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Cultural Understandings of “Religion”: The Hermeneutical Context of Teaching Religious Studies in North America

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When students come into the classroom, they have a prefigured, albeit deeply implicit, notion of what “religion” is and what it is not. They see religion as private, inner, and personal, as distinct from “politics” and “economics.” This prefigured conception of religion is, in this author's view, one of the principle obstacles to teaching Religious Studies in an empirical, cross-cultural, comparative manner. Given the overall structure of the cultural configuration within which students think about and live out “religion,” i.e., that it is private, utilitarian, and simply an obvious given to them, how can we introduce theory into the Religious Studies classroom? The answer given here is that if we use language-based theoretical models of culture such as structuralism and hermeneutics, we do better, in the main, in applying that theory to the communicative context of the classroom than trying to teach theory directly to our undergraduate students. This paper offers an analysis, using such language-based theories, of those cultural conditions which our students bring into the classroom and which shape their “native” understanding of the category “religion,” as well as some suggestions as to how to cope with it in order to teach Religious Studies more effectively.


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