whY study religion?
by Scott Muir
Scott Muir is a Quaker, Deadhead, religious studies PhD who lives with his family in Durham, North Carolina. Scott has taught at Duke University, Emory University, and Western Carolina University.
Why Study Religion?
Religious studies offers a rigorously interdis - ciplinary toolkit for exploring such questions. I explored a wide variety of religious literature and reflected upon these teachings, identifying points of convergence and divergence across traditions. I learned about American religious history and the religious leaders, institutions, and traditions that had shaped our country from its founding. I acquired social science knowledge and skills that helped me better understand the rich religious diversity of our world today. And I dug into fundamental debates about what re- ligion is and why humans gravitate towards it. Religious studies really helped me put it all to- gether—literature, history, philosophy, cultural studies, and social theory—synthesizing differ - ent kinds of information to get a richer picture of the whole, enabling me to reach beyond my own narrow experience and approach things with a broader perspective. I was hooked. After a couple of years of reward- ing full-time work as a career counselor for ado- lescents, I went back to graduate school while continuing that work part-time. I pursued my two big questions through dual research pro- jects examining religious diversity on college campuses and religious experience and alterna- tive constructions of “spirituality” at camping music festivals across the country.
For starters, it is endlessly fascinating. Even if you devote your entire life to it, there are al- ways deeper questions to probe, unfamiliar cultures to learn about, and difficult real-world problems to consider—regardless of whether or not you are personally religious. Religious studies grabbed hold of me late in my undergraduate career for all three of these reasons: I had urgent questions about the na- ture of existence, the divine, and the human condition that it helped me to explore more deeply. It enabled me to lean into the culture shock I experienced as a college kid from a fairly homogenous community in the South on a diverse campus in New England. As a result, I learned a great deal about both myself and those around me. And it allowed to delve into two problems that vexed me: (1) how to create an environment (i.e., the college campus) that is inclusive for both religious and secular stu- dents, for members of discriminated religious minorities and those adhering to mainstream traditions and (2) how those who felt a need to escape the constraints of “organized religion” might experience the same kind of connection to something greater than themselves through other kinds of contemporary cultural forms (i.e., music festivals).
Wait, Music Festivals?
That’s right, hippie, jamband, camping music fes- tivals. I started spending significant time in the alternate reality affectionately known by “heads” as “the Scene” as a teenager as soon as my par- ents would permit me. I wanted to see the improv- isation-oriented bands I had come to love trading amateur concert recordings by mail in their natural environment and was blown away how different everything was—the clothes people wore, the way they talked (and smelled), the substances they consumed casually, the nomadic lifestyle support- ed by an alternate economy—a whole world all its own right here in the ol’ US of A. Once I started studying religion, I started seeing these festivals with new eyes. I saw folks promot- ing alternative healing practices like reiki through workshops, selling clothes adorned with religious symbols from around the world, speaking openly with strangers about their conceptions of the Di-
vine, and sharing experiences of “collective ef- fervescence” (which theorist Emile Durkheim argued is the foundation of religion) as they be- came subsumed in the ecstatic frenzy. I could see very clearly that, though “the Scene” wasn’t on anyone’s map of contemporary American re- ligious life, it had been powerfully shaping the religious identities of hundreds of thousands of Americans for generations. So I created a survey and administered it to more than 1400 folks at festivals around the country to explore this phenomenon with the help of a research grant from Duke University. Respondents overwhelmingly affirmed a spir - itual connection permeating the Scene, the religious nature of their experiences at festi- vals, and how their time there had shaped their religious/spiritual identities. Conducting this research was more than super fun, it was enor-
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