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Religious studies major aims to eliminate bias in class discussions

Courtesy of MCT

Religion is sparking philosophical debates from Ohio State students enrolled in classes for a major new to the university.
“Exploring the contingency of where these different theologies and things come from is always very earth-shaking for people,” said Rachel Reiser, a fourth-year in religious studies. “It really has changed the way I understand a lot of things in a lot of profound ways.”
Religious studies became a major last semester after breaking away from being a comparative studies focus. It allows students to either study different religions or the interplay of religion and culture, said Thomas Kasulis, a religious studies adviser.
Although the major is made up of only about 45 students, it is successful because it supplies a demand for religious knowledge among highly interested students, Kasulis said.
“Our job is to help Ohio State students understand religion and its roles in society. So we’re not about counting how many majors there are, we just want to be a resource for students who are interested in this,” he said. “A gauge of success is how many students take the courses in religious studies who aren’t taking it because it’s required.”
For some students, the small number of student enrolled in the major produces a deeper and more intimate student-to-professor experience, transforming a large university education into something more inviting and personal.
“It is nice to have that big college atmosphere and this small (major). I don’t understand having a department where you don’t know your professors – I’ve been to my professors’ houses, I met their kids,” said Tamira Stephens, a fourth-year in religious studies.
For some students the classroom seems to be a “hodgepodge” of people, each with their own brand of religion.
“I’ve had classes with atheists, agnostics, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Buddhists, etc.,” said Breonna Carter, a fourth-year in religious studies, in an email. “There is no bias when teaching on the different religions, the information is just presented to study.”
However, many students come into the classroom with their own religious biases, making the discussions not only interesting but sometimes confrontational and tense.
“Religious studies is so personal to people in a way that a lot of other disciplines aren’t,” Reiser said.
Referring to a gender sexuality course she said, “The debates get so heated just because they’re things that are so personal with people in their lives. I’ve always kind of enjoyed that a lot.”
Outside the classroom, students can participate in the field trips the major offers. Groups have gone throughout Ohio to a Hindu temple, a Muslim mosque and a Tibetan meditation center, Kasulis said. Groups have also gone to places outside Ohio like the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., and the Palace of Gold, a working Hare Krishna temple, about 30 minutes outside of Wheeling, W.Va.
“(Field trips) are always really fun, especially because a lot of the field trips are focused on non-Christian traditions because they’re the ones that (most Americans are) not necessarily most familiar with,” Reiser said.
Even though religion is salient throughout culture and many people hold interest in it, few get the opportunity to study religion.
“It’s hard to read a newspaper without running into religions and their effect around the world,” Kasulis said. “I think everybody wants to know about it, because most people never had a chance in school to learn about it; other religions. And they know that understanding religion is important.”
Making religious studies visible, available and beneficial to students who are interested in it is important, because it allows for a religiously congenial society, Kasulis said.
“It may not be curing cancer, it may not be doing some kind of research that is a breakthrough in science and engineering or something, but it’s probably equally important to have a harmonious society where people understand each other and can respect each other’s different histories, cultures and points of view,” he said.

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