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Religious studies: far from a matter of blind faith.

'the fact that human civilisation is now so tightly knit that its every crisis sends ripples around the globe is one reason why the modern study of religion, with its emphasis on understanding rather than preaching is so important.'

The late Professor Ninian Smart, a pioneer in the field of religious studies, wrote these words long before the events of 9/11 provided them with a chilling reality.

We live in a different world now, one in which doubt and prejudice, if left unchecked, are free to do their worst.

The terrorists, who brought their own distorted idea of Islam to a wider world, also brought us the opportunity to enhance and widen our view of society rather than to diminish it. But it is up to us, as individuals, to use this chance productively.

It is the duty of each individual to ask themselves, how much do I really know about the people that I share my community with? In many cases the answer will be, not very much. But it does not have to be that way. More than ever before we need to find out why societies other than our own do what they do and think what they think.

Why is the turban so important to the men in the local Sikh community? Why does our Hindu workmate or fellow student avoid eating beef? Do all Muslims believe that holy war or jihad is right and would they consider the events of September 2001 an acceptable aspect of it?

Every religion has its share of fundamentalists that distort the beliefs and attitudes of the religion to suit their own purposes. But if we know nothing of the religions of others, how can we separate extremists from those who practise their faith peacefully?

Knowledge and experience represent the way forward in the 21st century. We no longer live in isolation.

The modern study of religion, as well as providing academic training and a depth of theoretical knowledge in a range of religions, can also help others to gain an understanding of the world's religions.

As the person responsible for the Religious Studies and Philosophy degree at University of Wales, Newport, I see it as my duty, not just to ensure that all our students leave us with an academic degree that they can be proud of, but also with an objective but empathetic understanding of the beliefs and practices of today's multi-cultural society. My personal mantra, a Native American proverb that informs the ethos of our degree course, is, 'Never judge a person until you have walked for a mile in their moccasins'.

It is not always apparent why a degree in Religious Studies might be useful in a career other than research or teaching. Yet, it can be an asset in a wide range of career choices. Any job that includes dealing with the public would benefit from an understanding of the various communities that must inevitably be dealt with. You might well be thinking that you do not live in a multi-cultural society. That may be the case today, but what about tomorrow? In the future you may well work anywhere in Britain, or the world for that matter. In many places cultural diversity is the norm, not the exception.

In a perfect world, religious intolerance of any kind would be a thing of the past. As we begin 2005, we may be far from such a world. However, we as individuals can bring it a step nearer, by seeking knowledge and experience before condemning those whose beliefs we do not understand.

Lyn Foulston is Subject Leader, Religious Studies and Philosophy at the University of Wales, Newport
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Feb 3, 2005
Words:612
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