This article discusses the challenge of criticisms of the world religions paradigm to the design of teaching programmes in the academic Study of Religions, in general and with a particular focus on didactics-related courses as part of teacher training programmes. It uses the design of a particular Bachelor programme at a German university as an example for the general challenge of teaching about religion in an emancipatory framework that critically reflects its own presuppositions, both at university and school levels. Taking seriously recent criticisms of the world religions paradigm, it is argued, involves a shift of focus from the communication of supposedly given knowledge about religions to the communication of critical competences in analysing different types of discourse about religion, religions or “world religions.”
In recent debates about theory and methodology in the Study of Religions1 the possible consequences of the criticism of the world religions paradigm (
In this article, I will take up the challenges that trying to take seriously the criticisms of the
II Criticisms of the World Religions Paradigm as a Challenge
The title of the edited volume After World Religions: Reconstructing Religious Studies (Cotter and Robertson 2016a) perhaps expresses a wish rather than a description of the status quo: the wish to overcome the
Apart from controversies within the discipline, expectations from the outside make this reconstruction very difficult and limit its possibilities. In different contexts, there are various political and institutional constraints narrowing the framework for a possible reconstruction. This challenge may, however, be met with “strategically or subversively employing the
Referring to the challenges and issues presented in After World Religions, I would now like to address two contexts in which I think taking up the criticism of the
III The Challenge at the University Level (Example Hanover)
When I took the chair for the Study of Religions at Leibniz Universität Hannover in 2013, I became responsible for a Bachelor programme (with the Study of Religions as major or minor subject) and a Master programme called “Religion in cultural context”, the latter a common project with sociology and theology. I will focus on the Bachelor programme in order to show in which way the
- General history of religions (2 modules: introduction and specialisation)
- History and theories of the Study of Religions (2 modules: introduction and specialisation
- Introduction to the methods of empirical social research (offered by the department of Sociology)
- Qualitative research methods
- History of religions in Europe
- Subject-related didactics
- Interdisciplinary approaches to the Study of Religions
- Religion in local contexts
The introductory module General History of Religions is one of the two introductory modules that the students used to begin their studies with. If they choose the Study of Religions as their minor subject, it even used to be the one and only module that they begin with, before the introductory module about the History and Theory in the Study of Religions. The module General History of Religions consisted of three parts, one lecture and two seminars, each taught two hours per week over a period of 14 weeks. The lecture on the general history of religions (Allgemeine Religionsgeschichte) was intended to give an overview of the history of religions from its beginnings to the present day. It was based on Peter Antes’ Grundriss der Religionsgeschichte. Von der Prähistorie bis zur Gegenwart (2006).4 The seminars were intended to communicate “basic data, facts and terms”5 about Judaism and Christianity (seminar one), and Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism (seminar two). The expected learning outcomes were described, for example, as “to get to know religious ideas in their breadth and different conceptions,” and “to build up a basis for comparison in order to perceive the characteristics of religious thought in Europe in contrastive perspective” (
The rationale behind the structure of the introductory courses has been the following: The students should acquire basic knowledge about the history of religions and the most important religions. This kind of knowledge was regarded as a basis for comparison and further theoretical considerations in the Study of Religions that will be taken up in the other introductory module History and Theory in the Study of Religions.6 That the
I have discussed the programme with my predecessor and with my colleagues in the department. I can certainly see the point of the intention behind the introduction: an attempt to give a broad outline of the general history of religions from its very beginnings to the present day worldwide as well as to accommodate the needs of the students to acquire basic knowledge about important religious traditions. However, bearing in mind that this is intended as a scholarly introduction to an academic subject, the following questions may be asked: What is the value of the brief overview of the 5 religions that is communicated to the students? Who decides, and on which grounds, what the “basic data, facts and terms” are? Without any prior orientation in theory and methodology in the academic Study of Religions, what image of what a “religion” is, is communicated to the students, given the selection of religions and the idea of very condensed basic data and facts?
IV The Greater Challenge and My Preliminary Solution in Hanover
At a more general level, the challenge could be formulated as follows: how to introduce beginners to the data of the history of religions from a critical perspective? This is not possible without a reflection about this perspective, including the selection of the data themselves. What are “basic data, facts and terms” for which greater body of knowledge? And from whose perspective are those data presented? How do we, through the selection of particular data, create “traditions,” and which notion of religion lies at heart of talking about “the basics” of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, etc., in that way?
I doubt that this kind of reflection can be given due consideration in the above-mentioned course design. I also doubt that it is a solution to first present such kinds of constructions as if those were “given” with the excuse of saying that this can be deconstructed and reconstructed later. The idea of a common body of knowledge about “world religions” will reside once it has been established in a whole introductory module like that, particularly in a societal context where the
On the other hand, can a student of the Study of Religions do without this kind of knowledge? Is not basic knowledge about various religions traditions the starting point for any further reflection? There is certainly no easy way out.
Given the complexity of the issue and the fact that, even if I wanted to, I could not simply over night change the programme according to my own understanding and preferences,7 I took a the third learning outcome mentioned in the catalogue of modules, which I have not quoted so far, as starting point: “the students shall be provided with a conceptual framework that allows them to process and integrate new information” (
A general understanding of the processes of and decisions behind generating, selecting and arranging this kind of data may give a broader orientation in the Study of Religions than a rather unreflective acquisition of as much data as possible. Thus, the question of perspective is put into the focus of interest: whose selection and arrangement of data are we dealing with, and from which perspective and with which intention are the data presented? What kinds of representation of “Islam,” for example, can be found and how do they differ from each other? Which kind of data would oneself build on, from which perspective and with which intention, in order to present a topic from a study-of-religions point of view? And what would be alternative ways of selecting, framing and presenting data? Dealing with these questions in detail, with reference to different constructions of individual religions, I think one can achieve both an understanding of different intentions behind constructing individual religions as “traditions” (and how this type of discourse permeates most rhetoric about “religion/s,” i.e., an understanding of importance of the
I changed the module in two steps. The first step was to change the contents of the lecture in order to integrate theoretical and methodological issues, starting with a reflection of what the “history of religions” (Religionsgeschichte) may mean and what kinds of concepts of it are being used. Furthermore, it takes up the question of perspective and relates topics from the history of religions comparatively from different theoretical angles, taking up important concepts, relating them to the analytical description of dynamics and developments in different times. The selection of religions to be studied in the seminars was retained in that step, with a different distribution over the two seminars (Judaism, Christianity and Islam in one seminar and Hinduism and Buddhism in the other). However, the question of perspective was taken as the starting point for the study of these “religions”, meaning, for example, that different introductions to the same religion were now analysed and compared to each other in order to show the different ways of constructing a religious tradition.
The second step involved a somewhat more controversial decision, weighing up different desiderata against each other: breadth and depth. In order to have time to study individual religions within the critical-analytical framework that I have tried to sketch above, involving some degree of detail, the number of religions to be studied was reduced. The idea is that the students are shown in three courses how the Study of Religions approaches these topics, critically introducing one religion respectively. This leaves space for raising the question of perspective in different contexts, comparing different representations of a religion and showing what different kinds of constructions of that religion (or world view), its past and present, are. It also shows that with respect to different religions, different issues arise, regarding both academic and non-academic discourse about them. Those issues differ considerably, for example, with respect to the representation of Buddhism and Islam. Considered in the context of the study programme, this new structure of the module is, however, a greater intellectual challenge for the students. Rather than having a selection taken for them, they have to reflect on the selection of the data themselves. Furthermore, they are expected to understand the process of critical analysis in order to transfer this kind of knowledge themselves to the study of other traditions that they are not studying in this module any more, when the occasion arises. This requires that they learn to find and critically evaluate different types of sources in order to approach a topic in an analytical way themselves. Even though they now technically deal with “basic data, facts and terms” of fewer traditions, I think the educational and emancipatory value of learning themselves how to analyse religions and other worldviews in a study-of-religions way, outweighs this “loss.”8
In this model the
V The Challenge to Teacher Training in the Study of Religions
What Owen (2011) points out with reference to the British context, namely that the
Even though the academic Study of Religions has, in many contexts, responsibility of the training of teachers of
A Teacher Training in the Study of Religions at Leibniz Universität Hannover
Without trying to go into the details of the complicated and locally varied German model of
Having questioned the prominence of the
This full operation in the
Therefore, the didactics related courses aim at contextualising the Werte und Normen curriculum both in the German and European context of teaching about religion and worldviews, in order to help the students understand the rationale of the subject in its historical and social context. Furthermore, they analyse the subject and its underlying assumptions (including various aspects, such as guidelines, the core curriculum, textbooks, etc.) and compare them to study-of-religions representations of religion/s and the general principles of didactics of the Study of Religions.15 The programme thus deconstructs various notions and presuppositions of the curriculum and its social context and reconstructs them with the help of recent debates in theory and methodology of the Study of Religions as well as related educational debates. It also includes, however, a discussion of examples of how to deal with the current curriculum creatively and how to relate it to the study of religions and its didactics with alternative pedagogical strategies.
Following the classification of strategies in Cotter and Robertson (2016a), this may be called a subversive pedagogy, indebted to a critical-emancipatory educational approach building on recent debates in theory and methodology in the Study of Religions rather than trying to accommodate a pre-academic ideological framework that in many ways contradicts both basic principles in the Study of Religions and a critical-emancipatory approach to education. The module, furthermore, includes reflection about the contradiction that this involves. At first glance, the students may be disappointed by not getting the expected support for learning how to “teach the syllabus.” It is hoped, however, that they appreciate the value of being taken seriously as responsible and knowledgeable pedagogues (rather than mere transmitters of a fixed curriculum) who will surely meet various different kinds of curricula during their lives as teachers. Thus, a contextualisation and critical analysis of the current model communicates particular competences, enabling them to deal also with changes that are to be expected in the future—in a subject that is permanently being renegotiated between different stakeholders and in a context of a landscape of
B The European Context: Focuses of the
easr Working Group on Religion in Public Education
Taking up the challenge to promote a consistently study-of-religions approach to issues regarding
I think, in the messy and composite field of
On its workshop at the Arctic University Tromsø in December 2016 the
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I use “Study of Religions” as a term for the secular study of religions at universities, otherwise also called the History of Religions, Religious Studies, or, in German, Religionswissenschaft.
As but one example for that broad and on-going discussion see Joy 2016.
All titles are my translations from the German. There are more modules, including courses from related subjects and profession-oriented activities that the students may elect.
The German title may be translated as Outline of the History of Religions. From Prehistory until Today.
This is a quote from the unpublished catalogue of modules in its version of 2008 (
The latter was, in an earlier version of the study programme, called the Systematic Study of Religions (Systematische Religionswissenschaft).
Major changes in the design of the programme have to be approved by different committees in the university administration and may require a new accreditation of the whole programme.
Another change I introduced in this revision was a different sequence of modules for the students who study the Study of Religions as their minor subject and cannot study both its introductory modules at the same time. They start now with the introduction to the history and theories of the Study of Religions and then proceed to the introduction to the study of religions and worldviews.
For my distinction between integrative and separative
Owen has referred to that issue in relation to the English model (2011: 263). For other countries see, for example, the current syllabi for
This has, for example, been obvious in the latest reform of
For which “confessions”
To my knowledge, the current core curriculum for Werte und Normen has not yet been analysed critically from a study-of-religions perspective, so I am referring to my own unpublished analysis, which I have presented at the
As, for example, put forward by Klafki 2007.
As formulated, for example, in Alberts 2007, 2008, Andreassen 2016, Frank 2010 and Jensen 2008, 2016.
In panels at