The Academic Study of Religion
Virtually everywhere one finds evidence for human societies, both historically and geographically, one finds evidence of religion. Religions identify and describe transcendent forces said to give shape to the world and thus to humanity’s experience within it. By explaining the past and imagining what is to come in the future, religions identify the meaning and purpose of present experience, and even of existence itself, for the groups and individuals who adhere to them. Consequently, religions have been and remain fundamental to the way people construct cultures, organize societies, determine “truths,” define values, and imagine themselves in relation to others. Perhaps most remarkably, different religious cultures do all this with an incredible and frequently conflicting variety of beliefs and practices.
The study of religion within the Humanities division of a public university is fundamentally different in both goals and method from the sort of instruction that one might receive within any given religious community. Here the goal is not to make the student any more (or for that matter any less) “religious.” Nor is it even to determine whether one or more of the transcendent forces assumed in different religious cultures are actually real. Instead, our goal is simply to come to a critical understanding of the ways that belief in such forces has shaped and continues to shape societies, cultures, and thus individual human experience. By understanding religion as a form of human behavior alongside others like politics, art, economics, and literature, we come to a fuller understanding of humanity in all its historical and geographical diversity.
Such an understanding is acquired in precisely the same way that knowledge is generated elsewhere in the university: through rigorous, critical analysis of the available evidence – in this case, evidence for the rise and evolution of the discourses, practices, and institutions of various religious cultures over the course of human history. This broad question of method lies at the heart of Comparative Religion as an academic field, and is thus a major focal point of the program.
When approached in this way, Comparative Religion is an important and illuminating complement to many fields, and many of our students are in fact double majors. Whether on its own or in combination with some other study, the program can provide a springboard to a variety of careers ranging from law and politics, psychology, journalism, education, social work, to work in NGO’s or even international business. It is also, of course, excellent preparation for graduate work in the academic study of religion itself.