In my first year of university I was required to take two political science classes. That was my only requirement. This left me with eight classes to choose from at random. I took two econ classes because I thought econ was interesting and was planning to minor in it. I took two Spanish classes because I planned to apply to do honours and would need it for a requirement.
The remaining four classes were a mixed bag. I took psychology and anthropology because I was a first-year and that is what first-years do. Both were boring and didn’t challenge me enough. I took an art history class because I thought the history of art was fascinating. I still do. Then I randomly took a religious studies class. I don’t know why I picked the class or what drew me to religious studies but that decision was the start of something.
I grew up in a non-religious household. My father has no discernable religious inklings. His mother, my grandmother, was quite enthusiastic about church but it did not rub off on him. My mother tried every church in Saskatoon before deciding she thought they were all full of crap and giving up on religion. I had grown up in a culturally Christian environment but never went to church or was involved with any religion.
I did know that religion mattered. It mattered to people, in their lives and it mattered in our world. I had grown up in the shadow of 9/11 and radical Islam. I had grown up with jihad and the war on terror spoken as buzzwords. Islam had shaped my world in so many ways and was so important but I knew nothing about it. The same went for Christianity. It was so important. Evangelicals dictated policies and decided who was president. At the time I didn’t know that there were two Marys in the Bible.
As a political science major and someone who felt that I should know about things that were important to a large number of people and crucial to world politics I enrolled in a western religions course. One of the sad ironies of all this is that Islam, Christianity and Judaism are considered to be similar religions. They come from the same traditions and area of the world. They are called Abrahamic religions and studied together, at least at the introductory level. Christianity and Islam share far more in common than most of us think.
That class was killer. My prof was this eccentric lady who wore cowboy boots with dresses. She did this thing where she’d lean on the heel of one of her boots to emphasize a point. She was dedicated to crushing our spirits and ensuring that no Jew, Muslim or Christian who had registered for an easy class that they could coast on with what they knew about their own religion got an easy class. Her tests were brutal. There were so many details and lists and timelines we needed to know. Everything was long or short answer.
A week before the first midterm there was a point where I knew that I’d either fail or get an A. I was doing practice tests and they were so specific and could be on anything that you either knew it all or you would withdraw from the class following the test. I sat with three other people. Two failed. I got an A.
The rest of the class was a grind. The other person who passed was a slacker film studies major who whined about our prof while watching movies with headphones on during class. I wanted to tell him that he was the least qualified student in the world to complain about her methods even if she was trying her hardest to destroy us. He is now semi-important in Calgary’s film world and I always find it weird seeing his photo or hearing his name.
That class taught me a lot of things. It taught me the basics of Islam. Most Muslims pray five times a day, some three. There are five pillars of Islam. Muslims donate a certain percentage of their income to charity each year. The call to prayer can be beautiful.
Like any religion Islam can be a kind, gentle, caring progressive religion or it can be a restrictive and oppressive one. It just depends on how you interpret things and read the scripture. One of the most important lessons religious studies taught me is that religions are diverse and can generally be used however people want. They are all a mixed bag with good and bad parts. You can find similar quotes in the Bible and the Quran. See the alleged Christians who just banned a bunch of refugees despite the guidance of their scripture.
I took another Islam class in second-year. Sadly, the U of C was without an Islam prof because of some death threats that occurred shortly after 9/11 (or so the word on the street said). A prof from UBC was teaching a block week class on Islam in the Modern World. I got a spot.
We learned about Islamic thought during the modern period (ending around the 1970s when postmodernism began) and events in the Islamic world during that time.
These classes helped me understand more about the world around me and how it came to be. All of it made me more open minded and understanding of Muslims and their beliefs. There was a group of fun and smart young Muslims in my class. They were the picture of moderate Muslims and I hope they are all doing awesome things with their lives.
As a completely non-religious person I brought a unique perspective to the religions I learned about. I wasn’t an insider reconsidering, I was somebody with fresh eyes.
I kept taking more religious studies classes. I took a Bible class and learned all sorts of stuff that they don’t tell you in Sunday school. Not everything I learned about Christianity was good. Some of it was. Some of it wasn’t.
I took courses on Eastern religions — Buddhism is almost nothing like it is typically thought of and is a diverse and wild ride. There are some versions that are like Christianity. Some are the exact opposite. Monks had doctrinal disputes about anything and everything. There is no canon in Buddhism so there is lots of scripture saying lots of different things.
My Buddhism professor was the best. He had just finished his PhD and as he spoke you couldn’t not fall in love with the subject matter. He told us these vivid stories from his time in Japan that made me want to get on the next flight to Tokyo. Few people have that gift but he did.
After a while I figured out that I was accumulating enough credits for a religious studies minor and took a couple of nature of religion classes to meet a requirement — by this point econ had died a painful math filled death. We learned about the important social and communal functions that religions perform. The bring people together, they give them a moral code and they give them a sense of purpose. Whatever you believe in that’s what we all need to function.
I am an atheist but I believe in certain things. Without those beliefs I’d fall apart and not be able to live in this world. Sometimes I am envious of religious people. A religion would make some things so much easier. You have friends, a community, things to believe in, a connection to something bigger than yourself and a set of traditions. Whatever form they take religions do the same things for the people who believe in them and that role is important. That’s why we’ve kept them around for so long.
By the time I finished my ten classes, a quarter of those I’d take during my undergrad, I had learned a whole new way of approaching religion. I had gone from agnostic to atheist, a change that meant pretty much nothing other than a change of punctuation. While I formed my own beliefs I came to appreciate those of others. Religion can be crazy and wonderful and fantastic. It is so many things. It is so diverse and dynamic. I learned to accept others and let my curiosity guide me.
Yesterday, a terrorist attack occurred in my country. Muslims were the victims. A white presumably Christian individual carried out the attack. I feel scared because Muslims are not safe to pray three or five or no times a day in my country. I feel scared because Christians think a religion that is a close cousin of theirs is worthy of hatred because a few crazy extremists carried out violence.
We’ve grown up in a world where Muslims are painted as scary and we hear all these words. Those words mean things, many of which have nothing to do with what’s on CNN. If you are afraid of Muslims go learn about their religion. Go meet some of them. Go talk to them. Ask questions. What is it about them that is so scary?