Thursday, December 30, 2010

Confessions of a Religious Studies scholar

Students frequently ask Religious Studies teachers how they came to study religion and whether or not they actually believe anything. Usually, those who ask this sort of question want one of two answers. First, there are evangelical Christians who hope that a professor is “a believer.” Then there are secularists who want assurance that they will not be subjected to “Christian indoctrination.”

Therefore, at the beginning of term I usually tell students that I refuse to answer such questions because I do not want to confirm their prejudices one way or the other. It is, I tell them, up to them to try to figure out what I believe. But, so that they know I am not dodging the issue, I promise to say something about my own beliefs at the end of the course.

Whitehaven harbor -photo Douglas Gemmell - Wiki Commons

Writing a regular blog is somewhat different to teaching a class of undergraduates, therefore it seems reasonable to say something about my own ideas and beliefs at the outset. This will give readers an idea of what to expect and, hopefully, prepare them for what follows. The best way to do this, I believe, is by explaining something about my history and what led me to study religion in the first place.

I was born in Whitehaven, Cumbria, England, and spent my childhood in various parts of the north of England. At the age of 15 I left school, as did most members of my generation, and began a six-year apprenticeship in gas fitting. After its completion I worked as a manager for the North Western Gas Board in Manchester, England, and later as a lecturer in gas technology at what was then Stretford Technical College.

Cheadle Parish Church of St. Mary photo by Alexander P. Kapp

When I was eighteen years old, while still an apprentice, I experienced an evangelical conversion through the open air preaching of Val Grieve and the Cheadle Parish Church youth group. Contact with this active evangelical Anglican Church radically changed my life since none of the people I worked with made any pretense of being Christian ...

More to follow.


Steve Hayes said...

When I taught for a semester at the Orthodox seminary in Albania, at the end of the course I asked students to ask any questions they liked about the whole course, and some of them asked about me, my personal history and beliefs -- see Theological education — Albania | Khanya.

I think this is good, and I think it is right that my students should know "where I am coming from", so that they can make allowances for possible differences between my beliefs and theirs.

Irving Hexham said...

Thanks Steve, I agree and intend to develop this theme later. Far too many academics virtually hide their identities from students. For example, it is now becoming quite common for universities to identify professors simply as “B.A.. M.A. PhD) or something similar. In the past university Calendar’s always said something like “B.A., Lancaster (1970); M.A. (1982), PhD (1975), Bristol.” The advantage of the old system was that one could identify an academic’s intellectual roots. Further, when one ordered a master’s or PhD thesis, there was always a page with a short biography of the author plus another page that named the supervisor and examiners. Now I notice these identifying pages are being removed or not placed into modern theses. I my view this is a very bad practice.

Steve Hayes said...

In my thesis I said something about my approach in the introduction, and at Unisa they still list the promoter/co-promoter.

Anonymous said...

Do you even point out to your students that they are on the verge of (or neck deep in) committing the genetic fallacy?

Paul Buller (or maybe I should just go by my credentials)

Irving Hexham said...

To be honest I'm not sure what you mean by "the genetic fallacy."

Irving Hexham said...

Since Anonymous has not responded to my request for more information about the way they understand the genetic fallacy, it seems reasonable to provide a definition and comment. The following definition, which is a common one, is found on the Internet Dictionary of Philosophy (

A critic commits the genetic fallacy if the critic attempts to discredit or support a claim or an argument because of its origin (genesis) when such an appeal to origins is irrelevant.

How this applies to my “students” or the academic study of religion generally, is unclear. What it suggests to me is that the commentator does not understand the nature of religious studies as an academic field.

Paul Buller said...

It seems to me that the genetic fallacy also applies to believing or disbelieving something simply because of who made the claim. For Christians to believe you because you are a Christian, or for non-Christians to disbelieve you because you are not a Christian would seem to be a form of that fallacy. Your beliefs on the subject should be utterly irrelevant to your ability to teach them. Perhaps not technically the same, but remarkably similar.

I did put my name so as not to remain anonymous, but I was not sure how to use all those fancy features under the comment box. I see now that it is not too difficult.

I'm a simple man... ;-)

Irving Hexham said...

I've no problems with Paul's comment because I take a traditional view of academic objectivity as a goal. Therefore, I believe it is my responsibility as a professor teaching religious studies to present all sides on an issue in as fair a manner as possible. For the record, since I identified myself as a Christian, in my first year introductory class on religion I have my students read Tom Paine, Ludwig Feuerbach, and Karl Marx alongside authors belonging to various religious groups. Thank you Paul for raising this issue.

DFH said...

Books by the late Val Grieve, who was formerly an Emeritus Lay Reader at St Mary's Cheadle.

Val Grieve

DFH said...

Another blogger in Calgary is Cowboyology, aka Clint Humfrey, formerly a lecturer in New Testament studies at Toronto Baptist Seminary, and now pastor of the Reformed Baptist Church in Calgary.