Education has always been an important factor in the life of religious studies professor Roy Whitaker. Many of his mentors were teachers who inspired him to pursue his lifelong dream of becoming an educator.
In college, Whitaker set out with a mission to understand the analytical aspects of religion, questioning what happens after death, if there is a god and why bad things happen to good people. A phrase Whitaker heard in an undergraduate class sparked an idea, which formed the basis for many of his future studies and courses: people from different religious groups approach reality from many different perspectives.
“I said to myself, ‘What I want to get is an appreciation of various religious traditions, not just one,’” Whitaker said. “I wanted to get into more of the comparative study of religion.”
Whitaker blended his inquisitive nature with study of comparative religions in classes such as “Hip Hop and Religion” and “Atheism, Humanism and Secularism,” in which students learn more than the defining characteristics of religion or a lack of religion.
Whitaker incorporates current events, field trips, guest speakers and a highly analytical and critical reading of contemporary texts to engage students in different religions.
After giving a lecture talk in 2008, Whitaker began to develop the idea behind his hip-hop course, slowly integrating the issues into a world religions course.
At least one week would be dedicated to pop culture and religion. Eventually, this concept became its own class, focusing on how hip-hop culture and religious ideology cross paths.
Whitaker said religious studies has historically looked at traditional religions, texts and prophets, while often ignoring other types of prophets—“prophets of the hood” — who struggle with some of the same issues addressed in religious stories.
Whitaker said he feels religious studies also neglects studying irreligion. In his atheism course, he seeks to answer questions about the psychology of atheism, as well as issues of gender and race in atheism.
But what really makes these courses successful, Whitaker said, is his effort to be as objective as possible when presenting material. The purpose of his assignments is not to accept or reject certain beliefs, but to encounter new communities and formulate impressions, he added.
Whitaker said he is motivated to inspire students and help them expand their worldviews, while questioning assumptions in society.
“I’ve had a wonderful relationship with (my students) in helping them recognize the importance of religion, and hopefully the importance of irreligion,” Whitaker said.