As someone who eschews easy labels, I’m always conflicted when someone asks what my doctorate is “in.” Universities have departments, of course, and different academic fields have differing standards of what qualifies you as an expert. My Ph.D. was mainly in the field of history of religions, but focused (all such project must be narrow) on what is best called ancient West Asian cultures. Recently someone showed me a website with free geography quizzes on it. (I post the link here with the caveat that this can be very addictive.) This friend asked me how good my Asian geography was. I knew that once I got east of Iran I was going to be in trouble. Some countries, such as Russia, India, China, and Japan are hard to miss, but the others I was properly humbled over.
I tried the quiz again and again until I could point to any of the official Asian nations with a fair degree of accuracy. Eurasia is a very large landmass, and when you consider that it is, apart from human-made canals, attached to Africa this is a lot of space to label. Considering that many isolationist politicians can’t correctly find smaller countries on a map without an app, I started to realize just how lopsided the world is. Many more people live in Asia than populate the “New World.” They actually have more space than we do here, but much of it is too cold or too dry for comfortable living. Still, I considered that if I’d had this quiz as a kid I might’ve known my geography much better than I do.
As I’m preparing to attend the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting in a few days, I recall priding myself at knowing all fifty states of my native country. I’ve been to all but five of the lower 48—Alabama, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Nevada have eluded me (the conference never meets in them and I don’t have friends who’ll put me up for free in them). But at least I know where I haven’t been.
After trying my hand at Asia on the app, I attempted Africa. Let’s just say I still have a lot left to learn. And unlike when I was a kid, I look forward to taking quizzes. Work interferes with web time, though, and learning modern countries isn’t the same as knowing where Hatti or Elam used to be. Religion, after all, forms borders just as impermeable as mountains, oceans, or deserts.