What’s the point of studying religions? This is an apt question to be asking on the island of Ireland. Here, the academic study of religions is at an early stage in its development, particularly from social science or humanities perspectives, in contrast to theological or confessional approaches.
A keynote address by Prof Alicia Turner of York University, Toronto, addressed that question at the second annual conference of the Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religions (ISASR), 10-12 May 2013, at UCD. Turner drew on her areas of expertise during her talk on ‘Religion, the Study of Religions and other Products of Trans-locative and Trans-colonial Imaginations,’ including the study of Buddhism in Burma/Myanmar and the intersections of religion, colonialism and nationalism.
But she focused more on her experience of teaching religion, particularly at York University, where most students are the children of immigrants to Canada. This means that Turner’s classrooms contain a diverse mix of people from varying religious, ethnic and national backgrounds.
She said that in her classroom, she strives to create ‘three moments.’ I thought that her framework was particularly helpful, not only for analysing religion in the classroom, but also for trying to promote interreligious dialogue in the world outside it.
1) Understand the inner workings of a religious worldview. First Turner asks her students to set aside their own worldviews and assumptions (whether religious or secular) – a task she says they usually find harder than they think it will be. She wants her students not just to ‘know things’ about a religion, but also to understand how religion works; for example, how rituals can produce effects outside of religious systems. Turner added that being able to do this is also ‘the most fundamental step in cross-cultural understanding.’
2) Engage in critical analysis of religion. In this ‘moment,’ Turner asks her students to step back again and critically analyse religious worldviews. For example, she wants them to reflect on ‘who benefits’ from religious systems and the assumptions behind them? Who holds the power in religious systems? Is there any space within that system for power to be challenged?
3) Return to their own, old worldviews with new and self-critical eyes. Turner hopes that throughout the process, students more fully grasp that their own worldview is a particular one. This, she claims, can help students to become ‘better citizens’ by recognizing the validity of a plurality of views in the public sphere. Further, she wants ‘this process and mode of thinking’ to ‘stick with them’ for the rest of their lives – whether or not they can remember the particular content of religious beliefs and practices that they study in her classes.
In my own study of religion and conflict in Northern Ireland, it has always seemed significant to me that religiously-motivated peacemakers have been the ones who are able to look at the religious tradition from which they come with new and self-critical eyes. This has not usually been a dominant practice. It will be necessary not only for students engaged in the academic study of religions on this island, but also for the faithful who maintain and practice Ireland’s religious traditions.