What is Special About Writing for Religion?

A common misconception about the religious studies program here at UVM is that it is a theological department. A department of theology analyzes and studies the beliefs and doctrines of one specific religion and is more focused on expanding/developing what the student believes religiously, while a department of religion or religious studies analyzes several different religions and belief systems, their intersections with the secular, and their impact on the world. It does not demand that the personal convictions of the student align with the coursework taught. When writing for a religion class, a student will not be given a prompt that requires them to state their own religious and/or spiritual beliefs. Above all, a religion essay should never denounce or celebrate a certain religion or aspect of a religion (i.e., a student should never describe a religion as “superior,” “barbaric,” “strange,” etc.). Students can expect papers to demand analysis on everything from metaphysical concepts of time and actuality to social media activism in the digital age to the religious influence on politics in the Middle East.

Asking ‘So What?’

The ultimate purpose in writing in religion is to connect specific religious motifs (symbols, rituals, holy documents) to the greater culture. For example, it’s easy to fixate on the specifics of the Gospel of Mathew without coming to larger cultural conclusions on what Matthew says about 1st Century apocalyptic Judaism (that by portraying gentiles as the main believers of Jesus’ divinity, the text shows more hostility toward other Jews who didn’t believe in Christ than even the Romans who were oppressing them). Always remember to be digging deeper and asking “So What?” so to avoid oversimplification.

Beware of Problematic Assertions

Religion is very personal to people and topics are often very controversial, or at the very least contested. When writing papers for religion classes, you should try to be as politically correct as possible and be aware of the ways that certain terms and arguments can be offensive. Avoid using terms such as ‘them’ or ‘these people’ when talking about another group of people. Only use ‘they’ if it is a back reference to a group already explicitly identified in the correct manner. Never imply truth or falsity in the belief of another person or group of people.

The study of religion originated out of an imperialist culture that was concerned with establishing a cultural hierarchy based on religious difference where any non-Christian religion was seen as completely barbaric or a degeneration of Christianity. Because our culture is almost innately founded on these white supremacist principles, it’s easy to make problematic assertions without fully realizing it.

Examples of problematic assertions include:

  1. reducing a religion to its most Christian aspects,
  2. comparing other religions to Christianity that implies hierarchy, or
  3. conceiving of religion as completely useless, irrational and inferior to modern empirical thought.
  4. Also avoid judging religions based on modern Western understandings of social justice. The misogyny of the Appalachian snake handlers may seem incredibly “backwards” to modern liberal Americans, but as religion scholars, it’s not our place to pass these sorts of judgments. Isn’t condemning this religion a way of assuming the superiority of Western liberal culture, therefore assuming other cultures are inferior? (see Robert Orsi’s “Snakes Alive”).

The current work most religion departments do today is focused on overturning the racist work it had done in the past, therefore most religion writing is focused on addressing and correcting these imperialist roots.

  • Bad sentence: “In India they actually think that there is more than one God.”
  • Better sentence: “In India many Hindus believe in a multitude of deities.”

Religion is a very interdisciplinary subject and has many readings from anthropology, history, philosophy, psychology, sociology etc. Always try to understand the academic style that you are being expected to write in. If in doubt ask the professor.

  • Examples: Freud/ William James – Psychological, Geertz – Cultural/ Anthropological, Shaw- Gender Studies, Durkheim/ Weber/ Marx – Sociological

There really aren’t many objectively “right” or “wrong” answers. You should be careful not to generalize, as different things are true or false in different situations at different times. Forming critical arguments means being specific to certain circumstances and exploring dynamics within those boundaries.

  • Bad sentence: “Christians believe that if you’re too good for hell, but not good enough for heaven, you’ll go to Purgatory.”
  • Better sentence: “Some denominations of Christianity, such as Catholicism, have historically expressed belief in an intermediate afterlife realm called Purgatory.”

Final note: The academic study of religion should be removed from personal responses to religious phenomena. UVM is a public university and so professors are also not allowed to teach you in a way that would challenge your own personal beliefs. There is virtually never an appropriate time to express your own personal religious beliefs or lack thereof in writing or in class discussion.