Issue: Summer 2004
Leap of Faiths - The Quest for Religious Literacy
of one’s faith, in a globalized, massively integrated, post-9/11 world
rocked by sectarian strife, it behooves a college-educated person to
have a basic understanding of the major world religions
a century of skepticism, faith is making a comeback. “There seems to be
an awakening interest in the academy nationwide in religion,” says
USC’s Don Miller. The last decade, he says, has witnessed a serious
re-examination of the “secularization hypothesis” – put forward by
social scientists like Marx, Weber and Freud – which had theorized that
religion would be replaced by science.
cultural critics back in the 1960 and ‘70s thought we were reinventing
the world. Religion seemed to be passť,” adds Elizabeth Davenport. She
shakes her head and laughs: “It didn’t quite work out that way.
Religion is as much on the map as ever, I’m afraid.”
Perhaps even more so. Harvard researcher Diana Eck, an authority on
religious pluralism, believes that “while race has been the dominant
American social issue in the past century, religious diversity in our
civil and neighborly lives is emerging, mostly unseen, as the great
challenge of the 21st.”
According to UCLA’s Spirituality in Higher Education study released
late last year, though they may not identify with any organized
religion, 77 percent of American college students pray, and 70 percent
attended religious services last year. Seventy-seven percent agree with
the statement “we are all spiritual beings”; and 58 percent say it is
“very important” or “essential” to integrate spirituality into their
Yet 62 percent of the national survey’s respondents say their
professors never encourage discussion of religious or spiritual
issues. It would seem universities aren’t doing a very good job of addressing this spiritual hunger.
To a certain extent, multiculturalism is responsible for this silence.
Ironically, the multifaith movement’s intellectual cousin has bred a
non-judgmentalist politesse that helped consign religious discourse to
the realm of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Susan Laemmle remembers the first time she and USC President Steven B.
Sample discussed this tacit ban on religious discourse.
“You know, the Victorians talked a lot about religion but were very
quiet about sex,” Sample had remarked at a reception, “while we moderns
talk endlessly about sex but repress religion.”
Laemmle told him then, as she has told many others since: “I seek to bring religion out of the closet.”
Hindu student Nidhi Agrawal is living proof that Laemmle has the right
idea. Last fall, the political science and biology major from Arcadia,
Calif., enrolled in a senior seminar on religion and politics. “It was
amazing,” says Agrawal. “I suddenly saw the underlying role of religion
in everything, from markets to political motives. There’s all this
stuff to talk about that none of my other classes had ever touched on.
After taking this class, I realized I don’t know anything.”
Graduating this spring and heading on to medical school, Agrawal now
wishes that she had more time to study religion. “When you’re talking
about the Thirty Years’ War or the Crusades, when you’re talking about
Iraq, religion obviously plays a huge role. You can’t afford to not
talk about it just because it may offend somebody.”
There’s a name for what Agrawal is talking about: it’s called
“religious literacy.” Regardless of one’s personal faith, the thinking
goes, in a globalized, massively integrated, post-9/11 world rocked by
sectarian strife, it behooves a college-educated person to have a basic
understanding of the major world religions. “As a socially aware
person, it’s your duty to educate yourself, to learn about other
cultures, traditions and ideas,” says Agrawal.
She is not alone in feeling this way.
According to Miller, his department’s general education courses “are
absolutely brimming over.” A 200-seat survey course on Asian religions
generates waiting lists each semester. The same goes for a 100-student
course on the New Testament taught from a historical perspective. The
students filling these courses are not religion majors – USC has only
about 50 of those. Who do they attract?
“It’s a complete mishmash of people,” says Miller. “People with faith,
people with no faith, people from all different faiths, people who are
exploring. This is a trend all over the country. Religion departments
This yawning spiritual hunger presents both a challenge and an
opportunity for academe, says Laemmle. How can a secular university be
responsive? How does it provide rich and varied spiritual resources for
all while imposing religiosity on none? And how to bridge the gap
between religion as practice and religion as scholarship?
“At many universities, especially where they have a divinity program,
there’s a kind of self-imposed wall that separates academic religion
from confessional religion,” explains Ronald Garet. “It’s uncommon for
people on the academic and pastoral side to respect one another and
have good working relationships. Divinity schools have lots of people
who are hostile to religion. Religion professors bend over backward to
prove that they aren’t proselytizing.”
Don Miller agrees with that assessment, but notes that “I have not
sensed that here, and part of this has to do with Susan Laemmle.”
An academic herself – her Ph.D. is in English literature – Laemmle
interfaces with the faculty far more often and far better than most
university chaplains. “She is genuinely intellectually curious,
respectful of good scholarship, yet someone of deep personal faith,”
“One of the advantages of USC is that we are, at our best, a pretty
unpretentious place,” adds Garet. “We’re willing to get our hands
dirty, get in the community, stand up for what we believe in. And I
think that’s true for the area of religion. We’re very well placed to
relate the confessional side of religion to the critical side, to ask
questions like: who is God, why do we live and die, and do I really
believe the church’s stance on ordination, marriage, war or peace?
These are questions of an inquiring mind; this has to be a place where
those questions can get asked.” – Diane Krieger