When I teach the history of religions – I am not teaching the history of religions.
What I am doing in my underhanded, nefarious way is teaching evidence-based critical thinking. Like the character Grissom in the original CSI television show set in Las Vegas, I teach the basic principle of careful, judicious thought: Follow the evidence.
By this I mean that my job is to convince students to look at any issue in life almost with their minds a tabula rasa – a wiped hard drive – and fill it with evidence, then use that evidence to form a provisional conclusion. I say provisional because uncovering or learning later evidence should allow you to change your mind.
By evidence, as I teach in the Humanities and more specifically in History, I mean the entire context of a period in time and how change occurs from time to time. So… for example, if you want to understand the hot button issue of violence and its connection to religion, and even hotter button, Islam and violence, you must begin by understanding the full context in which Islam arose, and the various contexts in which it spread – keeping all the while a careful, neutral mind set and letting the evidence speak to you. The evidence must look at all possibilities and aspects – political events, cultural norms, physical geography, climate, human psychology, trade and commerce, finance…. everything.
So .. the study of religions in history serves as a lens to focus on the primary duty of any thinker in the Humanities – critical, evidence-based, contextual thought.
I suspect this habit of mind will benefit anyone in any profession in life, not to forget one’s personal relationships with family, friends and strangers.