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Religious confusion seen as a positive

There may be a lot of confusion and uncertainty these days about religion and its function in society, but for the Rev. Andrew M. Greeley, that in itself is exciting news.

"Confusion is a positive good," said Greeley, a sociologist, scholar and Roman Catholic priest. "At least there are fun things left to explore. There is lots of wonder and surprises ahead of us."

Greeley was one of 10 nationally known religion scholars and researchers who spoke at a religion symposium this week at the University of South Florida's St. Petersburg campus.

The conference _ "Religion and the Social Order: What Kind of Lessons Does History Teach?" _ was the brainchild of USF religious studies professor Jacob Neusner, who is a scholar of Judaism and a prolific author of books and academic studies. Neusner envisioned a research conference that gave undergraduate students a glimpse into the academic life of widely known researchers in the field of religion. USF President Betty Castor called the conference "a significant happening" and said this is what university education is all about, providing opportunities to challenge the mind.

During the four-day conference, USF students from the honors and religious studies programs were paired with the visiting professors and lecturers. Students were included in all the off-campus dinners and activities, and were told to ask as many questions as they wished.

One of Neusner's requirements was that the students be given the first chance to question the presenters. Students prepared for the conference by studying the presenters' papers weeks ahead of time.

"We've been given an incredible opportunity," said Keri Hartmann, a sophomore in the honors program. "You can't imagine the things I have learned during these past few days."

Said Philip Kaprow, a USF senior in Judaic studies: "Just to be able to sit and talk with the foremost scholars in my chosen field is an honor. Just being around these people has heightened my level of learning."

Symposium speakers spoke on such topics as the historical Jesus, religion and society in ancient Mesopotamia, and second temple Israelite religion. Greeley perhaps had the greatest name recognition, not only because of his status as a sociologist of religion, but because of his popular novels such as Thy Brother's Wife. His latest novel, Irish Gold, is a mystery centering on Irish revolutionary Michael Collins. Religion as Poetry, a sociological study, also will be released soon.

"People read stories, they don't read data, but both are important," Greeley said, explaining why he began writing fiction. "I came to the conclusion through my research that religion is passed on through storytelling. Jesus was a storyteller, and religion is a story before it is anything else."

In an interview, Greeley observed that the most interesting information emerging from the conference was that even scholars are retreating from the idea that "we know everything." Confusion, in this instance, is a creative good, he said.

He challenged some myths in his presentation as well, contending that American religious behavior has changed little in the last 50 years. There are, however, a couple of exceptions, he said. Church attendance among Catholics has declined because of the church's ban on artificial birth control, and the number of people with no religious affiliation increased from 3 percent to 7 percent in the late 1970s and the 1980s.

Greeley is the director of the Natinal Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, and while his survey results indicate that most people have a high interest in religion, the subject is not afforded status by institutions, he said.

"Religion is marginalized and trivialized by academies, the media elites and the government. This is a vast problem, and I don't know what to do about it," he said.

Greeley said he was recently asked by the New York Times to write an article on "how an intelligent person could still be a believing person with all this coming out of the Vatican." Greeley said that he found it highly offensive, but that it indicated the kind of prevalent attitude toward religion.

"The general feeling," Greeley said, "is that religion is fakery. There is no such thing as religious faith, or if there is, it is people being deceived by their religious leaders. . . . Therefore, religion is vanishing . . . and no sensible person would ever think of being religious."

During Greeley's 34 years in the academic world, he said, the subject of religion has seen only a marginal increase of respect in universities.

"What is interesting is that religious studies classes are filling up because students want to take them, but then people try to divert their students into other disciplines because they just can't see their brightest and best students going that route.

"I don't see a way out of this. The genteel anti-religious bias is there, and it's out of touch with the mainstream society.

"America was a religious country, and it still is," he said.

Other conference speakers included William Green from the University of Rochester, on the tasks of the academic study of religion; Kent Richard of Iliff Seminary in Denver, on the second temple Israelite religion; Bruce D. Chilton of Bard College, discussing the historical Jesus; Neusner, speaking on Judaism; John Esposito of Georgetown University, on Islamic scholarship; Erica Reiner of the University of Chicago, on Babylonia religion; James Strange, USF professor of religious studies, on religion and society in ancient Israel; Robert Ellwood of the University of Southern California, speaking on mythology; and Darrell Fasching, USF professor of religious studies, on historical consciousness, religion and the social order.