Religion Blogs and Angry People with Opinions

No other humanities discipline evokes as much visceral emotion as Religious Studies. Not everyone has an opinion on Art History, Classics, or Philosophy, but EVERYONE has an opinion on religion.

Part of the fun of switching my specialty from Roman history to Religious Studies was the realization that everyone suddenly cares about my field of study. Rather than discussing the historical accuracy of The Gladiator, my party conversations suddenly turned to: What is the best translation of the Bible? Is religion disappearing? Do you think the Sunnis and Shias will ever stop fighting?

As much as I enjoy this newfound attention, there is a dark-side: angry anti-religionists (angry religious people too, but let’s save that topic for another time). Check out the following exchange I had on my YouTube video on ISIS and archaeology:Screen Shot 2015-10-05 at 11.29.07 AM

Now I can handle the ad hominem attacks. I don’t mind being called an “idiot” or a “fool.” Such is the parlance of the common internet troll. But this is no troll. This fellow has strongly held opinions on religion and Islam, opinions that he apparently has given some thought.

Nothing short of a few classes in religion and Islam can combat such ignorance, so how do I respond? Using the woefully inadequate medium of YouTube comments, how can I convince someone that Islamophobia does indeed exist? Should I take an apologist’s stance defending the merits of religion in the face of his claim that religion “will destroy us all?”

To be fair, this was one of my more controversial video blogs. Whenever you wade into the discussion of Islam and terrorism, be sure you are about to face some heated emotions. But I’m baffled, as an educator, how to approach someone that denies the existence of Islamophobia. The forum of a blog or YouTube channel is ill-equipped to handle such needs.

If anything, this convinces me more than ever that we, as a society, NEED better religious literacy. We’re fooling ourselves if we think that we don’t need to understand other religions in a world that is increasingly pluralistic and interconnected. Religion is here to stay for the foreseeable future, and we cannot flourish as a species if a large swathe of us hold the opinions reflected in this exchange.

How would you have responded? What role does a religious studies blog play in educating the public on religion? I’m curious to hear your ideas.

Andrew Henry is a PhD student in early Christianity at Boston University. His research focuses on the popular and domestic religion of the eastern Mediterranean, particularly the magico-religious rituals deployed to harness and direct ritual power.

Comments

  1. Smart stuff, Andrew.

    The problem is, as you’ve encountered, not that people don’t understand religion. People think that they understand religion and there’s a case to be made that they do understand religion. Think about how many more people today would claim to understand Islam than two decades ago. The problem is, however, that this understanding has not produced a kind of open-minded, expansive pluralism, but hatred, anger, and – more than anything – fear.

    It seems that the issue for our generation of scholars is to figure out how to get people to understand religion in a more secular way. In fact, it could be said that we want people to put aside some of the more intolerant aspects of religion – whether it’s the competing claims to truth or geopolitically encoded animosities – and become less religious. This is a real challenge as we are asking folks to understand a profoundly compelling body of ideas, but not to internalize the difficult and anti-modern aspects of their epistemologies, world views, and beliefs.

    • Andrew Henry says:

      Thanks Bill, very thoughtful. The difficulty comes in when people don’t know how to study religion from a secular perspective. It is jarring for the religious and non-religious alike. I think it starts by helping the student realize that their own worldview is not normative, and then trying to humanize or demystify the “Other.” Recognizing the weirdness or contingency of your own view is helpful when judging something that you view is weird or contingent.

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