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.
A few years later, the Dharma Academy of North America (DANAM) was created to help fill the gap, essentially creating a conference within the AAR conference. "DANAM's aim," says Dr. Sherma, the organization's co-founder and vice president, "has been to study the Dharma traditions in interrelationship, emphasizing re-visioning and reconstruction over description." DANAM scholars attempt to view the Indic religions on their own traditional terms, not just through the methods and categories of Western scholarship. It is now the largest additional symposium at AAR, and its members have simultaneously beefed up the number of AAR sessions devoted to Asian religions.
This year's conference also seemed to devote more sessions to real-life spirituality, as compared to the analysis of ancient texts, which is the kind of thing scholars have typically focused on. The panel I was on, for instance, was titled "Mother India Meets the Golden State: California Gurus and West-Coast Yoga." At another session, four scholars addressed a hot topic that's been debated on this very website: "Is Yoga Hindu?" (FYI, the verdict was split between "Yes, but..." and "Yes, and...")
These developments reverberate well beyond campuses and seminaries. For starters, they suggest that the academic study of religion is slowly catching up to demographic and spiritual trends: hello, Hinduism, Buddhism and other Eastern religions are now a permanent feature of the national landscape, not just because of immigration but also because many of their teachings have been embraced by non-Asians. It also makes it more likely that descriptions of the Dharmic religions will, in the future, reflect more accurately the reality on the ground.
Because the academic study of religion originated in the West, the field has long been dominated (to put it mildly) by people born into the Abrahamic faiths; those scholars approached Eastern religions as outsiders examining something exotic. As a result, the Dharmic religions have often been described in ways that their actual adherents found unrecognizable. That has changed in recent decades, as scholars born into those traditions entered academia, along with American practitioners who studied with Hindu gurus and Buddhist monks. With the insider perspective now part of the conversation, future students will likely receive a more accurate and respectful portrait of Eastern spiritual teachings.
These trends have the potential to broaden and deepen our understanding of what religion is and what it can be. The Dharmic traditions are different from their Western counterparts in important ways. Among other things, they approach religion from the inside out, placing spiritual practice and direct experience in the forefront, whereas the Abrahamic faiths emphasize belief and institutional doctrine. Dharmic teachings also insist on the potential efficacy of all paths to the divine, something millions of Americans find a welcome relief from bugle calls of "Ours is the one true way."
For these reasons and others, religious attitudes are likely to change as accurate knowledge about Hinduism, Buddhism and other Asian traditions wends its way from the ivory tower to public awareness. In our pluralistic, freedom-loving society, that's one trickle-down effect we should all welcome.