Religious Studies 101

I know you’re probably waiting for part two of yesterday’s post, and I’ll get to it, but first I wanted to pause and talk a little about religious studies, since it was my major in university (undergraduate level) and I have a feeling I will be bringing it up a lot. So, without further ado, here is a (quick and dirty definitely not academic) summary of my experience in one religious studies program. (Please note that I attended an average size Canadian university, so what I say might not apply to your educational institution.)

What is Religious Studies?

Religious studies is the academic study of religion. (Here I should note is that every first class in almost every course I took tried to define “religion” and usually could come up with a standard working definition. Choose one you like and stick with it.) Religious studies is multidisciplinary and many courses cross-over into other fields (including but not limited to archaeology, anthropology, sociology, psychology, women’s studies, classical studies, etc.)

Oh! Religious Studies! Are you training to be a minister/nun?

No. What you’re talking about is theology, which is an entirely separate program from Religious Studies. At my university, theology was taught in the Lutheran seminary on campus. Religious studies, on the other hand, was taught in the regular campus buildings with the rest of the arts programs.

What are the differences between theology and religious studies?

The easiest way to remember the difference between theology and religious studies is to remember the phrase: Theology teaches religion, religious studies teaches about religion. Religious studies students typically will not learn the “basics” of a religion, like how Christians, Jews, and Muslims are monotheists or that the Vedas are important texts for Hindus, that sort of stuff is reserved for a “religion 101” course. In religious studies, by contrast, you may learn about how Christianity impacts popular culture in North America, or how Hindus and Buddhists fare outside their country of origin. One course may be a cross-cultural examination of women in religion, another may look exclusively at new religious movements and the challenges that their adherents face. One course I took was entirely devoted to religion and food, another was entitled “God as Goddess” and was basically a whole course devoted to looking at goddesses in various contexts.

Beyond that, here are a few specific differences between the two traditions:

a) Perspective

Theology classes tend to assume that its students are either Christian, Jewish, or Muslim (although usually the assumption is that theology majors are Christian). Religious studies does not assume that it’s students will be a particular religion (if any). I had classmates who were Pagan, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, atheist, agnostic or just not particularly religious. Likewise, my professors (when they chose to divulge their religion) were similarly diverse. Of the ones I know, two were Buddhists (one Mahayana, the other started as Mahayana but started attending a Theravada temple) one was Pagan (unspecified), and one was an atheist.

b) History

It’s complicated, but basically what you need to know is that theology as an academic discipline dates back to the Middle Ages. Religious studies grew out of theology, but is only about 60-70 years old.

c) Privilege

This is related to perspective, but I decided to give it its own section. Put simply, religious studies does not take faith-based statements at face value, and it doesn’t privilege any one religion over another. It might be correct to say that it takes a secular or atheistic approach to the study of religion. This, understandably, can be quite shocking to those (particularly Christians) who are used to their religion having a privileged place at the table, and few Christians in the courses I took over the years were quite irate that their “truth” was not blindly accepted as fact.

That’s religious studies in a nutshell, now, here are some things I have learned in this program:

There are no sacred cows.

No belief is immune from examination or critique, that includes beliefs you regard as “true”.

Your profs. are insane.

Individual profs. who have taught me have done the following:

One professor learned Japanese archery from the man who made the bow and arrows for the Japanese Imperial court. She also demonstrated how Rinzai Zen monks are disciplined using my back (ow!).

One professor knows Sanskrit, her research specialty is women in Medieval India, but she taught my course on religions of China and Japan.

One professor can speak French and English and read Koine (New Testament) Greek AND Coptic like it was written in English. He also briefly held a position at the American Academy of Religion.

One professor really wanted to teach us how to speak Sumerian, but that was never worked out before I graduated.

One professor has been in places from the American Southwest to India, and was very excited by the prospect of taking her students to Bhutan (Bhutan is freakin’ expensive.

Insane, I tell you, every last one of them.

If you want to pursue a higher degree in this program, learn a language or two.

I applied for a master’s degree in religious studies (rejected, *sighs*), and the recommendation was to learn at least one other language and a couple “research languages” (reading and writing) depending on your area of study. For instance, a lot of Pagan material is in English, but if you were studying a tradition like Vodou (and other African diasporic traditions), French, Kreyol, and Spanish would be useful languages to learn.

You will notice religion will start cropping up a lot in conversations.

You have no idea how much this happens to me, seriously.

That about wraps up what I wanted to say about my BA. If anyone has any questions, feel free to leave a comment.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s