Great Expectations: Navigating the Gamut of Student Views on “Religion”

By Ezekiel Goggin, Skidmore College

Teachers of religion ought not aspire to be members of a hermeneutical police force. We are best equipped to reach a diverse range of students, not by ordering them to toe a certain line, but by helping them to interrogate that line. Why was it drawn that way? Who drew it? Might it be drawn a different way? Effectively engaging students in these sorts of conversation involves, in my view, a strategic process of upsetting student expectations about what religion is, about what goes on in a religious studies classroom.

After the first meeting of my fall section of Understanding Religions, a student approached me –obviously enthusiastic about taking the class –and began relating details about their church, their pastor’s approachable demeanor and casual attire, and the contemporary rock music that his congregation used for worship services. This student was very excited, they related, to figure out how most effectively to defend their faith and participation in a certain vision of Christianity. Not long after this encounter with an aspiring theologian, I received a visit from another student—this time from my course on Religious Approaches to Death and Dying. The student wished to discuss their term paper topic. This student admitted to thinking “organized” religion a bit of a sham, a form of social control, and thinly veiled misdirection on the part of the powerful. This aspiring critical-theorist then inquired, a bit sheepishly, if it would be appropriate to produce a term paper that was overtly critical of a religious tradition’s mourning practices. There was no reason to be surprised by these interactions. I am, after all, a professor in a religious studies department. Why wouldn’t I want to talk about religion with my students? Still, these interactions did surprise me. But this was not because of the subject matter. What was remarkable, rather, was how much information about student expectations was broadcast in these moments. The more I have reflected on these encounters, the more I am convinced that these sorts of interactions offer an important window of opportunity to welcome a diverse range of student perspectives into the fold of religious studies. We take advantage of these opportunities not by confirming student expectations, but by attempting to subtly upset the fundamental presuppositions that shape them.

What were these presuppositions? It is not difficult to see. To both students, the mere association of a college course with “religion” was a matter of guilt (or honor) by association. It seems that this was likely rooted in a pervasive, somewhat binary thinking about religion and secularity. “Religion” is over here, the “secular” world is over here. Should the twain shall meet, it shall not be without struggle and enmity. Surely this could be generalized to the course and instructor as well –if I was interested in it enough to teach it then I must be an “ally” of “religion” per se. It would stand to reason that the class would be an attempt to cheerlead for “religion” or some set of religions. The would-be theologian saw me first and foremost as a potential theological and cultural ally rather than a professor, simply in virtue of being a professor of philosophy of religion. They thus expected that course would be an opportunity to hone and refine their own religiously motivated views. In the case of the second student, I was suspected to be a potential enemy of social progress and criticism of theological systems and religious practices. The would-be critical theorist anticipated that the course would be a gauntlet through which their secular convictions would be tested against the hoary pronouncements of ancient traditions. Both of these possibilities could turn out to be true. But without comment, these expectations might serve to narrow the range of critical reflections on religion in which these students might otherwise take part.

The trick, I take it, is to learn how to take advantage of these moments in ways that strategically upset student expectations. Such moments offer the instructor valuable opportunities to intervene in the service of course goals. Whether devoted, disdainful, or somewhere in between, most students enter the university classroom with some opinions about “religion”. They have opinions about what religion is (or is not), what it is good for (or is not good for), and how it ought to factor in our epistemic, artistic, moral, economic, political, sexual, and social realities (or not). In connection with these opinions, students also have expectations as to what a class on religion will be like. Many expect (enthusiastically or with profound reservations) a moral or theological education. For my part, the overarching aim of teaching is not to simply tell students what to think about religion, but to show them how to think about it.

I don’t know that I responded to each of these students effectively—I certainly tried. In the case of the would-be theologian, I initiated a conversation about how living religious traditions are almost always involved in a process of adapting to and negotiating with contemporary cultural, social, and political sensibilities –and that in fact these very processes can and should be a part of our “data” as scholars of religion. The student’s church had opted to communicate the Gospel in the familiar garb of popular culture and causal, middle class dress and social mores. We would be looking at a range of traditions engaged in quite similar processes of reflection, accommodation, and negotiation, I claimed. Perhaps, I suggested, this would indeed help the student gain a deeper understanding of their own tradition. Time would tell. In the case of the would-be critical theorist, I responded that a critical paper would be perfectly fine direction to take –provided it was carefully researched, tightly argued, and fundamentally fair. It could not be a “hit piece”. While it was not a prerequisite to be in fundamental sympathy with one or more religious traditions, it would be a goal of the course to develop a sense of informed empathy, I added. This did not preclude critique. In fact, I suggested, it might be necessary for a fully-fleshed out critical approach to a given set of rituals or beliefs. Indeed, there may be some instances where religion offer clear resources for social critique, rather than a mere apology for a malformed status quo. If student enthusiasm can be taken as a metric of success, then these strategies did seem to pay off. Both these (and other) students would approach me later in the term and express how surprised they were at just how interesting the courses were –not at all what they had expected.

This is all to say, I suppose, that teachers of religion ought not aspire to be members of a hermeneutical police force.[1] This is not to say that insisting upon factual accuracy and providing initiation into canonical debates are not a very real and essential part of our work! But we are best equipped to reach a diverse range of students, not by insisting they toe a certain line, but by helping them to interrogate that line. Why was it drawn that way? Who drew it? Might it be drawn a different way? Effectively engaging students in these sorts of conversation should involve a strategic process of upsetting student expectations about what religion is, about what goes on in a religious studies classroom, and then offering them opportunities to reconstruct, revise, or even reassert the views they held when coming into the class.

Of course, this can be a difficult proposition when managing the expectations of a single student, one on one. The difficulty is compounded when you find yourself with a diverse array of students, whose views run the gamut from religious apology, to suspicion, to outright anti-religious invective. How to approach this challenge? My encounters with the would-be theologian and the would-be critical theorist seem instructive, to me. On the one hand, I hope to thread the proverbial needle in presentation of course materials. At the same time, it I do not wish to dissuade my students from taking definite positions about this or that religion, or about religion as such, whatever that means. The aim is not to teach students the very unfortunate habit of a fallacious race to a “middle ground” which may or may not have merit. Rather, to see that contention and ambiguity are an indelible aspect of the field –regardless of whether one comes to religious studies as religious, as a disaffected ex-believer, a spiritual seeker, a hermeneut of suspicion, or something else altogether. Moments such as the encounters described above are opportunities to do just that—to emphasize that religious commitment does not preclude critical and historical research into religions and, by the same token, one need not be religiously committed to take religions seriously.

[1] I adapt this conceptualization from the remarks of Timothy Snediker, PhD Student at University of California Santa Barbara.


Timothy Snediker, “The Crypto and the Undercommons: Toward a Democracy of Thought in Religious Studies” (Presented at the American Academy of Religions Annual Meeting, Denver Colorado, November 17-20 2018).

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