The Interdisciplinary Study of Religion

 

By Myna German
Professor
Mass Communications Department
Delaware State University

Anthropologists view religion as a response to life’s hazards (Davies, p. 10, in Eerdmans, 1982). Evolutionary psychologists would view it as an adaptive response, with believers selected for genetically because the religious impulse creates hope, fostering survival. Those with hope adapt better to stressful situations and survive in greater numbers.

Sociologists would view religious ritual as binding community, creating “in-gathering for special events” that unites a people, develops a community belief system that is pro-social. Theologians would look at layers of meaning, scriptural texts and decipher linguistic codes through the study of ancient languages.

What do professors do when they teach Religion and Media?  Essentially, they act as social scientists, bridging these fields, hoping that prospective reporters will catch the spark and write about these issues on various media platforms. In earlier times, the “religion beat” at a newspaper involved covering church barbeques and outings, new clergy appointments and was regarded as almost similar to a social
“beat.”

In the last twenty years, religion reporters have branched out to cover pressing social issues, ranging from The Boston Globe’s award-winning coverage of the pedophile priest scandal to the first ordination of female clergy in some denominations. Religion writing became thoroughly intertwined with religious philosophy and social change, coverage of racism and sexism. Like business in the 1980s, it left the back-page segregated status and moved onto the front page of the newspaper.

Therefore, a good religion reporter will have background in history, politics and the social sciences. While the trend in journalism education has been shifting toward cultivation of high-technology skills, more emphasis has to be placed on a basic and versatile social science education. It is not enough to know about technology, although that is a necessary but not sufficient condition. One must have the thorough analytical and research skills to connect the dots, be entrepreneurial enough to work on self-contained investigative teams and versatile enough to turn that reporting into multi-platform presentation.

How do professors accomplish this? Professors at major institutions sit on general education committees, university policy committees and shape curricula. These seats offer them a chance to comment on a variety of conditions in the university, not just journalism management. From these seats, they have to exert their leadership to shape the undergraduate curriculum, to make it not just technical or career-oriented but broad and critical-thinking oriented. We cannot afford to have a new generation of Facebook journalists who lack depth-reporting skills. The new journalist has to be a social critic, as always, but interdisciplinary and knowledgeable about everything that is going on in the world. This cannot be “trained for” technically. It involves everything from attending cultural and intellectual events on campus for their own sake, speaking up, writing about these events in a “macro” perspective, beyond attendance that one night.

Campus radio stations and TV stations play their role, but aspiring journalists need to be on-air as synthesizers, analysts of information, not just reporting on events. That is how a good religion reporter is born, by connecting the dots and finding patterns in these events, and then relating them to the “religion beat.”

 

Bibliography

Daives,D. (1982). The Study of Religion, in Eerdman’s, E., Handbook to the World’s Religions, pp. 10-18.

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