Thanks in part to his roots as a Southern Baptist, junior Thomas Chandler from Thaxton already feels called to the ministry. And while he doesn’t need to major in religious studies to pursue his career, his course work has taught him a lot about other religious traditions—and a lot about himself.
“I am interested in learning about other religions and how other people view the divine,” said Chandler, a member of UM’s inaugural class of religious studies majors. “It is important to understand other belief systems to truly know what you believe. This major will provide me with experiences I can use to grow in my own faith.”
As of January 2009, the College of Liberal Arts officially added a Bachelor of Arts in religious studies to its academic offerings. Although various religion courses have been offered at UM for years, students can now earn a bachelor’s degree in the discipline.
“There has been quite a demand for this major,” said William Lawhead, chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion. “There are few disciplines in the university whose subject matter is not affected by religious issues.”
The curriculum is designed to expose students to the methodology used in the academic study of religion, to familiarize students with the vast array of religious traditions throughout the world and to challenge students to think both critically and creatively. Students take required courses in Asian religions, Abrahamic traditions and the study of sacred texts. In addition, students are allowed to take related courses from other disciplines such as anthropology, art history, history and literature.
One of America’s fastest growing academic fields, religious studies will offer students a better sense of how to critically examine religion, said Laurie Cozad, Croft Associate Professor of Religion and the new religious studies director.
“Religious studies is crucial,” she said. “It opens students’ minds to other cultures and the impact that religion has on those cultures.”
In her Religion 101 (Introduction to World Religions) class, Assistant Professor Willa Johnson starts with teaching about tribal religious practices. She also discusses the dynamics that shape religions over time—wars, migration patterns, the blending of cultures.
“People are very comfortable in those first few weeks when we study tribal religions like shamanism and voodoo,” Johnson said. “When we get to Christianity, Islam and Judaism, it gets more uncomfortable as students’ preconceived notions about the history of their own religions are challenged. I make clear to my students that my purpose is to give them an academic understanding of the events or beliefs that make up religious systems. I’m not telling them what to believe.”
As fact and myth come into focus, light bulbs do come on. Sophomore Asra Mansoor, who grew up as a Sunni Muslim in Pakistan, routinely saw Hindu-themed television broadcasts from nearby India. She was familiar with many Hindu gods and rituals, but didn’t understand the religion itself.
“It makes sense now,” said Mansoor, a biology major who has taken two religion classes and plans to take more. “It’s the same thing with Buddhism. I can look at a program and understand what a certain practice means, why they wear certain robes, why it’s sacred to them.”
But there are broader reasons to study religion. From civil wars to international terrorism, religion’s impact on the world is undeniable.
“In business, politics and culture, the global world is a part of everyday life,” said Assistant Professor Mary Thurlkill, who specializes in early Christianity and Islam. “Understanding the various religions could be the key to maintaining stability in today’s diverse world.”
The humanities-based discipline enhances both critical thinking and analysis skills and improves effective communication skills, as well as helps develop fluency in world cultures and traditions, all of which benefit multiple career paths, Thurlkill said.
“Religious studies graduates can pursue a plethora of career options,” she said. “Law school, nonprofit work, medicine, education, environmental science and, of course, religious vocations are all well-suited options.”
Which brings us back to Chandler, who had his own prejudices about Islam wiped away by his studies.
“Thanks to the media, I thought surely that every Muslim was out to kill us all. This, of course, is not true at all,” Chandler said. “My studies helped me understand that you can’t trust stereotypes.
“It’s good to enter into intellectual conversation with a person of another faith without holding incorrect beliefs about their faith,” he continued. “I can now interact with all varieties of people because I have knowledge about different belief systems.