Why Study Religion? is a video series in which the CSR asks its faculty, students, staff, and guests what is important to them about the academic study of religion and why more folks should consider pursuing it. Find out more about the Center and its initiatives HERE. To learn more about OSU’s Religious Studies Major, visit our website at THIS LINK.
Why does Dr. Kati Fitzgerald, a Comparative Studies alumna, think it’s important to study religion? Shurouq Ibrahim, CSR’s Graduate Research Associate interviewed Dr. Fitzgerald to find out. Watch the video below for her response!
Shurouq: Why should people study religion academically?
Dr. Kati Fitzgerald:
That’s a good question. We had a faculty panel recently [at Wittenberg] where the question was: Why go to college, or why get a liberal arts degree? And I think that my answer to both of those questions is quite similar, so there are maybe three things I can say on that.
One is that in order for us to live peacefully in the world…we come into contact with foreign others all of the time, with people that we don’t understand, with people we don’t agree with, with people who look different than us, who speak differently than us, who eat food or dress or act in the world differently than us, and in order for us to be able to live peacefully in the world we have to have some sort of common vocabulary. We have to be able to just feel comfortable having conversations and asking questions and engaging in the world. And I think the most fundamental benefit to a liberal arts education especially one in religion and religious studies or philosophy is that it just allows us to develop this vocabulary necessary for peaceful communication in the world.
The second reason is that part of, again, this drive towards peaceful coexistence is the need to develop the skill of compassion. And compassion isn’t just, “Oh, I feel sorry for somebody else who has experienced suffering,” but it’s really the practice of “taking off” my own point of view. I think some things, or I think I think some things, and if I practice, all of the time, not thinking those things — what if I just take off that hat and I allow myself to see and experience things from somebody else’s point of view? Then I’m able to not only feel empathy and connection with other human beings, but also, I become more flexible in my own thinking. I’m able to see — “actually, I’m mostly not right, mostly I’m wrong about almost everything. And therefore, I should have a sort of broad-minded approach and curiosity when I encounter other human beings.” Courses in religious studies, courses in religion and philosophy, are really good at doing that — sort of digging at your core understandings…So that practice, just doing that over and over again, creates a sort of countenance towards understanding others.
And then the third reason is that we are not just trying to replicate…or create better more efficient workers for a particular system. We’re not just trying to reinvent or repopulate the kind of working class for another generation, but really, we want to be thinking about new paradigms of justice. We live in a world that is violent, we live in a world that is unequal, we live in a world that is deeply unjust, and so we have to be thinking about — all the time — how do we really not just break down or criticize those systems but then build back up different kinds of understandings of ethics and morality and justice in the world? And so I think also that studying religion, thinking about these things deeply, breaking down our own understandings of what is right and wrong, and up and down, and black and white, allows us to creatively produce different forms of social justice in the world. Whether they are effective or not, I don’t know, but at least, I think, the study of religion allows to be thinking innovatively about the kinds of societies we want to build in the future.
Dr. Kati Fitzgerald received her Ph.D in Comparative Studies from OSU. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Religion at Wittenberg University. Her work centers on the lives and religious experiences of Tibetan lay women. She uses primarily ethnographic methods in contemporary Tibet to understand the religious theories of everyday Buddhists. She is also interested in the intersection between artistic production and religious practice, lineage, oral transmission and bodily forms of liberation.