By Anthony Meyer
The study of religion at the university level is frequently not what people expect it to be. All too often, the assumption is that we study the meanings of texts as they would be studied in places of worship.
The study of religion at the university level is frequently not what people expect it to be. All too often, the assumption is that we study the meanings of texts as they would be studied in places of worship. While this approach is appropriate for believing groups, it does not accurately characterize the approach to religion taken at the university level. Religious Studies here is not a quest for deeper faith, but the study of how religions are constructed, their function and their role in society and culture, and their influence on humanity. Religious Studies is the academic study of religion.
The new Religious Studies major offers two basic, though overlapping, approaches to the study of religion, which are built into its two-"track" system. Track I--Religion, Culture, and Society--accommodates students who wish to study a variety of religions and themes relating to religion. It emphasizes methodologies across the liberal arts, from the humanities and fine arts to the social sciences.
Track II--Texts and Traditions--on the other hand, focuses on in-depth knowledge of a particular religious tradition, such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, or American Indian. Essential to this track is the completion of four semesters (or the equivalent) of a language appropriate to the chosen religious tradition and its sources. This track allows students to pursue in-depth study of a single tradition, while also requiring two courses on other traditions to provide breadth.
In both tracks, students study traditions from across the globe. The program retains its original strength in ancient Judaism and early Christianity, and is building new strengths in other areas: religions of China and South Asia (Buddhism, Hinduism, Daoism, Confucianism), religions of the Mediterranean and Middle East (including Islam), and religion in America, Native American philosophies, and theory of religion. For instance, students can now study religions in the contemporary Middle East in concert with language study in Arabic, Turkish, or Persian. Students design their specific programs individually, with the help of the Director of Undergraduate Studies, to ensure that they get exactly what they are looking for in their academic study of religion.
The Religious Studies major has significant potential for the job market, providing skills and knowledge vital for work in many fields. Religious Studies majors not only develop skills in textual analysis, direct observation, critical thinking, and written and oral communication that are the hallmarks of a liberal education, but they also develop specialized knowledge of religious groups, deep cross-cultural understandings, and skills in fostering cross-cultural communication. Such knowledge and skills contribute significantly to fields ranging from public policy, government, education, and the non-profit sector, to business, medicine, the law, and religious leadership.
As our world becomes increasingly global, knowledge of religions--of diverse foundational practices and beliefs, of how various religions function socially, culturally, and politically--constitutes a solid foundation for almost any career.