We who teach in areas of religious studies are vulnerable to the ire of fundamentalists, whether they be Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or other. A Sept. 8 op-ed in The Daily Californian entitled “Hypocrisy of UC Berkeley liberalism is unacceptable” by a graduate student (in the department of environmental science, policy and management) alleges that the academic study of the Bible is inimical to his seemingly fundamentalist faith, which he believes has an equal right to be taught in class. Last fall, this student attended one session of my undergraduate course, Jewish Civilization I: The Biblical Period, where he aggressively asserted this argument.
I am sympathetic to this student’s dilemma. As I explain in my classes, however, academic inquiry is a different kind of discourse than confessions of faith. It has its own standards of evidence and inference, which sometimes clash with the doctrines of orthodox religious communities. Despite this friction, the standards of academic discourse are as essential to religious studies as they are to physics, evolutionary biology and geology — all of which also are inimical to fundamentalist doctrines.
The student criticizes the academic study of religion in the name of academic freedom and diversity. But these terms are a dodge. Fundamentalists regard the critical scholarship of religion as equivalent to idolatry. The fundamentalist critique — whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or other — has no bearing on our educational mission at UC Berkeley. We are committed to the intellectual and ethical principles of academic discourse, despite the animus of groups that seek to demonize (in the literal sense) these principles.
Unfortunately, we see the extreme outcome of the fundamentalist critique of modernity in the daily news. People whom they regard as idolaters and heretics are treated with scorn and prejudice, and sometimes with violence. It is not a pretty sight. Fundamentalism is an important object of study (and I teach about its origins in two of my undergraduate classes), but its aggressive advocacy does not belong in the classrooms at Cal.
Ronald Hendel is a Norma and Sam Dabby professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish studies in the department of Near Eastern Studies. Contact the Opinion Desk at [email protected] and follow us on Twitter at @dailycalopinion.