By Philip Goldberg
From Huffington Post
Last month I attended the annual conference of the American Academy of Religion (AAR). Comprised mainly of scholars who teach and do research at North American universities, the AAR is, according to its mission statement, “dedicated to furthering knowledge of religion and religious institutions in all their forms and manifestations.” I was one of the few non-academics among more than 10,000 participants dashing from venue to venue in downtown San Francisco, clutching their Starbucks cups and AAR tote bags.
If you practice religion, or you’re curious about religious subjects, or you’re interested in religion as a citizen of a nominally religious country, your head would have been spinning trying to figure out which of dozens of concurrent speeches, panels and discussions to attend. Once you decided, you might have found the scholarly jargon as indecipherable as Sanskrit, and at times you might have dozed off. The talking heads were the opposite of the ones you see on TV: long on substance, short on sound bites.
That said, what takes place at the annual AAR meeting is of considerable importance outside the ivory tower. The theologians, philosophers and social scientists in attendance determine how religion is taught in colleges, universities and seminaries; they dictate to a large extent what is included in textbooks at every level of education; and they affect what is said about religion in public forums and in the mass media.
Given the nature of American culture — and the fact that the conference was co-hosted by the Society of Biblical Literature — it is not surprising that the vast majority of topics addressed center on the Judeo-Christian traditions. However, to the delight of people like me, the historical dominance of the Abrahamic faiths has diminished in recent years. The number of sessions devoted to the four so-called Dharmic religions born in India — Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism — has increased considerably, as AAR Program Units in areas such as Tantric Studies, Jainism and Yoga Philosophy and Practice were added to the roster since the late 90s when, amidst opposition, Drs. Rita Sherma and Cynthia Ann Humes spearheaded the introduction of the Hinduism Group.