Africa, capitalism, Critical Religion, culture, economic theory, gender, global, interdisciplinarity, undergraduates
Undergraduate students who are sold on the Religious Studies major for their undergraduate education are often promised that they will become better writers, critical thinkers, and that they will leave university with a mastery of oral communication and presentation skills. These skills serve them well in any job or other postgraduate endeavor. But a degree in Religious Studies confers so much more than that. As Religious Studies encompasses every facet of the human experience, the scholar of religion by necessity becomes fluent in the humanities and social sciences as a whole. The interdisciplinary degree prepares students for postgraduate work in any of the humanities and social sciences in a way that enriches the student’s background and allows them the lateral thinking necessary to figure out the best approaches for their proposed project.
I did not understand this when I started my undergraduate degree in History and Religious Studies at the University of Stirling, Scotland, back in 2002. I quickly learned that my history courses all followed a similar format consisting largely of textual analysis, historiography, and that certain way historians are taught to think and write. My Religious Studies courses, on the other hand, were as different from one another as they were from the subject of history. These courses had very few methodologies in common. While in one class we depended on a wide variety of economic theory to analyze the role religion plays in global economies, in the next we spent the entire semester reading just a few dense texts very closely to uncover the gendered philosophies behind major world religions.
At the time I couldn’t see how this degree could help me on my quest to become a historian. Our classes read some histories, sure, and discussed historiography when we read theorists and philosophers in the order of publication, but there was so much other, well, stuff.
Instead of comparing religions, classes consisted of thorough exposure to the foundations of theoretical work in the humanities. They were hard-hitting and emphasized thematic, interdisciplinary study. Now that I am in my final year of the PhD at Vanderbilt University in the United States, I can see just how much time this other stuff has saved me. My dissertation project uses the written sources of mainly seventeenth-century European slave traders (the British, Dutch, Prussian, and Swedish), to investigate how coastal West Africans asserted influence in the mercantile culture of the Atlantic slave trade. This will uncover their role in contributing to the early modern capitalist economy. Like Religious Studies, it too is by necessity interdisciplinary.
The work I had done as an undergraduate in the Religious Studies program introduced me to the fields of inquiry I need to be familiar with in order to complete this project. For example, in a course on religion and postcolonialism, our class poured over the works of Homi Bhabha, Edward Said, and Gayatri Spivak, which introduced me to the trajectories of the developing world, and the role Europeans played in this. Reading Karl Marx and Adam Smith in the religion and economy course introduced me to economic theory, and piqued my interest in the very fascinating debate on the connections between slavery and capitalism, at which Eric Williams is the center. Exegesis of religious texts like the Quran sharpened my skills in close readings of primary sources. This skill is essential for my project, as studying the history of Africans through European documents requires the most critical eye.
In addition to this, the language of many great philosophers of religion was German, and reading these texts in the original language (which was optional of course- my professors at Stirling were not sadists) improved my language skills and my readiness to learn further languages, such as Dutch and Swedish, for my project. Not to mention that all the theory we read (Freud, Kristeva, Foucault, just to mention a few) as part of larger writing projects in the Religious Studies department showed me how to apply theory, and how to know when to apply (and more importantly, when not to apply) it. In my honors year, writing an ethnography for my Religious Studies undergraduate dissertation conferred familiarity with the discipline-specific language of anthropologists and archaeologists, which I now make use of to get at historical issues of pre-colonial West Africa about which the Eurocentric texts are silent.
This is but one example of how the interdisciplinary nature of the Religious Studies degree at the undergraduate level readies students to branch out to challenging PhD projects in virtually any area of the humanities and social sciences. The very cutting edge of the field is increasingly concerned with matters of interdiscliplinary inquiry, and some departments are changing their name to “Religion” in recognition of this shift. The critical study of Religion, with a capital “R,” gave me the confidence to tackle a complex project that draws on multiple methodologies, and I can’t recommend this type of critical program enough to any undergraduates who wish to continue in academia.