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Should Know About Religion

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Dr. Martyn Oliver: 10 Things Every Undergrad
Should Know About Religion

Martyn Oliver

In a recent article posted on, Professor Martyn Oliver, Professorial Lecturer and Undergraduate Advisor in Religion, speaks on some conceptual hurdles faced by undergraduates in their first exposure to the academic study of religion.

"I love teaching students about religion," says Oliver. "But we'd go deeper and further every semester if everyone understood these 10 basic ideas." In the piece, Dr. Oliver seeks to clarify certain misconceptions students continually have on their first day of class, and how those problematic notions forestall the learning process throughout the semester.

In short, Oliver writes, "Here's what I wish [my students] knew coming in (and, what I wish I'd known myself as an undergrad."


1. You don't know what a "religion" is.

We tend to think of religion in terms of our own experiences with our own traditions. But religion is a slippery word. Did you know, for example, that the United States Armed Forces counts both Buddhism and Atheism as "religions"? Would your definition be wide enough to include them? Probably, because most of us agree that religions are sets of beliefs and practices shared by a community (and note: we can leave belief in a god out of the equation). But then, if you expand your definition just a little bit, Red Sox Nation or ComicCon cosplay start to look awfully "religious." Are we cool with that?

As you study religion, your definition of it may get bigger, weirder, more slippery. I argue that the category of "religion" ought to remain a contested space, and what we hold to be elemental about our own tradition is not necessarily so for others.

Read the rest of the piece.