Studying
Religion in
Culture


Put most simply, religious studies is the academic study of religion. Unless you have taken a religious studies course, however, this might not mean too much to you. It might help to say what religious studies is not. It is not "Sunday school" at the college level or a professional program that trains people for the ministry. It is not the confession of religion, but the study about religion. Religious studies is not an intrinsically religious activity. You don't have to be religious to study religion. Then, again, you certainly can be religious, and study your own religion, or other religious traditions, from an academic perspective. Religious studies explores the range of phenomena that fall within the categories "religion" or "religious" and it does so from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. What should be included within the categories of "religion" or "religious" is an on-going debate, but it is probably more inclusive than you think. Courses in this department might cover, for example, myths, symbols, values, beliefs, writings, and rituals of individuals and communities in many different times and places. Religion is not a narrow, isolated segment of individual and social life, but a constellation of beliefs/values/behaviors that deeply informs personal and public life. It is impossible to understand the perspective and motivations of most people in the world, past or present, without familiarity with the religious sources of their identity. So when you study religion, you are not studying some set of official dogmas or rituals that are isolated from real life. You are studying what makes most people and civilizations "tick."

Religious studies does not study religion from the perspective of a single discipline, such as the historical, literary, or philosophical. It brings together perspectives and approaches from history, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, and literature to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the individuals and traditions that constitute religions and cultures.

For a long while Americans have tended to think that religions are either "dying out" or been relegated to the private sphere where they have little public or political importance. Events in the United States and around the world, however, have made it harder and harder to sustain this view. The rise of American fundamentalism, battles over abortion and school prayer, and the rise of "new age spiritualities", for example, reveal the continuing power of religion in American life. Growing conflicts around the world that are fueled by religious misunderstanding or disagreement similarly disclose the continuing power of religion in personal and social life. In our increasingly cosmopolitan world the need to understand the root beliefs and values of diverse cultures has become a political and moral imperative. The academic study of religion seeks to explore the deep intersections between religions and cultures which have shaped, and continue to shape, personal and collective identity.

Because religions and the religious deal with questions of meaning and orientation, religious studies provides a place for students to explore in a disciplined fashion the ways in which humans have struggled to make sense of themselves and their world. To study religion is to study responses, both behavioral and intellectual, to some of the great riddles and questions that face human beings, including death, suffering, tragedy, and the nature of the self and the universe.

When you major or minor in religious studies you can tailor your program of study to suit your individual interests. For example, you can focus your studies on a particular region of the world, or a particular religious tradition. It is also possible to make a specific topic, such as religion and modernity or gender, the organizing principle of your studies. This can be done informally through course selection, or it can be done more formally through certificate programs taken in tandem with religious studies. You should talk to a faculty advisor to find out your options.

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