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Single-religion studies grow at colleges in Kentucky, Indiana

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New approach aims to help students understand


By Peter Smith


James Adams took a course on Islam at the University of Kentucky because he wanted to learn more about the background of the 9/11 attacks and about the Muslim immigrants he had lived near while studying in Germany.


Then he kept taking classes as his interest in Islam grew.


“In order to understand why people do what they do in other countries, we need to understand the way they can think,” said Adams, a 2009 graduate from Maysville who ended up minoring in Islamic studies.


Adams, who later worked for the Peace Corps in predominantly Muslim Kazakhstan and plans graduate studies in diplomacy, is typical of a growing trend in religious studies at state universities — where students focus on a single religion.


Traditional religious-studies programs at state universities, most of which arose in the 1960s and 1970s, generally cover such topics as the philosophy of religion and comparing the beliefs and practices of different faiths, along with religion-specific classes.


But UK, the University of Louisville, Indiana University and other state universities have in the past decade launched a new fleet of majors, minors and endowed professorships aimed at “area studies” that are either oriented toward one religion, such as Judaism or Islam, or around specific parts of the world that are strongly defined by their religious heritages, such as India and the Middle East.


Courses include the history, culture and ideology of these religions; sacred texts; and languages such as Hebrew, Arabic and Sanskrit.


Such an approach reflects the recognition that religions can’t be neatly compared on a chart, because each one involves a unique set of practices, beliefs, history and culture, said Mary Ann Stenger, a religion-studies professor in the Division of Humanities at U of L, where a religious studies program dates to 1972.


“Religion lives in people, lives in culture,” she said. “If you’re going to take that seriously, then area studies in religion makes sense.”


The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the persistent Middle East crisis and other historical events have also raised interest in specific religious studies, professors said.


“As a human race, we have fought wars under ethnic identities and political identities and religious identities,” said James Turner, a humanities professor at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., and author of “Religion Enters the Academy: The Origins of the Scholarly Study of Religion in America.”


“At various moments one sees a resurgence of (identification) around religion, as we’re now experiencing in the Middle East,” Turner said.


While seminary and similar programs have historically been based on faith and divine revelation, academics have for centuries studied religion through secular disciplines such as sociology, philosophy, psychology and the arts.


Those studies began flourishing at state-sponsored universities nearly 50 years ago.
“It was a response to the 1960s awareness of the East,” Stenger said, plus a recognition that professors “could teach religious studies in a nonsectarian way.”


A 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case — best known for banning school-sponsored devotional Bible readings — also played a role, said David Haberman, professor and interim chair of the religious studies department at Indiana University in Bloomington, one of the nation’s largest such programs.


The court said that “education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion” and that the Bible could be studied as literature.


With that constitutional clearance, religious studies “became the fastest-growing discipline in the history of the American academy,” Haberman said.


Such programs — and the trend toward area studies in such areas as gender and ethnicity — spawned the later generation of studies in specific religions. And funding has followed: Area Catholic, Jewish and Islamic donors, for example, have helped endow studies in their fields at public universities.


Professors say they navigate tensions in the classroom when students learn about researchers’ challenges to traditional views regarding the actions of religious figures or the authorship of sacred texts.


“It can be harder because it’s so personal,” Stenger said. But the “goal is not that you agree, it’s that you can think critically.”


David Hunter, chair of Catholic studies at the University of Kentucky, has more than 100 students enrolled in a course he’s teaching on early Christianity.


“We’re not about advocacy, we’re really just about trying to understand the early Christians on their own terms,” he said. Hearing alternatve views helps students “to reflect more on their faith. That can be a good thing.”


Ihsan Bagby, professor of Islamic studies at UK, finds himself speaking to former and future military servicemen, diplomats in training, those curious about the Muslim world — and a minority of Muslims.


Students often come in with strong opinions about Islam, pro or con.


“It actually makes the class fun,” Bagby said. “Students are a little more willing to talk and ask questions and discuss issues. … That’s what liberal arts is all about. It’s not about imposing a mindset; it’s really developing an inquiring mind.”


Little represented in the area studies of religion is the religion held by more Americans than any other — Christianity.


The closest thing in this region is Hunter’s professorship at UK, which was endowed by the donation of a local couple. Even with the endowment, however, UK doesn’t have a minor in specifically Catholic studies.


A search for any degree programs in Christian, Protestant or evangelical studies at public universities in Kentucky, Indiana and several other states’ flagship schools came up empty.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill offers a minor in the Study of Christianity and Culture. Its website calls it “the only one of its kind in the United States.”


Scott Thumma, a professor at the private Hartford Institute for Religion Research in Connecticut, said he has often wondered about the shortage in Christian-studies programs.


“It is like the separation of church and state at state universities really does mean ‘church’ not mosque, temple or synagogue,” he said in an email.


But professors in religious studies say Christian history and theology are so closely intertwined with Western culture that it’s already embedded in course work in religion, history, the arts, literature and other subjects.


And it’s not for lack of individual courses. Area professors said courses in Christian topics and the Bible are often packed.


“It’s just built in” to many core courses, said Haberman, adding that IU considers one of its strengths the study of American religion — which is largely a story of Christianity.


(Courtesy: Courier-Journal.com)
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