College of Liberal Arts & Sciences
Philosophy and Religion

Religion and the Liberal Arts

The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Butler University recently adopted a core values statement. The courses offered by the religion program at Butler are closely connected to many of those values, and to the goals of a liberal education.

Throughout much of the core values statement, one could easily substitute "the study of religion" for "the liberal arts", of which it is a subset. The academic study of religion, whatever the specific aspect of religion being studied, involves a significant element of critical thinking, that is, of learning to think for oneself in a way that involves not only a critical examination of the views of others, but also of one's own views and assumptions. Intellectually, the study of religion can provide an opportunity to investigate humanity's highest ideals and values, and to place our own deepest assumptions and convictions under the microscope. The LAS core values statement asserts that "Liberal arts education …scrutinizes sacred truths of every sort." While true in general, the statement is perhaps most obviously true in relation to the study of religion, which is focused on that which human beings consider sacred in the strictest sense. Precisely because religion involves beliefs and practices that individuals frequently isolate from analysis and investigation, but which can nevertheless be the cause of conflict among different religious communities, if students can learn to think critically about religion, they can apply those same skills to other, less controversial areas of life.

A liberal arts education seeks to form broadly educated individuals capable of lifelong learning. Religious illiteracy is widespread. Many people know little about their own religious traditions, let alone the history, doctrines, and practices of others. Information is readily available on more web pages than one could ever find the time to read, but many websites contain half-truths, and others simply erroneous information. Learning the research skills to investigate sources of information, to demand evidence, to evaluate claims, and seek second opinions are all key elements of the study of religion, the liberal arts, and "lifelong learning."

The liberal arts involve not only an investigation of beliefs and ideas, but also of actions, customs, traditions, and creativity. Religions embody and give expression both to mysterious rituals and symbolism and to concrete acts of social activism. The religion program seeks to foster opportunities in its classrooms for encounter between different points of view and ways of life. It also provides occasions beyond the confines of the classroom for students to encounter individuals of other faiths or no faith at all, of other cultural backgrounds and heritages, Students in our time more than ever before approach their studies with the misperception that their future success in careers and in life in general depends on their focus on skills and knowledge specific to their choice of profession. Historically, however, it has been well known (and continues to be known by prospective employers, if not among would-be employees) that it is the breadth of education, the ability to continue learning and training, the flexibility and cultural awareness to interact with people and to deal constructively with the unexpected, that makes the candidates who possess them preferable to others. Whether one is hiring employees in a diverse workforce or being asked to work in that same context, the study of religion has much practical relevance not only in terms of the content it offers, but also in terms of the skills it nurtures.

Let us conclude, then, as the core values statement does: "As students of religion, we do these things as part of a community with venerable roots; a community still evolving in space and time; a community of thought, imagination, value, labor, and action.