What Does It Mean to Be Religious?

Recently, Lauren Markoe of the Religion News Service posted an article, “Report: Americans hold different views of what ‘religious’ means.” Markoe explained,

There is a lopsided divide in America about what it means to be a religious person, with a majority believing that it’s about acting morally but a strong minority equating it with faith. Nearly six out of 10 Americans (59 percent) say that being a religious person “is primarily about living a good life and doing the right thing,” as opposed to the more than one-third (36 percent) who hold that being religious “is primarily about having faith and the right beliefs.”

[These statistics were the result of research completed by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution.] The point of the piece was that even though Americans may agree generally about the importance of “religion” or “being religious,” there is little agreement on what that actually means. In many ways, those familiar with the academic study of religion should not be surprised. Few scholars agree on the definition of religion, let alone if there is something to define at all. Students of religion in America in particular should know that Americans have rarely agreed on what “counts” as religious practice or “real” religion. Nevertheless, findings like this can sometimes catch readers off guard.

This is precisely what happened to my students at Florida A&M in spring 2013. Although they had not read this piece, we held our own discussions that led to this conclusion. As an exercise to examine the class’ assumptions about what it means to be religious, each student wrote their own definition of religion at the beginning of the semester. I collected their definitions and created a word cloud based on the compilation of all definitions.

Screen Shot 2013-01-20 at 7.21.57 PM

Although it’s not scientific, it certainly was a valuable talking point for the class. Until they saw this graphic, the class was mostly pleased that nearly all students agreed that religion was an important part of people’s daily lives, universally across cultures. [In my experience, this class was an outlier compared to other classes I have taught. I had no skeptics who participated in class discussion] After looking at the graphic, they started to realize the distinctions within and among those who call themselves “religious.” Their own definitions reveal that, as a class, they fall into the minority of the above study, thinking that religion “is primarily about having faith and the right beliefs.” More importantly than falling into one camp or the other, we had a way to begin a semester long conversation about the variety of ways that religion is defined and why.

“Religion-related News from Around the Web”: Giving a Critical Eye to Your Sources

Lately my mind has been on curriculum development and learning goals as I re-vamp my fall syllabi. I think I discovered a new assignment for my Introduction to Religion class. This morning, as I scrolled through the tweets on my feed, The Pew Forum (@pewforum) asked: “#Religion news junkie? Our “Religion News on the Web” feature allows you to filter articles by topic and region: pewrsr.ch/ZNBEKX.” Perfect.

In the past I had assigned students to read current events, news stories, blogs, etc. and “find” religion. Often students found the “Religion” section or blog of a popular outlet like the New York Times, or CNN”s Belief Blog, or “Religion” at the Huffington Post, all of which gave plenty of material, but, I thought, was too “obviously” religion for what I had intended and, therefore, didn’t present much of a challenge to write about. Essays would be broad summaries instead of critical reflections. Rather than fight their urge to discover “religion” [the category] by searching for the word “religion,” the Pew Forum’s “Religion News on the Web” inspired me to embrace their impulse. Here’s today’s run-down as of 10:00 AM.

http://www.pewforum.org/Religion-News/Religion-News-on-the-Web.aspx accessed 7/10/2013 at 10AM
http://www.pewforum.org/Religion-News/Religion-News-on-the-Web.aspx accessed 7/10/2013 at 10AM

“Religion-related” means clergy (nothing is more religious than the Pope, right?), a “religious” group (duh, it’s Islam, right?), and abortion. Wait. Is abortion an inherently “religious” topic? Why? (issues of life and/or death are always religious…?)

The intent of the original assignment was to get students to notice the way in which the category of religion is socially constructed and employed in various ways (by writing sympathetically of certain religious groups, but not others, for instance). The assignment worked for some, but mostly didn’t. I still think the assignment can be effective, so now I’m thinking I’ll tweak it to ask students to think of outlets, like the Pew Forum, as curators of information, defining “religion-related” topics in their own way and presenting them to the public. Their task would be to figure out what “religion” means to the source and the consequences of that presentation. Hopefully, it can be a tool for critical thinking, reflection, and deepen their understanding of the social construction of “religion.”

Making the invisible visible: An idea for the classroom

I’m a little late in noticing, but this past week was George Orwell’s birthday. To commemorate the day, some clever fans of 1984 placed party hats atop surveillance cameras around Utrecht.


This celebration was posted at FRONT404 who, according to the website, is a “Dutch duo of artists consisting of Thomas voor ‘t Hekke and Bas van Oerle.” The team “tries to surprise people, taking them out of their daily reality. Using humour and playful interaction they offer new perspectives and ways of looking at the world.” They explained the Orwellian birthday party as follows:

By putting these happy party hats on the surveillance cameras we don’t just celebrate Orwell’s birthday. By making these inconspicuous cameras that we ignore in our daily lives catch the eye again we also create awareness of how many cameras really watch us nowadays, and that the surveillance state described by Orwell is getting closer and closer to reality.

The bolded phrase (my emphasis added) caught my attention. As I’m trying to rethink my Introduction to Religion and World Religions syllabi for the fall, I’ve been spending considerable time trying to think of new ways to engage students outside of reading and post-reading discussions. Front 404’s creative approach to rendering what is normally invisible visible again leads me to think I need to put a camera in my students’ hands. Fortunately many of them already have cameras on their person 24/7. I wonder what will happen if I ask students to capture “religion” that they encounter in their daily lives. I have no idea what I may get in return, but that sounds like the making of an intriguing and exciting conversation that can begin our semester long examination of what precisely “religion” is, how we’ve come to think that is what it is, and how its presence/absence shapes our lives in ways large and small. How exactly I’m going to do this, I haven’t decided yet, but I welcome any comments or suggestions.