Guide to College Majors in Religious Studies

By C Nich

A myth is a religion in which no one any longer believes.
--James Feibleman

What Is Religious Studies?

Religious studies is a relatively new field. It involves the rational study of religious history and modern religious issues in a manner that considers all religious traditions equally. A religious studies degree uses the same tools as other academic fields, including philosophy, history, sociology, anthropology, and theology. It provides the same advantages as any liberal arts degree--a broad-based foundation of cultural, historical, and artistic background that will help you hone your research, abstract reasoning and direct observation skills. You'll exercise strong analytical and original thinking skills and develop your ability to empathize with the perspective of your fellow human beings.

The religious studies major, also called comparative religion, provides an understanding of different religions such as Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, or Islam. These diverse belief systems have significant influence in the lives of millions of people worldwide, and have served as the foundation for community- and nation-building for millennia.

The religious studies curriculum provides an academic forum for asking fundamental questions about human existence. Religious faith has been the backdrop of great artistic and literary achievements--and at the same time, the justification for many of the world's major conflicts, wars, and social movements. Understanding the role religion plays in conflicts and social change--and the resources it may bring to their resolution--is one key purpose of a religious studies degree.

As a religious studies graduate, you bring valuable skills to your employer. Good interpreters of information are in high demand, and in today's global society, a basic knowledge about other cultures and religious perspectives is indispensable. Collecting data, synthesizing it, and presenting it are vital skills in the study of religion and in most professions. Developing an understanding and tolerance of differing cultures and beliefs also translates well to the workforce especially in jobs that require relating and reaching out to others, building relationships, or incorporating many perspectives at once.

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Degree Programs in Religious Studies

Choosing the college where you want to complete your major in religious studies depends on what your career aspirations are. Those who wish to work as religious leaders or within the foundations of their church or temple are advised to seek a theology degree, which generally focuses on training students to play clerical or related roles within their own religious traditions.

A religious studies degree is for non-clergy careers that may not directly involve religious organizations at all. Undergraduates qualify for further study in graduate school and have a leg up in certain areas of the job market. Most religion departments offer students training for many professional fields and many students go on to study law, business, education and politics in graduate school. Some college degree programs require you to concentrate on a particular topic, such as the sociology of religion or on a tradition like Buddhism.Some students choose an academic career as a research specialist, teacher or college professor.

Comparative religion degree programs are taken as a humanities, social science, or interdisciplinary liberal arts major, similar to a degree in English or history. Religious studies programs rarely limit how you apply your knowledge or the elective courses you take to advance your studies and career. A purely academic track in religious studies is similar to the principles of philosophy. You'll approach questions with the same methodology of debating, critical thinking and well-organized patterns of argument. You'll learn to understand a religion rather than participating in it - examining myth, ritual and symbolism. Knowledge of foreign or archaic languages may help you to read and understand diverse texts.

Online Religious Studies Degrees

Because religious studies lends itself to combinations with other areas of study, it may be a particularly good field in which to take online college courses. The flexible scheduling of online classes makes it easier to juggle other classes as well as any work or family responsibilities.

What Can I Do With a Major in Religious Studies?

A college degree in religious studies opens up the same career possibilities that other advanced levels of liberal arts and similar degrees do. Many job postings ask for candidates with a liberal arts or humanities degree because of the abstract reasoning and research experience that graduates can offer their new employers.

Religious studies graduates often go on to further career training and jobs in:

  • Business / international business - Marketing and management
  • Marketing and management
  • The government, foreign service, or the Peace Corps
  • Nonprofit or non-governmental organizations
  • Counseling and Social Work
  • Education
  • Journalism / publishing
  • Law
  • Medicine
  • Event planning, hospitality, or the service industry
  • Museums and the arts

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Certification, Licensure and Professional Associations

There is currently no universal form of certification for a religious studies graduate. For those working as teachers, instructors, and professors, the American Academy of Religion (AAR) is one professional association whose membership is interested in the ongoing study of religion. To become a member of the clergy (see theology), requirements vary by state and by religion, but most require some form of licensure or certification.

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