. In fact it was race. And my response to those who would have a pop at that, I would say “We’re doing historical work here. If you feel like our historical analysis is off in some way, we can talk about that. But just to say that somehow pointing these things out is unfair or not warranted, I just don’t buy that.”

DMcC: That’s such a good response. Because, you know, it allows you the space to say let’s take Darren Dochuk who would place oil, and empire, and commercialism, maybe even above race, at the start of the kind-of consolidation of the religious right. And it gives you that space to say, “Even scholars have disagreements about this. But we can all narrate the problems that we’re seeing at the same time.”

BO: I think that’s exactly right. And it leads to who has kind-of responded to the podcast. I can say that we’ve had two groups respond very positively. One are ex-evangelicals who’ve said “ You’re able to speak my language. You speak the language of evangelicalism that I came out of. And yet what you’re doing is giving me a road into understanding the history and all of the cultural and political factors that shaped that religious community that I’m now emerging from. What it’s doing is helping me kind-of put my world back together, after sort-of coming out of a very strict religious community that most of the time made no sense to me.” We’ve also had many people say, “I’m a secular person in Portland” or “I’m a Reformed Jew in New York City. I have no idea how to understand why white evangelicals are so in love with Donald Trump and why they vote, and act, and think the way they do, so you’re helping me gain a window into a culture that for me is completely alien. It seems so far from my understanding of the world that I just didn’t know where to start in order to understand all of this.” And so those two communities have really reached out over Twitter, and everything else, to say that they’ve really appreciated what we’re doing. There’s been a little bit of pushback, but not much. One of the things that I like to tell students and tell folks I discuss things with is, I am totally open as a scholar to argument, and debate, and dialogue. Those are the things I love. But you’re not going to out evangelical me! I’m like “level expert” at evangelical. So when it comes to theology, and language, and jargon, and colloquialisms, and clichés – I’m fluent in that. And so when you want to discuss those things with me, just know that I’m going to be speaking your language better than you. And so you’re not going to get the upper hand on me! And the last thing is, I’m not going to assume – and I think this is part of the ex-evangelical community online, the work they’re doing is – we need to stop assuming that if you call yourself a Christian that that means you are a good person. Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not calling Christians bad people! Do not come at me on Twitter for that! What I’m saying is there is a privilege in this country that if you’re a straight, white Christian – especially a straight, white Christian male – you’re given a kind-of cover as “Oh, you must be a true, good, old-fashioned patriot.” We just sort-of have this assumption. And part of the work we’re doing – along with many other people – is just saying we need to stop giving that benefit of the doubt, just because someone claims those identities. And we need to just be willing to look very critically, and with an unflinching gaze, on what’s actually happening in those communities. That could be everything from church, too, and sexual misconduct and abuse. That can be authoritarian structures that can be supporting candidates who are authoritarian and abusive – whatever it may be. And so anyway, all of that is part of the work I feel like we’re doing, and will continue to do, and are very proud to do.

DMcC: I’m tempted to ask whether you think you would ever run out of topics. But . . .

BO: (Laughs)

DMcC: since you describe your access to evangelicals as both fluency in a language, but also access to a world that is very closed off, and inaccessible to those that at are not fully immersed in it, it feels like you can just take any aspect of an evangelicals life: how they think about the economy, how they think about death, how they think about marriage, how they think about the value of life. And every issue, right, has to be encapsulated in some way by that worldview. It has to be addressed with fluency by that language. Do you feel that way? That there’s really never . . . this is an eternal wellspring for you?

BO: Well I don’t know about eternal, but what I will say is when you’re in something long enough you have the muscle memory to either know how to do it, or to find the person who does. And so I don’t want to make out that the evangelical community in this country, including the white evangelical community in this country is homogeneous. There’s a lot of difference between small house churches in West Texas and Liberty Baptists with the Falwell Family, there’s a lot of difference between the Vineyards in South California and what’s happening in rural Georgia. With all that said – at least in the Trump era – there is no shortage of need to discuss things related to evangelical culture. And so at least for the moment, it’s not hard to find things that are not only relevant but seem very pressing for our public sphere.

DMcC: It reminds me of the way that people have spoken about Trump’s election as a net gain for the media, even amid its attacks that the constant stream of scandals – or things that sound like scandals to some people – generates that kind-of a gravity of its own. And that we’re lucky, as religion scholars who happen to work on things that are so central to understanding what’s going on in American politics right now. It makes me feel very fortunate. But also it seems to carry a lot of responsibility. Do you feel that weight, as well?

BO: I do. And I know there’ll be people out there in the religious studies world who will say, “You know, Dan and Brad, you are blurring the lines between insider and outsider. You’re blurring the lines between scholar and data.” And I understand that perspective. I don’t necessarily agree with it. So when Dan and I go into any episode we do, we want to make sure that as we tell anecdotes from our past, as we recount what it was like to come home and have your family not be there, and have your first thought be “Maybe the rapture happened?” Where everyone got taken away and I didn’t. As we tell those stories we always want to balance that with very rigorous scholarship. And we want to do our homework. We want to go to the primary sources, we want to go to the data, we want to make sure we have that right, so that we can make sure, as scholars and as people that have a platform, that we are owning up and responding to that responsibility.

DMcC: Right. It also strikes me that it’s kind-of like you have an ethnographic project that you were living. And then you decided that the project was over. And then you realised that you could actually . . . that you had collected all this data that was really valuable. So, from one perspective, you know, is it blurring the line between insider and outsider? Well, it might be. But on the other hand, you were living in the same way that an ethnographer might live, as if they were doing full-immersion field work. And now you’ve pulled back from being within that perspective. And now that you’re not in that perspective you can clearly demarcate your outsider-ness – right? – in relation to your previous insider-ness

BO: And I think that’s right in ways that I think ethnographers experience. You begin . . . if you’re an ethnographer you form relationships within the community. And even when you might find the politics or practices of that community detestable, at that turning point, the relationships you form affect you. And believe me, I still have friends and many family members who are still part of the evangelical world. They are people for whom I have great affection. I love them. And so for me to do this project, again, means I want to avoid reduction and demonisation. But I also want to have the courage and the audacity to point as critical and as unflinching an eye as we can on what’s happening.

DMcC: Right. So, do you think – and feel free to share specific episodes that you’d like to direct people to if they come to mind – are there things that really resonate best with the community where the clarity of that kind-of-like worldview switch that you’ve had, that you’re revealing to everyone, really appears best? Your gold star podcast episodes?

BO: Well the thing we’ve been focussing on this season has been Beyond Belief. And what we want to do is explain not only what evangelicals believe, but what their culture and beliefs do for them. And so let me give you an example. We’ve spoken several times on our podcast about abortion and “cultures of life” – quote unquote – And one of the things we’ve tried really hard to explain is that, yes, there is a focus on abortion. Because many rank and file evangelicals go to bed at night believing that any form of abortion is equivalent to murder. Ok. However there’s whole nother package of goods that come with that belief. I know personally, from my own experience, that every time that I explained to my church elders that I wanted to vote for a Democrat because their emphasis on equality, or social justice, seemed more in line with the gospel of Jesus Christ, they would sort-of say to me “Look, you can do that if you want. But what you’re condoning is the murder of millions of children.” Why do I bring that up? Because that one belief in abortion meant that I could turn off my brain completely when it came to all other issues. So when I went into a voting booth I did not have to consider whether or not all the things related to healthcare reform, education initiatives, tax hikes, immigration, what all of those things meant for who I should vote for. What I was going to vote for was who was “pro-life”, quote unquote: who was against abortion. And so I got to turn off a whole set of moral and ethical decisions. I got to disengage politically, and go to bed at night knowing that I had done the right thing: that I was a good person, because I stood against murder. And that happens all over the place in evangelical culture. I could give you similar examples when it comes to apocalypticism. I could give you similar examples when it comes to God and guns, or gender. And so, what our audience has been really reacting to is unpacking what beliefs do for you more than just simply explaining theological frameworks or evangelical doctrines.

DMcC: And I’m so thrilled to hear you present it in that way. We’ve been having kind-of a religious literacy discussion on Twitter, some of us going around, and that really strikes me as one of the operational moves that religious studies really can take advantage of: that it’s not simply the content that we can present – it’s the critical appraisal of the work that religion does, in particular instances, for particular people. So on abortion, the work that it does is potentially make hard political decisions a lot easier, right? It clarifies what the expectations are for them. And, as an element of religious literacy, presenting religion in that way to the public is a really powerful way to think about it. It’s very different than thinking about religion as simply a collection of beliefs that we hold and then not really much beyond that, right?

BO: It is. And you know that in every Intro to Religion class, most scholars and teachers are not going to ask, you know, “Let’s ask their students to make a list of what Hindus and Muslims and Christians and everyone else believes.” They’re going to ask, “Let’s try to define religion.” and then they’re going to say, “What does religion do for people?” Well I know the question I ask my students on the first day, is “Why do people do religion?” and when I say why do people do religion, they immediately get away from belief and they start raising their hands. And it’s like “Community” “tradition”, “family”, “belonging”, “identity”. And as soon as we start talking about why people do religion instead of what do religious people believe, all of the dimensions of religious studies opens up. And what you see is that when we study religion we’re also studying race, we’re also studying embodiment, we’re also studying gender, and we’re also studying group formation. I always tell kids who want to major in religion, I’m like: “Look, when you sign up with us, you get to study it all. You don’t have to compartmentalise what you’re doing into one domain. Studying religion means studying the human condition writ large.” One of the things I like to say is that, when you study religion you get a window into human conditions. That means communities and worlds that at one time probably seemed indecipherable. And you also get a window into the human condition in a way that I think is really unique. In the humanities, yes, but in religious studies even more so.

DMcC: I’m so pleased to hear you say that. It’s really been quite a pleasure to speak with you today about this. Thank you so much for joining us. And where can people find your podcast online?

BO: Yes, so you can find Straight White American Jesus on Apple Podcast, on Stitcher, on Google, on most places that people find podcasts. You can find me on Twitter @BradleyOnishi. And we still do have a Straight White American Jesus Facebook page as well.

DMcC: Perfect. Thank you so much for joining us.

BO: Thanks for having me.

 

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Religious Education in State-Funded Schools: An Academic Subject Like Any Other… and Some!

In many ways I am in agreement with Professor Jensen, and see myself as a partner in the campaign to establish a ‘Religious Studies based’ Religious Education in state funded schools throughout Europe and indeed the world. Since experiencing a ‘road to Damascus’ conversion from Theology to Religious Studies on my teacher training year and Lancaster University MA in the mid-1970s (see Cush 2009), I have spent nearly forty years passionate about the ‘Religious Studies Approach’ and applying it in a variety of educational settings. I have also concerned myself throughout that time with the relationship between Religious Studies as understood at university level, and religious education in schools, both in academic publications (see for example Cush, 1999) and on various professional and policy committees on religious education. I currently represent the university Theology and Religious Studies sector (TRS-UK) on the Religious Education Council of England and Wales and its subcommittees, and was on the Steering Group for the new National Curriculum Framework for Religious Education, part of the recent Review of Religious Education in England (REC, 2013) – full report available at http://resubjectreview.recouncil.org.uk/re-review-report. So I am perhaps an example of the ‘publically engaged academic’ Tim seeks, at least in relation to education policy.

Like Professor Jensen, I began my teaching career in a sixth-form college (in Denmark, Gymnasium or ‘upper secondary’), and then moved into university level where I have been involved in both training teachers and undergraduate and postgraduate Religious Studies. Thus we both have much practical experience as well as theoretical perspectives.

I am in total agreement with Professor Jensen – Tim – that religious education should be a compulsory subject in all state-funded schools (see Jensen 2011). A brief note about terminology – I use the term ‘state-funded schools’ rather than ‘public schools’ (which is the term used in US and international English for ‘ordinary’ community schools), to avoid confusion with the English usage of the term ‘public schools’ to refer to certain prestigious, independent, fee-paying, schools. I also use ‘religious education’ as that is the most familiar term in the UK, although I like Tim’s ‘religion education’, which I believe was coined in South Africa in the late 90s, as avoiding the implication that studying religions is somehow ‘religious’. I would prefer another name altogether, possibly avoiding the highly contested term ‘religion’, which can carry negative connotations.

I also agree that religious education should be an academic subject, treated like other school subjects. If only it was treated like other subjects in England, we would not have the situation where it is a subject which is given less time on the timetable (many RE teachers have to enable students to pass their GCSE (16+ qualification) in half the time given for history or geography), where 50% of teachers teaching RE are completely unqualified in the subject, where primary trainee teachers may only have a couple of hours training, where it was not listed in the government’s list of important subjects for 16+ qualifications (the so-called ‘English Baccalaureate), where it is not included in the list of ‘facilitating subjects’ for gaining a place in the more prestigious universities, where trainee teachers are given no bursaries to study in spite of the shortage of specialist teachers, and where the recent Review of the subject had to be funded by charities and worked on by unpaid volunteers because the government provided no funding. For documented evidence on the neglect of religious education, see for example http://religiouseducationcouncil.org.uk/media/file/APPG_RE_-_The_Truth_Unmasked.pdf and to illustrate that this neglect is not new, Gates (1993).

I also agree with Tim and the colleague he mentioned, Wanda Alberts, that religious education should be what she calls ‘integrative’ (Alberts, 2007). In other words, the subject should be for all pupils of whatever religious background or none, should be non-confessional (not attempting to evangelise, proselytise, catechise or promote any particular religion or ‘religion’ in general), should be multi-faith (content should include major religions like Christianity, Islam and Buddhism but also smaller ‘indigenous’ traditions such as the Maori, and smaller newer developments such as contemporary Paganism). I also consider that given the fact that c.25% of people in England and Wales consider themselves to be ‘non-religious’ (whatever they mean by that) it is important to include the study of non-religious worldviews such as Humanism. It might come as a surprise to some that non-confessional, multi-faith religious education is still a minority option for states internationally (notably Sweden, Norway, Denmark, South Africa and the UK – and Ireland is thinking about it), most preferring to opt for either confessional religious education in the tradition deemed that of the country (or several separate strands if diversity is noticed) or to leave religious education out of state-funded education altogether, as in France or the USA.

I agree with Tim that multi-faith religious education, if appropriately done, is suitable for pupils of all ages from nursery schools onwards. Attitudes are formed early. I also wish that we in England had the sort of religious education for all students in the 16-19 age group that is found in Denmark, rather than A level Religious studies for the minority that take it and either nothing or a token gesture for the minority. I also agree that it is inappropriate for teachers of religious education to be expected to be somehow more of a moral role model, or more personally religious than any other teacher. Those of us in the subject at any level of education are bored with the predictable responses when introduced as a religious studies teacher/lecturer.

Another point of agreement with Tim is that we should not just be providing information about religious and non-religious traditions, but enabling our students to think critically about religions and to be able to discuss religious and ethical matters in an informed and articulate way (sometimes referred to as ‘religious literacy’). This, as Tim says, should be requisite in any open, democratic society.

I agree that we should have people teaching in schools that are well qualified, have studied the subject at university level, and that the university curriculum should take account of this and other likely careers for Religious Studies graduates, and help to provide skills they will need. Perhaps more controversially, I do agree to some extent with Tim’s aim of inculcating ‘some kind of relativism’, but would prefer to talk of ‘epistemological humility’ (a term apparently arrived at separately and simultaneously by David Chidester and myself) as ‘relativism’ is too misunderstood and explosive a term. What Tim and I mean is people who have their own well-thought out views and perspectives, but are open to accepting that they might just have something to learn from those who disagree with them.

And now for the ‘howevers’…

Although I bounced into the classroom in the 1970s full of enthusiasm to share my ‘Lancaster University Religious Studies’ knowledge of Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and so on with my students, over the decades, especially working with younger pupils, I have come to appreciate that there are other, and perhaps even more important aims for religious education. As Tim says, it is unlikely that any ‘scientific’ study of religion will not have side effects such as students reflecting on their own beliefs, values and identity, and becoming better citizens of a diverse society. However, in Religious Education as practised in England and Wales, academic knowledge of religions/non-religious worldviews is only one of the aims of religious education. Tim’s ‘side-effects’ become explicit aims. So, religious education should enable students to develop their own ideas on the important questions dealt with in religious traditions. In the words of the National Curriculum Framework (REC 2013) ‘Religious Education contributes dynamically to children and young people’s education in schools by provoking challenging questions about meaning and purpose in life, beliefs about God, ultimate reality, issues of right and wrong and what it means to be human’. Though agreeing with Tim (2011:143) that religions are more than sets of answers to existential questions, and that not everyone is interested in these issues any more than in religions, there needs to be space for pupils to work out their own beliefs and values, in relation to the community or communities they belong to and the wider society. I do however note Tim’s concern that this can go too far, and am myself concerned that a focus on philosophical and ethical issues in England is in danger of pushing out learning about religions in some examination syllabuses and therefore also in earlier school years.

Religions and non-religious worldviews also have much to offer in contribution to discussing some of the pressing issues of our day, such as social justice, equality, wealth and poverty, war and conflict, the environment. The REC document calls these contributions ‘sources of wisdom’, though in an impartial approach we must also enable pupils to think critically about examples where ‘religions’ and ‘worldviews’ have made things worse. Tim also states that in the hands of ‘engaged and dedicated teachers’ (2011:143) such issues arise naturally out of the ‘neutral and factual information about the religions taught’ – but unless planned for, or in the hands of less gifted teachers, they might not.

In order to engage positively with others in a society of diverse religious and non-religious worldviews, pupils need more than just factual information. They also need to empathise with others, and the skills of discussing controversial issues without disrespecting those with whom they disagree. These skills can be honed in the religious education classroom. Although the phenomenological approach to the study of religions has been rightly criticised in some respects, such as essentialism, the practice of epoche and empathy before jumping straight into critical analysis and evaluation have much to be said for them when dealing with matters at the heart of people’s identity.

Tim talked about being bored with observing religion in practice – visiting mosques and gurdwaras.  As a veteran of organising many a field trip, I can sympathise, but without us organising such visits many of our students will never have a chance of meeting some religious communities. Nothing beats actually meeting people to break down stereotypes (OK, sometimes they get reinforced, but that can be discussed), and realising that what we label ‘religion’ is not just about ideas and rules, but community, atmosphere, music, art, who we are, what we eat and how we wash. School religious education did not have to wait for university religious studies to suggest an ethnographic approach to studying religions, this was already happening in the late 60s and 70s (see Cush & Robinson, 2014:7), and more systematically from the 1990s (see Jackson, 1997 and 2004). The part of our undergraduate degree course that I value most is our compulsory seven day residential stay with a community other than the student’s own (see www.livingreligion.co.uk).

I disagree with Tim that school religious education ‘ought to be a miniature of religious studies’ (2007:142), as for philosophical, pedagogical and feminist reasons I am very wary of ‘top-down’ approaches to knowledge. For universities to set the agenda for schools can be patronising (see Cush 1999), and sometimes the flow of information and experience can be the other way round, such as the influence on university curricula in the UK of the stress on philosophy and ethics in schools, or simply when a child from a particular tradition actually knows more than the lecturer in a particular context. I would rather see universities and schools as partners. I also contend that ‘Religious Education in schools is not University Religious Studies watered down to make it suitable for children’ but ‘about the interaction between the religious material and the concerns and interests of the child’ (Cush, 1999:138). Spiritual, or more generally personal, development may be a side-effect of university Religious Studies, but it is an explicit aim of religious education in schools in England, and indeed an aim for the whole curriculum.

Recent development in Religious Studies such as the application of feminist theory, queer theory, and post-colonial theory have undermined the ‘Enlightenment’ concept of ‘objective’ knowledge and stress that ‘the scholar does not so much survey the scene from above but works within the web of his/her own experience and relationships’ (Cush & Robinson 2014: 9). Have our ‘religious studies facts’ been constructed under patriarchy, heteronormativity and colonialism? And how does this change the religious education classroom?

In conclusion, as Peter Schreiner often says (see for example, 2011:30) we all tend to prefer our own system of religious education, partly from a conservative attachment to what we know and are comfortable with, but also because the contexts of different countries, regions and individual schools differ. Although I have some disagreements with Tim Jensen’s approach to religious education as detailed above, I imagine that in practice, in the hands of skilled teachers who have a good relationship with their pupils, Tim’s ‘side-effects’ accomplish much the same as my ‘explicit aims’, and our commitment to a non-confessional, multi-faith religious education outweighs the differences. There is only a small band of Religious Studies scholars who take the time to care about Religious Education in schools (Ninian Smart was one, with his colleagues in the Shap Working Party – see www.shapworkingparty.org.uk/ ) and this partnership must be encouraged.

Bibliography

Alberts, W. (2007) Integrative Religious Education in Europe: A Study of Religions Approach Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

APPG (2013) The Truth Unmasked: the Supply of and Support for Religious Education Teachers available from http://religiouseducationcouncil.org.uk/media/file/APPG_RE_-_The_Truth_Unmasked.pdf

 Cush, D. (1999) ‘Big Brother, Little Sister, and the Clerical Uncle: the relationship between Religious Studies, Religious Education and Theology?’ in British Journal of Religious Education 21.3 pp 137-146

Cush, D, (2009) ‘Religious Studies versus Theology: why I’m still glad that I converted from Theology to Religious Studies’ in Bird, D. and Smith, S. Theology and Religious Studies in Higher Education: Global Perspectives Continuum, pp.15-30

Cush, D. (2011) ‘Without Fear or Favour: Forty Years of Non-confessional and Multi-faith Religious Education in Scandinavia and the UK’ In: Franken, L. and Loobuyck, P. (eds.) Religious Education in a Plural, Secularised Society: A Paradigm Shift Münster: Waxmann, pp.69-84.

Cush, D. and Robinson, C. (2014) ‘Developments in Religious Studies: Towards a Dialogue with Religious Education’ British Journal of Religious Education 36.1, pp.4-17.

Franken, L. and Loobuyck, P. (eds.) (2011) Religious Education in a Plural, Secularised Society: A Paradigm Shift Münster: Waxmann.

Gates, B. (1993) Time for Religious Education and Teachers to Match: a Digest of Under-provision St. Martin’s College, Lancaster: REC.

Jackson, R. (1997) Religious Education, an interpretive approach London, Hodder

Jackson, R. (2004) Rethinking Religious Education and Plurality: Issues in Diversity and Pedagogy London: RoutledgeFalmer

Jensen, T. (2011) ‘Why Religion Education, as a Matter of course, ought to be Part of the Public School Curriculum’ In: Franken, L. and Loobuyck, P. (eds.) Religious Education in a Plural, Secularised Society: A Paradigm Shift Münster: Waxmann. Pp.131-149.

Religious Education Council of England and Wales (2013) A Review of Religious Education in England London: REC, also available on-line at http://resubjectreview.recouncil.org.uk/re-review-report

Schreiner, P. (2011) ‘Situation and Current Developments of Religious Education in Europe’ In: Franken, L. and Loobuyck, P. (eds.) Religious Education in a Plural, Secularised Society: A Paradigm Shift Münster: Waxmann, pp.17-34.

A useful place to find summaries of how religious education is organised in European countries is the website of the European Forum for Teachers of Religious Education

http://www.eftre.net/

A useful source for example of practical materials and cutting edge debate on religious education is http://www.reonline.org.uk/

For Shap Working Party on World Religions in Education see http://www.shapworkingparty.org.uk/

 

 

 

 

Podcasts

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Religious Literacy is Social Justice

This week’s podcast with Professor Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst explores the University of Vermont’s new “Religious Literacy for Professionals” certificate. Framing religious literacy as social justice, Morgenstein Fuerst explains how her program is trying to reach undergraduates in other professional tracks at the 10 colleges around her university. With a powerful message for her students about the impact and relevance of religious studies coursework, this new program looks to prepare students for the modern America where religious affiliation is down but the need to be skilled “readers” of religion in culture is more pressing than ever.

Download this episode and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast on iTunes, Spotify, or YouTube. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us and consider becoming a member of our Patreon community with access to extra conversations and shorter classroom versions of our episodes. Or use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying books, groceries, or gifts.

Religious Literacy is Social Justice

Podcast with Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst (27 January 2020).

Interviewed by David McConeghy

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/religious-literacy-is-social-justice/

David McConeghy (DMcC): Welcome. I am David McConeghy, and today I am joined by Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst PhD, an Associate Professor of Religion and Associate Director of the Humanities Centre of the University of Vermont. Her research centres on Islam and Muslims in South Asia; theories and histories of religion, race and language; and imperialism. She is the author of Indian Muslim Minorities in the 1857 Rebellion: Religion and Rebels and Jihad, published in 2017 – but fresh in paperback, in just a little bit, here in 2019. She’s also the author of numerous articles on Islam, Islamic studies and religion in South Asia. Thank you so much for joining us here today.

Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst (IMF): Thank you so much for having me.

DMcC: Now we’ve brought you today – and I’d love to have you back a second time to talk about Indian Muslim minorities – but we have you here today because there is something really interesting happening at your programme at the University of Vermont. Before we share the exciting new addition that you have to your programme, can you tell us a little bit about the University of Vermont and what it’s like there?

IMF: Sure. Well – shocking no-one – we are in Vermont! And we are the land-grant flagship University of the State of Vermont. Folks mostly know us for our leaves and our snow, and Ben & Jerry’s, and maybe a guy you’ve heard of named Bernie! But Vermont is actually a really small state, despite how much out of its weight class it punches in the national imaginary of New England. We have about 650,000 residents. So we’re really tiny. So the University – while being a land-grant which, in theory, serves the state of Vermont – ends up serving more of New England, broadly, and the mid-Atlantic states of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut a little bit more than it serves exclusively Vermont. So, as a student body, we’ve got about ten thousand students, most of whom are drawn from Massachusetts, and New York, and New Jersey, with Vermont being the fourth kind-of representative here.

DMcC: Right. And you’re right there, on beautiful Lake Champlain!

IMF: We are. We’ve got a monster and everything. It’s a religion professor’s dream!

DMcC: I know! It’s hard to compete. When I was at Santa Barbara, a long time ago, everyone always said, “How can you get anything done with the beach being right there?” But having visited Vermont when I was a college student, I felt the same way. “How does anyone get anything done?” And I fear there’s a good answer, and it comes from the sky – during a very particular time of year!

IMF: I think faculty employees do get a ski and snowboard discount at a local mountain! But I’d like to describe myself as an indoor cat. No thank you! (Laughs).

DMcC: The fireplace is nice. And watching it fall outside is great. But . . .

IMF: It’s better on the inside.

DMcC: Yes. So at the University of Vermont the religion department probably wears, like in many universities, a lot of hats. Are the majority of your students general education students, and you’re doing part of the university’s general curriculum? How many kind-of majors do you have in your programme?

IMF: That’s a really good question. So, yes – we are a teaching-and-service-heavy department. We serve quite a lot of students, and we serve a number of different programmes at the university. But our majors are pretty small. We’ve got about . . . . We graduate between a dozen and twenty majors, let’s say, a year. And the count of our majors over four years is really challenging, because most first year students don’t come in as religion majors. So we’ve got that same hustle that every other religion department has, where not only do you have to exist in a sea of options, but we need to both un-teach what folks think about religion, and then re-teach the study of religion from that secular academic perspective. But the department is really interdisciplinary, like most religion departments. Until this year, we had four directors of other programmes located in our seven-person department. Including the Middle-East studies, African Studies, Asian Studies and Jewish studies. And I’m the reason that that’s not true anymore. Everybody but Middle-East studies (5:00). I turned that over to another colleague, as I stepped up into the role of Associate Director of the Humanities Centre.

DMcC: Right.

IMF: Our classes count as many as you can imagine. They count across the university: gender, women and sexuality studies; cross-listed with history; anthropology; political science; the Honours College. Our Gen. Ed. diversity requirements are a big draw for students in our field. But in terms of majors and minors it’s a relatively small population.

DMcC: Right. And within your programme – and I know every programme is a little bit different about this – but in general, where do your majors typically go on after they complete their degrees? Is there a common theme among them, or is it as diverse as many programmes find for the graduates?

IMF: I would say . . . . We did our survey about this, I guess, in 2014, now. And at that time the data showed that we’d got a pretty good spread amongst private sector/public sector: health professions, education and social work. But I would say, most of our graduates go on to what we’ve been calling the “public good”: things like education, social work, non-profits, or private sector businesses that have social missions. And so we’ve been using the language of public good, in part because it dovetails with UVM’s mission statement. We have . . . . We call it the “common ground”, where there are certain values we’re supposed to be teaching the across the curriculum and across disciplines.

DMcC: I see.

IMF: But we noticed that a lot of our students really do want to contribute. They want to “help the world”, and that can mean really different things, for all the obvious reasons. But the trend we see, if any. . . . We don’t see. . . . Even the students that go on to law school, the kind of law that they articulate wanting to practice is more along the lines of social justice kinds of legal pursuits than corporate law. Not that there’s anything wrong with corporate law!

DMcC: I find it really interesting the way that you’ve framed that. Not only are you integrating with all of these departments – so you start off from an interdisciplinary kind of approach, you can’t help it – and then, because of the situation at Vermont with its mission, you can kind-of directly draw those lines to how the perspectives of what you’re doing within the religious studies orientation within the university really can play a huge role in the kinds of employment that students might be thinking about after they finish. It leads us directly into, I think, your new certificate programme. So can you share with us the brand new programme that you’ve got?

IMF: Yes. I would love to! So, like many religion departments, we – and Humanities, I think, across the board – were thinking about things like: how do we go from limp years of graduating six majors to something a little bit bigger than that? And if we can’t do that, then how do make sure that the value that we bring to the university is evident and clear both to our students and the other publics that we serve as a land-grant institution – but also to the bean counters in central administration, you know, at the next rank above us? And so one of the things that we played with were these ideas of a certificate, and drawing on expertise we already have. We think our major and our minor already do work in the fields of religious literacy and the public good. But we also notice that students . . . . So, UVM is a university with technically ten colleges that comprise that university. And a number of those – we’re in the College of Arts and Science – but a number of those colleges are essentially professional schools. The Business School, the School of Education and Social Service, the Nursing School. And what we’ve noticed for years is that students in those professional schools do not have the flexibility in their curriculum. They are not liberal arts degrees, and so they do not have the spaces for electives. However, when they do have an elective they come to us. And then they leave their student evaluations, emails, you name it, begging for more classes and more opportunities (10:00). And so we really created what we’re calling the Certificate in Religious Literacy for the professions, with those students in mind. How can they complement their nursing degree, their education degree, their social work degree, their business degree with limited time in their curriculum to graduate in a four-year schedule? And so they don’t have the space for a minor – so how could we reach them where they are, and get them something that they’re already saying is attractive to them?

DMcC: It’s such a smart move, right? You have students that are in your programme for one course, and they don’t have room for five or six courses, but maybe they have room for two related courses? And so, you just get that next level of ask from those students – that second course. And then you reward them very clearly for it, right? You give them a clear expectation of what they get out of it. And you really have, across those ten schools – I’m looking at Agriculture, and Life Sciences, and the Business School, and Education and Social Services, and Nursing, like you mentioned. And I have nursing students. They have such a demanding schedule at my university. And they are so stressed out. And they want to have the opportunity to take electives that are interesting, but also relevant to their professional aspirations. And I think you’ve really captured a kind of way to do that at your institution.

IMF: Yes. And so when we were doing research about religious literacy programmes, obviously Diane Moore’s path-breaking work at Harvard has been inspirational and important. And I know that the AAR just last week released their guidelines for what religious literacy would look like at the university. But when we searched – and we researched I think something like thirty-five schools across the country – no one was doing this at the undergraduate level. It was all on the model of master’s students or returning students. So, for example, K12 teachers who are getting credits above their master’s, or going for recertification based on state guidelines. And one of the things that we thought where we could fill a niche that would serve our public – which is the University of Vermont’s students – is to really look at these professional schools and say: “Listen, these professional schools are essentially setting up programmes that are either master’s inclusive” – so a five-year programme where you come out with a BSNS or a BANA – “or they’re meant to subvent the master’s where you don’t need it. You come out with a degree and the certifications you need.” And so these master’s level programmes are important and wonderful, but they’re missing this population – and, frankly, an aspect of this generation of students who are coming out saddled with all sorts of debt, and may not want to go to a master’s degree. And, on top of that, may not then add on this extra component. But I think undergraduates, regardless of their programme, are really mindful – and whether that’s a mindfulness in an intentional, optimistic way, or a deeply cynical “How will I get a job after school?” way (audio unclear) (Laughs). But I think what we have seen at Vermont is that students really want to learn. They want to know how to do their next phase well. And they want to be able to point to something on their transcript, on their résumé, that gives them the credential to do it. And so we really do think that pitching religious literacy as a job skill, and as a social justice intellectual pursuit, works at the undergraduate level here.

DMcC: Right. Can you talk a little bit about some of the responses you’ve had before? I know on Twitter, when you were sharing the development and the announcement of the programme with all of your Twitter followers, that there was a lot . . . you commented that you had got a lot of emails from other faculties, other programmes that were really interested in it. But within your university – from students, and other faculty members, and the administration – what has the initial response been like?

IMF: Yes. So we’re launching two things at once. So we’re kicking off the certificate. The only required course for the certificate is called Religious Literacy and we’ll offer that in the spring (15:00). And so the certificate is technically live, but the one requirement hasn’t yet been offered. And so we are running . . . we’re calling it the long month, the long religious literacy month, because it started at the end of September and will end at the beginning of November, so it’s – you know, I’m a nineteenth century historian, so it’s a long month!

DMcC: (Laughs).

IMF: And those events have been wildly popular. We’ve had three out of five of events and we’ve had no fewer than sixty students attend each event.

DMcC: I saw the pictures . . . . Every seat was gone!

IMF: We had . . . . I mean, it’s really been surprising. I don’t know what other universities are like, but in the end we don’t have a zero period. So there’s classes all the time. And so whenever you schedule an event you’re always scheduling against classes, or labs, or other events, obviously. So getting students to come out can sometimes be challenging – just based on what scheduling looks like here. And we’ve been shocked. I mean for Simran Jeet Singh’s talk, which was the kick-off event, we had over a hundred and twenty students come!

DMcC: Rock star!

IMF: We hosted a panel in conjunction with indigenous people’s day – it’s the first indigenous peoples’ day in Vermont. They changed the holiday – rightfully so. And we facilitated a panel featuring Abenaki practitioners. And that is a room that seats a hundred and ten, but there were over two dozen people in the aisles! So we don’t even know what the head count for that was, because we couldn’t see everybody. So we’ve been floored by how these events – which are meant to create a little bit of buzz, get people interested in what we’re doing – we’ve been really floored by the student response. We expected faculty to come; faculty always go to these events.

DMcC: Right.

IMF: But student response has been really impressive.

DMcC: That must be so rewarding, to have initiated a new thing and have this talk series, and have the students respond so powerfully to it.

IMF: Yes. It’s been a lot of work – I won’t lie – but it’s been really wonderful. You know, it’s one thing to have a thesis right? And we’re testing it out. We think that this is important. We think that this will fit with the student body, here at UVM, and we think that there is a demand for it – even though we don’t necessarily see that demand paying out in our minor and major. So to take this gamble and see it paying off a little bit, even, is validating, right? And then I think, also, what’s been really validating has been that our senior administration has been unbelievably supportive. So, in order to get the certificate passed, we needed to work with other units across the university. So the dean of . . . at the time, the dean of nursing – who has since been promoted to the provost’s position – wrote us a really glowing letter in support, saying that “it would only bring benefits to the nursing school”. And now, in her role as provost, she’s come to a number of these events and her office is a co-sponsor. Because five events, plus all the other hoopla that goes with it, is an expensive endeavour. So she’s been really supportive from the top down. The dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Bill Falls, has been to three of our faculty meetings. He has been actively stumping for this certificate in other places. And as we think about ways to expand it out beyond just the undergraduate programme – you know, on a two-three-five-year timeline – he’s really doing a lot. And his office are doing a lot of legwork in making connections with the state department of education, with chambers of commerce across the state, with other deans of the university, so that it’s not just our seven-person department, screaming from the rooftops. So we’ve felt really supported. And, you know, that makes all the difference. I don’t feel like we’re swimming up . . . . We might be swimming upstream, in the way that Humanities departments feel embattled. But I do not feel like we are fighting our administration, or our students, to demonstrate that this is a valuable programme.

DMcC: That’s so comforting to hear. Because we often hear about how imperilled the Humanities are. But we have an instance here, where we’re really seeing that the students are responding to the work that we do in the field, and are responding in high volume to it. (20:00) Which is. . . for those of us that worry about every time that another chronicle of higher education or the New York Times or Wall Street Journal article comes out, where it says the Humanities are dying and everybody should do STEM and have a professional career track, that it really feels like a nail in that coffin. But that’s not what I’m hearing here. And if you have goals for your students over the next two-to-five periods, as the programme develops, what are the goals that you see for students that are coming out of the programme, and for what things look like five years from now?

IMF: Yes. I think we’ve got similar goals that religious studies departments have across the country. I want folks to be able to read a newspaper article, a TV show, a situation, a comment and ask the question about “What is religion here?” Right? I always say, “Religion is what people do.” And to quote Megan Goodwin, she always says, “You might be done with religion, but religion’s not done with you.” So I think . . . . And that’s a line, you know . . . . Consider that stolen! It’s good to have best friends that are quippy! Because, you know, Vermont is the least religious state, or the most unchurched state, in the Union based on Pew reports. And we can debate the validity of those, and how we count heads, and whether what we mean by that is white Christians and not everybody else. But the truth is that we get a lot of students at UVM who identify strongly with spiritual-but-not-religious. And my sense is . . . what I want from students in this programme is: “That’s great. But spiritual-but-not-religious is still a religion question! It is still . . . . Religion is still in the room. It’s still part of that discussion. And if you can see that, then” – because we’re targeting pre-professional students – “you will be better at your job, whatever that job is.” Because if you work with people, you think about religion. If you work in communities, religion is in the ether. And I think making sure that we’re making that loud and clear is a really big piece of this. I think the other piece of it is that as a department we’re drafting articles about this. We’re doing real research. This isn’t just a passing fad to get butts on seats, so to speak. We’re actively . . . at least, devoting some of our collective research time to it. There’s a couple of co-authored pieces that Vicki Brennan and I are working on. And what we see as adding to the debate around . . . or conversation, not debate, around “How do you do this kind of work in the study of religion?” And I think what we’ve come up with is unlike interfaith conversations – that assume faith-based commitments, or at least a starting place of faith – and inter-religious studies – which is doing slightly different work around education and intertextual kinds of debates – I think where we see ourselves coming at this, is the study of religion plus social justice. So that this is not just about some theoretical turn where we can all quote all of our great theorists, and our students can all come out saying “Religion is complicated. Religion is what people do.” That’s great for the major and minor. But I think what we’re explicitly doing – we do in the major and minor too, but we have more time to do it – is to explicitly position religious literacy as an issue of social justice. The first line Simran Singh said, when he came to talk about religious literacy was that, for people who look like him, religious literacy is a matter of survival. For everybody else it’s matter of social justice. And that is what we asked him to come and talk about. That’s how I pitched this series for him. That’s how I saw him contributing. And I think that’s the piece that we’re really trying to get at. If you’re a nursing student and you want to treat a body, you have to treat their whole person. And for many people, even people who claim to be atheist, that is still within that frame of religious studies. I think that’s . . .

DMcC: Right. This is, I think, more and more what I’m hearing from a variety of places about how scholars in this moment are really thinking about religious literacy. Some are willing to go, if they have a faith of their own and they’re speaking from their faith, then the interfaith perspective is really a way to kind of generate those conversations. I’ve read Interreligious/ Interfaith Studies; it’s a book about the new fields that Eboo Patel, and Jennifer Howe Peace, and Noah Silverman put out (25:00). And there’s a lot of really interesting conversations that are going on there. Whether people are asking, “How can we acknowledge that religion isn’t going to go away, it’s an important part of people’s lives, and at the same time as an academic field we have critical methods that we want to bring to it? And I hear you saying that for you, that combination of things is the religious literacy work that you’re doing right now. Is that how you feel about it?

IMF: Yes. And I think it’s also about being clear about our pedagogy. I think many . . . at least the folks I run with – so that might tell you more about me than in other fields – but most of our pedagogies . . . . Look, I’m in Islamic Studies. When I started my PhD adviser, Carl Ernst, flat out said, “You might not have a choice of being a public scholar. People are going to hound you, because Islam – whether we like it or not – is seen as controversy”. And that stuck with me. Because my training was not allowed . . . there was no possibility for my training to be inward-looking, navel-gazing. And so my pedagogy has always been about un-teaching. And I think I take Simran Singh’s quote, here, really vitally. Like, that un-teaching is a matter of survival for some of my research subjects. And so I think, for me, it’s really about naming our pedagogy as a process of social justice, and not shying away from the ways in which activism might be part of our universe. And I don’t mean activism like marching and rabble-rousing in our classrooms. But I do mean activism like there is a political intent to everything we do. There is no such thing as neutrality. And we name that in our classrooms. And we’re not that good at naming it programmatically. So I think the Religious Literacy Certificate is naming that programmatically, right? There are people you will encounter that you need to be able to make sense of, and not in a: do you know what the Qur’an is? That’d be great. But: can you read the situation? Can you figure out why someone might be comfortable, uncomfortable, threatened, not threatened? Can you imagine why ethical systems might be different from each other? So it’s less about knowing facts and more about applying theory. And for me, that’s an activist position.

DMcC: Yes. And this feels like, you know, you’re saying the things that I try to say to my students. “I’m trying to teach you to read religion in all the places that, if we were more literate, we would naturally see and find it.” We need the glasses that . . . you know, rose-tinted or green glasses, to look out at the world and see, “Oh! It really is absolutely everywhere!” And, for so many people, every day. Is that message the winning message for religious studies? Because I worry that there’s a longer conversation that we’re skirting the edges of here that, you know, maybe goes back to Timothy Fitzgerald and earlier, where folks worry that somehow there’s an illusion that there’s this sliding into non-academic discourse when we start talking in this way about the goals of our field. Is that a risk that you think is present? Or do you think that there’s a problem with that presentation of how we think about our programme?

IMF: Yes. I don’t, right? I think that, again, to come back to what I study, my sense of it is that there is no neutrality. And so simply saying “I’m a scholar of Islam”, I am already a politicised body. My comments are already politicised. I do not think that makes my research any less rigorous. I don’t think that makes my teaching any less rigorous. I don’t think in demanding students make applications and connections that are historically contingent, critical, across time, and place, and region, and sometimes language, I don’t think that that’s anything but academic. And so this idea that we need to be really careful about the future of the field, I mean, fields are supposed to move and change (30:00). And I think that naming what we do is an important way, in a time where the humanities are imperilled, I think precisely because we can’t put our finger on the deliverable – and I don’t like that language – but . . . I think I said this on Twitter: “I don’t like living in a neoliberal hegemony, but I do”. And so ignoring that, and pretending like I have some sort of rarefied data set that no-one else could possibly understand, that just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. And I also think that that is. . . I think that’s a lie. I think that all of us are always translating these high-level, particularly specific sets of information that we have spent our whole careers mastering – knowing full-well that mastery is impossible, but working on aspects of that – and we translate that to our Intro level students all the time. We translate that to our senior level students because . . . . Because. And so, I think I’m not worried about that in the way that I hear other folks being worried about it. I hear the critique, but that’s . . . I don’t find it especially convincing.

DMcC: Yes. I think one of the problems with the critique . . . . I bring it up because I know that it’s kind-of the potentially straw person that’s waiting out there, to rebut: “Well, how can you have an academic field that is organised around social justice?” And I agree with you. I’m not sure that that’s necessarily a problem, right? I’m not sure that that’s how I, personally, would frame it. And I think the challenge with that approach is that social justice is different, potentially, depending on the agency and position of the person that you’re speaking to. And I think, when we look back at kind-of the narrative that has come from Fitzgerald about the ideology of religious studies, that when we move forward in time it’s always about who gets to claim that role. And when we tell our students, “Well we’re not really sure how to define religion. Here’s the definition we’re going to use right now – let’s see how far it goes.” That’s one kind of move. But then when you add social justice, you can make the same moves against that. Whose social justice, and for whom is it working? And why do we want it to work in a particular way? And, I think, opening that allows our students to actually make those choices. They can see social justice differently than we do. And if we open that possibility then they can make their own choices, critically, about how to apply that term – just like we ask them to make choices critically about how to apply the term religion.

IMF: OK. And I think . . . so Vicki Brennan and I are working on this article right now. And one of the first questions we ask is . . . . We’re pushing this thing, we’re talking about religious literacy, because its feels like it’s a marketable thing here at UVM. It’s clearly struck a nerve in other ways, because of the response we’ve gotten. But one of the questions we’re asking now, and one of the questions that we’re asking on this course that we’re teaching is: who is allowed to be religiously illiterate? Right? So, even the framing of religious literacy, to me, is already about cultural and social structures that are never apolitical and they are not neutral.

DMcC: Right. It’s the fish! It’s the old joke: the two young fishes are in the water and the old fish swims by and asks, “How’s the water today?” and the young fishes are like “What’s water?”

IMF: Exactly. So look. UVM is an overwhelmingly white school. We are an overwhelmingly white state. I think the last time I checked this data point, we are the second most white state in the nation. We have very few religious minorities, though that’s changing with patterns of refugee resettlement and other kinds of related issues. But this idea of like, who needs religious literacy? The elephant in the room is that it’s white, either post-Christian or Christian students who exist in the water and do not know they’re swimming in it. And so I think again, from the outset, religious literacy is already a politicised term, because it assumes that one was illiterate and now has become literate. And we know that for other folks – to go back to Simran Singh’s really poignant phrase – for him religious literacy is a matter of survival. And one of the things he talked about was that he cannot be religiously illiterate. He needs to know what’s going on around him (35:00). Often for his own personal safety. So when . . . again I get the (audio unclear) I’ve read all those theorists, but I think it feels unconvincing to me. Both because of my own intellectual commitments, my intellectual training as an Islamicists, and just again: who’s allowed to not know, always is a power. It’s always about power and hierarchy.

DMcC: Right. I was just about to say, is part of the argument that religion is about what we do, but religion is also about something else, right? The power structures that are using religion or being used by religion that we may not recognise.

IMF: That’s exactly right.

DMcC: Do you think that for your students, going forward in the programme, that the primary goal for them is to reveal the necessity of literacy in the sense that part of what we’re being religiously literate about is the fact that we assume that religion works in certain ways, and then we just don’t talk about it, right? This is the “water” that we’re doing. And that, with the rise of religious nones, that this is only an accelerating problem. That students that we get now . . . It used to be that they might have been, even if they were not Christian, that they might have been culturally Christian, and now we can’t even assume that. We’ve lost even that, as a starting point for where the conversation can begin.

IMF: I think that’s right. And I think that’s where, you know, we offer classes in our department – like many other departments – on secularism. The religion department teaches secularism, precisely because of these issues. And I think we’re all really well-versed and so on. But we want our students to become more equipped to see that.

DMcC: Yes. Well it’s been such a delight to talk to you about this today. I’m so happy for your students at the University of Vermont to have this really interesting conversation about it. If folks would like to continue the conversation with you about it, can they find you on Twitter?

IMF: They sure can. I am @PROFIRMF and they can also follow the department on Twitter which is @REL_UVM.

DMcC: That’s perfect. Thank you so much for joining me today.

IMF: Thank you for having me. This was a delight.

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcription, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

 

Straight White American Jesus, the podcast

In this week’s podcast, Skidmore College Professor Bradley Onishi speaks about Straight White American Jesus, a podcast he co-hosts with Dan Miller that blends insider religious experience with academic expertise about American Evangelicalism. “The goal is never reduction,” Onishi argues about the mix of insider/outsider frames. Instead, he shares how the podcast tries to provide better access to complex religious worlds and how careful historical framing and rigorous critical analysis can humanize rather than demonize evangelicals. Looking honestly at religion, warts and all, is worth the effort since it leads us to increased religious literacy outcomes designed to understand the “human condition writ large.”

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Straight White American Jesus, the Podcast

Podcast with Bradley Onishi (25 November 2019).

Interviewed by David McConeghy

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/straight-white-american-jesus-the-podcast/

PDF at https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Onishi_-_Straight_White_American_Jesus-_the_Podcast_1.1.pdf

David McConeghy (DMcC): Welcome. My name is David McConeghy. And today I’m joined by Dr Bradley Onishi, Associate Professor of Religion at Skidmore College in New York. He’s the co-author of Christian Mysticism: An Introduction to Contemporary Theoretical Approaches; the author of The Sacrality of the Secular, a major work about the philosophy of religion. Today he’s here as the co-host, with Dan Miller, of the really excellent podcast, Straight White American Jesus. Brad, thanks so much for joining us today.

Bradley Onishi (BO): Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.

DMcC: So I’ve been listening to your podcast for a while now, and I know you share it with everyone. But for those that haven’t come across this yet, where did you get the idea for this podcast?

BO: So in the kind-of aftermath of Trump’s election Dan and I got together and talked about wanting to share our stories, and also wanting to share kind-of our scholarship on evangelicalism and American religion. For those who haven’t listened, my story is basically that I converted to evangelicalism when I was fourteen. And by the time I was twenty I was a full-time minister, I was married, and I was really on my way toward a kind-of life in ministry and in the evangelical world. All of that changed, of course. And I’m still in the religion game – as I like to say – but just from a much different perspective. And so, for Dan and I, we wanted to help folks have an insider perspective and understanding of white evangelicalism in this country. We also wanted to provide a kind-of historical and social scientific lens on white evangelicalism. Our major goal is basically this: we want to explain, basically, why Donald Trump appears more like Jesus than any other politician white evangelicals have ever encountered. And so we do that through both the telling of our stories and a kind-of tracing the history of evangelicalism in this country.

DMcC: I found that mix of personal experience blending in to academic rigour, blending into full-on interviews with really important scholar like R. Marie Griffith and Randall Balmer. It’s really compelling. Did you know from the beginning that you had that kind-of really effective dialogue between those two halves? That you and Dan both share, right, share a background?

BO: Yes, you know it all comes so naturally. Because evangelicalism was my world. I mean I was. . . . It’s hard to explain how zealous I was, when I converted. I was that sixteen year-old kid who went from sneaking around the back of movie theatres to do teenage stuff, to standing out in front of the movie theatre, trying to convert people. And so when evangelicalism is that much a part of your life reflecting on it is sometimes painful, but it comes very naturally. So Dan and I knew we could do that. We also knew we had a passion for enabling . . . or creating a platform for scholars to help a wider audience understand, like: how is that more white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump than for George W Bush, or Mitt Romney? How does that happen? Well, we knew there were people out there who could help us understand that. And so we wanted to just provide space for those analytical, historical, critical, sociological perspectives.

DMcC: What I take from the moment that we’re in right now, is that we really have a great opportunity, right, as scholars, as outsiders, to kind-of present some of the research that’s been done, especially into those theoretical perspectives that the public often doesn’t see. Because they’re framed in language or framed in books that are hard to market to public audiences. But the insider approach really gives you that colloquial, fundamental access to an authenticity, when you speak about it, that makes it – when you switch, then, to the academic narrative – so much more alive. When you say it’s hard to convince audiences of how zealous you were, there was the moment when you were describing in the podcast, how you would go, in the high school lunch room, up to students that were your high school peers and evangelise to them at lunch. Because you were convinced that their mortal souls were at risk, and if you did not do everything you could do at that moment that you were going to leave them behind.

BO: Yes. And you know one of the goals is not to soften, or make more palatable the politics and culture of evangelicals in the Trump era. We are not here to sort-of “make nice” in any case. But what I do want to do, by telling stories like the one you just mentioned, I want people to be able to think themselves into the places of the evangelicals, not so that they can agree, not so that they can accept it, but so they can see the human element in it. It’s so easy to reduce those we disagree with – especially those who seem to be harming our public sphere – to just reduce them to something demented, something that’s not right. And just sort-of push them away as hopeless and helpless and whatever. My hope is by sharing my story, and Dan’s too, that we can show folks that this is a very human culture. It’s a very human set of events. It’s a very human community. And if you can get a window into that, maybe it can help you when you’re at a school board meeting, or you’re at your election for the city council, or when you’re dealing with parents on your kids’ soccer team, or having a Thanksgiving dinner. Maybe it can give you a better approach to how to discuss these things with your neighbours, with your fellow citizens, with your colleagues – whoever that may be. And so all that is to say, for me, that the personal element is really, really important. It adds something, I think, that makes it easier for a general audience to identify with. And it also makes it easier for those who are ex-evangelicals, like I am, to feel that they have a way in to understand more of the sort-of academic discourse surrounding the culture that they’re arguing from.

DMcC: Right. And for those perhaps outside of the US, it’s been a very kind-of English language discussion and very much on Twitter with folks like Chris Stroop, and others who #Exevangelical, are talking about their de-conversion experiences. There really is that kind-of two sides to what’s going on, in the sense that there are some folks that worry that perhaps the level of honesty that you’re approaching this topic with is unfair to evangelicals. And I think, all of the folks that I’ve heard from have been really forceful advocates for: “We’re not going to dismiss what’s wrong here, and we’re going to call out things that we see are wrong, and we feel like we have a space to do that.” But on the other hand it is about explaining experience and opening dialogue and trying to find the allies that are there for you. On the other hand, though, do you think . . . ? (Laughs) I’m guessing that maybe there’s been some push-back as well? Can you talk about the kinds of different responses that you’ve received from those that have been very supportive, as ex-evangelical community members, to those that are remaining evangelical, and may have some less than kind words for the work that you’re doing.

BO: Yes, I mean just to go to the beginning of your question there: my goal is not to. . . . I’m a scholar. And even when I’m talking about my own experiences, I want to be able to have an analytical lens. And so on our podcasts and with the work we’re doing, the goal is never reduction; the goal is never demonisation. The goal is always to say: “We want to examine these issues as best as we can.” And that includes returning to sources. That includes returning to documents and facts and histories that have been covered over that people don’t know about. We did this in one of our very first episodes with the abortion myth. Randall Balmer came on and . . . . Let me outline the history for you regarding the formation of the religious right. It was not about abortion. And the idea that it was is revisionist history in service of an evangelical propaganda or mission. In fact it was race. And my response to those who would have a pop at that, I would say “We’re doing historical work here. If you feel like our historical analysis is off in some way, we can talk about that. But just to say that somehow pointing these things out is unfair or not warranted, I just don’t buy that.”

DMcC: That’s such a good response. Because, you know, it allows you the space to say let’s take Darren Dochuk who would place oil, and empire, and commercialism, maybe even above race, at the start of the kind-of consolidation of the religious right. And it gives you that space to say, “Even scholars have disagreements about this. But we can all narrate the problems that we’re seeing at the same time.”

BO: I think that’s exactly right. And it leads to who has kind-of responded to the podcast. I can say that we’ve had two groups respond very positively. One are ex-evangelicals who’ve said “ You’re able to speak my language. You speak the language of evangelicalism that I came out of. And yet what you’re doing is giving me a road into understanding the history and all of the cultural and political factors that shaped that religious community that I’m now emerging from. What it’s doing is helping me kind-of put my world back together, after sort-of coming out of a very strict religious community that most of the time made no sense to me.” We’ve also had many people say, “I’m a secular person in Portland” or “I’m a Reformed Jew in New York City. I have no idea how to understand why white evangelicals are so in love with Donald Trump and why they vote, and act, and think the way they do, so you’re helping me gain a window into a culture that for me is completely alien. It seems so far from my understanding of the world that I just didn’t know where to start in order to understand all of this.” And so those two communities have really reached out over Twitter, and everything else, to say that they’ve really appreciated what we’re doing. There’s been a little bit of pushback, but not much. One of the things that I like to tell students and tell folks I discuss things with is, I am totally open as a scholar to argument, and debate, and dialogue. Those are the things I love. But you’re not going to out evangelical me! I’m like “level expert” at evangelical. So when it comes to theology, and language, and jargon, and colloquialisms, and clichés – I’m fluent in that. And so when you want to discuss those things with me, just know that I’m going to be speaking your language better than you. And so you’re not going to get the upper hand on me! And the last thing is, I’m not going to assume – and I think this is part of the ex-evangelical community online, the work they’re doing is – we need to stop assuming that if you call yourself a Christian that that means you are a good person. Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not calling Christians bad people! Do not come at me on Twitter for that! What I’m saying is there is a privilege in this country that if you’re a straight, white Christian – especially a straight, white Christian male – you’re given a kind-of cover as “Oh, you must be a true, good, old-fashioned patriot.” We just sort-of have this assumption. And part of the work we’re doing – along with many other people – is just saying we need to stop giving that benefit of the doubt, just because someone claims those identities. And we need to just be willing to look very critically, and with an unflinching gaze, on what’s actually happening in those communities. That could be everything from church, too, and sexual misconduct and abuse. That can be authoritarian structures that can be supporting candidates who are authoritarian and abusive – whatever it may be. And so anyway, all of that is part of the work I feel like we’re doing, and will continue to do, and are very proud to do.

DMcC: I’m tempted to ask whether you think you would ever run out of topics. But . . .

BO: (Laughs)

DMcC: since you describe your access to evangelicals as both fluency in a language, but also access to a world that is very closed off, and inaccessible to those that at are not fully immersed in it, it feels like you can just take any aspect of an evangelicals life: how they think about the economy, how they think about death, how they think about marriage, how they think about the value of life. And every issue, right, has to be encapsulated in some way by that worldview. It has to be addressed with fluency by that language. Do you feel that way? That there’s really never . . . this is an eternal wellspring for you?

BO: Well I don’t know about eternal, but what I will say is when you’re in something long enough you have the muscle memory to either know how to do it, or to find the person who does. And so I don’t want to make out that the evangelical community in this country, including the white evangelical community in this country is homogeneous. There’s a lot of difference between small house churches in West Texas and Liberty Baptists with the Falwell Family, there’s a lot of difference between the Vineyards in South California and what’s happening in rural Georgia. With all that said – at least in the Trump era – there is no shortage of need to discuss things related to evangelical culture. And so at least for the moment, it’s not hard to find things that are not only relevant but seem very pressing for our public sphere.

DMcC: It reminds me of the way that people have spoken about Trump’s election as a net gain for the media, even amid its attacks that the constant stream of scandals – or things that sound like scandals to some people – generates that kind-of a gravity of its own. And that we’re lucky, as religion scholars who happen to work on things that are so central to understanding what’s going on in American politics right now. It makes me feel very fortunate. But also it seems to carry a lot of responsibility. Do you feel that weight, as well?

BO: I do. And I know there’ll be people out there in the religious studies world who will say, “You know, Dan and Brad, you are blurring the lines between insider and outsider. You’re blurring the lines between scholar and data.” And I understand that perspective. I don’t necessarily agree with it. So when Dan and I go into any episode we do, we want to make sure that as we tell anecdotes from our past, as we recount what it was like to come home and have your family not be there, and have your first thought be “Maybe the rapture happened?” Where everyone got taken away and I didn’t. As we tell those stories we always want to balance that with very rigorous scholarship. And we want to do our homework. We want to go to the primary sources, we want to go to the data, we want to make sure we have that right, so that we can make sure, as scholars and as people that have a platform, that we are owning up and responding to that responsibility.

DMcC: Right. It also strikes me that it’s kind-of like you have an ethnographic project that you were living. And then you decided that the project was over. And then you realised that you could actually . . . that you had collected all this data that was really valuable. So, from one perspective, you know, is it blurring the line between insider and outsider? Well, it might be. But on the other hand, you were living in the same way that an ethnographer might live, as if they were doing full-immersion field work. And now you’ve pulled back from being within that perspective. And now that you’re not in that perspective you can clearly demarcate your outsider-ness – right? – in relation to your previous insider-ness

BO: And I think that’s right in ways that I think ethnographers experience. You begin . . . if you’re an ethnographer you form relationships within the community. And even when you might find the politics or practices of that community detestable, at that turning point, the relationships you form affect you. And believe me, I still have friends and many family members who are still part of the evangelical world. They are people for whom I have great affection. I love them. And so for me to do this project, again, means I want to avoid reduction and demonisation. But I also want to have the courage and the audacity to point as critical and as unflinching an eye as we can on what’s happening.

DMcC: Right. So, do you think – and feel free to share specific episodes that you’d like to direct people to if they come to mind – are there things that really resonate best with the community where the clarity of that kind-of-like worldview switch that you’ve had, that you’re revealing to everyone, really appears best? Your gold star podcast episodes?

BO: Well the thing we’ve been focussing on this season has been Beyond Belief. And what we want to do is explain not only what evangelicals believe, but what their culture and beliefs do for them. And so let me give you an example. We’ve spoken several times on our podcast about abortion and “cultures of life” – quote unquote – And one of the things we’ve tried really hard to explain is that, yes, there is a focus on abortion. Because many rank and file evangelicals go to bed at night believing that any form of abortion is equivalent to murder. Ok. However there’s whole nother package of goods that come with that belief. I know personally, from my own experience, that every time that I explained to my church elders that I wanted to vote for a Democrat because their emphasis on equality, or social justice, seemed more in line with the gospel of Jesus Christ, they would sort-of say to me “Look, you can do that if you want. But what you’re condoning is the murder of millions of children.” Why do I bring that up? Because that one belief in abortion meant that I could turn off my brain completely when it came to all other issues. So when I went into a voting booth I did not have to consider whether or not all the things related to healthcare reform, education initiatives, tax hikes, immigration, what all of those things meant for who I should vote for. What I was going to vote for was who was “pro-life”, quote unquote: who was against abortion. And so I got to turn off a whole set of moral and ethical decisions. I got to disengage politically, and go to bed at night knowing that I had done the right thing: that I was a good person, because I stood against murder. And that happens all over the place in evangelical culture. I could give you similar examples when it comes to apocalypticism. I could give you similar examples when it comes to God and guns, or gender. And so, what our audience has been really reacting to is unpacking what beliefs do for you more than just simply explaining theological frameworks or evangelical doctrines.

DMcC: And I’m so thrilled to hear you present it in that way. We’ve been having kind-of a religious literacy discussion on Twitter, some of us going around, and that really strikes me as one of the operational moves that religious studies really can take advantage of: that it’s not simply the content that we can present – it’s the critical appraisal of the work that religion does, in particular instances, for particular people. So on abortion, the work that it does is potentially make hard political decisions a lot easier, right? It clarifies what the expectations are for them. And, as an element of religious literacy, presenting religion in that way to the public is a really powerful way to think about it. It’s very different than thinking about religion as simply a collection of beliefs that we hold and then not really much beyond that, right?

BO: It is. And you know that in every Intro to Religion class, most scholars and teachers are not going to ask, you know, “Let’s ask their students to make a list of what Hindus and Muslims and Christians and everyone else believes.” They’re going to ask, “Let’s try to define religion.” and then they’re going to say, “What does religion do for people?” Well I know the question I ask my students on the first day, is “Why do people do religion?” and when I say why do people do religion, they immediately get away from belief and they start raising their hands. And it’s like “Community” “tradition”, “family”, “belonging”, “identity”. And as soon as we start talking about why people do religion instead of what do religious people believe, all of the dimensions of religious studies opens up. And what you see is that when we study religion we’re also studying race, we’re also studying embodiment, we’re also studying gender, and we’re also studying group formation. I always tell kids who want to major in religion, I’m like: “Look, when you sign up with us, you get to study it all. You don’t have to compartmentalise what you’re doing into one domain. Studying religion means studying the human condition writ large.” One of the things I like to say is that, when you study religion you get a window into human conditions. That means communities and worlds that at one time probably seemed indecipherable. And you also get a window into the human condition in a way that I think is really unique. In the humanities, yes, but in religious studies even more so.

DMcC: I’m so pleased to hear you say that. It’s really been quite a pleasure to speak with you today about this. Thank you so much for joining us. And where can people find your podcast online?

BO: Yes, so you can find Straight White American Jesus on Apple Podcast, on Stitcher, on Google, on most places that people find podcasts. You can find me on Twitter @BradleyOnishi. And we still do have a Straight White American Jesus Facebook page as well.

DMcC: Perfect. Thank you so much for joining us.

BO: Thanks for having me.

 

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcription, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Religious Education in State-Funded Schools: An Academic Subject Like Any Other… and Some!

In many ways I am in agreement with Professor Jensen, and see myself as a partner in the campaign to establish a ‘Religious Studies based’ Religious Education in state funded schools throughout Europe and indeed the world. Since experiencing a ‘road to Damascus’ conversion from Theology to Religious Studies on my teacher training year and Lancaster University MA in the mid-1970s (see Cush 2009), I have spent nearly forty years passionate about the ‘Religious Studies Approach’ and applying it in a variety of educational settings. I have also concerned myself throughout that time with the relationship between Religious Studies as understood at university level, and religious education in schools, both in academic publications (see for example Cush, 1999) and on various professional and policy committees on religious education. I currently represent the university Theology and Religious Studies sector (TRS-UK) on the Religious Education Council of England and Wales and its subcommittees, and was on the Steering Group for the new National Curriculum Framework for Religious Education, part of the recent Review of Religious Education in England (REC, 2013) – full report available at http://resubjectreview.recouncil.org.uk/re-review-report. So I am perhaps an example of the ‘publically engaged academic’ Tim seeks, at least in relation to education policy.

Like Professor Jensen, I began my teaching career in a sixth-form college (in Denmark, Gymnasium or ‘upper secondary’), and then moved into university level where I have been involved in both training teachers and undergraduate and postgraduate Religious Studies. Thus we both have much practical experience as well as theoretical perspectives.

I am in total agreement with Professor Jensen – Tim – that religious education should be a compulsory subject in all state-funded schools (see Jensen 2011). A brief note about terminology – I use the term ‘state-funded schools’ rather than ‘public schools’ (which is the term used in US and international English for ‘ordinary’ community schools), to avoid confusion with the English usage of the term ‘public schools’ to refer to certain prestigious, independent, fee-paying, schools. I also use ‘religious education’ as that is the most familiar term in the UK, although I like Tim’s ‘religion education’, which I believe was coined in South Africa in the late 90s, as avoiding the implication that studying religions is somehow ‘religious’. I would prefer another name altogether, possibly avoiding the highly contested term ‘religion’, which can carry negative connotations.

I also agree that religious education should be an academic subject, treated like other school subjects. If only it was treated like other subjects in England, we would not have the situation where it is a subject which is given less time on the timetable (many RE teachers have to enable students to pass their GCSE (16+ qualification) in half the time given for history or geography), where 50% of teachers teaching RE are completely unqualified in the subject, where primary trainee teachers may only have a couple of hours training, where it was not listed in the government’s list of important subjects for 16+ qualifications (the so-called ‘English Baccalaureate), where it is not included in the list of ‘facilitating subjects’ for gaining a place in the more prestigious universities, where trainee teachers are given no bursaries to study in spite of the shortage of specialist teachers, and where the recent Review of the subject had to be funded by charities and worked on by unpaid volunteers because the government provided no funding. For documented evidence on the neglect of religious education, see for example http://religiouseducationcouncil.org.uk/media/file/APPG_RE_-_The_Truth_Unmasked.pdf and to illustrate that this neglect is not new, Gates (1993).

I also agree with Tim and the colleague he mentioned, Wanda Alberts, that religious education should be what she calls ‘integrative’ (Alberts, 2007). In other words, the subject should be for all pupils of whatever religious background or none, should be non-confessional (not attempting to evangelise, proselytise, catechise or promote any particular religion or ‘religion’ in general), should be multi-faith (content should include major religions like Christianity, Islam and Buddhism but also smaller ‘indigenous’ traditions such as the Maori, and smaller newer developments such as contemporary Paganism). I also consider that given the fact that c.25% of people in England and Wales consider themselves to be ‘non-religious’ (whatever they mean by that) it is important to include the study of non-religious worldviews such as Humanism. It might come as a surprise to some that non-confessional, multi-faith religious education is still a minority option for states internationally (notably Sweden, Norway, Denmark, South Africa and the UK – and Ireland is thinking about it), most preferring to opt for either confessional religious education in the tradition deemed that of the country (or several separate strands if diversity is noticed) or to leave religious education out of state-funded education altogether, as in France or the USA.

I agree with Tim that multi-faith religious education, if appropriately done, is suitable for pupils of all ages from nursery schools onwards. Attitudes are formed early. I also wish that we in England had the sort of religious education for all students in the 16-19 age group that is found in Denmark, rather than A level Religious studies for the minority that take it and either nothing or a token gesture for the minority. I also agree that it is inappropriate for teachers of religious education to be expected to be somehow more of a moral role model, or more personally religious than any other teacher. Those of us in the subject at any level of education are bored with the predictable responses when introduced as a religious studies teacher/lecturer.

Another point of agreement with Tim is that we should not just be providing information about religious and non-religious traditions, but enabling our students to think critically about religions and to be able to discuss religious and ethical matters in an informed and articulate way (sometimes referred to as ‘religious literacy’). This, as Tim says, should be requisite in any open, democratic society.

I agree that we should have people teaching in schools that are well qualified, have studied the subject at university level, and that the university curriculum should take account of this and other likely careers for Religious Studies graduates, and help to provide skills they will need. Perhaps more controversially, I do agree to some extent with Tim’s aim of inculcating ‘some kind of relativism’, but would prefer to talk of ‘epistemological humility’ (a term apparently arrived at separately and simultaneously by David Chidester and myself) as ‘relativism’ is too misunderstood and explosive a term. What Tim and I mean is people who have their own well-thought out views and perspectives, but are open to accepting that they might just have something to learn from those who disagree with them.

And now for the ‘howevers’…

Although I bounced into the classroom in the 1970s full of enthusiasm to share my ‘Lancaster University Religious Studies’ knowledge of Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and so on with my students, over the decades, especially working with younger pupils, I have come to appreciate that there are other, and perhaps even more important aims for religious education. As Tim says, it is unlikely that any ‘scientific’ study of religion will not have side effects such as students reflecting on their own beliefs, values and identity, and becoming better citizens of a diverse society. However, in Religious Education as practised in England and Wales, academic knowledge of religions/non-religious worldviews is only one of the aims of religious education. Tim’s ‘side-effects’ become explicit aims. So, religious education should enable students to develop their own ideas on the important questions dealt with in religious traditions. In the words of the National Curriculum Framework (REC 2013) ‘Religious Education contributes dynamically to children and young people’s education in schools by provoking challenging questions about meaning and purpose in life, beliefs about God, ultimate reality, issues of right and wrong and what it means to be human’. Though agreeing with Tim (2011:143) that religions are more than sets of answers to existential questions, and that not everyone is interested in these issues any more than in religions, there needs to be space for pupils to work out their own beliefs and values, in relation to the community or communities they belong to and the wider society. I do however note Tim’s concern that this can go too far, and am myself concerned that a focus on philosophical and ethical issues in England is in danger of pushing out learning about religions in some examination syllabuses and therefore also in earlier school years.

Religions and non-religious worldviews also have much to offer in contribution to discussing some of the pressing issues of our day, such as social justice, equality, wealth and poverty, war and conflict, the environment. The REC document calls these contributions ‘sources of wisdom’, though in an impartial approach we must also enable pupils to think critically about examples where ‘religions’ and ‘worldviews’ have made things worse. Tim also states that in the hands of ‘engaged and dedicated teachers’ (2011:143) such issues arise naturally out of the ‘neutral and factual information about the religions taught’ – but unless planned for, or in the hands of less gifted teachers, they might not.

In order to engage positively with others in a society of diverse religious and non-religious worldviews, pupils need more than just factual information. They also need to empathise with others, and the skills of discussing controversial issues without disrespecting those with whom they disagree. These skills can be honed in the religious education classroom. Although the phenomenological approach to the study of religions has been rightly criticised in some respects, such as essentialism, the practice of epoche and empathy before jumping straight into critical analysis and evaluation have much to be said for them when dealing with matters at the heart of people’s identity.

Tim talked about being bored with observing religion in practice – visiting mosques and gurdwaras.  As a veteran of organising many a field trip, I can sympathise, but without us organising such visits many of our students will never have a chance of meeting some religious communities. Nothing beats actually meeting people to break down stereotypes (OK, sometimes they get reinforced, but that can be discussed), and realising that what we label ‘religion’ is not just about ideas and rules, but community, atmosphere, music, art, who we are, what we eat and how we wash. School religious education did not have to wait for university religious studies to suggest an ethnographic approach to studying religions, this was already happening in the late 60s and 70s (see Cush & Robinson, 2014:7), and more systematically from the 1990s (see Jackson, 1997 and 2004). The part of our undergraduate degree course that I value most is our compulsory seven day residential stay with a community other than the student’s own (see www.livingreligion.co.uk).

I disagree with Tim that school religious education ‘ought to be a miniature of religious studies’ (2007:142), as for philosophical, pedagogical and feminist reasons I am very wary of ‘top-down’ approaches to knowledge. For universities to set the agenda for schools can be patronising (see Cush 1999), and sometimes the flow of information and experience can be the other way round, such as the influence on university curricula in the UK of the stress on philosophy and ethics in schools, or simply when a child from a particular tradition actually knows more than the lecturer in a particular context. I would rather see universities and schools as partners. I also contend that ‘Religious Education in schools is not University Religious Studies watered down to make it suitable for children’ but ‘about the interaction between the religious material and the concerns and interests of the child’ (Cush, 1999:138). Spiritual, or more generally personal, development may be a side-effect of university Religious Studies, but it is an explicit aim of religious education in schools in England, and indeed an aim for the whole curriculum.

Recent development in Religious Studies such as the application of feminist theory, queer theory, and post-colonial theory have undermined the ‘Enlightenment’ concept of ‘objective’ knowledge and stress that ‘the scholar does not so much survey the scene from above but works within the web of his/her own experience and relationships’ (Cush & Robinson 2014: 9). Have our ‘religious studies facts’ been constructed under patriarchy, heteronormativity and colonialism? And how does this change the religious education classroom?

In conclusion, as Peter Schreiner often says (see for example, 2011:30) we all tend to prefer our own system of religious education, partly from a conservative attachment to what we know and are comfortable with, but also because the contexts of different countries, regions and individual schools differ. Although I have some disagreements with Tim Jensen’s approach to religious education as detailed above, I imagine that in practice, in the hands of skilled teachers who have a good relationship with their pupils, Tim’s ‘side-effects’ accomplish much the same as my ‘explicit aims’, and our commitment to a non-confessional, multi-faith religious education outweighs the differences. There is only a small band of Religious Studies scholars who take the time to care about Religious Education in schools (Ninian Smart was one, with his colleagues in the Shap Working Party – see www.shapworkingparty.org.uk/ ) and this partnership must be encouraged.

Bibliography

Alberts, W. (2007) Integrative Religious Education in Europe: A Study of Religions Approach Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

APPG (2013) The Truth Unmasked: the Supply of and Support for Religious Education Teachers available from http://religiouseducationcouncil.org.uk/media/file/APPG_RE_-_The_Truth_Unmasked.pdf

 Cush, D. (1999) ‘Big Brother, Little Sister, and the Clerical Uncle: the relationship between Religious Studies, Religious Education and Theology?’ in British Journal of Religious Education 21.3 pp 137-146

Cush, D, (2009) ‘Religious Studies versus Theology: why I’m still glad that I converted from Theology to Religious Studies’ in Bird, D. and Smith, S. Theology and Religious Studies in Higher Education: Global Perspectives Continuum, pp.15-30

Cush, D. (2011) ‘Without Fear or Favour: Forty Years of Non-confessional and Multi-faith Religious Education in Scandinavia and the UK’ In: Franken, L. and Loobuyck, P. (eds.) Religious Education in a Plural, Secularised Society: A Paradigm Shift Münster: Waxmann, pp.69-84.

Cush, D. and Robinson, C. (2014) ‘Developments in Religious Studies: Towards a Dialogue with Religious Education’ British Journal of Religious Education 36.1, pp.4-17.

Franken, L. and Loobuyck, P. (eds.) (2011) Religious Education in a Plural, Secularised Society: A Paradigm Shift Münster: Waxmann.

Gates, B. (1993) Time for Religious Education and Teachers to Match: a Digest of Under-provision St. Martin’s College, Lancaster: REC.

Jackson, R. (1997) Religious Education, an interpretive approach London, Hodder

Jackson, R. (2004) Rethinking Religious Education and Plurality: Issues in Diversity and Pedagogy London: RoutledgeFalmer

Jensen, T. (2011) ‘Why Religion Education, as a Matter of course, ought to be Part of the Public School Curriculum’ In: Franken, L. and Loobuyck, P. (eds.) Religious Education in a Plural, Secularised Society: A Paradigm Shift Münster: Waxmann. Pp.131-149.

Religious Education Council of England and Wales (2013) A Review of Religious Education in England London: REC, also available on-line at http://resubjectreview.recouncil.org.uk/re-review-report

Schreiner, P. (2011) ‘Situation and Current Developments of Religious Education in Europe’ In: Franken, L. and Loobuyck, P. (eds.) Religious Education in a Plural, Secularised Society: A Paradigm Shift Münster: Waxmann, pp.17-34.

A useful place to find summaries of how religious education is organised in European countries is the website of the European Forum for Teachers of Religious Education

http://www.eftre.net/

A useful source for example of practical materials and cutting edge debate on religious education is http://www.reonline.org.uk/

For Shap Working Party on World Religions in Education see http://www.shapworkingparty.org.uk/