Why does studying
Lisa Poirier: Studying religion matters if you want to know why the world
is the way it is, and how it got that way. If you want to try to understand a person or a culture, learn
about how they see themselves in relation to the other inhabitants of their
cosmos. The academic study of religion teaches you how to do this.
What do you think is your most
important contribution to others' understanding of religion or your discipline?
What contribution do you hope to make in the future?
LP: I hope I move people to challenge their own perceptions of
what religion is. I hope I continue to
push people to think about religion as bigger, more capacious than just belief,
or just ritual, or just ethics. It’s about power structures, and it’s about
What have you read, seen, heard or
experienced lately that has inspired you in your work?
LP: Resistance inspires me. Resilience inspires me. And thank goodness, I see it everywhere.
What do you believe is the most
important missing piece of information with regards to the way religion is
currently depicted in popular culture and the media?
LP: Religion is almost always viewed in the media either through
a Protestant Christian lens – as belief, as having something to do with
salvation, or through a really terrible critique of Christianity– as being an
outdated, illogical, and cowardly response to the troubles of life and the
inevitability of death. It annoys me that in both cases, Christianity is the
normative religion. From my perspective, religion has little to do with any of
that. Instead, religion is about what you do and how you act, given your
particular constellation of relationships with all the other beings that
inhabit your cosmos.
How is your approach in the classroom
informed by your passion for the discipline of religious studies?
LP: My goal in every class I teach is to share some of the
beauty and brilliance that I perceive in the religious worlds people create for
themselves, even as they inhabit cruel and punishing historical situations.
Why does studying religion matter?
Chernoh Sesay: If we think about religion, not terms of a formal religious tradition
like Christianity, but more broadly as a way of perception and action that
makes certain ideas and behaviors seem natural, then we should study
religion for some of the same reasons we study economics, politics and history.
What do you think is your most important contribution to others'
understanding of religion or your discipline? What contribution do you hope to
make in the future?
CS: It is very important to
understand that the study of religion is about the definition and examination
of power. I hope to continue examining how and why African American politics
has emerged from historical systems of power that shaped and were shaped by
What have you read, seen, heard or experienced lately that has inspired you
in your work?
CS: Recent work that examines
pre-colonial Africa and recent writing that excavates white supremacy in the
United States has inspired my work.
What do you believe is the most important missing piece of information with
regards to the way religion is currently depicted in popular culture and the
CS: Religion in the United
States is viewed as a mode of insecure and hypocritical fundamentalism, or as a
source of natural morality and universal ethics, or as a phenomenon that is
inherently different from seemingly secular categories like democracy, or as a
broad and vague category of spiritual expression and experience. None of these approaches
provides a useful way to investigate how religion forms and emerges from
historical relationships of contested power. For example, none of these
approaches helps to explain how the idea of democracy sanctifies the idea of
nationalism or how nationalism makes the idea of soldier sacrifice seem sacred.
How is your approach in the classroom informed by your passion for the
discipline of religious studies?
CS: Religious studies is about
identifying those ideas that underlie our perception of the world and that make
certain actions and beliefs seem natural or a priori. My teaching is motivated
by the desire to help students think about how their various worlds of
experience arise from competing histories. I want students to see how certain
groups of ideas and actions have come to exert authority at the expense of
other ideas and actions.
Why does studying religion matter?
Naomi Steinberg: It
is important and intellectually exciting to study religion because as a human
phenomenon religion helps us understand how people shape the meaning of existence. The study of religion also helps us
understand the controversies in past world history as well as current events.
Religion is also the inspiration for much art and literature so the study of
religion is relevant for a range of areas of human nature.
What do you think is your most important contribution to others' understanding of religion or your discipline? What contribution do you hope to make in the future?
NS: My teaching and research relate to the roles of women and children in the
world of ancient Israel as portrayed through the Hebrew Bible. I analyze the construction
of society at that time to understand how religion was used to rationalize
economic and social forces that disenfranchised women and children. By research
into the culture-bound contexts such as gender, socioeconomic class and
ethnicity it is possible to understand that the roles of women and children
can—and must—change in the contemporary world because life today is unlike life
in biblical times.
What have you read, seen, heard or experienced lately that has inspired you in your work?
recently read a novel called The Color of our Sky, by Amitra Trasi, which
is set in India and deals with the low status of women and the poverty of many families
that leads to the trafficking in young girls. These girls end up in brothels
where their lives are shaped by myths such as if a man with a venereal disease
has sexual intercourse with a virgin he will be cured of his infirmity, and,
furthermore, they are at the hands of greedy local officials who turn a blind’s
eye to the madams who bride these. Coincidentally in my Religious Studies 259
class, “Religion and Social Engagement: Children Past and Present,” I deal with
issues regarding trafficking in children and show a video called “The Day My God
Died.” The novel brought out many of the same issues that are depicted in the
video. To read the words on the pages after having shown the video to my
students only strengthened my resolve that we must do everything possible to
care for the plight of children both at home and abroad.
What do you believe is the most important missing piece of information with regards to the way religion is currently depicted in popular culture and the media?
believe that the general public does not have enough information about the
beliefs of different religious traditions. For example, when President Trump announced
that he would make Jerusalem the capital of Israel, I was constantly asked why
he would do this and why certain religious groups vociferously opposed this
move while others championed it. This was front-page news that required
knowledge of specific religious traditions.
How is your approach in the classroom informed by your passion for the discipline of religious studies?
NS: My teaching, scholarship, and service have
increasingly and explicitly informed one another in the mode of a
scholar-practitioner, a model grounded in the practical application of
scholarly knowledge. My teaching arises from having students engage in academic
biblical scholarship by teaching them to be critical readers of primary and
secondary texts and then to take this knowledge beyond the four walls of the
classroom and make a difference in the world around them.