Spreading The Word


Elizabeth Castelli began her career as an academic leper. As a Brown University undergrad in the mid ’70s, she chose to study religion—specifically, the history of early Christianity—which was then viewed as antiquated and impractical. In fact, some social scientists concurrently touted the so-called secularization hypothesis (attributed to German sociologist Max Weber), which Castelli describes as equating religion with a vestigial organ in the body politic. Religion, like the human appendix, would stop being useful and eventually fade away, they proposed. “We were studying these texts and histories, and it was kind of assumed that what one was up to didn’t really have that much to do with the contemporary world,” Castelli muses today. “We are now living in an age when we can recognize how wrong those social scientists were.”

Fundamentalist suicide bombers, pedophilic priests, same-sex marriages, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ—if religion’s an appendix, it’s one on the verge of rupturing and causing havoc on the rest of the body politic. Not only have people continued to practice religions, but religion seems more and more entwined with other aspects of daily life. There’s no avoiding it, whether you’re deeply devout or have never set foot in a temple.

So it’s no surprise that more college students are dabbling in religious studies. As an associate professor of religion at Barnard and currently a senior research scholar at New York University’s new Center for Religion and Media, Castelli has witnessed a growing interest in religious studies among those from other academic fields. Students who decide to major in religious studies often go on to teach it, or use the degree as proof of the well-roundedness sought by top law schools.

Some universities are responding to this heightened interest with more interdisciplinary approaches to religious studies. Funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, NYU’s Center for Religion and Media is a research institute whose goal is “to develop and broaden interdisciplinary and cross-cultural scholarship, pedagogy, and public knowledge of religion and media.” Though in development before 9-11, the center points to that world-changing event as an indication of a greater need to understand religion. In May, the center will host a conference on “Religious Witness: The Intimate, the Everyday, the World.”

Columbia’s religious studies department is also spreading the word, so to speak. The department began a dual program four years ago with the university’s Graduate School of Journalism, and some of its first graduating students are proving the value of such interdisciplinary work by taking on the religion beat at major metropolitan newspapers, says Ari Goldman, associate professor at the School of Journalism. Though he has taught “Covering Religion” for 10 years, he says more students are flocking to his course now than ever before. “When I started this course, four students signed up. But the class has grown to be one of the most popular in the school. A large part of this is the huge growth of religion as an important subject in local, national and international news, from gay marriages to the Taliban to the sex scandals in the Catholic Church.”

Many recent news stories raise the question: Just how successful is America at maintaining a separation of church and state? The recent Supreme Court case Locke v. Davey suggests some states are doing a better job than the federal government. In the February 25 ruling, the Court sided with Washington State, allowing it to rescind a scholarship it had granted Joshua Davey when it learned he planned to study theology at a private, religiously affiliated college. Much like 35 other states, Washington has a constitutional amendment stating that “no public money . . . shall be appropriated for or applied to any religious worship, exercise or instruction,” and the Supreme Court essentially decided to uphold this in the Davey case. However, the outcome would not have been the same without the state’s provision. Aaron Caplan, staff attorney for the ACLU of Washington State and author of an amicus brief filed for the case, explains: “Under the federal constitution, it’s OK to give college scholarships to anybody, even if they’re going to study to be a minister.” But because of the state law, “the Court didn’t have to spend very much time on this case. Mr. Davey was asking for a big change in the law . . . and the Court would have to overrule a lot of cases to rule for him.”

Those who disagree with the Court, including the Bush administration, say the ruling flies in the face of the Constitution’s guarantee for a “free exercise of religion.” Whatever side you’re on, it’s apparent that more and more such cases are on their way to courtrooms near you. Ann Pellegrini, associate professor of religious studies and performance studies at NYU, thinks the case “just muddies the water. It doesn’t provide any clarity about what the Court’s going to decide on school voucher cases and the faith-based initiatives that George Bush wants—which will come.” It also illuminates the complexity of the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which is intended to protect religious freedom, but just as often offends religious conservatives. “There’s never been a real coherence around what disestablishment means,” Pellegrini says. “It’s not that we have never been so deeply religious as a country, but we’re seeing that religiosity manifesting itself much more openly. The United States has never been fully secular because it’s been undergirded or underwritten by specifically Protestant notions of what secularism would look like.”

The twist to Locke v. Davey is that Davey went on to Harvard Law School, where he is now in his first year—suggesting his undergraduate religious education was as much (or more) academic as devotional. Or perhaps some schools don’t find it necessary to separate religion from the rest of life.

Pellegrini admits it’s a balancing act. “Students may bring their particular identities or faith commitments to the classroom. The question is, what do they do with them? Calling something ‘theology’ does not settle the question, because such a course could be approached devotionally by one student, and philosophically or in a more secular respect by another,” she says. “The academic study of religion asks students to step back from devotional responses.”

In the end, religion may be less like the human appendix, and more like our opposable thumbs—a trait shaping our species’ history. When asked why religious studies matters more than ever, Castelli says, “We have a president in the White House who routinely quotes the Bible and rationalizes political decisions through recourse to that kind of biblical authority. So, it matters, whether or not you believe in the Bible, how this person is reading the Bible and using it. That’s just one example, but there are a lot of them.”