A new interdisciplinary minor brings an analytical perspective to studying the history and complex effects of religious belief
By Joanna Corman
Marjan Soleimanieh ’11 grew up attending an Islamic elementary school but had never studied her religion academically. At Mills, she took five classes that addressed several religions, including a historical background of the three Abrahamic faiths, a course about women and religion in the Caribbean, and one on women in Islam.
“The religious teachings I learned at Mills were really transformative,” she says. Before taking the Islam class, taught by Judith Bishop, Soleimanieh wondered why Muslim women would feel the need to make a public statement about their faith by wearing the hijab, or headscarf, when Islam encourages an internal belief in God. She also felt that Muslim women wearing hijab were sometimes perceived as “weak and powerless.”
Bishop’s class, however, gave her a deeper understanding of the issue. Inspired by what she learned, she now feels more connected to her religion and understands that women wear hijab for many reasons, including for modesty. The class even prompted her to wear hijab for a year—an empowering choice, she says, that allowed her to focus on her intellect, not her appearance.
In addition to learning about her own traditions, Soleimanieh gained insights on many diverse spiritual beliefs: “There is a difference between being open and being knowledgeable,” she says. “These classes gave me the knowledge to see the commonalities between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, as well as eastern religions. They have a similar core.”
With her strong interest in studying religion, Soleimanieh would have been a good candidate for the religious studies minor the College is launching this year. The foundations for the minor already existed within the College’s current offerings in anthropology, art history, English, philosophy, and women’s and gender studies. Bishop, who was instrumental in developing the minor, has launched a new core course, Introduction to the Study of Religions, to provide a framework that ties other classes together into a cohesive program of study.
“The academic study of religion encourages students to explore various religious traditions, including their own if they have one, in order to develop respect for the global diversity of religious experience and to understand the impact of religion in the world,” says Bishop, an associate professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. “Students are curious because they see this is an issue of growing importance for people who wish to engage in the world.”
Religious studies focuses on the history and philosophy of religion, examines the complexity and diversity of religious and spiritual traditions, and explores the influence that religious belief has had on the human experience.
“Studying religion is not the same as practicing religion,” says Dean of Graduate Literary Studies Cynthia Scheinberg, who cochairs the minor committee. “It’s a very different concept. We’re not teaching a minor in—for example—Christianity, but are talking about many world religions and traditions of spirituality.”
“The academic study of religion does not endorse any one perspective as universally correct—in fact, it resists that idea,” adds Bishop, who holds a PhD from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. “One of the important things about this program is making the classroom a place where it is safe to question religion but also safe to express religious beliefs, to have a discussion from a plurality of perspectives.”
Erik Owens, associate director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, a Jesuit Catholic university, says that academic interest in the subject has been growing as students and administrators have recognized greater religious and cultural diversity within the United States and the country’s standing in an increasingly globalized world. He calls understanding religion a civic imperative. “As citizens, if we’re not able to continue a conversation that begins, ‘My religion teaches me this…,’ with someone who doesn’t have the same approach, then our society is in great danger,” he says.
At Mills, students are actively seeking ways to make such conversations possible and productive, says Laura Engelken, director of spiritual and religious life. “Part of being an effective leader and citizen of the global community is seeing how religion plays a key role in people’s motivations,” she says. “To create a more just world, people have to be able to share their full selves, including their belief systems.”
Religious beliefs are deeply entwined with culture and ethnic identity, and the study of religion provides a way to analyze the intersections of these various identities. “It’s important to be informed about religion in the same way it’s important to be informed about gender and race—these are the some of the main bulwarks that have shaped the development of societies worldwide,” says Professor of English Ajuan Mance, whose World Roots of Literature class is an elective in the minor. “It can never hurt you to be conversant and fluent in ways of thinking, systems of ideas, and identity categories that are outside your own personal experience.”
Understanding the world around us must involve understanding the role that religion has played in human existence both for good and for ill, says Owens. In American history, religious belief has both perpetuated social division and birthed movements for justice. Mance points out that the liberation theology of African American Protestantism fueled Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, while many Native Americans find power in traditional spiritual practices. Latin American communities in the United States have drawn on religion as a strength in dealing with anti-immigration and racist sentiments.
Religious studies at Mills also addresses the complex intersection between religion and gender. Bishop’s Women in Islam class, for example, examines foundational Islamic texts regarding women, interpretations of those texts, and historical evidence of women’s religious activities.
“I grew up in the religion but I hadn’t read women authors who write about the Koran. I had never thought of that,” says Soliemaniah, who points to the fact that, although the prophet’s wife was an entrepreneur who asked her husband to marry her, there remains a popular perception that Muslim women are forbidden to work outside the home. “That’s a cultural standard in many Middle Eastern countries,” she says, “but it’s not based on the religion.”
Amina Dzano ’13, an international relations major who studied religion at Mills, has personal experience of how religion and nationality overlap—as well as the shortfalls of assuming a correlation between such identities. Her family fled Bosnia after the war there in the 1990s.
“Many people immediately assume that Muslims are Middle Eastern,” she says. “They don’t think about Bosnians like myself who are white and Muslim, or about Indonesian Muslims; they also don’t think about people in the Middle East who are not Muslim.”
“The skills that come with studying religions are crucial,” says Owens. “When you approach other cultures and learn about a different belief system and a different set of concepts, you develop the ability to interrogate your own tradition and assumptions. You gain a different understanding of logic and evidence and dialogue. These are the habitual ways of thinking that liberal arts schools like Mills can provide.”
Rachel Birenbaum, an anthropology-sociology major who will be president of the College’s Jewish Student Collective this fall, has learned a lot about Judaism at Mills. But she also says the courses that presented religious material enabled her to grasp the basis of different religions. “The Bible as Literature class helped me see Christianity in a different light. After reading through the gospels, Christianity made more sense to me.” An anthropology class revealed how portrayals of non-Judeo-Christian belief systems—such as voodoo in Haiti and African religions—are often skewed in American culture. She saw how religion can become a means to ostracize those who are different.
Religious studies offers analytical skills that are useful in a variety of academic fields. Sacred texts, and interpretations of those texts, present layer upon layer of historic, geographic, and political context that must be decoded by the modern reader, Bishop says. For example, rabbinic writings from the Middle Ages may have been produced in Spain or Germany, from a Sephardic or Ashkenazi philosophy. “No reader approaches a text without bias,” says Bishop. “These rabbis are commenting on a third century document, but they are commenting on it in the 12th century and we are reading their commentary in the 21st century. How do those layers influence our understandings?”
Many classic works of literature and art gain levels of meaning from religious references. Scheinberg, who teaches 19th century British literature, points out that American students, accustomed to the separation of church and state, can have difficulty understanding the notion of a state religion. “There are lots of historical moments when political and national identity were also tied to a particular religious identity,” she says.
Understanding religions is a necessary skill in a wide range of professions. From teacher to lawyer, politician to journalist, any career that involves interacting with diverse people can benefit from increased religious awareness. Bishop explains that religion can affect health and medical services when, for instance, a patient’s desire to receive care from a faith-based healer conflicts with the hospital system.
Even scientific inquiry can be deeply influenced by religious convictions. Various spiritual traditions present varying understandings of the relationships between humans and the natural world, which lead to differing approaches to ecology. Depending on one’s beliefs, humans may have a God-given right to dominion over all plants and animals, may have responsibility for stewarding all creation, or may recognize the smallest insect as having an equal right to life.
It’s almost self-evident that religious literacy is ever more necessary for interpreting current political events. “There’s an increased emphasis on religious identity in our news media, in our civic rhetoric, in our civic debates. Investigating the way belief systems operate in a society is important to developing good citizenship,” says Bishop.
Amina Dzano says the Women in Islam class heightened her awareness about how Islam is presented in the news. “When extremists and terrorists are referred to as Muslim, that becomes their defining characteristic,” she says, “as if something about being Muslim inherently makes you a terrorist or something about being a Muslim terrorist makes you different from any other kind of terrorist.”
“If you want to change a certain structure you have to look at all of the pieces,” says Rachel Birenbaum. She cites debates around abortion and Israel as two hot-button topics that have roots in religious conviction. “Religion is often a big part of how we make moral decisions and take action on such issues,” she says.
And although the new minor deals with religion exclusively from an analytic point of view, students may often find their personal sense of spirituality and ethics confirmed or transformed through the act of questioning and learning.
“There are many modes of reflecting about one’s place in the world,” says Owens. “The liberal arts tradition that includes religious studies is a crucial way to ask questions of what it means to be human.”
Laura Engelken sees this process among Mills students every day. In her pastoral role, she helps students reconcile religious ideologies with intellectual ideals, or find ways to sustain themselves if they do not already have their own spiritual tradition.
“I talk about spirituality as meaning making,” says Engelken. “All of us as humans have a need to make sense of our lives, to tie the different threads of experience and knowledge into something meaningful that sustains us as individuals and communities. Some of us do that through religious traditions and others do it through philosophies or a sense of the inner connectedness of life. We all need to critically reflect on our core values and their ethical impact.”
Dzano believes that an essential aspect of developing as an informed, inclusive leader involves clarifying your own ethical framework as well as learning about other cultures and religions. It means cherishing differences instead of stereotyping.
“Our world is a collection of communities,” says Dzano. “If you extend compassion and kindness to someone who is different from you, if you have an appreciation for diversity and an appreciation for social justice, I think you will have made a change in the world.”