Essay Comparing World Religions

Contemporary discourse in America, both in the public domain and in academe, is often quick to posit that these stories are “really” about politics, power, class, social standing and the like, and people often refuse to take the religious aspects of the narrative seriously.Yes, of course, any of these issues can be understood within a broader context of social and cultural concerns.The academic discipline of religious studies does not train students to be Catholics or Buddhists or Jews any more than political science trains students to be Democrats or Republicans.Even though I teach at an institution that is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, my department is not wedded to Lutheran doctrine or even Christian identity, but to a scholarly desire to understand the world’s inhabitants and cultures.The principal concern of religious studies is to expose differences in those worldviews so that we might understand the beliefs and practices of a wide variety of cultural actors.Different religious groups imagine the world differently, and that affects how they respond to contemporary concerns.Turn on the evening news, open the morning newspaper or log on to any news page online and you will find a wide variety of stories that have some reference to religion.

I often tell my students that it is our responsibility to use a “dispassionate third-party perspective” when viewing the religious phenomena, to understand and analyze while withholding judgment.Nevertheless, this contextualization does not give license to disregard the religious angle as superficial or otherwise unimportant.Whether we like it or not, individuals and communities are inspired by their religious identities to take action in the world.To understand their actions, we must also understand their motivations.That distinction between the discipline of religious studies and training within religious communities is often lost when considering the topic of religion in an educational setting.But the most important attribute that the academic study of religion offers to our students is even more vital and far more concrete: the ability to understand others.In a world in which we are increasingly exposed to difference of all types, what could be a more vital skill for navigating the future?It also equips our graduates with agile minds that can solve problems and understand perspectives that we are yet to encounter.In an environment that increasingly stresses skills that are immediately marketable, humanities departments often feel that we must justify our existence and our usefulness to employers.Of course, the idea of understanding religion and religious individuals resonated strongly with me, a professor of religious studies at a liberal arts college.But I believe the reasons for this sentiment are lost in the public discourse around both education and religion in the contemporary United States.

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  1. The leaders of many, if not most, colleges and universities might agree with this assessment of the problem, but would likely argue, with some justice, that no single institution can risk being the only one to change; that restoring attention to the fundamentals, rather than the frills, would put that one institution at serious risk.

  2. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) defines depression as a serious mood disorder that impacts the way one processes thoughts, emotions, and daily activities (such as sleeping or eating). Persistent depressive disorder, or dysthymia, is a depressed state that lasts two years or longer.