Stephen Finley
"The projects have been enormously creative. These are very talented students who, for a couple of reasons, aren’t used to talking about religion in this way until they got in this class." -- Stephen Finley
photo photo photo photo photo
Eddy Perez | Photographer | Office of Communications & University Relations

Seeing is Believing: Students Use Modern Methods to Explain Theories on Religion

Interpretation of religion and its numerous theories can be a difficult task. For thousands of years, people have sought to understand how religion came to be and why it is such a driving force in societal structures around the world.

During the past two weeks, students in Stephen Finley’s Introduction to the Study of Religion course have offered their interpretations on religion through group projects, many of which involve the use of modern technology, in disseminating theories and presenting views on religion.

"The projects have been enormously creative," said Finley, an assistant professor in the LSU Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies. "These are very talented students who, for a couple of reasons, aren’t used to talking about religion in this way until they got in this class.

"For those who are religious, their exposure to religion has been institutional and personal, not from the perspective of scholars who study religious theory. Also, hardly of any of those students are religion majors. They’re in majors that orient them to a totally different way of thinking about the world — engineering, sciences and the social sciences, what have you. These students are gifted in the sense that they’ve been able to struggle through the challenge of talking about religion, which at times can be very difficult."

The students were divided into a total of five groups. One group, Finley said, set up its project in the vein of an episode of "The Ellen DeGeneres Show."

"They went into the community and interviewed people on video, asking specific questions about religion," he said. "It was neat because they ended up interviewing people who were atheists, some Catholics, some Latter Day Saints and other beliefs. They got a lot of different perspectives on religion.

"One thing that I got out of that presentation was that while we talk about religion in non-institutional terms and in moral terms, one of the things they demonstrated was that when people are pushed about religion in terms and settings that are not religions or institutional, religion is more personal and much more functional. The responses are different from how we typically understand religion. I thought that was really pointed. The boundaries that are seen to separate religion were almost nonexistent."

One group’s presentation, made during a Tuesday morning class session, used stop-motion animation to portray a story that incorporated three related theories — Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud’s theory of Oedipal complex, French sociologist Emile Durkheim’s theory on the totem serving as a focal point of a society and British anthropologist Edmund Tylor’s anthropomorphic theory of religion that separates the soul from the physical aspect of life.

"We’re reading all of these different theorists, and it was important for us to get this visualization of how these pieces fit together," said group member Aaron Smith, a studio art senior from Gonzales. "For most people’s presentations, they’d get a panel of these theorists together and just throw out what they thought. For our project, we wanted to make it more legible for everybody, because so many of the theorists touch on the same things."

The group played its video — which featured no audio except for Smith’s rhythmic rapping on a bongo drum — for the class, then replayed the video with commentary to explain its message.

Sophomore sociology major Sarah Simpson of Lockport said work on the film involved a day of shooting still photos, then numerous meetings to organize the production.

"I’ve never done anything like this before," she said."I was surprised with how many group meetings went into doing a project like this. We had a lot of meetings to set our goals and figure out how we wanted to make the three theories come together."

Simpson said the three theories her group chose had a related theme that begged the answer to an age-old question.

"The question, ‘What came first, the chicken or the egg?’ haunts everyone’s minds," she said. "I believe that begs the question of how religion started. I think we wanted to answer that question. That’s why we chose the three theories on which our project focused."

Smith said he felt his group’s project accomplished its goal of informing not only the rest of the class, but the students in the group in an artistic way.

"Doing a project like this helped us to see how these theories fit together, but also was a great way to add art into life and get a group working on an artistic conveyance," he said. "It was great for us to just go out and take some simple pictures, get it all together on (Adobe) Photoshop and create a visualization of how these theories of religion sort of intertwine."

Finley said he felt visual presentations can be a valuable aid in openly discussing religious theory.

"In a class like this, to say we’re going to talk about the meaning and function of religion means we have to come up with something concrete, which is a very anthropological and human way of understanding religion," Finley said. "Folks who haven’t studied religion come here with a very transcendent view on religion. To look at things from another point of view and then put that knowledge into a visual form can be difficult, but can also be very helpful.

"I see these presentations as having a lot of purpose. What it gives them (students) is the opportunity to put all this stuff together in their own creative ways. Secondly, we get to learn from them, which is great. That’s one of the main things about these. We want the students themselves to teach their fellow students about these theories."

Finley said he felt the students showed great creativity in their projects, in terms of both presentation as well as subject matter.

"The students have done really well with getting past the bumps in the road," he said. "This is a very challenging course not just for them, but for me in teaching religious theory to students who hadn’t studied it before. They’re engaging the material and each other critically."

Finley also said that he hopes the projects help to spark more interest in the study of religion in a research university setting.

"Religion is a very important thing, but doesn’t always get the recognition it deserves," he said. "Religion is ubiquitous and determinative. It’s everywhere in everything. Sometimes, it’s explicitly obvious, while other times it’s in the background moving things like how we understand knowledge, gender, race, sexuality, class structure, foreign policy and other aspects of society. We’re just trying to better understand why that is."

For more information on the LSU Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, visit http://www.artsci.lsu.edu/phil.

Aaron Looney | Writer | Office of Communications & University Relations
March 2009