This spring, our Rice "spotlight" course focuses on the Department of Religious Studies. The course, which runs eight Wednesdays, February 15-April 4, 2012, 7:00-8:30 p.m., features seven faculty members from the department and three graduate students.
We spoke to the chair of the department, Dr. Jeff Kripal, about the department and his views on the study of religion:
Tell us why the Department of Religious Studies is considered “one of the most exciting and pioneering mid-size programs in the country?”
That's hard to say. It's simply what we hear from our peers and from our graduate students when they go to conferences or interview for jobs. I think part of the reason is that the department chose a "niche model" of graduate education a few years ago. By this, we simply mean that we made a conscious choice to build on our strengths instead of trying to cover everything. We build and celebrate intellectual niches or specialties -- like "African-American Religion" or "Gnosticism, Esotericism, Mysticism," or "Bible and Beyond" -- instead of trying to be all things to all people, which, of course, is impossible anyway. We also happen to have some of the most productive young scholars in the country.
What do you think will be most surprising about the department or the faculty to those who take the class?
What the study of religion actually is and how it works. The simple truth is that most people have never been exposed to the professional study of religion, and so they confuse it with "being religious" or, just as bad, "being irreligious." They are generally delighted when they discover that it is neither, and that there are actually very sophisticated and very developed ways of talking and thinking about religion that make a great deal of sense once they are understood and practiced sufficiently.
Why do you believe the study of religions is so important to society?
Any civil society or liberal democracy can only function properly if a majority of its citizens are educated to think critically, openly, and rationally about subjects that impact government policy, international relations, the distribution of resources, the education of its youth, and so on. Clearly, "religion" is one of those subjects. If we are going to continue to flourish as an increasingly plural society, we will have to learn to talk about our religious differences honestly, precisely, and openly. Most of all, we will have to learn to negotiate what we have in common and how we are indeed very different. The study of religion provides exactly those tools.