Religious Studies: A Hot Commodity

Over at Newsweek, Lisa Miller has written an insightful piece on the “Religious Studies Revival.”  For undergraduates thinking about a major (or graduate school), it is a must read.  Miller begins with an imaginary scene that I suppose is quite real:

“You want to major in what?” Such is the anguished cry of parents, who, having scraped together their last dollar for college tuition learn that their child has decided to devote herself not to something useful, like economics or premed, but to religious studies, that esoteric interdisciplinary major in which people study how religious beliefs and practices affect history, culture, politics, economies, and the world.

In a world defined by religious conflict—in the Middle East, in Africa, and in the culture wars at home—colleges and universities have come to consider religious studies increasingly important….“The study of religion,” says Jeanne Kilde, who has started a new program at the University of Minnesota, “is a growth industry.”

Parents might have less of an objection if we reversed the implicit causal arrows (or at least recognized two way causation) and our imaginary student stated: “I want to study how biology, psychology, history, culture, politics, and economics affect religious beliefs and practices.”  This in turn would enable us to recognize that what is glossed as “religious conflict” actually entails more foundational and complicated issues.

As is apparent from Miller’s piece, what constitutes a “religious studies” major varies widely from department to department.  Those which simply teach theology and doctrine — accepting the object of their study, “religion,” as a metaphysical given or fait accompli — would seem least valuable.  Those, however, which include evolutionary and religious history would seem more valuable.  I am not sure how many departments do this, but it certainly is being done outside the formal major, as Miller notes:

But elsewhere, the study of religion thrives, often in surprising places. Sociologists, anthropologists, and psychologists are all getting into the religion game, trying to discover the roots of human religious belief and bring quantitative methods to bear on the study of religious practice.

At the University of California, Santa Barbara, long home to one of the country’s most innovative religion departments, two new courses illustrate religious studies’ shift in emphasis. One, The Evolutionary and Cognitive Science of Religion, looks at the religious impulse of the human mind; the other, Origins: A Dialogue Between Scientists and Humanists, is cross-listed as a physics course and is UCSB’s answer to the broader culture’s larger “faith versus reason” debates.

While anthropology, psychology, and sociology are all excellent disciplines for the study of religion, we should not forget two others that have long been concerned with the subject and would serve students equally well: history and philosophy.  In the end, any student who desires a comprehensive understanding of religion will be reading in all these disciplines, so it probably does not matter much where home base is and  will depend more on where particular scholars in a university or college are located.

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