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After World Religions

24-328 | Monday, 3:30 p.m. | 112
Panel Chair: Tomoko Masuzawa

The World Religions Paradigm (WRP) has been subjected to sustained and rigorous critique in the academic study of religion for many years. However, in spite of this critique becoming an established part of the Religious Studies (RS) corpus, one area in which the WRP has proven especially resilient is in pedagogy, and in particular in introductory courses on ‘religion’. This panel brings together the editors and three contributing authors of the forthcoming volume After ‘World Religions’: Reconstructing Religious Studies (Routledge 2015), to operationalize this critique and offer concrete, practical alternatives for use in pedagogical contexts. In addition to presenting viable approaches which avoid, problematize and subvert the WRP, these papers offer a broad range of innovative theoretical and methodological strategies, and directly address the pedagogical challenges presented in different departmental, institutional and geographical contexts.

David Robertson

Classify and Conquer”: The World Religion Paradigm in Religious Studies Pedagogy

I begin this introduction by outlining the colonial, theological and evolutionary assumptions inherent in the WRP, showing that it reinforces a model of religion centred on belief and evinced by texts and institutions, effectively privileging the accounts of elites, de-emphasising variation and marginalising constructions which do not fit into its typology. I shall then demonstrate the resilience of the WRP in pedagogy, particularly in introductory RS courses. Attempts to reconstruct these courses have either broadened the category so far as to attempt to include everyone, or ostensibly rejected the category while continuing to use the same typology. These courses have a major impact upon public perception of the field, upon teaching throughout primary and secondary education, and upon wider policy and attitudes. Although some voices have started calling for a radical reformulation of introductory RS teaching, I conclude that there is a definite need for sustained scholarly attention toward this end.

Jack Tsonis

A Different Paradigm Needs a Different Strategy of Comparison: The Fundamental Challenge in Historical Perspective

The world religions paradigm has been discredited. Scholars are busy finding other ways to talk about social behavior and cultural history. But what logic of comparison is actually being advocated in this shift? If “world religions” and similar categories are unacceptable for describing variegated cultural traditions, what names, categories, and grouping strategies can be used in their place? Despite the variety of new critical work in religious studies, these broader taxonomic questions often remain out of view. While there is no simple answer, this paper puts the problem in perspective by juxtaposing the contemporary critical paradigm with the structure of three previous paradigms from the last 500 years (including most recently the WRP). By outlining things in this way, the hope is to focus researchers on key theoretical issues at stake in the critical study of human culture. The political dimensions of scholarship loom large in this challenge.

Teemu Taira

A Discursive Approach in Challenging the World Religions Paradigm in Teaching

Despite the scholarly criticism presented against the so-called World Religions Paradigm (WRP), it has remained a persistent part of teaching and disciplinary organisation of Religious Studies departments. In order to find alternative approaches, this paper demonstrates how a discursive approach can be implemented in existing WR modules and undergraduate teaching more generally without assuming or maintaining the WRP. By providing theoretical and methodological framing for such an approach, this paper argues that the discursive approach to established ‘religious traditions’ should start by exploring how they came to be classified as a ‘religion’, and that the approach should include an attempt to explain what has been ‘done’ by the classification. The overall impact would mean that students are able to think critically about the kind of classificatory tools and socially negotiated constructs ‘religion’ and ‘WR’ have been, and continue to be, globally.

Christopher Cotter

Innovative Pedagogies: Methods and Media for the Introductory Course

Now that we have have critiqued the WRP, subverted it, and provided alternatives to it, how can we need to put these measures into practice? In this final paper, I embrace my position as co-editor of the volume, and co-founder of the influential Religious Studies Project, to present innovative pedagogical techniques which facilitate the twenty-first century introduction to ‘religion’, avoid and problematize the WRP, and potentially increase the transmission and internalization of this critique in the next generation of scholars. Drawing on a wide body of exemplary material - from ‘religious’ food practices, to the archaeological data left by the Northern European Neolithic peoples - and approaches embracing ‘complex learning’ and visual media, I argue that emergent pedagogical techniques can be utilised alongside the more tried and tested methodological approaches already explored to create new ways to introduce RS against a culturally intransigent WRP.