To Exclude or Not To Exclude: The Politics of the World’s Religions Syllabus

There’s no way of getting around it. Some student will ask me why I don’t cover “X” religion in my survey course.

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It happens all the time. And I usually tell them how, given our limited time together, we can only cover so many traditions. Unfortunately that will appease most students. But I hope by the end of the term they will have grown dissatisfied with that explanation. For it didn’t really answer the question did it?

Why do I (and others in my position) choose to exclude certain traditions? What goes into creating an “Intro to the World’s Religions” syllabus? The more I think about it, the uglier the picture gets.

And don’t let anyone tell you it’s a question of size. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life notes that the world’s 14 million Jewish adherents make up 0.2% of “The Global Religious Landscape (2010)” whereas The World Religions Database estimates around 25 million Sikhs. But which tradition are my students more likely to explore in a survey class?

Empathetic colleagues and my enabling subconscious tell me, “It’s okay. So many religions … so little time.” But I teach in a country where Islamophobia can’t motivate someone enough to distinguish between Muslims and Sikhs. I’d like to think that pluralism would prove better on this account, but as long as teachers like me choose to exclude certain groups, am I justified in thinking so?

Two events here in California have provoked my thinking about this issue. The first was the successful lobby and state legislature’s passage of a non-binding resolution that calls for “the University of California, California State University, and California Community systems to include Sikhism in their various world religion classes.” 

The second was a Q&A exchange I had with a Native American student at Cal Poly Pomona’s Tribal Fusion event. Having asked the student what she felt her teachers get wrong about her people’s traditions, she replied saying that, aside from a Native American studies course, she’d never heard a professor even mention her people. “It’s as if we no longer exist,” she said. “…But we’re still here!” she proudly added.

imagesI don’t think it’s a coincidence that the experiences of “Indians” convicted me to reflect on this matter. The founders of my academic discipline are partially responsible for the painful histories these peoples came to experience. And in my syllabi, I’ve had a tendency to continue that legacy, albeit discursively.

That doesn’t mean I can’t try to rectify this. Each term, I try to read up on a tradition with which I’m otherwise less than familiar. The last two terms, I’ve been focusing on religions of the Indian subcontinent. My colleagues from the region have been more than helpful in entertaining my questions and mistakes. And my students have gone out of their way to share their research with me and their classmates.

This in no way makes up for the problems my selections cause, but I hope it contributes to some solution.

What have you done or seen to make more representative survey courses? I’m all ears. And if you’re in the mood to look through some religion syllabi, check out the collection over at the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion.

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Richard Newton, PhD is curator of Sowing the Seed and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at  Elizabethtown College. His scholarship focuses on the anthropology of scriptures.

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