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Will FIU kill religious studies?

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In April — ironically, during the Passover-Easter season — Florida International University in Miami announced a plan to close its department of religious studies. The announcement alarmed the American Academy of Religion, whose president, Mark Juergensmeyer, wrote a protest essay. I’m posting it here with his permission. — Jim Davis

Considering how religion dominates the news — from Christian militia to Islamic activists to the rise of new immigrant cultures from Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East — one would think that religious studies would be one of the most important areas of higher education.

And, in fact, the study of religion is booming in colleges and universities across the United States. Enrollments are up, and research funding in the field has never been more plentiful.

So the academic world was stunned when Florida International University in Miami chose its department of religious studies as the sole department in the college of arts and humanities to be eliminated in the coming budgetary year. Why was this action proposed? Was it only because of the bad financial times?

Like many other universities, FIU is feeling a severe budget tightening. But in most such schools, the cuts have been experienced across the board — a couple of temporary positions here, a couple of support staff there. Almost never is a whole department dissolved.

But that is what is being proposed at FIU. Moreover, the department chosen to be chopped is distinguished by almost every measure. The quality of its faculty is superb, its students have prospered, and it has enriched the Miami community with its nationally-prominent lecture series, bringing to the area some of the most significant figures in the field of religion, including the Dalai Lama.

Why should this superior department be targeted for oblivion? This is a question that is asked not only in South Florida but also in the academic community nation-wide.

The American Academy of Religion, the national association of scholars of religious studies — a body of over 11,000 scholars for which I serve as president — began inquiring into the situation at FIU.

We expected to find an understandable confusion about what is taught in the academic departments of religious studies. Some outsiders assume that these departments are propagating religion, or training clergy.

These outsiders are often unaware that the programs cover all the world’s religious traditions, and are dedicated to the objective, scientific analysis of the role of religion in history, culture and society. Religious studies departments do not promote particular religious beliefs. And state-supported institutions do not train clergy; that kind of education usually takes place in theological schools outside college and university walls.

But these issues were not the ones given by the administration of FIU in their plans to close down the religious studies department. Rather, they claimed that this field of study simply does not need to have its own department.

The argument is an old one, extending back to European Enlightenment thinkers in the 18th century who tried to ban the subject of religion from public life. The idea is that religion is not worth studying on its own terms, that it can be studied through other disciplinary perspectives, such as sociology or anthropology.

Although the FIU administrators admitted that the department’s faculty was more distinguished than many others, had higher enrollments, and received more grant money, they said the study of religion was simply not central to a liberal arts education. Yet this has never been the case: Religious ideas and values have been at the heart of higher education from its beginning.

In the last hundred years, the modern field of religious studies has evolved into objective analyses of the phenomena of religion from multifaceted and scientific points of view, helping to explain the customs, texts, arts, ideas, and social conflicts of religious communities around the world. Several schools of methodological thought in religious studies propose that religious phenomena can properly be studied only on its own.

Let’s take the analogy of economics. Though scholars in other departments, such as sociology and political science, have increasingly become concerned with economic issues — just as they have with religious ones — no one would suggest that economics could be studied satisfactorily without its own department.

The same could be said of the field of mathematics, which is studied in many departments. Few universities would think of abolishing their mathematics departments for that reason.

Like economics and mathematics, only a religious studies department or a stand-alone program can provide the intellectual coherence, academic leadership and administrative support that the undergraduate and graduate degree programs in the field require. For this reason, most major universities, both private and public, have departments or stand-alone programs in religious studies, including Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and the University of California at Santa Barbara — universities from which have come the current and immediate past presidents of the American Academy of Religion.

The enormous impact of the events of Sept. 11, 2001, brought home in a powerful way just how important a wide knowledge of religion is for understanding the changing globalized world. According to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, America’s ignorance about the world’s religions “poses one of the greatest challenges to our public diplomacy.” She shares the conviction that future citizens need to understand the controversies over religion that have shaped their culture, the history of the religious traditions currently influencing millions of people around the world, and the living reality of the various religions that are practiced in their midst.

It is disconcerting that in a time of budgetary stress, administrators at FIU would target the courageous scholars who have upheld this intellectual tradition in South Florida. Surely there is a better way to satisfy the temporary financial problems of the university.

Closing FIU’s religious studies department would have long term consequences. It would tarnish the intellectual reputation of what was becoming a nationally recognized academic institution, and the loss of this excellent department of religious studies would diminish higher education as a whole.

Mark Juergensmeyer, the current president of the American Academy of Religion, is a professor of sociology, global studies and religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Also contributing to this essay were the three immediate past-presidents of the AAR: Diana Eck (Harvard), Jeffrey Stout (Princeton), and Emilie Townes (Yale).

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Written by Jim Davis

May 24, 2009 at 2:06 am

Posted in religion, Uncategorized

Tagged with , ,

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