The Religious Studies Professor and the Agnostic by Stephen Newman

Strange as it may sound, a renowned religious studies professor, from La Salle University in Philadelphia, flew to Idaho to give a lecture at our prison today.

Prior to the professor’s arrival, I envisioned a fat eccentric grey-haired man with a long beard, perhaps a walking stick. But Dr. Jack Downey turned out to be very skinny, half-asian, and he didn’t look a day older than 29. The kind of guy who would be fun to hang out with at the bar and discuss philosophy until the wee hours of the morning.

The title of his lecture, “Imagining Other Worlds: Creative Storytelling and Social Justice” was fairly misleading, exacerbated by the fact that Dr. Downey (Jack, as he liked to be called) was only able to get through about half of his presentation (thanks, in part, to the flood of irrelevant questions from inmates). It was like a movie ending in the middle — you want to know the rest of the story. I got the sense that Jack prefers a more of a liberal arts style of teaching (more conversation, less structure). He was compelling and lively, and I enjoyed seeing someone express his thoughts with such passion and joy.

Sadly, the lecture wasn’t promoted very well within the prison, so very few inmates showed up. Last month, there was a packed house of at least 30. It was promoted as an “exclusive” event that you needed to reserve a ticket for in advance. As such, every inmate wanted in! But this month, it was simply, “no reservations required, just show up.” Only about 10 inmates came, making the classroom look embarassingly empty. I couldn’t help but feel bad for the guy.

Even without creative storytelling or imagining other worlds, the lecture was fascinating on other levels. A better title would have been, simply: “World Religion.” It was thought-provoking — so much so that it got me, a bonafide agnostic, taking detailed notes and asking questions about religion.

Other than dabbling in a little Buddhism here and there, I typically just avoid religion completely. I don’t read the Bible. I don’t get into debates about Jesus. The topic has just never interested me. But today the professor opened new avenues in my mind and got me thinking about religion in wholly new ways (pun intended). While I’m not interested in religion itself, I am interested in how the presence of religion can change the way people think and act in the world. I’m also interested in the reasons people embrace or reject religion, and how that impacts society.

What I found most interesting from his lecture was a survey. In it, people in countries around the world were asked, “Is religion very important to you?” What fascinated me was the huge disparity from country to country. Here were some of the percentages of people who said that religion was VERY important to them:

Ethiopia: 98%
Senegal: 97%
Philippines: 87%
United States: 53%
Mexico: 37%
Vietnam: 28%
Italy: 26%
Russia: 19%
Australia: 18%
France: 14%
Japan: 11%

The difference between Japan and Ethiopia was staggering. I wondered, why is religion so very important in some countries, and why is it only important to 11% of Japanese people? My first theory, looking at Ethiopia and Senegal, was that the poorer a nation was, the more important religion would be. If you don’t have money or a house or a toilet, at least you can have faith! But that didn’t explain why Mexico would only be at 37%, below the United States. I then had another theory — the more there is to do in a country, the less likely religion will be important. For instance, if you lived in a town with just one church and one gas station, and no entertainment or shopping for hundreds of miles, religion might become important by default.

Dr. Downey pointed out that in places like Ethiopia, there is a “national church” where citizens are basically required to go to church and be religious. He said that’s what the “separation of church and state” in America was trying to prevent. So that explains why the African countries were so high. And China is very low because their government is heavily atheist, thus religion is discouraged. Another theory that Jack proffered is that in many instances, “as countries advance with technology, they become less religious.” He felt this explained, to some degree, Japan’s very low number.

I asked him if there was any correlation between religion and happiness. I wondered if countries where religion was very important had happier or less happy citizens. Dr. Downey, with a Ph.D in religious studies, told me he, too, wonders these things, but he has no evidence to support an answer one way or another. Luckily for us all, McDermott, an inmate serving a life sentence, corrected the professor and let me know that “people who find God are always happier.”

Events in history also can persuade people to become more or less religious. Leading up to World War 1, most people believed that science was creating a better world. People had faith in mankind. However, after World War 2, after the Holocaust, views shifted. Now, people believed that science makes us more efficient killers, science created the atom bomb. As such, there was a huge resurgence in religious interests during that time period. He compared religion’s cyclical nature to the fact that 80s clothes are back in style today. Change is constant. History repeats itself.

The crux of the lecture was supposed to focus on this: “Religion provides an avenue to harness our imagination to flex its muscles in a way that critiques the world we have but also looks forward to the world we want.” Before we could delve deeper, general movement was called, and we all had to leave.

Even though so few inmates showed up, Dr. Downey was still kind enough to give Idaho a big compliment. “I’ve taught at all the Philly prisons, and this is way better,” he said.

Stephen Newman
DOC #90843


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