Tuesday, February 20, 2018

How do you Teach a Course on Ancient Religions?

Vaia Touna
University of Alabama

In the Fall of 2017 I proposed a new introductory course on ancient religions that I will teach for the first time in the Fall of 2018. Among the objectives of the course is to introduce students to different “ancient religions” but most importantly to introduce them to those recent scholarly debates which have been very critical on using the term “religion” to describe the ancient world, given that there is no equivalent term in those societies. So, although it may sound like a straightforward course to teach there are several issues that I had to think about.

There are different positions on how one should approach the topic. On the one hand, there are those who suggest that students need to have enough descriptive information about a specific culture before they start thinking critically about issues of definition, classification, description, etc. On the other hand, there are those who suggest that having students think critically about the concepts we are using to describe the ancient world should be the starting point. Although I think that there is value in both positions, one should also take into account the students who will attend the class. Most likely they’ll be first year students who are not necessarily majoring in Religious Studies, and who take the class to fulfill their humanities requirements and therefore not likely to take another class in the field. I want those students not only to learn something about the ancient cultures that we will be looking at but also acquire some knowledge and skill that will be transferable to the other courses they are taking.

And I think that, in the case of my new course, that skill has something to do with self-consciousness.

So the question is how do you teach a course on ancient religions when there has been so much critique over the anachronistic use of religion to describe features of the ancient world? It’s a critique that sometimes meets with a sincere anxiety from scholars who study ancient religions and who therefore understand such a position to undermine their work.

Despite everyone’s agreement (whether one is a religious studies scholar, classicist, historian, anthropologist, etc.) that religion was not the same in the ancient world, at least in the way that we understand religion today, both the term religion and its application to describe ancient societies persist. Every year numerous books and articles, on some ancient religion or its aspects (i.e., myths, rituals, etc.) see the light of publishing, and most of the times they uncritically use the term religion. That alone begs for a course on “ancient religions.”

So, despite the fact that I belong to those scholars who have been critical on the use of the term “religion” to describe the ancient world, I still think there is great value in teaching a course on “ancient religions,” but with a certain shift of approach—a shift that provides an opportunity to draw tools and assumptions to our students’ attention. So it’s a course that will not examine what is ancient religion but why, when, and by who religion became a tool to describe and analyze the ancient world and towards what effect.

Instead of describing the various elements that are often considered to imply, explicitly or implicitly, religion (namely myths and rituals), as a general introduction to the academic study of ancient religions the course will first examine how scholars defined “ancient religion” and then how they were able to understand ancient cultures (from ancient Greece, to Rome, to Egypt, to Mesopotamia, etc.) by means of that descriptor. The course will focus in detail on the problem of defining ancient religion, and the practical implications (that is, social, economic, political) of defining it in this or that way.

So, although it will be an experiment (and something to report on again in a future post) I hope students will learn that the same analytical and critical skills—such as an awareness of how we do what we do—that can be applied in other courses. And I also hope they’ll be on the look out on the effects of describing cultures (whether near or far both in time and space) with our particular concepts.

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