10 Things Every College Student Needs to Know About Religion

I love teaching students about religion. But we’d go deeper and further every semester if everyone understood these 10 basic ideas.

I’m about to take 100+ college students through their first course on religion, as I do every semester. Here’s what I wish they knew coming in (and, what I wish I’d known myself as an undergrad):

1. You don’t know what a “religion” is.

We tend to think of religion in terms of our own experiences with our own traditions. But religion is a slippery word. Did you know, for example, that the United States Armed Forces counts both Buddhism and Atheism as “religions”? Would your definition be wide enough to include them? Probably, because most of us agree that religions are sets of beliefs and practices shared by a community (and note: we can leave belief in a god out of the equation). But then, if you expand your definition just a little bit, Red Sox Nation or ComicCon cosplay start to look awfully “religious.” Are we cool with that?

As you study religion, your definition of it may get bigger, weirder, more slippery. I argue that the category of “religion” ought to remain a contested space, and what we hold to be elemental about our own tradition is not necessarily so for others.

2. History will screw with your beliefs.

Caesar did not call for a census that drove Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem — it just didn’t happen, despite what the Gospel of Luke says. Also, Buddhists have often been perpetrators of astounding violence, not only in contemporary Myanmar, but also in Japan, Tibet, and Thailand — peace, compassion, and mindfulness be damned. Religions tend to rewrite history, and the sooner we can come to terms with the discrepancies, fabrications, or willful ignorance of religious traditions, the better.

Just like it’s uncomfortable to confront the fact that slaves built the U.S. Capitol Building or that American settlers committed genocide against the Native People, the history of any religion forces us to grapple with the ugly realities of ourselves. This isn’t your professor being anti-Christian or anti-Buddhist — it’s just historical information. What you do with that information, however, matters. History doesn’t ask you to throw away a faith or dismiss religion altogether. Nor should it make you distrust academia for disseminating some nefarious agenda. Instead, at its best, history can help us ask how we make the future better.

3. If you call yourself religious, you might want to know something about your own tradition.

Some passing familiarity with the texts and traditions you hold sacred would be great. Some understanding of what makes your religion or sect different from religions a lot like yours would be wonderful. I’m not asking for the ability to cite scriptures chapter and verse, nor to explain John Wesley’s break from the Anglicans and the Moravians. But a general awareness about what one believes — and why, and why not — would be super helpful.

Too often, in intro courses, adherents of, say, Lutheranism, think they can skate through the Christianity unit, failing to recognize that Lutheranism and Christianity are not the same thing. Unfortunately, students usually have institutions and parents who do not foster a sense of consciousness about the peculiarities of their position. Once students recognize this, disenchantment often begins. That is never a professor’s intent, but students would be bettered fortified if they understood their tradition as having developed in particular ways and for particular reasons.

And if you can differentiate the Sermon on the Mount from the Ten Commandments, all the better.

4. All religions are not the same.

This issue is so critical that one of my mentors wrote a book about it. Different religions make different claims to truth, and the exclusivity of those claims matters. Students tend to accept and defer to pluralism without considering how they might be running roughshod over the claims of their own traditions. This is a good thing for civil society, but a problematic thing when it comes to explaining tensions between religions.

I spend weeks working to help people realize that while their neighbors’ faith may not (to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson) pick their pocket nor break their leg, it does seriously impinge upon assertions that one group of people is chosen and another is not. This matters. If it doesn’t, then you’ve sacrificed a part of your beliefs upon the altar of good manners. Not that I’m against manners, but we should know the consequences of our bargains.

5. Religions have good reasons for what they teach, do, and believe.

It might seem crazy to make offerings to a god with an elephant’s head, but only if you’re not familiar with Ganesha’s story and the obstacles he overcame to become who he is. From someone else’s perspective, it can appear equally nuts to worship a guy who managed to get himself arrested, beaten, and executed: what’s so great about martyrdom? Isn’t that rationalizing failure?

If you want to understand why people do and think as they do, you need to find a way to understand them from the inside. That does not mean not critically evaluating beliefs, or understanding them solely as functional, but there are rationales for much of what appears strange or different. They may not be your reasons for belief, but they are reasons nonetheless. You don’t get to dismiss them, especially if you have not examined them.

6. Religion is not just about what people believe.

The study of religion is often an exploration of how and why religious communities work — often in spite of what they say they believe. Indeed, belief is often secondary or even tertiary to what people do or observe or remember. If we want to understand most of what constitutes religious activity throughout human history, we must recognize that what people say they believe often has very little to do with their lives.

Also, we are entirely capable of believing contradictory things. For instance, one might be a professed Christian who worships her ancestors without feeling any sort of cognitive dissonance. People do what they do and believe what they believe not because there is incontrovertible, scientific evidence, but because association with a particular identity helps us understand who we are in the world.

7. The world is very big and very diverse.

It’s worth finding out what really goes on in the world, as best as you can manage. Yes, this might challenge some of what you think you know, and that is for the best; if it doesn’t, then we have big problems. A little perspective can go a long way, but we can gain that perspective only if we are willing to recognize a basic truth: I am not the end of the story.

As you learn just a little about the world, it can start to look very different very fast. Might it change how you think, for example, if you’re told that there are more Protestant Christians in Nigeria than in Germany or that there are probably more Muslims in China than in Saudi Arabia? The shape of the world is likely quite different from what you assume.

8. Sometimes, it’s NOT about religion.

Religion is always in the news — we’ve seen lots in the media recently about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the appearance of the so-called “Islamic State” in Iraq and its persecution of Yazidis, Christians, and Shiites; various memes about Pope Francis and his attitudes towards capitalism and/or communism; or the U.S.’s own debate about gay marriage. There are religious components to all of these events, but none of them are reducible to religious conflict.

Sometimes we use the label of religion to characterize disputes in shorthand, and sometimes groups use “religion” as a justification for a dispute that is really about something else. Sometimes religion is used as a cudgel to defend something we are hesitant to admit. It’s thus all the more important that we are careful about defining our terms and discerning how, when, and to what degree religion plays a role in human striving.

9. Your professor is not opposed to your faith.

It might feel like it sometimes, but challenging facts or assumptions is not the same thing as challenging faith. As a teacher, I seek to balance insider and outsider accounts of any given tradition, to be fair both to historical reality and to how believers understand their tradition. But inevitably, tensions arise between these two accounts, and it can be uncomfortable to see your tradition from the outside. When this happens, I like to make recourse to the great Danish thinker Soren Kierkegaard, who insisted that faith is choosing to believe despite the absurdity of it.

10. Religious Studies is not Theology.

When I became a major in religion, the first question I got was, “You’re going to become a priest?” After clearing up that misconception by explaining that I was interested in lots of different religions, the next question was often, “So, you want to disprove God?”

A major in Religious Studies is not (necessarily) about either a vocational calling or rampant atheism. The endeavor to prove God’s existence, or to explain God’s nature, or even to argue for the erroneousness of one set of beliefs — these things are the province of theology. Religious Studies might study the theology of a tradition, but it doesn’t do theology. Theology is the realm of insiders talking to, with, or for other insiders. The academic study of religion has worked hard (though with admittedly imperfect results) to differentiate itself from the seminary.

Bonus item for parents: Please don’t be freaked out if your child decides to study religion in college, at least not any more so than you would if she declared a History or English major. While there aren’t many jobs with the title of “expert in religion,” there also aren’t many things in this world that have not been shaped some way by religion. In fact, I’d argue that the study of religion can provide insight into all manner of human activity, and as such can prepare us to understand the world in all its depth, complexity, ugliness, and beauty. The study of religion can open many doors, from economics to the law to medicine. A major in religious studies might be much more practical than you imagine.

Martyn Oliver
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  • Ghulam Chatha

    Whosoever seeks finds the God but religions deny this inborn equality of humans and each religion claims to be an exclusive permit holder.
    A loving heart the only eligibility is to have faith in the God; those who do not qualify need not seek in books or prayers.
    Free thoughts take out of religions, meditation on universe and nature takes into spirituality. One true God/ man made religions

    Any ism is insistence on a certain concept and established rules or thoughts. It may be Buddhism, atheism or religious-ism. Spirituality or faith is freedom from all dogmas.

  • Marta L.

    I found this really very interesting. Until recently I was a doctoral student working on philosophy of religion, and I often touched on these issues as part of the courses I taught. This list would have been very useful, and definitely reflects what I was trying to get at in my own teaching.

    I would question your definition of theology, though, because it implies you can’t have theological conversations between religions, or even that theologians have to participate in the tradition they’re working with. If a Reformed Protestant and a Roman Catholic, or for that matter a Reformed Jew and a Roman Catholic, tried to understand whether true speech about God was possible, they each might bring pieces from their unique tradition and make the case for why its insight is useful or good. I’d say they were having a theological discussion though they’re clearly not going to accept all of each others’ starting points. And similarly, if an atheist wanted to argue that (say) Aquinas’s definition of omnipotence fails to adequately resolve the problem [from Mavrodes, I think? Going off memory here and may have the precise source wrong] of how God could create a boulder so large he couldn’t lift it, I’d say he’s doing theology, even if he doesn’t himself believe God exists, because he seems to be working within that tradition intellectually without really being a part of it personally.

    Of course, that may come down to the difference between philosophy of religion and theology. I was never much good at understanding the precise demarcation between the two of them, if such a point exists; you seem to get different definitions from different people, even in the respective disciplines.

  • Montjoie

    This guy is a professor. Great. Quite a bit of false history in here. Typical.

    • Matt Schley

      Just curious, what in here in false history?

      • Joseph Manzewitsch

        (references at end of page) There was a census according to historical records. Jewish historian Josephus records that in the year 6 A.D., a Roman senator named Quirinius became the governor of Syria, and at the same time Coponius became governor of the province of Iudaea (or Judea). Together, they conducted a tax census on behalf of Caesar Augustus that required the people to register in their home town.This lead to the uprising of Judas of Galilee, which eventually culminated in the first Jewish-Roman war in 66 A.D.

        Moreover, this historical record coincides with the Biblical account, which states in Luke 2:1-3 “In those days, Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria). And everyone went to their own town to register.” (NIV)

        When Pr. Oliver states that “Caesar did not call for a census that drove Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem- it just didn’t happen, despite what the Gospel of Luke says.”, this is historically and factually incorrect.


        “The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, Volume I”, Emil Shruer, Fergus Millar, and Geza Vermes

        “Antiquities” by Josephus, 17.355 & 18.1–2

        • Sam

          How about a practical question?

          If you were the ruler of a land and you wanted to conduct a census of your subjects would you tell them to all go home to the place of their birth, or even leave, for whatever reason, the location in which they create economic value?

          If so, why? How would it benefit you as the ruler?

          If not, why? What would make it more valuable for you?

  • Alethinos95

    Professor Oliver! Thanks! I too teach Religious History/Studies and your points are spot on. It is astounding (and disheartening) the level of ignorance Americans have not only about other religions but (with those claiming to be Christian) their own. Sometimes it seems half the class is about getting misconceptions, prejudices, assumptions dealt with before we can move forward. Thanks again for the post.

    • Martyn Oliver

      Thank you!

  • Guest

    Interesting article — I, frankly, wish that more students in general knew these things. But the final conclusion begs an interesting issue. The author says that theology and religious studies are two different things — which I am quite sure they are. In essence he implies that theology is the province of those who have “skin in the game,” so to speak — he calls them insiders. Religious studies, then, is what? A type of social science, like government studies? And what is the relationship between the two? — and how do they relate to philosophy of religion, to add a third?
    One commenter raises this issue, and wonders that theology might include the cross-discussion amongst a Roman Catholic and a Reformed Protestant. She makes a confusing statement that these are unique traditions, but for unique traditions they do share much in common — nonetheless, we can see that, perhaps, theology is much broader than Martyn Oliver, the author of the article, wishes to present it. But this is hardly the right place for an academic definition. And I’m inclined to say — well, I get what he means, even if his definition doesn’t quite hold up to close scrutiny.
    Nonetheless, it’s this issue of definitions that I think concerns me most here. The same commenter goes on to state: “Of course, that may come down to the difference between philosophy of religion and theology. I was never much good at understanding the precise demarcation between the two of them, if such a point exists; you seem to get different definitions from different people, even in the respective disciplines.”
    Demarcation has become a kind of code word in the academic realm. It is often used to distinguish one discipline from another, or the truly academic from the pseudo-academic — for example, what is the demarcation between science and pseudo-science? More than a few of those in the hard sciences have drawn the line (arrogantly, I believe) so that the social sciences fall amongst the shadows of that profligacy of pseudo-sciences that include astrology, palmistry and (for the modern atheist who is quite convinced that religion is just another way of explaining the world) religion, itself.
    Now I’m not really opposed to the business of distinguishing one thing from another — and I think a distinction between theology and religious studies (I wish we had a better term — religionology? no, that won’t do). And I do think that the concerns of the two are notable, and most likely have much to do with the their respective audiences. But I strongly suspect that we have raised a generation or two of academic thinkers who were first taught (as a kind of catechism?) the definitions of their respective disciplines, and then survived the sacred rites of testing (definitions are such ideal test fodder), and have come to believe that definitions (and the categories they support) are essential to thought in their discipline, or, indeed, in any discipline.
    But the more complex the category or the more it has frontiers that shift and evolve, the less susceptible it is to definition. And when the thing is … shall we say alive? — as are modern religions — can we depend upon definitions that lack the grace, the respect for the feelings and cultural associations which must adhere to them — if they are in any sense at all to be counted amongst the living? — or even more to the point, when a category possesses those axiomatic notions we have which are so imbedded in our culture that only through great difficulty may they find a voice that is more than just “yes, yes, I’ll know it when I see it” and make us sound like nineteenth century antiquarians or philologists (not that I have anything against either group) — can a simple, reductive, clearly delineated definition provide sufficient value to make up for the subtle implications and cultural caveats that are so lost in the background that we cannot see their limbs are still twitching, their eyes still rolling?
    I know that our modern epistemology is only happy when a category can be defined and reified with simple, easily taught, reductive, commonly held, reproducable definitions. But I would point out that we still have no proper definition for religion, and “religionology,” however we might define it, stumbles on quite fine, all the same.

    • Martyn Oliver

      Thanks for the thoughts. (and you, too, Marta.) I’d say two things in response. One, I know this is a touchy issue (religious studies vs. theology), and I don’t do it justice here, but I do think it’s necessary to convey to students at a university that my class is not an insider indoctrination exercise and that there’s an assumption of shared outsiderness, at least so we can all try to start from a similar place. Second, if pressed on the division, I would say religious studies scholars engage theology, and theologians are interested in religions (theirs and others), but they are not the same thing. Of course, depending upon how one *does* religious studies, it can sidle up close to theology, and indeed the borders get porous at some points–and then things get really interesting. As with the category of religion, I’m a flexitarian (if not a complete relativist), and am pretty happy playing in the gray. Defintional boundaries have their usefulness, and their limits.