Despite Ezra Cornell’s enduring promise, “I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study,” it was not until the 1980s that students interested in the study of religion could find a place of their own within the College of Arts and Sciences. Since then, the religious studies program and associated classes have expanded substantially. Currently, the religious studies program offers a variety of classes where students can investigate historical, cultural and philosophical aspects of religion.
The study of religion as an objective subject apart from theology began in the early 1900s. However, the University was worried about maintaining their non-sectarian stance and so refused to offer specific classes in the subject, according to Prof. Jane Marie Law, director of the religious studies program.
Despite the administration’s impression, “Religious studies are decidedly not about confessional studies or theology,” Law said. Although the University would not establish religious studies as an official subject, there were some scattered classes in various departments touching on religious issues up through the 1980s. When Cornell hired Law in 1989, she moved to establish a major with other interested professors. Together, she and a steering committee wrote a curriculum and soon after, Cornell recognized it as a major.
Since then, the religious studies program has grown to having 34 faculty members, with seven of them specifically trained in religious studies. There are 27 religious studies undergraduate majors, and seven students enrolled in the Asian religions doctoral program. Although the program has few unique courses, they have a variety of courses cross-listed in other departments, particularly the Asian studies and Near Eastern Studies departments. Majors study history, cultural studies, philosophy and languages.
“I think [majors] get an incredibly well-rounded education,” Law said. “The state of the union for religious studies is very healthy.” Religious study is crucial to a modern education because of its immense influence on world culture, history, and politics, according to many professors in the department.
“There’s almost no part of the world you can turn to where religion doesn’t interplay with politics and with history. [Religious study] makes someone a better educated person to follow the news of today,” said Prof. Gary Rendsburg, Near Eastern studies. Tolerance for other cultures was also cited as a reason for studying religion.
“By learning about each other, you can learn tolerance,” said Hayley Feldman ’04, a religious studies major in the honors program. “A lot of this world can be understood through religion.” Submitting religion to critical evaluation is also essential for understanding and limiting fundamentalism, Law explained. “Religion should not be privileged as somehow above questioning,” she said.
The classes offered through the program range from “Introduction to the Bible” to “Indian Meditation Texts.” Along with the general study of religion, each of these individual focus areas have reasons why students should and do learn about them. Some professors emphasize their subject’s cultural and historical value.
“It’s just exquisite literature,” Rendsburg said, referring to the Bible.
He also said that his class offers a chance for students to expand their intellectual understanding of the Hebrew Bible, an area that he sees public schools as lacking in.
“Here’s an opportunity to engage a text you’re known about but only experienced at a Sunday school level,” he said.
Likewise, Prof. David Powers, Near Eastern studies, said that Islam has been globally influential, both in religion and culture. “Muslims have a long history and have many cultural achievements, some of which have been bequeathed to the West,” he said.
Prof. Daniel Gold, Asian studies, offers students a chance to practice religion in a practical way by meditating in his “Indian Meditation Texts” class.
“The idea is that you can bring the experience into the papers,” he said. However, he cautioned, “They shouldn’t take it for salvation.” Although it was one of very few classes with a religious focus outside of the program, “Religion, Ethics and the Environment” in the natural resources department had a reputation for its Christian focus and Prof. Richard Baer’s outspoken conservative viewpoint. The class is no longer being offered, as Baer is retiring at the end of this semester, but he still believes it is important for students to study Christian perspectives.
“You can’t understand America unless you understand something about Christianity, and to a lesser extent, Judaism,” he said. “Although we rarely talk about truth at the university, I believe these are traditions that contain very powerful truth,” he added. Some students who take these classes are religious, while others are just interested in inquiry on the subject.
“In some cases, it’s pretty clear that students are practitioners of their religions, and they’re trying to find religious answers,” said Prof. Shawkat Toorawa, Near Eastern studies.
Students who do not consider themselves strictly religious also enjoy the opportunity to discuss such a large part of human life. “The best parts of [Religion and Reason] are probably the lectures because you get to throw the ideas around,” said Jonathan Wielicki ’07.
Prof. Scott MacDonald ’78, philosophy, who teaches “Religion and Reason,” wants to encourage philosophical questioning about religion.
“I hope they come to a kind of appreciation and understanding of a long and rich tradition of a sophisticated reflection about religion,” he said. “I think that bringing philosophical tools to bear on religion is important and natural.”
However, some professors and students disagree about the amount of theological discussion that should happen in religious studies and other classes. A recent study by University of California-Los Angeles found that even though more than three-quarters of students agreed with the statement “We are all spiritual beings,” less than one in ten students said that their professors frequently encourage discussion of spiritual or religious matters in class.
Many people see theological discussion as inappropriate for the classroom.
“I think that the university is a site for the objective, scientific approach to religion … as opposed to theological school,” Powers said. “It’s important to keep the two things separate.”
Feldman said that taking a theological point of view on subjects excludes people from the discussion that don’t hold that perspective.
“[Objective study] allows for people of all traditions to study traditions that aren’t their own. If you approach it from an insider’s point of view, you put up a barrier,” she said.
However, some people think that there should be more spiritual and ethical discussion within a religious context.
“The University has had considerable hostility towards Christianity and normative Christian studies,” Baer said. “The University is thoroughly religious, but it is a kind of secular religion.”
Alex Lee ’07, president of the Christian group Campus on a Hill, thinks that students and professors need to be more frank while discussing religious matters in class.
“We have such a diverse campus, we hold such diverse views,” he said. “[But] it doesn’t feel like there’s an honest kind of dialogue.” Another ongoing debate within the University is the status of a religious studies program only being a program and not a department.
Although the program benefits from the variety of cross-listed courses, many people would like to see it become a full department. If there was a religious studies department, it could hire its own faculty and offer more classes specifically focusing on religion.
“I think it’s kind of wrong Cornell hasn’t made it a department,” Feldman said. “It’s somehow a lesser status.”
Some professors wish that the University would put aside more money for the program as well.
“The administration does not give [it] a whole lot of re
sources,” Gold said. “It’s not a high priority item.”
Archived article by Shannon Brescher
Sun Senior Writer