Why the Study of Religion


Who Cares About Religion?

Religion is a human and social phenomenon that is complex and persistent. It is never so simple as a set of beliefs in supernatural beings or the message contained in a sacred book. Religion pervades all aspects of public and private life, at home and abroad. Our politics are saturated with religion, as are the protest and social justice movements defining the key challenges of our times.

To understand even the most secular features of our society, we need to understand the religious backgrounds from which they emerged. This includes the way we experience modern art to the way we house criminals in modern prisons, or from the ways we use our bodies to the ways we debate the “great divide” in American culture today. Human rights, capitalism, liberalism, and our unsustainable relationship with natural resources are only a few examples of orientations to the world that were once, and in many cases continue to be, organized by religious categories.

While religion is surely alive in the early twenty-first century, as a cross-cultural and historical concept it is difficult to define. For example, religion is sometimes celebrated as the best of modern life, sometimes turned to as a solution to modern life, and sometimes criticized as an obstacle to modern life, the very embodiment of outdated superstition and repressive ideology. Elsewhere, religion and religious knowing are ridiculed as at odds with rational science and modern technical innovation, though today many scientists are quite interested in the positive effects of religious activity on cognition and sociality. Religion may drive forward the most sickening acts of violence and degradation, while elsewhere religious values might guide our most hopeful visions of a more equitable, just, and humane world.

In short, religion is inseparable from the ways we think about what unites us and what divides us on local, national, or global scales. Pursuing religious studies therefore brings us to the heart of the most relevant and vexing questions in the humanities and social sciences today.

What is the Study of Religion?

In 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry declared: “if I went back to college today, I think I would probably major in comparative religion because that’s how integrated [religion] is in everything that we are working on and deciding and thinking about in life today.”

Why did he say that?

The academic study of religion understands its subject as always entangled with ethnicity, political economy, gender, class, sexuality, and race. Furthermore, religious life is always mediated by practice, materiality, language, the senses, embodiment, and culture. Because of that, research and teaching in religious studies are always interdisciplinary endeavors. We explore religion, religions, and the religion category using historiographic, social scientific, textual, and philosophical methodologies.

Religious Studies, therefore, serves as a perfect major in a liberal arts education, providing as it does a whole toolbox of cultural competencies, research experience, and theoretical frameworks upon completion of your degree. It is no surprise that Religious Studies majors are statistically the most successful on LSAT exams, that recent heads of state suggest religious studies as an ideal undergraduate course of study, that STEM programs from biomedicine to engineering and computer are including courses in religious culture to inspire technical innovation and cross-cultural encounter. A degree in religious studies regularly takes people around the world and to careers in fields as diverse as law, bioethics, human services, and social work.

At times, research and teaching in religious studies turn back to examine the category of “religion” itself, which is tied inextricably to the histories of colonialism, imperialism, and the organization of knowledge modern university. The study of religion therefore often examines the concept of religion as an academic, political, and legal category in order to expose the limited and often Eurocentric ways that human diversity has been conceived of in the humanities and social sciences.

Most fundamentally, religious studies also forces us to think. Studying religion as a social phenomenon makes us question taken-for-granted assumptions about the world and about the endless ways humans have experienced in across space and time. These include the critical, more nuanced histories of science, of settler-colonialism, of capitalism and socialism, and of American religions. The teaching of religious studies is thus particularly important in the United States today, where heated questions about religion and belonging, about imagined histories and imagined communities, saturate the public sphere.

Study of Religion at UCR

Our department is celebrating its 50th anniversary at UCR. Our faculty is made up of textual scholars, anthropologists, sociologists, and historians. Co-operating faculty in religious studies come from across campus and include philosophers, professors of comparative literature, area studies specialists, and scholars of media and cultural studies.

Given the complexity of religion, the Department of Religious Studies at UCR works constantly in an interdisciplinary space. This is the case whether we think about religion as a concept or as a lived reality, whether we work on the distant past or contemporary issues. Our interdisciplinary interests are reflected in the classes we teach, the academic and public events we organize, the graduate work we supervise, and the research we do. We invite you to explore the innovative undergraduate and graduate programing we offer, and to be in touch with any of our faculty to learn more about the kinds of critical learning you can do with us.

Topical strengths in UCR’s Department of Religious Studies include Sikhism, American Religions, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Global Christianity, Jainism, Buddhism, and new religious movements. The theoretical approaches to religion we currently emphasize in our research and graduate supervision include trans-Pacific connections, inter-Asia frameworks, religion and social justice, text criticism, queer and gender theory, performance theory, religion and secular society, post-colonialism, critical race theory, and intellectual and cultural history.

Our faculty and students are involved in a variety of college-and campus-wide programs, including Asian Studies, Gender and Sexuality Studies, the Medical Humanities Program, SEATRiP (Southeast Asia: Text, Ritual and Performance), Global Studies, and the Middle East and Islamic Studies.

Throughout the year, the Department hosts an active calendar of lectures, colloquia, conferences and other events centered on the academic interdisciplinary study of religion. Throughout the academic year, the Department hosts a robust Colloquium Series open to the entire UCR community.

Additionally, each year our four endowed Chairs (The Dr. Jasbir Singh Saini Endowed Chair in Sikh and Punjabi Studies, The Holstein Family and Community Endowed Chair, The Maimonides Chair in Jewish Studies, and The Shrimad Rajchandra Endowed Chair in Jain Studies) host various events that are both academic and community facing. As just one example, in recent years the Department has played host biannually to large international academic conferences on Sikh Studies and South Asian Religions sponsored by the Dr. Jasbir Singh Saini Endowed Chair in Sikh and Punjabi Studies.

Finally, the Department of Religious Studies is deeply enmeshed in the University of California’s duty to public education and, specifically, UC Riverside’s nationally recognized commitment to civic engagement, research, and social mobility.

We hope that you will join the conversation.

Why Major in the Study of Religion?

UCR’s major and minor in the Study of Religion not only leads students through a close examination of the world’s major religious traditions, but also offers sustained training in research methods and theories from across the humanities and social sciences. Students may choose from a variety of courses offered by Religious Studies as well as those offered in other departments in CHASS, such as philosophy, history, gender and sexuality studies, ethnic studies, art history, media and cultural studies, sociology, anthropology, and comparative literature and languages, to name just a few.

We encourage seniors to undertake a capstone thesis project in their final year, in order to put their training to work in producing an original piece of research in close conversation with a faculty member. In many cases, this becomes a writing sample for graduate school applications or other professional training in fields as diverse as medicine, law, counseling, chaplaincy, or human services.

For many of UCR’s undergraduate population, the Study of Religion is a flexible and fascinating second major, pairing with majors as diverse as neurology or philosophy, economics or ethnic studies.

Develop Cultural Competence Skills Applicable to Any Career

The Study of Religion courses focus not on how to practice religion but on how to analyze and understand the practice of religion. They focus not on what to believe but on what others believe and how they justify their beliefs. As a Religious Studies major, you will learn how to develop a deep understanding of religious practices and perspectives. In a globalized world, where any career path can place you in regular contact with people from many different religions and cultures, these are critical skills. Many advanced professional degree programs, such as law schools and medical schools, have begun giving preference in their admissions to well-rounded applicants who demonstrate this sort of cultural competence rather than to applicants who have simply excelled in a pre-med or pre-law major. Many Religious Studies majors, from our department and from other Religious Studies departments around the country, have gone on to medical school, law school, and business school. Others have become involved in national politics and policy, in diplomatic work, or in the non-profit (NGO) sector, while still others have become primary and secondary school teachers, teaching everything from the sciences to the arts.

Contribute to Scholarly Conversation From Across the Humanities and Social Sciences

Students in our undergraduate and graduate programs explore a variety of disciplinary approaches and theoretical perspectives. They complete their degrees working closely with Religious Studies faculty and also with professors from across CHASS. In addition to coursework, Religious Studies professors regularly work with undergraduate researchers from across UCR on independent study courses that produce original pieces of research on topics as diverse as neurology and Buddhism, the surfing Madonna of Encinitas, and contemporary American religious festival culture.

Become an Active Student Researcher Across Campus

In recent years, our undergraduate students have presented original research at regional conferences and across campus, published their work in UCR’s Undergraduate Research Journal, and have been among the select few chosen as Chancellor’s Research Fellows. Our undergraduate religious studies club regularly hosts academic events, social gatherings, and host visits to nearby religious sites and events.

Train to Become a Professional Scholar of Religious Studies

Our graduate students pursue advanced coursework and dissertation research aimed at making them competitive on the national academic job market. Many of our former doctoral students now work as professors of religious studies around the country, while others work in fields as diverse as business, military chaplaincy, journalism, and social work in the Inland Empire and beyond.

Can you understand the world today or human history without studying the role of religion in human affairs?

The authors of the History and Social Science Framework for California Public Schools (1988 ) explicitly acknowledge “the importance of religion in human history” and insist that students must become familiar with the basic ideas of the major religions and the ethical traditions of each time and place. Students are expected to learn about the role of religion in the founding of the United States because many of our political institutions have their antecedents in religious beliefs and practices. Students should understand the intense religious passions that have produced fanaticism and war as well as the political formations (such as separation of church and state) that allow different religious groups to live amicably in a pluralistic society.

John Kerry, United States Secretary of State

“…If I went back to college today, I think I would probably major in comparative religion because that’s how integrated [religion] is in everything that we are working on and deciding and thinking about in life today.”

James W. Malone, U.S. Religious Leader:

“It is impossible to interpret world events today if one does not grasp the role of religion. From Poland to the Philippines, from Soweto to San Salvador and from India to Ireland, the fundamental issues of existence are permeated by religious ideas, institutions and loyalties.”

Ernest Boyer, President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, writes:

“…I believe that it’s simply impossible to be a well-educated person without learning about how religion has, throughout history, consequentially shaped the human story in almost every culture. And I believe that the sacred texts of all the great religions should be introduced to students with reverence and intellectual insight. Students simply cannot know art without reflecting on the influences of religion — from the Hindu cave paintings to Buddhist art to the temples of ancient Greece to Michelangelo to the great cathedrals of the Middle Ages that so inspired Henry Adams and Marc Chagall. They cannot know literature without understanding how religion has shaped the world’s great writers, from Homer and Euripides of ancient Greece to the writers of our day, from T.S. Eliot to John Updike to I.B. Singer. Students cannot understand music without grasping the power of religion that inspired performers and composers from Hildegard, the great twelfth-century nun/composer, to Leonard Bernstein. Virtually every discipline has been influenced by religion. In psychology, we have William James’ landmark study, The Varieties of Religious Experience, and in sociology, we have Max Weber’s classic work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. And, of course, there’s no conceivable way for students to understand the conflicts in the Middle East or Northern Ireland, or our own history here in the United States, without understanding the consequential role of religion.”

June O’Connor, Professor Emeritus, Department of Religious Studies, UCR:

“The study of religious worldviews enables us to understand and to appreciate one another better than we would do without such study. The inevitable differences among us will be better informed, more justly understood, and hopefully, more effectively negotiated, we believe, because we have taken time seriously to examine one another’s religious heritages. This sort of understanding in turn will enable us to take action together on concerns and crises shared in common.”

United States Supreme Court Justices Clark and Goldberg in Abingdon v. Schempp:

“…it might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing that we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.” (Clark)

“…it seems clear…from the opinions in the present and past cases that the Court would recognize the propriety…of the teaching about religion, as distinguished from the teaching of religion, in the public schools.” (Goldberg)

John Polkinghorne, Cambridge professor of mathematical physics, author of One World: The Interaction of Science and Theology:

“The world known to the twentieth century is a good deal curiouser and more shadowy than the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries could have conceived. That in itself is no great cause for religious rejoicing…. To acknowledge the limits of rationality, objectivity and determinism are not to relinquish a belief in reason, respect for reality, or a search for order. It may however lead to greater openness to the variety of the world and our experience of it, an acceptance that besides the insights of science, expressible in the quantitative language of mathematics, there are the equally necessary insights of religion, expressible in the qualitative language of symbol.”

University of California Faculty – Robert Adams (Philosophy, UCLA), Robert Goheen (Mellon Fellowships in the Humanities, Princeton), C. Warren Hollister (History, UCSB), Joseph Kerman (Music, UCB), William J. Lillyman (German, UCI), and James Murphy (English, UCD).

In 1983 this University of California Universitywide Panel to Oversee Campus Reviews of the Humanities identified the Humanities as consisting of “the study of languages and literature, history (including that of ideas and of the arts), philosophy, and religion — these are the major humanistic disciplines.”

Related Web Sites

Departments of Religious Studies at the University of California