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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
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Volume 32 Number 1
Spring 2005

Engaging the Believer
A Contribution to the Discussion of Robert Jackson’s Rethinking Religious Education and Plurality

Ivan Strenski

One cannot say enough about the uncommon good sense of Bob Jackson’s Rethinking Religious Education and Plurality. His pedagogical focus on the student, his appreciation of the need for basic religious literacy, his ability to understand intellectual fads without falling prostrate before them—all are things to celebrate in this useful volume.

My comments are accordingly directed at a special underlying conceptual problem that still, despite Jackson’s great efforts, needs attention. This is the problem of how to engage pious believers in our field. Since I believe that a large segment of the potential clientele of religious studies education are religious folk themselves, we need to understand how to address and engage them. In the public university, charged as we are with a larger educational commission to try to engage our diverse populations, learning how to reach the pious believer seems to me an special responsibility. I am thus troubled by how we in the profession may contribute to the alienation of pious believers from religious studies—even in those cases where we do not desire so to do. Speaking from anecdotal evidence only, a good portion of the pious believer student body views religious studies as hostile to their own religious commitments—whether we intend hostility or not. Symptomatic of this general alienation from religious studies among believers is the advice given to potential candidates for post-graduate training in the ministry: in choosing an undergraduate major, above all avoid religious studies!

Now, one cannot rule out sheer ill will on the side of the adviser in this case. But, what is it about religious studies that may offer reasons for accepting such counsel—ignoring for the while whether it be fair or not. I shall argue that this advice might be accepted by pious believers largely because of the necessary logic of comparative study of religions, and as such has to do with what I would call the notion of comparability.

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