Mistakes Made in a Religion Class

Top 5 Mistakes students make in a World Religions class taken in a public college or university

1. “Well, one time this guy told me that…” 

This kind of statement is called “anecdotal evidence,” and is a common error in logical thinking. When a student quotes a particular person about a religion (usually either a clergyman or a friend belonging to a religious identity we are studying), he or she is cherry–picking from a very, very small scale of the population. 

But one person’s opinion isn’t representative of an entire group of people (even if he says it is). Remember, scholars never hand over their tools to their subjects. That is, scholars studying Mormonism don’t pause to call a local Mormon to ask if they ‘got it right.’ This is one of the primary distinctions between being a theologian and a scholar. 

Other problematic “cherry–picking” claims begin thusly:

  • “Well, I have this friend that said…”
  • “My pastor told us that…”
  • “I saw this video on YouTube and…”
  • “I read in this book that…”
  • “My friend is a Buddhist and she says that…”

While such claims may be warranted and even expected in a theological setting (e.g. Sunday School), these kinds of statements are completely useless and beside in the point in a public, non–sectarian course on religion. In short, our class is not “personal sharing time.” That’s for the weekend. Our class is lecture and scholarly discusssion time.

2. “Well, I was raised a Methodist and I can tell you that Methodists…”

Let me stop you right there. First, you’re about to commit the aforementioned “cherry–picking” fallacy. That is, you’re about to use your personal, anecdotal view as being representative of a religious community spanning millions of people, over thousands of miles, across hundreds of years. 

In doing so, you’ve identified yourself as an authority figure on the history, texts, and practices of Methodists. And perhaps in a group of your peers in your community or in your church, you are something of an expert. That’s great! But, with all due respect, no student of mine has the bonafides to speak (yet) as a scholar of a particular religious community. In logic, this is called an “appeal to false authority.” To be a true, bonafide expert in this field takes years of graduate study and peer–review. I welcome any of my students to begin that journey, but it’s a long long way past junior college.

Thirdly, expressing what—for example—Methodism means as a Methodist ignores the fact that scholars of religion simply do not recognize an insider/outsider dilemma. That is to say, those “inside” a religious tradition don’t get to dictate the view of a religion by those “outside” of that religious tradition.

3. “Well, that’s not what I believe.”

Your personal religious beliefs aren’t the subject of the class. By the way, imagine for a moment that it was.

  • What would grading look like if I graded students based on what they believed?
  • Could you seriously ever recieve public college credit for your beliefs? Who would license that?
  • Everyone has different beliefs; could you imagine a public classroom in which you debated your beliefs against others?

As soon as one tries to imagine a classroom where our personal beliefs are discussed, the idea that this is a course where one recieves college credit (at least in a public school) immediately stops making sense. If your beliefs are such that you have no interest in participating in a non–sectarian public college course on religion, then I welcome you to drop the course. What I do does not appeal to everyone; but I can say with certainty (from clergy, lay–followers, and non–believers alike) that many students have gone through my course and enjoyed the experience.

4. Prooftexting: “That’s not what it says in the Good Book!”

A student’s personal interpretation of a religious text is beside the point in a public course on religion. While “prooftexting” may be common in a theological environment (i.e. you look up verses to defend your point of view and I’ll look up verses to defend mine), it is not an activity found in the scholarship of religion. 

First of all, how an ancient text is read today (especially by a small sampling of people, say, your neighborhood church) gives us almost no information regarding how a text was understood historically. This fallacy in thinking about texts is called “presentism.” Secondly, scholars interpret texts in a very different way than most theologians. Scholars take what’s called an “historical–critical” approach to texts. That is, scholars study religious texts using a number of critical criteria in order to make a scholarly, non–sectarian claim about a text and the historical readers and authors of that text. Unlike theologians, non–sectarian scholars never rely on a religious text to ensure that they “got it right.” Again, such a move would be tantamount to “handing our tools over to our subject,” which is a huge no–no in historical scholarship.

So, just so that we’re clear, there will be no “religious debates” in my classroom.

5. “I disagree, professor. Let me explain why…”

Dear student: Please don’t hijack my class. No one signed up to hear a fellow student get on his or her soap box and spread his or her truth–claims. I go to great pains at the beginning of my course to outline what kind of experience this class is going to be. If you have a personal opinion, objection, or academic concern you feel you must share with me, feel free to make an appointment to meet with me during my office hours. If you have a question that is valid for our classroom,  please be sure to ask it in a descriptive way