Religious studies: the key to the human condition


Alex Rosenblatt, Contributing Writer

In the beginning of the Religion in History course I took in my junior year, my teacher read to us about the Void, a vast sea of darkness out of which anything could emerge. This passage from the Rig Veda, one of the most important Hindu texts, was one of Hinduism’s many creation stories. I was suddenly overwhelmed and consumed by the infinite potential of what the universe could have been and how it could be. Why is up not down, left not right, in not out, black not white? Why does gravity pull us towards the Earth, challenging us to escape it, when we could be clinging to ground, or striding upside down on walkways built into the sky? 

The study of religion is the study of philosophy unbounded by the physical. Often, people claim that science is born out of an innate human desire to understand the nature and the workings of the world we find ourselves in. I would say that religion is born out of the same need, simply using a different approach. Contrary to popular belief, science and religion need not be pitted against each other; they serve different purposes. Science tells us the nature of our physical world, investigated based on experimentation and evidence. But what if the mind was allowed to fly beyond the Earth, beyond the stars, beyond matter, beyond human existence, even beyond the need for physical proof to contemplate other answers? Such answers present meaning on a philosophical level — not just explanations on a factual one — and can be found in the realm of religion.

The study of religion is the study of these answers, and more so the study of the people who created them. We can study a group’s religious choices to gain information about their thought process. Religious texts are like the diaries of societies. From them we can glean a collective group’s hopes, fears, goals, morals, and other illuminating information. They give us clues as to how a society believed the world should operate, how they organized themselves, and how they wanted to be viewed. These clues are sometimes explicitly stated (as rules or laws, for instance), other times they must be inferred (through demonstrative fables or dialogues). 

Understanding this information is crucial to understanding the group’s actions and decisions. This is why the study of religion is a necessary part of the study of history — for example, it can provide the justification behind genocide, slavery, and conquest. While religion is not always the primary motivation for such atrocities (when compared to economic greed or racism), it has been used to provide moral reasoning for such acts by dehumanizing the enemy, promising divine rewards, or threatening divine punishment for inaction. Certain cultures have even historically believed that political rulers are granted their power by metaphysical forces.

Conversely, religion has also been used to justify subversion of power. A flood or an earthquake could signal a revocation of the divine right to rule; thus the people might overthrow their ruler, even if such a feat seemed politically and economically impossible. The study of religion leads psychologists to examine why we follow religious orders, what brings us hope, and why some traditions have lasted thousands of years while others have faded.

Because of the deep impact religion has on history, I was surprised at how little it has been mentioned in my experiences of the HM history curriculum. When we were discussing the conquistadors in freshman year Atlantic World History, the proselytizing goals of the invaders were hardly mentioned. In sophomore year United States History, the religious aspects of the Revolution were mostly glossed over as though they were hardly a factor — to the contrary, my independent research for US Legal History this year shows that a “congress” of dissenting colonial ministers formally threatened to declare independence from the Church of England nearly a decade before the Declaration was drafted. It was only in specialized courses like Religion in History and through independent research that I discovered a whole new component of history, a massive variable in the equation of war, peace, conquest, and revolution about which I, for the most part, had been kept in the dark. 

Religion continues to be the driving force for a variety of political and cultural movements even to this day. The Trump presidency, the QAnon conspiracy, vaccine exemptions, and other current events include religious aspects. For example, a number of Catholics in the US have sought religious exemption from vaccination requirements against COVID-19. Students should be aware that Pope Francis, the highest worldly authority in Catholicism, has expressed approval of the vaccine, and that despite this, some Catholics continue to seek exemption. Just as removing religion from our study of history blinds us to significant factors, ignoring religious variables in our discussion of current events forfeits the understanding of important nuances (such as religious motivations behind an act of terrorism or religious connotations referenced in a government offical’s speech).

While solutions to this problem would vary from course to course and topic to topic, I suggest that teachers take into greater consideration the religious aspects of the subject matters they teach. When a major component of the motivations, justifications, ideologies, and implications behind the history we learn is not included, a gaping hole resides in our knowledge. 

One needs not be personally religious (I am not) to appreciate the impact that religion has on history and culture. I am interested in the study of religion because it is one of the most expansive angles with which to study humanity, from its history, to its art, to its very way of thinking. To me, studying religion is one of the most intimate ways to examine human interaction, human history, human thought, and the human condition as a whole. 

What do we create when we cast off the shackles of physical matter? Religion’s pervasiveness in culture, its ability to penetrate the deepest levels of the human mind, and its everlasting effect on history make it worth incorporating into both our curriculum and the various ways we consider the world.