Are religion courses harmful to faith?

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Yes. There's no use in beating around the bush. Whether one firmly believes that Christianity alone contains Truth with a capital "T," or thinks that God's nature or existence is a settled matter, there is always the possibility that the academic study of religion will rattle the foundations of one's faith. Religion courses, indeed, can be hazardous to one's spiritual health.

We religion professors are aware of these risks. We are also aware that on many college campuses, folks debate the pros and cons of studying religion in an academic setting. I recognize that not everyone on our own campus believes that the religion department is engaged in a beneficial task. A few people may even think that what we do is dangerous, that our department should focus on reinforcing orthodox Christian beliefs and should leave the business of critical thinking to other academic departments. I hear these concerns and, at one level, I can appreciate what drives them. Faith is something that is deeply personal. It touches on the core of our identity. I understand the desire to want to protect and defend it.

But what sort of faith is actually at risk in religion courses? Is it a faith that requires absolute certainty? Is it a faith that cannot survive unless it is shielded from critical inquiry and diverse viewpoints? Is it a faith that avoids questions and doubts about what we believe and why we believe it? If that is what we mean by faith, then I ask: Should such a faith survive?

I want to challenge the assumption that faith as outlined above is inherently positive and something that we should have, whereas doubt is inherently negative and something that we should avoid. Why do I reject this assumption? History. As a religious historian, I can assure you that there are plenty of examples of people committing atrocities or embracing dangerous beliefs under the auspices of faith. Let us not forget that people who believed in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior created the Inquisition, executed tens of thousands of women (and men) suspected of witchcraft, oversaw the Atlantic slave trade, defended slavery as a Christian obligation, lynched African Americans, colonized "natives" the world over, and participated in projects of genocide. Let us also remember that Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" primarily to Christian clergy and other white Christians who loved Jesus and put their hope in him for salvation but who stood on the sidelines of history and did nothing to challenge the systemic oppression of African Americans under Jim Crow laws. And this list does not even begin to account for the ongoing ways that people of faith support systems and structures that perpetuate racism, misogyny, economic injustice, and the exploitation of other human beings and the natural world.

I know, I know. This is not the full story of Christianity. True. But my point is that faith in itself, or at least faith defined as the opposite of doubt, is not a self-evident good. One can have faith and still engage in destructive and dehumanizing behavior. One can have faith and still hate one's neighbor. One can love Jesus and still be a scoundrel!

Defending faith without asking critical questions about what it is we have faith in, and what that faith means for our neighbors and the world around us – that is the greatest danger. Paul Tillich reminds us that faith is our "ultimate concern." But he also reminds us that we must be careful in determining what the object of our ultimate concern is lest our god proves to be a demon that threatens our very being.  

It's not my job to promote "orthodoxy" or the superiority of one religious tradition over against others. I really do not care whether my students accept Jesus Christ as Lord, recite the Islamic shahada, take refuge in the Buddha (and the Dharma and the Sangha), or reject religion altogether. It is my job to encourage students to engage in critical thinking, to wrestle with complex historical and philosophical questions, to reflect on their own existential commitments, and to expand their conversation partners by exposing them to diverse voices across a variety of religious traditions.

I cannot control the outcome of this process. My hope is simply that students will reflect more critically and deeply on what they do and do not have faith in and why. Yes, if they do this, a certain type of faith may wither and die. So be it. As history reminds us, not all kinds of faith should survive. And not all doubts mean the end of faith – sometimes, they are just the beginning of it.

Todd Green

Todd Green

Todd Green is associate professor of religion at Luther College and a former advisor on Islamophobia at the U.S. State Department in Washington, DC. He teaches primarily in the areas of European and American religious history. His research interests include Islamophobia, interreligious dialogue, and secularization. He has published peer-reviewed articles and is the author of several books, including The Fear of Islam: An Introduction to Islamophobia in the West (Fortress Press 2015) and the forthcmoing Presumed Guilty: Why We Shouldn't Ask Muslims to Condemn Terrorism (Fortress Press 2018). Green writes regularly for The Huffington Post  and has been interviewed by a variety of media outlets on Islamophobia, including CNN, NPR, CBC, Al Jazeera, France 24, and Reuters.

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  • April 14 2014 at 12:04 pm
    Edgar Zelle

    Thanks for this witness on campus.  We need more of this and I appreciate your witness.  We  need many more courageous teachers because faith based convictions are deep seated and resistant to any challenge.

  • April 14 2014 at 3:36 pm
    Alissa Reeves
    As a 2004 Luther College Religion major, one class shy of technically having enough credits for a Religion major AND a Religion minor, I have to respond to this. My response to the first question is "No." The religion classes at Luther did NOT negatively affect my spiritual health, but instead reinforced my perspectives on faith and Christianity. It is why I fell in love with the program in the first place. And I did not shy away from the unfamiliar; I took Intro to Buddhism, Intro to Hinduism, and audited Intro to East Asian religions. It seems to be an argument of semantics. I am a Lutheran, whose history is grounded in theological scholarship AND faith. There have been many, many times that I have been grateful for my Luther College religion background, not the least in my short stint in seminary. What the courses challenge is not necessarily faith itself, but the beliefs, tenets, and historical perspectives of Christianity. Many students have never been taught to think about their religion through critical thought or even enough historical context. So yes, the classes may challenge some assumptions, cause some uncomfortable fact-facing, unsettle Sunday-school understandings of the Bible, and in-depth reconsideration of how one's faith interacts with the world and other religious traditions. The fact that too many people bind all of these things up as "faith" and thus a challenge to it is the erroneous misconception. To which we end up with the same answer to the second question. I realize that students will come in thinking that their understandings of Christian theology and specific beliefs equals the entirety of their faith. And thus I concur wholly with your final three paragraphs. Perhaps I am somewhat unique in how and why I entered the religion major. And again, perhaps I am splicing too thin a semantical hair. But I think to promote the idea that "Religion courses are harmful to faith" is doing a disservice to the department. It gives the students with the "faith" we wish to dissuade the excuse to avoid the courses. It fuels the fire of those who believe the department is not beneficial by reinforcing their suspicions; "See, they themselves admit it! [Boo, hiss, et etc]." The article is designed to promote academic religious study (I hope), but I fear the presentation will draw in those who already agree with you, rather than persuade those who are skeptical.
  • April 14 2014 at 6:23 pm
    Todd Green
    Thank you for those very insightful comments, Alissa. I imagine we are not too far apart on our perspectives, even if you found the framing of the question a bit off-putting. My own philosophy is that we should name and claim the question that is already out there, both at Luther and frankly at many colleges (and dare I say seminaries). That's why making the question the title of the post was important to me - it's a question that academic communities have been asking for quite some time, in some instances using those very words. My larger purpose is then to problematize some of the assumptions in the question, particularly what we even mean by 'faith.' You appear to be doing the same in your response. That's also why I gave the 'yes' answer to the original question - 'faith' understood in a particular way is at risk, and I think it's o.k. to name that possibility. You are right in that the article will not persuade everyone. Fair enough. I'm not sure that I expected that it would. My hope was to highlight the larger assumptions, issues, and questions that I believe drive this discussion at Luther and at many other institutions. But mine is certainly not the only voice in this conversation, and I appreciate what you have added.
  • April 14 2014 at 8:50 pm
    Kathy Kientzle
    As a parent of one Luther graduate and a current student I have always appreciated the way in which religion is taught at Luther. Luther students are encouraged to think for themselves and come to their own spiritual and religious beliefs. I love this piece and am so proud to support such a progressive attitude.
  • April 14 2014 at 10:41 pm
    Jim Casterton, Class of '85
    If it takes "faith" to believe in something which is not known and if religion classes actually enhance or increase knowledge, then "yes, religion classes are harmful to faith." However, I would like to think an increase in knowledge does not necessarily result in a loss of "faith" if it can be more broadly defined. Faith based on ignorance is...ignorant.
  • April 15 2014 at 4:22 pm
    Todd Green
    Edgar, Kathy, & Jim: Thanks for the responses and feedback. It is indeed a challenge to rethink faith commitments in light of the academic study of religion (and academic study period), but I am pleased with how adaptive and responsive many of our students are to these challenges. It's a privilege to work with such an outstanding student body.
  • April 15 2014 at 6:03 pm

    If by "faith" you mean a healthy, optimistic attitude toward life, that's one thing. But if your students complete courses in critical thinking and still think that religious mythology (i.e., dogma) is factual (whether it's that the Buddha instantly created a golden bridge in the air, that Jesus was resurrected, that Mohammed flew to Heaven on a winged horse, or that the Virgin Mary appears to selected believers now and then), they haven't learned to think critically.

  • April 16 2014 at 12:16 pm
    Phil Karsell
    Excellent, well-spoken defense the academic study of religion on undergraduate — and graduate — campuses. At age 73 and as someone with a lifelong interest in religion and religions, I suggest that looking at one’s faith critically, not only as a college undergraduate, but also from time to time throughout his or her life, is surprising, enlightening, and often affirming. The opportunity to do so in an intellectually honest academic setting alongside other seekers and with experienced guides is wonderful. As to promoting orthodoxy, I like to remember that history and orthodoxy are determined by the victors. How often, as you point out, do we find out that there is another side to the story? Today’s world is filled (superficially) with crisp assuredness in politics and religion. But I suspect that, all alone and in the dark of the night, few of us are absolutely sure of our stated positions. And with specific regard to absolute answers to religious questions, the truth is, Nobody knows!
  • April 17 2014 at 1:32 pm
    Todd Green
    Phil: Thank you for such an illuminating perspective. Thank you also for offering the much-needed reminder that this journey continues well beyond college.

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