If you are interested in exploring some of the most profound questions about human life and human experience and in learning about how people in diverse cultures and places have thought about these questions, then a degree program in religious studies may be right for you. Religious studies is a field within the liberal arts that incorporates methods from anthropology, history, philosophy, sociology, psychology, and literature to gain insight into religious beliefs and practices. It is important to recognize that “religious studies” (RS) is not the same as “theology,” though both forms of inquiry are deeply connected to religion and both may be found coexisting in the same academic department. Perhaps the best way to understand the distinction is that theology takes an “insider’s” or “believer’s” perspective, seeking knowledge from within a tradition, while RS approaches religion in general or a particular religion as an “outsider,” trying to understand a tradition from the perspective of an observer.
This is not to say that there are no believers in RS departments; in fact many devout Christians and people of many faiths pursue degrees in this area because they want to learn more about the history of their own tradition while also gaining an understanding of the beliefs and practices of others. A typical RS program will incorporate courses from a range of disciplines. A basic “Introduction to Religion” will use techniques from anthropology and sociology to explore the nature of religion itself: what it is, what role it plays in an individual’s life and in the life of a society, how it understands the divine and the human relationship to the divine, what rituals and practices constitute “religious” behavior. Other courses may focus on particular religious traditions, such as Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, or Buddhism, and involve study of their founders, sacred scriptures, doctrines, history, sects, and influence on the societies in which they exist. Still other courses might look at religion through the lens of particular academic disciplines. Courses like “Psychology and Religion,” “Philosophy and Religion,””Religious Ethics,” or “Religion and Literature” are examples of this approach. Most RS programs will require students to demonstrate an in-depth understanding of at least one, perhaps two, religious traditions and to show competency in describing the elements of religion from an anthropological and/or sociological perspective.
While many who pursue degrees in religion may aspire to careers in ministry or religious education, there are many other career paths that benefit from the broad foundation this degree provides. The academic study of religion is excellent preparation for a career in primary or secondary education, whether as a teacher of religion in a religious school, or as a social studies, literature, or humanities teacher in a public or non-sectarian private school. The RS degree also provides a solid foundation for those seeking employment in non-profit charitable organizations, particularly organizations involved in overseas work. Some degree-holders even find that the study of other cultures and religious beliefs gives them a sensitivity to and appreciation for difference that is a prerequisite for success in the business world.
Many colleges and universities offer both traditional and online degrees in religious studies. Each type of program has advantages and disadvantages. Traditional “bricks and mortar” schools offer face-to-face instruction and the opportunity to engage directly, in real time, with professors and fellow students. Religion asks questions about the most profound human experiences, and as such it engenders deep reflection and also heated debate. A subject like this seems to demand conversation, and sometimes the most important insights and learning come in informal conversations outside of the lecture or classroom setting. These happen best in a traditional campus setting. The disadvantage of traditional programs, however, is that they require a substantial outlay of time and financial resources. Pursuing religious degrees online, on the other hand, allows students more flexibility, both in scheduling class and study time and in deciding on the pace for completing the degree. Also, the lack of residency requirements and other campus-based expenses makes online programs more affordable.
If you are interested in pursuing your religious studies degree online, there are a number of factors to consider when choosing a program. The best programs will be offered by schools with traditional programs as well, thereby affording access to well-trained faculty, solid library resources, and a school tradition that lends credibility to the course of study. Good online programs will have clear requirements that cover a range of topics within the field, as outlined above. The best programs will also be academically rigorous, requiring careful reading, critical thinking, and analytical writing. These programs will also afford students the opportunity to engage with faculty and fellow learners on discussion boards and through individual communication.