Why Study Religion?

Ultimately most students study religion because they find it fascinating and interesting. Beyond its fascinating character, however, the study of religion serves a number of useful purposes.

Religion has been an extremely powerful influence in human affairs. It has affected practically every sphere of human experience, from culture and politics to art and literature. In some cases, religion has had a positive influence, promoting compassion, human rights, and social justice. In other cases, it has had a disastrous effect, promoting sectarianism, intolerance, violence, and terrorism. For better or for worse, religion has played, and continues to play, a central role in making human life what it is.

One cannot understand human culture without some knowledge of religion. Such knowledge is essential for understanding both the past and the present—the history of the world as well as contemporary events in the news. Such knowledge is likewise essential for understanding both the familiar and the exotic—our own culture as well as the cultures of other nations and peoples. Studying various cultures of the world is central to Religious Studies as it seeks to explain divergent views about the world and the purpose of human life. The study of religion is thus essential for understanding the beliefs, motivations, actions, hopes, fears, and morals of a good portion of the world’s population.

The study of religion explores how various religions have approached issues of ultimate significance: where we came from, where we are going, and how to live in the meantime. While the study of religion does not necessitate that one have or not have a particular religious orientation, it does provide a basis for developing an informed and critical perspective on such issues.

Religion can be studied from the perspective of any number of disciplines, including history, literature, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, psychology, politics, gender studies, and the arts. This interdisciplinary character makes the study of religion useful for different students with a broad range of different interests.

What is Religion?

No one definition can encompass all the varieties of belief and practice that have been called religion. However, in general, a religion is an orientation toward some realm beyond everyday experience, such as the divine as opposed to the human, the sacred as opposed to the profane, or the eternal as opposed to the transitory. Practitioners of a particular religion generally share a common perspective on issues of ultimate significance: where we came from, where we are going, and how best to live in the meantime.

Religious ideas and practices permeate all dimensions of society. Religion, or opposition to it, affects the way that people think and act with respect to practically every domain of human experience.

  • It has affected the policies of nations, leading them to adopt religious monarchies, state churches, "faith-based initiatives," or separation of church and state.
  • It influences some people to practice pacifism and others to wage holy war.
  • It affects the positions that people take on ethical and political issues, such as abortion, stem-cell research, cloning, gay marriage, and euthanasia.
  • It affects some people's ability to accept scientific theories, such as evolution.
  • It dictates whether to have sex and with whom to have it.
  • It promotes a variety of dietary practices, such as fasting for Lent, keeping kosher, using Hallal meat, or practicing vegetarianism.
  • It produces certain economic activities, such as shopping for Christmas, closing banks on Sunday, or following Islamic lending practices.
  • It promotes certain physical regimens, such as practicing yoga or meditating to relieve stress or lower blood pressure.
  • It affects the way that some parents educate their children, for example in home schools, parochial schools, or church-related colleges and universities.
  • It has moved some people to treat the earth with respect as a goddess, and others to hold it in contempt.

What Can You Do with a Degree in Religious Studies?

Some students concentrate in Religious Studies as a first step toward obtaining a Ph.D. in order to teach in this field at the college or university level. For others, a degree in Religious Studies provides a foundation for a service-oriented career in ministry, psychological counseling, or social work.

A degree in Religious Studies can also be excellent preparation for careers in other fields. Students who concentrate in Religious Studies gain skills in reading analytically, thinking critically, and writing fluently. Because classes are often smaller than in other disciplines, students get more individual attention and assistance in developing these skills. These skills are essential for success in a variety of careers, such as law, medicine, government, and business.

Because of its interdisciplinary character, Religious Studies can be combined effectively with other majors. Many students have combined a concentration in Religious Studies with a major in another discipline, such as Anthropology, International Studies, Foreign Languages, English, Political Science, History, Economics, Business, and even Biology and Physics.

A number of Religious Studies students who have graduated since 2000 have gone on for further education. For example, three entered Ph.D. programs in biblical studies, one at Notre Dame, another at Johns Hopkins, and another at the University of Erlangen. Five went to seminaries (Duke, Emory, Princeton, SMU, and GTU at Berkeley) for a Master of Divinity degree. Five went to schools of social work (LSU and Denver) for a Master’s degree in social work. Four went to law schools (LSU and Tulane) to obtain a law degree. Two went to nursing school (ULL and LSU).

Other students have gone directly into the job market, finding employment as high school teachers, as an analyst for the Office of Naval Intelligence, as a Director of Special Programs for the Organization of American States, as a direct service professional for United Cerebral Palsy, as a manager for Abercrombie and Fitch in Las Vegas, as an entrepreneur in the computer games industry, as a community organizer, and as employees in the Louisiana Legislative Auditor's Office, in the Social Security Administration, and in a bookstore.