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Spirituality and Society: Professors examine religion's role in identity, culture and conflict


Since the beginning of time, people have killed others in the name of God to defend or advance their religious convictions. What was true during the Crusades, the Protestant Reformation and World War II is still making headlines today as suicide bombers die in the name of their God in Iraq, the Gaza Strip and other lands around the globe.

“Religious beliefs are the most strongly held beliefs in our society,” said Dr. G. Howard Miller, associate professor of history and an expert in Christianity at The University of Texas at Austin. “They are absolutes, and absolutes are worth dying for.”

Stained glass panel showing people praying

While this might seem like a strong statement to a large portion of the world’s population, Miller asserts that moderation of religious views, a certain “enlightenment” if you will, is a recent development in society.

“Many of the conflicts we see throughout the world are a revolt against 300 years of domination by Western civilization,” said Miller. “Some extremist religious groups are trying to expel the outside influences, primarily from the West, from their culture.” 

The fact that extremist religious factions feed on these conflicts and reformulate them according to religious absolutes is a key point, according to scholars in the university’s Religious Studies Program.

“Osama bin Laden doesn’t speak for all Muslims any more than Pat Robertson speaks for all Christians,” says Dr. Martha Newman, director of the Religious Studies Program. “The role of religious studies is to help students understand the diversity within religions and to promote an understanding of how religion functions as part of human identity, history and culture.”

Within religious studies classes, students learn fundamental elements of each religion. For instance, nearly all Christians believe in some form of the Holy Trinity—the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Muslims believe in one true God, Allah, who is all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful and far above and removed from man. They reject the idea that a God could be fully human and fully divine, as the Nicene Creed identifies Jesus. Buddhists, by contrast, spiritually follow the Buddha, a human being who attained “enlightenment,” or supreme truth and wisdom.

While students are taught about the roots of religious traditions, they also learn about the great diversity of beliefs and practices within each religion.

Dome of the Rock

“One can’t really discuss core beliefs of world religions because adherents of those religions have been fighting among themselves for centuries as to what constitutes the core beliefs,” says Dr. Kamran Aghaie, associate professor of Middle Eastern history and an expert in Islamic religion. “For instance, while many people will point to the Five Pillars of Faith as core Muslim beliefs, in reality many Muslims do not practice them regularly.”

Likewise, in the United States, where 85 percent of the population identifies itself as Christian, a vast majority will say they believe Jesus Christ was the son of God, but the debate over Jesus as man versus divine being has been a contentious debate since the religion began.

“It took approximately five centuries for Christian ideas about the Holy Trinity to emerge in the form in which we now know it,” said Miller. “During this time, early Christians struggled with questions about Jesus and his relationship to God and other issues fundamental to their beliefs.”

In addition to the conflicts happening within and among religions, many modern debates erupt over defining the line between the religious and the secular. This is even evident in industrialized countries where a large percentage of the population identifies itself as either non-religious or non-practicing.

“Europe is largely post-Christian at this point,” said Miller, meaning that a large percentage of the population does not attend church or otherwise practice a religion. Nonetheless, France recently struggled with a ban on wearing religious clothing in schools.

Person placing a lighted candle

“The United States is becoming unique among industrialized nations in the importance its society places on religion,” Miller continued. “It’s more important today that it has been in many, many years.”

“Many of the conflicts we see today are really battles over the role of religion in the public sphere,” said Aghaie. “While the secular state claims the right to dominate the public sphere, religious groups challenge the state’s right to do so. In most Muslim countries, the ruling regimes are secular and are explicitly modeled on western systems of government. In these countries there are diverse factions that support a secular state standing against those who support some sort of theologically or religiously oriented state in which religion is the source of government authority and law.

“Most of these secular, westernized regimes are headed by repressive dictators who do not tolerate free speech or the free practice of religion,” he added. “Extremist factions that revolt and invoke jihad, which is normally defined as a struggle for a divine or noble cause, believe they are just defending their rights.”

“Religion is a very powerful force,” said Dr. Oliver Freiberger, assistant professor of Asian Studies and an expert in Buddhism. “People can pull words from any religion to either support or oppose actions, including violence, as fits with their personal beliefs.”

“The Dalai Lama, for example, commands wide respect and love for his teachings of peace and tolerance, but even among Buddhists there are those who believe they should use force to free Tibet from China’s influence,” he said, noting that the Dalai Lama will be speaking at The University of Texas at Austin campus this week. “What is interesting is for students to learn how religion can and has been used to promote both sides of an argument.”

Statue of the Buddha

As modernization and Western influences continue to sweep the globe people’s religious beliefs and practices become more fragmented. While 33 percent of the world’s population identifies itself as Christian, it is estimated there are more than 1,500 Christian faith groups in the United States alone. The next largest group of adherents worldwide, 21 percent, identify themselves as Muslim, but there are great differences among adherents of Islam as well. It is interesting to note that the next largest percentage of the global population, 16 percent, identify themselves as non-religious.

The University of Texas at Austin is the only public university in Texas to offer a bachelor’s degree in religious studies as well as master’s and doctoral portfolio programs that allow graduate students in other majors to broaden their knowledge of religious studies while at the university.

“As a secular institution, the University of Texas for many years did not teach about the scriptures of the Bible,” said Miller. “Students could learn the tenets of Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and a host of other religions but not Christianity. In the past decade, we’ve turned a corner on this philosophy and reached an understanding that it’s possible to teach about Christian scriptures without advocating this religion any more than we do other religions we teach.”

“Our goal is not to make students religious nor to discourage religious beliefs and practices,” agreed Newman. “We want our students to understand how to think about religion as a framework and reference for viewing and assessing developments within our society.”

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  Updated 26 September 2005
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