As an instructor of core courses on world religions at a large public university, I am often confronted with the problem of articulating how the academic study of religion differs from religious instruction one receives in religious institutions. Very few of my students are aware when they sign up for a course like World Religions, that unlike seminary courses where the focus is on theology, religious studies courses at public universities such as ours aim to study the phenomenon of religion from a secular perspective. Traditionally, religious studies have been a mainstay of the university's humanities curricula, mostly attracting students with personal interests in religion. However, as American society has become more diverse, and we have become increasingly aware of religion's role in our social and political discourse (particularly since September 11, 2001), there has been a surge in the interest within the general student body to study world religions.
Unfortunately, with the growing encroachment of religion in the American, as well as international political discourse, the academic discussion of religion has often ended up in displaying the diversity of political groupings based on religious labels rather than enhancing our grasp of the phenomenon of religion. Given the great diversity in people's understanding of the term religion, it is often easier to describe religions than to satisfactorily define the term. In addition, since it is not always easy to distinguish cultural from religious values, the descriptions of religion frequently remain stuck at the level of superficial study of rituals and practice. Indeed, there exists little consensus even among scholars of religion on how to differentiate between cultural and religious practices. Accordingly, students rarely learn to discern any broad pattern behind the diversity of religious expressions and seldom acquire a deep understanding of this very important socio-cultural phenomenon.
An Empirical Look at Religion
In contrast, the understanding of the biological basis of consciousness, has recently been identified by the editors of the journal Science, (July 1, 2005 issue), as one of the most interesting scientific challenges of our time. Recognizing the key role of consciousness in the formulation of religious and spiritual experiences across cultures, scientists have started looking for it in places, rarely associated with empirical research. Exciting observations have been reported by neuroscientists such as Dr. Andrew Newberg (1) at the University of Pennsylvania on the changes occurring in the brains of Buddhist monks while engaged in meditation. Prof. V.S. Ramachandran (2) of UC, San Diego has speculated on the location of specific regions in the brain associated with religiousness, basing his studies on brain damage and diseases that affect particular areas of this organ. The discovery of mirror neurons have led other scholars to wonder about the role these cells may play in feelings such as empathy. (3) However, this kind of research still faces considerable skepticism (perhaps for good reason due to past claims based often on pseudo-scientific basis) both from the public as well as the academic community. However, the extensive bibliography (4) currently available on the subject, only possible now due to advances in bio-analytical techniques (such as positron-emission tomography and functional magnetic resonance), suggests that the biology of religious experience is bound to attract increasing scholarly attention in the future.
A different approach to the study of religion has been proposed by the Harvard entomologist Edward Wilson. He has proposed using methods of behavioral biology in studying the religious phenomenon. (5) Describing the religious phenomenon as one instance of the many naturally occurring self-organizing complex systems (ant colonies, language systems, are other examples), he looks forward to an integrative approach to the study of faith across cultures. …