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Western religious studies neglects Judaism and Islam, lacks comparative lens

As an Honours Western religious studies student about to finish my degree, I’ve come to the conclusion that after 60 credits of RELG, I only understand Christianity. I’ve somehow avoided two of the three Abrahamic religions over my four and a half years. I can’t say that this isn’t entirely my own fault, but the lack of comparative courses among the three major faith systems is startling.

McGill’s religious studies program is broken up into two main streams: Eastern and Western. While the Eastern section focuses on the intricate connections between Hinduism and Buddhism, the Western side is almost entirely centred around Christianity. Out of 30-odd courses offered to me, over two-thirds are focused on Christianity. Out of 16 faculty members, only four do not specialize in Christianity. Birks’s resident comparative religions professor Arvind Sharma estimates that 12 of the 16 are Christians.

Now that I’m almost done here, I have the tools to analyze religious systems, but only Christianity as my raw material. It’s not like I’ve taken leaps and bounds to avoid Islam and Judaism. Currently, Western religious studies offers a single 200-level course dedicated to the basics of all three Abrahamic religions. The general feeling in the faculty is that creating another course focused on Christianity, Judaism, and Islam would result in a reductionist view of each.

Professors in the faculty are defensive of the Western side of the program, and insist that its itinerary is one with a wide spectrum of choice. Students interested in Jewish or Islamic studies are free to study these traditions in their corresponding independent faculties and transfer the credits toward their religious studies degree.

The problem is that the nature of the program inhibits the comparison of the three. “The whole thrust of inter-religious dialogue is problematized by scholars because it’s such a sensitive issue,” says early Christianity professor Ian Henderson.

Henderson speaks of the Jewish and Islamic studies programs as “founded on…a real need for something that wouldn’t be reducible to comparison.” The ties among the three faculties, he states, are “closer than they have ever been,” but adds that much of it “is just friendship” of the faculties that has developed over years of discussion at a level reserved for people with more than one Ph.D. “Comparative religions has a problem, since you have to have at least one and a half Ph.D.s,” Hendeson says.

Yet at an undergraduate level, one does not need to be a scholar in each of the three traditions in order to compare their intrinsic similarities. The point of any BA is to come out of it with a survey of what interests you, and then move on from there. The concerns that courses on Jewish and Islamic faiths would reduce Jewish and Islamic cultures to their religious practices is not an excuse, especially when the two faculties feature specialized streams on the specifically religious aspects of each.  
Why is it that Eastern religions are so deeply involved in comparison? Sharma states that it is natural for Eastern religions to be taught in tandem, since “before the influence of modernity, multiple religious affiliation was the norm in the East” whereas “the idea of exclusive religious identity is very Western.”

“The academic study of religion arose in the West, so it inherits the division of secular and cultural,” says Sharma, insisting that “the distinction between religion and culture is Western and Christian.” Rather than focus on the three Abrahamic religions, the comparative aspect of the faculties falls between East and West. This only exacerbates the fact that religious studies as an academic discipline is ethnocentric and based on a Christian worldview.

Essentially, students’ lack of awareness about the plurality of faculties involved in the discipline of religious studies and the ease of transferring credits between the three faculties is the problem. Christine Porterfield, the current president of the Religious Studies Undergraduate Society, expressed that she can “see how [religious studies] could be seen as a Christocentric program, but if students are careful to build something, we have the means, we just have to plan it very carefully.”

The deficiency of inter-Abrahamic courses offered in combination with a lack of publicity for such courses have left me and many Western religious studies BA-holders with little knowledge about Islam and Judaism at the end of 20 courses. The few comparative courses offered are often based on links between early Judaism and Christianity, rather than contemporary or thematic connections. “Perhaps,” Porterfield states, “if we could take themes about these religious communities today, and build courses based on that, it would be beneficial.” Attempts have been made to create these courses under generic titles, yet the content is largely Christian.

Comparison of any religion, admittedly, involves hard work. But such background knowledge leads “almost overwhelmingly to a solid basis of comparison” says Sharma. Even though the academic study of religion is a creation of the Christian West, this doesn’t mean it has to remain exclusive. Sharma concludes, “Having recognized that the distinction [of religion and culture] is Western, you could argue that it need be extended to other religions.”