Photo of John Barclay Burns

John Barclay Burns

  The Mason Spirit

Keeping the Faith

The Study of Ancient Religions Can Bring New Understanding

By Lynn Burke

John Barclay Burns, associate professor of religious studies, estimates that more than 3,500 George Mason students have passed through his classes since he came to the university in 1986. But this past spring, the first two of those students graduated with majors in religious studies, a program new to the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies. According to Burns, the number of students enrolled in the major has increased this fall, as has the interest in religious studies in general.

The religious studies minor, however, has always been very popular, says Burns. Students in the minor have likely taken Burns's courses on the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) and the introductory course on religions of the Middle East: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam - topics that currently are in the forefront of world events. "Students are always slightly stunned to discover how close [the religions] are and also equally stunned to discover why they don't get on," he says. "'Well, if they're that close, they ask, 'why can't they get on better?' To which I always say, 'Who fights most bitterly - siblings or friends?'"

Since September 11, there has been a rush to study Islam, says Burns. He sees a parallel between today's situation in the Middle East and the situation in Northern Ireland. "In the 17th century, a vast number of the native Irish population was suddenly displaced from what is now Ulster by Scots and English Protestants who were planted there - the plantation of Ulster. They are still remembering this 400 years later, and the problem is still not solved." Despite peace efforts, distrust and violence remain.

"When the state of Israel was founded in 1948, approximately 750,000 Palestinians lost their land and property. That's the bottom line, and they are not going to forget that. If the Irish haven't forgotten it in 400 years, the Palestinians are not going to forget it in 50 years. So I don't think there is any immediate superficial solution. On the other hand, having said that, there are lots of good people on either side who would like to see peace, but, as always, their voices are very muted. So I think things will just have to be worked out over a long time, and sadly more blood will be spilled."

Burns believes that today's problems are both political and religious. "I think it's important for students to understand the history of religions, how religions come to be as they are, where they share, and how they differ," says Burns. "One of the great problems that we face, of course, is that students who are religious, whether Christian or Muslim, tend to be not unnaturally convinced of the rightness of their religion, and it's often difficult for us to get them to detach themselves and look at other traditions as being equally valid. But I try to teach them that to understand and appreciate other traditions, they don't have to give up their own."

With a deeper awareness of other religions, students in Burns's classes are able to look at world events with more awareness. And world events are giving religious studies majors new opportunities after graduation, says Burns. Traditionally, religious scholars have headed to seminaries, museums, and galleries or to college teaching, but Burns says that, in today's climate, religious scholars are finding opportunities in journalism, foreign service, and national security. "In a post-9/11 world," says Burns, "scholars of religion can foster a new understanding and appreciation of global religious traditions. That can defuse the mistrust and perhaps go a little way to prevent the recurrence of such tragedy."