June 13 2024

by Fred Glennon, Le Moyne College

Guanyin, pictured in this statue in Dali, China, is a key heavenly bodhisattva who embodies the virtues of compassion and mercy important in Mahayana Buddhism.

Most Americans accept the notion that we should learn more about religious traditions other than our own (Wuthnow 2007). In our post-9/11 world, we recognize how difficult it is to comprehend fully the actions of religious people without understanding the impact their religious traditions have had on their motivations and behavior. One result of this new interest is that the comparative study of religion and religious ethics has become a critical part of today’s liberal arts education. A quick review of the Syllabus Project, a joint effort between the AAR and the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning, reveals a plethora of courses dedicated to this task.

by Rosemary B. Kellison, University of West Georgia



by Irene Oh, The George Washington University



On a Tuesday morning, about two-thirds of the way into the semester of our Ethics and World Religions undergraduate course, I begin our class discussion on the topic of marriage by asking, “Does your family have certain expectations about whom you may marry?” Students laugh. They often share their parents and grandparents’ desires for them to marry a person who meets very stringent, seemingly impossible criteria.

One woman states: “My grandmother wants me to marry not just someone Jewish, but a Russian Ashkenazi Jew who speaks Russian fluently and belongs to a Conservative congregation. And, of course, English, because my parents don’t speak Russian. My parents want me to marry someone with a graduate degree. And, oh yeah, it should be a guy.”

I inquire further: “What would happen if you brought home someone who was not of your religious background?” 

by Nahed Artoul Zehr, Western Kentucky University


by Steven Benko, Meredith College




Has an instructor ever said that they were not teaching critical thinking? What is an alternative, but still acceptable, answer to the question, “Are you teaching your students to be critical thinkers?” It would not be acceptable to say that we want nothing more from our students than to be passive receptacles of information that they will then repeat on a test. It would not be acceptable to kick the critical-thinking can down the road and say that the responsibility of teaching critical thinking is spread out among multiple classes and faculty and that students graduate from our programs and colleges as critical thinkers. The only acceptable answer to the question of whether instructors are teaching their students to be critical thinkers is “yes, of course we are.”

by Mark Larrimore, Eugene Lang College




I was once part of a discussion of the applicability of the category of “religion” in Japan. After a while, my host, a Tendai priest, said that nothing we’d been discussing fit the largely funerary ritual of the temple he inherited from his father. Rather than “religion” (shukyo), it might be better described as “ethics for the dead” (shisha ni tai suru rinri). This observation hit me like a thunderbolt. What he proposed as a way of interpreting a particular practice, for me raised general questions. “Ethics for the dead” has shaped my understanding of religion ever since. And also of “ethics,” whose default secularity it threw into dramatic question.

by Elizabeth Barre, Rice University



Classic Challenges

In some ways, the questions we are asking in this issue of Spotlight on Teaching are not new. Anyone who has taught an introductory course in religion, or even read about the teaching of such courses, is already well aware that the task of teaching a “tradition” is fraught with difficulties. It’s never quite clear what we’re supposed to be teaching when we’re assigned this task, and if we do manage to settle on a responsible answer to that question, it’s not long before the time constraints of a semester-long course make us wonder whether responsibility is simply a luxury we can’t afford.



Ali, Kecia. 2014. The Lives of Muhammad. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ambrose, Susan A. 2010. How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. The Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Asad, Talal. 2003. Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Association of American Colleges and Universities. 2007. College Learning for the New Global Century: A Report from the National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America’s Promise. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Bain, Ken. 2004. What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

by Charles Mathewes, University of Virginia*

The bare fact that this survey was produced at all is perhaps the most important thing about it. It suggests a greater degree of seriousness about confronting the many challenges we face as teachers in the liberal arts, and in religious studies more specifically. We should all be grateful for that. But we have to be honest: the second most interesting thing about this survey is how little it tells us, and how much more we might want to know.

1. Two Problems: Curious Demographics and Lack of Context

Begin with a couple sampling problems that the survey seems to face. First, the population studied strikes me as remarkably white, with 89.5% of the participants at least partially identifying as white (and only 2.6% of them (at most) identified another ethnicity or race). Also, 55.8% were female. The latter seems to me more statistically similar with my department’s experience, but the former seems a bit off. Does this skew the findings of the survey? It’s a genuine question.

Second, we don’t really have any way to measure these findings against other majors, and so we don’t know how much of this is common to higher education graduates in general, and how much is specific to religious studies majors in particular. There’s nothing to do about this, except to note it, and recognize that this means any judgment we make is very obscure. In the future, it could be useful for the AAR to coordinate with other scholarly associations to produce a larger survey that procures findings for majors across a number of disciplines. That would help us with this problem, at least a bit.

2. A Concern: Subjectivity of assessment of religious studies major overall

Alongside those obstacles, it is also quite difficult to discern what exactly is demonstrated by the questions about how the interviewees think they improved, apart from their own current subjective self-assessment. But what does that tell us about their improvements? It is hard to know what these questions measure apart from interviewees’ current conception of their past, and they are hardly without incentive to tell a certain narrative. A skeptic might suggest that these questions demonstrate simply our ability, as teachers, to convince the students of a narrative. But we don’t need to be very cynical to admit that they do not speak directly to any objective assessment of actual learning.

by Melissa M. Wilcox, Whitman College

by Melissa M. Wilcox, Whitman College | Thousands of undergraduates are currently majoring in religious studies in North America, yet most religious studies programs have only limited and anecdotal knowledge of what happens to students after their final classes. As one religious studies faculty member writes, at present “it’s really more a matter of students keeping track of us than our keeping track of them.” The AAR would like to reverse this dynamic. 

The AAR, with support from the Teagle Foundation, conducted a national survey of religious studies majors in 2014 and the spring of 2015, asking graduates what fields they currently work in, what graduate programs they attended, and how the religious studies major impacted their values and career choices. The Survey Report aggregates the results of 1,675 respondents from 35 participating colleges and universities. The survey is designed to answer via empirical evidence a central question that is asked—often with growing suspicion—by various stakeholders: “What can I do with a major in religious studies?” Learn more about the survey and how your institution can participate by visiting AAR’s website.

Over the coming days, RSN is happy to present analysis on the Survey Report from Melissa Wilcox and Charles Mathewes. E-mail rsn@aarweb.org if you have thoughts on the data you'd like to share with readers.