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Why universities — and the rest of us — need religion studies

If we let universities strip away their commitments to religious diversity, we are actually making our communities less safe.

A pair of glasses sits on a Hebrew Bible. Photo by oskiles/Pixabay/Creative Commons

December 4, 2020

By Simran Jeet Singh

RNS) — This week, the University of Vermont announced that it is eliminating two dozen academic programs, including its entire religion department. This comes as a surprise, given the caliber and credentials of the department’s faculty; in addition to being prolific scholars, they are regular recipients of grants, awards and fellowships for teaching and research.

The real shock of UVM’s announcement is its timing: devaluing of religion after an election cycle in which the president’s spiritual adviser called for African angels to intervene on election results, when our president-elect ran on restoring the “soul of our nation,” when the Supreme Court is busy reappraising the establishment clause and the outgoing secretary of state has sought to redefine religious freedom.

Even more troubling is that this is not an isolated incident; the University of Vermont’s proposal comports with a larger pattern of cutting religion programs in academic institutions.

Teaching about religion is not just about understanding politics. It’s also about creating cultural literacy, ensuring that our young people are familiar with the diverse people they meet on the street. University brass often refers to this kind of literacy as a civic good, but as a brown-skinned, turban-wearing, beard-loving man in Donald Trump’s America, I submit that people knowing who I am and having an appreciation for my religious heritage can mean the difference between life and death.

Think about it from the perspective of those who are minoritized: By stripping away our commitment to religious diversity, we are actually making our communities less safe.

At a moment when everyone is clamoring for more resources devoted to diversity, equity and inclusion, why would an institution take away resources that already exist and are not easy to replace?

The University of Vermont in Burlington, Vermont. Photo by Michelle Maria/Creative Commons

The counterargument goes that cutting programs like these is purely business: The departments don’t bring in enough majors and therefore don’t serve the university’s bottom line.

We have spent the better part of the past few decades thinking of our educations as pathways to professional careers. Look what has happened to our society in the process. We may have a more polished workforce, but at what cost? There’s nothing wrong with going to college to get a well-paying job. But what are our educational institutions doing to shape our moral and ethical outlooks?

What expanded my mind in college, more than anything else, was coming to terms with the reality that my way wasn’t the only way, or the best way. Learning about others’ faiths and cultures challenges our self-centered chauvinism and helps us meet others where they are.

When done right, the work of the humanities is the work of anti-racism. If this sounds limiting, let me put it this way: It’s the work of undercutting assumptions and stereotypes about the people around us and bringing nuance to our perspectives, so that we stop seeing in black and white and begin seeing the richness of our human experiences.

It also, I might add, makes business sense. In this moment when corporations and institutions are leaning into diversity and inclusion and equity, some still see religion outside of this scope. I have consulted with corporations long enough to see that there is a discomfort with religion. Of the traditional categories represented in diversity and inclusion work — race, gender, religion, sexual orientation — religion is often overlooked and neglected. Organizations are often uncomfortable talking about religion for fear of doing it wrong.

Public universities, meanwhile, often worry about the separation of church and state. But this concern belies a fundamental misunderstanding of what a religion scholar actually does. While many worry about being accused of proselytizing, religion scholars aim to understand historical developments in context. We’re scholars with an interest in religion; not in imposing our views on religion.

Take from me, a practicing Sikh who has spent a majority of his academic career teaching Islamic studies and Buddhist history. I wish that I had a penny for every time someone asked me how I could teach a religion other than my own. They don’t understand that I’m not in it to seek conversions; I’m in it to open hearts and minds and to help people grapple with the beautiful diversity of our world.

If we want our kids to grow up to appreciate people from all the various backgrounds they will encounter in their lives, we must first equip them with the appropriate knowledge. To not do so, to tell them that understanding faith is not important, is setting them up for failure.

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