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Why the World Needs Religious Studies

by Nathan Schneider
from Religion Dispatches

The first time I went to the American Academy of Religion conference it really got my hopes up. This was the fall of 2006 and, with only a summer in between, I’d just finished college and begun my first year of a PhD program in religious studies. The AAR was at the enormous new Washington, DC convention center. Fittingly, one of the plenary speakers was Madeleine Albright, the former secretary of state who had just written a book about why religion is so important.

What I remember her saying, which stuck with me and probably a lot of the other graduate students in the hall, were things like this: “Our diplomats need to be trained to know the religions of the countries where they’re going.” And: “I think the Secretary of State needs to have religion advisors.” I hadn’t really thought of it that way before, but it made great sense, especially with someone like Albright saying it. Religion is everywhere. It does matter. The ongoing sectarian violence in occupied Iraq had turned the headlines into daily reminders about the consequences of not taking religion seriously—to say nothing of politics in DC back then. Yes—sounds like a job for a religion scholar.

Suddenly, committing the next however-many years to getting my degree in this stuff switched from the leap-of-faith category to eminently reasonable. Sure, maybe I’d end up a scholar. But I could also be a diplomat. Or the director of an NGO. Or a bartender. Or an astronaut.

Fast-forward a few years—the AAR, 2010. Grad school hasn’t really panned out. (It wasn’t you, PhD, it was me.) By this point I’ve become a journalist, but still go to the conference to connect with friends and keep up with the field. Things have changed, though. The economy crashed, and the bottom fell out of the academic job market. Quite independently, a handful of scholars—established ones, tenured ones, reputed ones, etc.—tell me the same story in the hallways. They confess to feeling remorse about training graduate students. There are so many bright young people, but so few jobs. (The AAR reports 193 positions filled in 2005-2006, compared to 49 in 2008-2009.) They sound kind of despondent.

To me, though, this sounds like an opportunity. Maybe it’s a chance to finally throw religious studies a coming-out party. I’ve learned quickly how little the world (by which I mean, from here on out, the world that isn’t academia) knows about what religious studies even is, and how much the world needs what religious studies does. Now, hearing these professors talking like this, it occurs to me that religious studies needs the world, too. At the very least, the world has a bigger job market.

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