It’s a safe bet that more Americans are able to name the nine reindeer of Santa than the twelve apostles of Jesus.
We Americans may boast the highest rate of religious affiliation of the world’s developed nations, yet many of us are uninformed about the tenets, practices, history and leading figures of major faith traditions—including our own. How bad is it? The authors of The Religion Toolkit point to tests taken by American high school seniors in which half identified Sodom and Gomorrah as a married couple.
Two William & Mary scholars wrote The Religion Toolkit: A Complete Guide to Religious Studies with the aim of helping people understand religion better. In the book, published by Wiley-Blackwell, John Morreall and Tamara Sonn explore the major and minor religions of the world, from Islam and Judaism to Scientology and Wicca.
They also trace the history of the study of religion and explain the difference between studying a religion academically and learning a religion as one of its members. The introductory text provides a road map for students new to the field of religious studies.
“There are lots of religion books that cover the world’s religions, and there are lots of other religion books that cover the field called ‘religious studies,’” said Morreall, professor and chair of the College’s Department of Religious Studies. “This is the first book that puts them together.”
Religion, when studied through a global lens, is remarkably diverse. Chapter One, “Prepare to Be Surprised,” explores the beliefs and practices humans hold sacred. The World Christian Encyclopedia counts 10,000 religions in the world, many of which are sub-divided. Christianity, for example, has 9,000 denominations and 34,000 sects, said Morreall. The diversity within some religions is so extensive that many religious studies scholars no longer use terms like “Christianity” or “Judaism.”
“Instead, they talk about ‘Christianities,’ or ‘Judaisms,’” Morreall said.
Another surprise Morreall and Sonn address in the first chapter is the difference between learning about a religion and learning a religion.
In learning a religion, people are taught traditions; they are trained to follow certain beliefs, rituals and values. “Religious studies,” introduced by 19th-century German scholar Max Müller, is the term used to describe the academic study of religious beliefs, practices and institutions. The field includes diverse disciplines such as anthropology, sociology, psychology, philosophy, history and even economics.
“When you’re studying your own religion, you’re usually being taught what’s good or bad, right or wrong,” said Sonn, the Kenan Professor of Humanities and Religious Studies at the College. “In the academic study of religion, you study what is considered good or bad, or right or wrong, in various contexts throughout history, across time, through different cultures; but you don’t advocate for one, or argue in favor of one against another.”
Religion, for many people, is a set of values deeply rooted in one’s personal identity.
“Religion is the most personal aspect of anyone’s life,” Sonn said. People generally receive their religious training from family members, she explained. Scrutinizing those cherished values can cause all sorts of internal difficulties for students who may not have had a critical look at world traditions.
“Teaching religion courses is very difficult because most students come in with a set of beliefs and values they consider to be true,” said Morreall. “So, if you talk about different beliefs and values, they may not recognize them as legitimate.”
Many students also have significant preconceptions of religion. For example, Morreall says there are groups in the U.S. who teach that Roman Catholics are not Christians.
“When I have a student who’s been taught that Roman Catholics are not Christians, I have to loosen up that student’s mental framework,” he said.
To help students think more openly, humor is incorporated throughout The Religion Toolkit. Each chapter in the book begins with a cartoon from The New Yorker and a critical quote from a major religious figure. Bishop Desmond Tutu opens the first chapter: “When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land.”
A tool for loosening up
Morreall is an internationally recognized expert on humor and a founder of the International Society for Humor Studies. He has authored five books on humor, including the 2009 Comic Relief: A Comprehensive Philosophy of Humor.
“Humor is one of the best ways to get people to loosen up, relax…and think outside the box,” he said.
Sonn, who specializes in Islamic studies and theories of religion, also approaches her classes with a keen sense of humor.
“I always tell my students that I would find it much easier to teach nuclear physics or quantum mechanics—something where there are answers and no one takes them personally,” she joked.
“This text is, to my knowledge, the first introduction to religious studies that incorporates the cutting-edge discussions going on in the academy about what constitutes religion,” Sonn said.
In their book, Morreall and Sonn trace the scholarly quest to understand what religion is, a task that is made even harder by the fact that many languages have no word that means the same thing as “religion” in English, Sonn explained. Scholars are not even sure where the term “religion” came from, she added.
Western scholars may not agree on exactly what “religion” means, but the majority acknowledge that there is a sacred sphere of life—encompassing supernatural beings, rituals and values—and a secular, public sphere, which includes politics and economics, Sonn said.
“In modern Christian society, there has been a distinction between those spheres,” she said. “If we define religion that way, then we can only look to modern Western Christianity. Other traditions do not make that distinction.”
Although in the public sphere there may be a vast increase in the number of reindeer on display as opposed to angels and wise men, Sonn predicts the global economic meltdown will cause an uptick in the importance of religion. She notes that many people have already sought counsel and guidance from religious leaders to deal with the struggles of financial turmoil.
“Religion becomes extremely important in people’s lives during times of stress,” said Sonn. “That’s true for individuals and societies. New religious movements begin in times of social turmoil… They’re meant to help people get through the really difficult times of life.”