OU professor seeks to expand students' religious, political outlooks
In a world where conflicting religions can have explosive consequences, an OU professor is researching three major world religions and teaching the importance of understanding other religions.
Ricardo Patino, The Oklahoma Daily
AT A GLANCE
• Created to educate students about religion after the 9/11 attacks.
• Functions as an official department with majors and minors.
• Has faculty from various areas of study, such as history, sociology and anthropology.
• OU President David Boren and his wife Molly Shi Boren asked Charles Kimball to direct the program.
• Kimball has traveled to the Middle East 40 times throughout his life.
• Number of religious studies majors has nearly doubled in last two years
Source: Charles Kimball, OU Religious Studies Program director
Charles Kimball, director of the OU Religious Studies Program, is investigating the relationships between religion and politics — two things his mother told him not to talk about in public — in Islam, Christianity and Judaism in the U.S. and the Middle East, he said.
What sparked his research was the way Judaism, Islam and Christianity have similar historical figures but different understandings and ways those understandings play out practically and politically, he said.
“I’m very concerned to work on things in ways that have practical applications in the world,” Kimball said. “I’m tackling issues that are very explosive right now.”
There is debate about the relationship between religion and politics, and there are multiple places in turmoil about it, he said. We need to understand how the two intersect so we can make reasonable, well-informed decisions about how to deal with them, he said.
One result of his research is his book “When Religion Becomes Lethal: The Explosive Mix of Politics and Religion in Judaism, Christianity and Islam,” published in 2011. Kimball analyzes why Islam, Christianity and Judaism often lead to violence and how to create a more hopeful future, he said.
Kimball is interested in making a subject he has the luxury of studying more accessible to people so they can learn to think in a broader way and be less inclined towards stereotypes, Kimball said.
“This isn’t just academically interesting — it’s urgently important because religion can be destructive,” he said.
He is writing a chapter on the impact of Sept. 11 on Muslims in the U.S. for the “Oxford Handbook on American Islam.”
Sept. 11 sparked both negative and positive effects on Islam in America — a negative effect being that it sparked a sort of fear of foreign religions in America, he said. Americans are making attempts to prevent certain religious practices in the U.S.
“Somehow, there are people out there who are afraid Muslims are going to take over the world,” he said.
In Oklahoma, for example, a law banning Sharia and all other international law received 70 percent voter-approval in November 2010, he said. A federal appeals court blocked the law after a Muslim leader filed a lawsuit charging the law violated his First Amendment rights.
“We have to be aware that all religions can cause violence, not just Islam,” he said.
While Sept. 11 has brought about this negative effect of fear of Islam in the U.S., positive results have come out of it as well, such as religious education, Kimball said.
“It’s interesting to see what good came out of 9/11, to see what good can come out of a disaster,” he said.
It was after the Sept. 11 attacks when Boren and his wife created the OU Religious Studies Program because they realized people cannot understand the world without studying religion, Kimball said.
“[Molly Shi Boren] strongly believes that while we should always make sure that the university never advocates any one religious point of view, there should be venues in public universities where we can discuss the spiritual dimension of life and questions about the meaning of life itself,” Boren said in an email.
Nolan Kraszkiewicz, a junior, said he switched one of his majors to religious studies after taking Kimball’s Islamic Religious Tradition class.
“I myself am a devout and fervent atheist, and had you asked me during my freshman year, I would have never guessed that one of my majors would be religious studies or that an ordained Baptist minister would be one of my favorite professors,” Kraszkiewicz said.
Kimball’s research is important for OU students who have confined or shallow views or have been spoon fed beliefs, he said. It’s important to be exposed to something that doesn’t line up with your preconceived notions or beliefs, especially in college.
Carleigh Houghtling is also a religious studies junior and said she appreciates how Kimball helps students broaden their views of religion.
“There are so many misconceptions surrounding world religions that lead people to do and say terrible things, particularly in regards to Islam,” Houghtling said. “All of us know what an awful reputation Muslims have in Oklahoma, and part of the reason I study religion is to dispel some of those prejudices from people who know nothing about Islam but what FOX news tells them.”
Kraszkiewics hopes to use what he has learned from Kimball and religious studies to help people around the world understand Islam.
“Thanks to him, I just want to ease the Western world into learning about and interacting with Muslims around the world and especially in the Middle East,” he said.
Corrections: This story originally had Nolan Kraszkiewicz's name misspelled.