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Making meaning

Who We Are, What We Do: Department of Religious Studies

Student Life

By Janet Harron

France’s current burkini debate is yet another example of why knowing more about different religions is fundamentally important to appreciating and celebrating diversity.

Memorial University’s Department of Religious Studies draws on a variety of disciplines in order to give students a nuanced understanding of the role of religion in society and how religion remains a central aspect of what it means to be human.

Dr. Barry Stephenson
Dr. Barry Stephenson
Photo: Timo Sargent

‘Making sense of the world’

“Homo sapiens has been described as the ‘meaning making animal’ and historically, the cultural domain most occupied with meaning making has been that of religion,” said Dr. Barry Stephenson, assistant professor, Department of Religious Studies. “I’ve personally always been interested in how people and groups go about making sense of the world and give meaning, purpose and direction to their lives.”

A major misconception about religious studies is that it is interchangeable with theology. In Memorial’s department—which is the largest in Atlantic Canada—students are taught about the histories and varieties of religion to cultivate an awareness of religious pluralism and difference. They do not necessarily become members of the clergy.

Another major misconception is that religious studies is impractical.

“It is true that the study of religion, similar to other areas in the humanities, does not typically lead directly to a specific, nameable profession, such as studying engineering leads to being an engineer or studying nursing leads to being a nurse, a religious studies degree equips students with a knowledge base and set of skills, including cross-cultural understanding, that serve people well in a variety of careers,” said Dr. Stephenson.

“A degree in religious studies has given me an appreciation for and sensitivity towards other cultures and faith groups.” –Gemma Hickey

One religious studies alumnus who is enjoying a flourishing career is Gemma Hickey, an activist and writer who is the executive director of For the Love of Learning, an arts-based charity that works to improve the lives of at-risk youth.

“Religious studies isn’t about faith as such,” said Gemma, who is also currently enrolled as a MA student in gender studies. “My courses have stretched beyond belief to a place where the whole world has become my classroom. A degree in religious studies has given me an appreciation for and sensitivity towards other cultures and faith groups. I have often referred to theologians in my speeches and incorporate biblical imagery into my poetry.”

Who We Are, What We Do

Graduate students Cory Funk and Pascal Mukuye and Dr. Stephenson appear in Who We Are, What We Do: Religious Studies, the latest in a series of teaser videos produced by the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences and created by multihyphenate writer/videographer/rapper/producer and recent Memorial graduate Timo Sargent.

Mr. Funk has worked as a research assistant on several projects looking at the lives of Muslims in Canada, including the relationships between Syrian refugees and their private sponsors. He is also a research assistant for Canadian Muslims Online, a collaborative Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council-funded project. He is interviewing Muslims in Winnipeg, Man., and St. John’s, N.L., about their experiences with the Internet as Muslims in Canada. Interviews from the project will also be used in his thesis.

He believes a lack of knowledge about religions has led to many conflicts and the marginalization and disenfranchisement of many minority religious groups.

“We need people to study religions and it’s role in society, by listening to religious people’s stories, so as to better understand the nature of diversity and how best to accommodate a variety of beliefs in the public sphere,” said Mr. Funk, who singles out how Dr. Jennifer Porter’s graduate class on Religion and Disney caused him to think differently and more critically on pop culture and how it can be seen as a religious phenomenon.

Fall courses of note

Among the diverse courses on offer in the department is Dr. Stephenson’s Rites of Passage, a course examining rites and symbols of birth, initiation, marriage and death. He says the aim of the course is to provide a context and a forum for students to reflect on their own and other people’s experience of passage through the major transition periods in the life cycle. Other courses of note for the fall are Dr. Patricia Dold’s Religion and Violence, Dr. Stephenson’s Religion and the Arts and department head Dr. Kim Parker’s Justice in the Old Testament.

For more information, please see the degree map for religious studies, visit the department’s website and follow them on Facebook.

Who We Are, What We Do is a summer series from the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences featuring faculty and students discussing their discipline. The next installment of Who We Are, What We Do: Modern Languages, Literatures and Cultures, launches Sept. 6 and features faculty member Dr. Anne Thareau and students Michael Fleet and Leanne Scott.

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