Students enrolled in online religious studies programs learn about different facets of religion, including the belief systems of different faiths, the impact religion has on society and the history of religions. These degrees can prepare students for a range of jobs, including positions in the clergy, academia and community outreach organizations.
One of the most common careers for students who have earned an online religious studies degree is in the clergy. Clergy members have many job responsibilities, including the following:
- Providing counseling to help people with their spiritual and emotional needs
- Preparing sermons and religious ceremonies
- Creating religious education programs
- Promoting spirituality
- Participating in prayer services
- Understanding and teaching information on religious texts
- Helping people convert to a specific faith
Those who want to become clergy members can find employment with a bachelor's degree, but oftentimes employers look for someone who has a master's degree or doctorate. In addition, members of the clergy must also undergo the process of ordination, which may require that they complete interviews with church committee members, take a licensing course or complete a series of examinations.
Coursework in Online Religious Studies Degree Programs
Students who earn online religious studies degrees learn about religion from a number of perspectives, including philosophical, historical, artistic and scientific viewpoints. Although each school has a unique curriculum and requirements, the following are examples of common courses that students can expect to take when they enroll in these degree programs.
Students in this course get a global perspective on religion and how different faiths influence specific cultures. The class covers the traditions associated with religions such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism. In addition, students learn about how the practice of these religions affects people socially, culturally and politically.
Magic, witchcraft and religion
This class covers the practice of magic and witchcraft in Western and non-Western cultures. Specific course topics may include subjects such as sorcery, ritual behavior and processes, and witchcraft and magic movements in different societies.
Women and religion
This course examines the role that women have played in religion throughout history, as well as in modern-day society. Students may learn about topics such as gender roles, sexuality, the experience of women in religion and leadership roles that women take in specific faiths.
The New Testament
Students in this class learn about the texts in the New Testament of the Bible in order to understand their historical significance. In addition, the class covers the historical and modern interpretations of the New Testament, the traditional and revisionist perspectives of these texts, and how Christians and non-Christians view the New Testament.
This course looks at Judaism throughout history, from its inception in ancient society to the practice of the religion today. Students will learn about the rituals of Judaism and how those practices have changed over time, the beliefs that people in the faith hold, Jewish traditions, and the depiction of Judaism in art and literature. In addition, students may also learn about the practice of Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah.
Other subjects that students who earn online religious studies degrees may take in these programs include Christianity, the Quran, martyrdom in religion, Catholicism, religion and the law, the Holocaust, and saints in Eastern and Western cultures. In addition to coursework, students who enroll in online religious studies programs may be expected to take liberal arts electives outside of their department or participate in a research project or an internship.
Interview With a Religious Studies Professor
Barbara Pitkin of Stanford University teaches a range of courses on the history and future of Christianity in America and around the globe, women and religion, and European religious history in the medieval and early modern periods. She has been a faculty member in the department of religious studies at Stanford University since 1996. Prior to that, she was on the faculty at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. She earned her Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Chicago. In this interview, Barbara gave us some advice for students considering earning a religious studies degree.
What are the skills, interests and personality traits necessary for a student to be successful in a religious studies program?
"Students need to understand that religious studies is an interdisciplinary field in which scholars study religious beliefs and practices as aspects of human culture. Students have the opportunity to explore how religious ideas and behaviors shape and are shaped by such things as history, politics, economics, ethics, understandings of gender and sexuality, the social order, literature, art, music, the family, mental and physical well-being, and much more.
"At the most basic level, the skills that make for a successful course of study in religious studies are the same that are required for any field of the humanities, such as history, English or philosophy: the ability to read texts and observe phenomena carefully, accurately and with an open mind; commitment to thinking about different sides of an issue and weighing the pros and cons of various positions; solid written and oral communication skills. For those interested in exploring religious practices through direct observation or the interaction between religious beliefs and psychology, human well-being and social community, familiarity with qualitative and quantitative social-scientific methods are needed.
"The ideal student of religion is curious about human beings' deepest values and questions surrounding the meaning of life. Beyond that, there are a number of reasons why students are interested in religion. Some students study religion as a path to figuring out their own place in the world; others are eager to understand the complex role of religion in a world in which religious conflict seems to dominate the headlines. Some are fascinated by religious art, music or poetry; others want to explore the history of religions in ages gone by. Many students see the study of religion as a way to do good in the world or engage with issues of social justice.
"Studying religion in a secular university or college does not aim toward the goal of indoctrination. Students with little personal experience of religion, as well as students with strong religious commitments, can succeed equally well in this field of study."
What kind of careers can students pursue after earning a religious studies degree?
"An undergraduate degree in religious studies prepares students for a wide range of career paths, including law, journalism, education, counseling and spiritual leadership. Recent alumni of the department at Stanford University are pursuing graduate degrees in religious studies, science writing and sport psychology; attending law school, medical school and seminary; in the Peace Corps, teaching with Teach for America, and working as film writers, consultants, and in hi-tech."
What advice would you give to students who are considering earning a degree in religious studies?
"Students often wonder what to expect from a class in religious studies since virtually all of them have never had the opportunity to study religion in an academic setting prior to coming to university or college. By studying religious beliefs and practices, they embark on a journey to understand one of the most complex aspects of the human experience and the primary expression of humanity's quest to find meaning and purpose. The college years ought to be a time for the exploration of such topics.
"Many religious studies programs are small, so students often have the opportunity to get to know faculty and work with faculty mentors individually or in small groups. This can be an immensely rewarding educational experience in which students can participate in faculty research projects or develop their own independent research under the guidance of a faculty mentor."
Career Outlook for Professionals With Religious Studies Degrees
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), openings for members of the clergy are expected to increase by about 10 percent between 2012 and 2022. The agency also reports that, as of May 2014, the median salary for these workers was $43,950. However, the bottom 10 percent of earners in the field made around $22,300 a year, and the top 10 percent of earners made around $76,420 per year, according to 2014 BLS data.
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