What Does it Mean to Study Religious Studies?
While theology — the study of the divine — has been around for many hundreds of years, religious studies is not quite the same thing. Those who wish to work as religious leaders are advised to seek a theology degree, which generally focuses on teaching students to play clerical or related roles within their own religious traditions. In contrast, religious studies is the study of religion from an academic sense, looking at multiple religions with the intent of understanding their beliefs in relation to each other’s. It involves the rational study of religious history and religious issues in a manner that considers all religious traditions equally.
As a field, religious studies uses similar tools as other academic fields, including philosophy, history, sociology, anthropology and theology. As a religious studies major, students are expected to exercise strong analytical and original thinking skills and develop the ability to empathize with the perspective of their fellow human beings.
Types of Religious Studies Degrees
A purely academic track in religious studies is similar to the principles of philosophy. Questions are meant to be approached with the same methodology of debating, critical thinking and well-organized patterns of argument. The goal is to understand a religion rather than participating in it — examining myth, ritual and symbolism. Religious studies programs rarely limit how you apply your knowledge or the elective courses you should take to advance your studies and career. Knowledge of foreign or archaic languages is particularly useful, as it can help you to read and understand diverse texts.
Like many majors, religious studies is available at multiple degree levels. Which you should pursue is dependent upon what you want to learn from your program during school and leverage your degree for after graduation. At a glance, here are some of the options available when it comes to religious studies degrees.
Associate Degrees in Religious Studies
Religious studies degrees offered at the associate level typically take two years to complete and offer a preliminary introduction to the concepts and theories behind the world’s religions. Students in these programs are expected to study and actively engage in questions of faith, hope, and religious texts, while deconstructing the fact and fiction behind various religious beliefs.
While courses offered in this degree program can vary, you are likely to see the following courses as part of your studies:
- Introduction to world religions
- Social studies
- World history
Bachelor’s Degrees in Religious Studies
Students who pursue religious studies degrees at a bachelor’s level are encouraged to engage in a comparative, cross-cultural study of the world’s religions and cultures. They typically study world history from a religious perspective, then break down each religion’s societal, personal and global significance, as well as how they have impacted the world.
Being a four-year degree, a bachelor’s in religious studies program also commonly includes basic core curriculum required for graduation. Students can expect to study math, English and literature, for example.
Since students can choose to specialize in a specific field of religious studies, such as humanities, political science, or philosophy, a bachelor’s degree in this field may lead to careers in any of a wide range of industries, including business, government, nonprofit or counseling. Courses students might take during this four-year program include:
- Humanities, arts and design
- Approaches to religion
- Cultural awareness
- World history
Master’s Degrees in Religious Studies
This degree is typically offered as a concentrated program that focuses students’ study onto the religious aspects of specific fields. Students who pursue this master’s program may be preparing themselves for a career in the clergy, in research or in academics. Either way, their studies should emphasize historical, comparative, philosophical, social and scientific questions of the world’s religions, with the goal of inspiring students to look for their own answers through analysis and critical thinking. Topics of courses may include:
- Ethics in religion
- Cultural differences in religion
- Religious law
- Study of modern societies
- Religious doctrines
What Can You Do With a College Degree in Religious Studies?
A college degree in religious studies opens up similar career possibilities as those available to a student of liberal arts or other related subjects. Many jobs in the liberal arts field require candidates with abstract reasoning and research experience, which are skills that are also important to the field of religious studies. However, there are also some particular career options that might be especially well-suited to a graduate of religious studies.
Some potential career options for religious studies majors include:
It’s not uncommon for students to pursue religious studies degrees in order to teach about religion at the college level. Postsecondary teachers can be responsible for sharing information and guiding students in a variety of college settings, from adult education centers to colleges and universities. These professionals plan curricula, lecture students, promote critical thinking and conduct exams. Most importantly, however, they are expected to impart the importance of religious history and analysis to students they teach.
- Some postsecondary teachers need a Ph.D. for entry-level work. However, a master’s degree may be sufficient for certain positions.
- Certification may not be required, but a teaching license could be for certain positions.
A historian that focuses on religion would make knowing every aspect of the world’s religious history his or her job. These professionals would study not only ancient texts and books, but also a diverse range of published writings from contemporary religious scholars, in order to learn as much as possible about the world’s religions and how they’ve changed over the centuries. They may also be responsible for archiving, curating and preserving the texts they study, and might perhaps be moved to publish texts of their own, detailing their findings and the conclusions they have drawn from them.
- Historians typically need a master’s degree, although some research positions may require a doctoral degree.
- Certification is not typically required for this career.
While theology may be more appropriate for this kind of work, that’s not to say religious studies students can’t become religious figures if they so choose. Clergy members work in churches and other religious settings, performing a wide range of job duties that help their constituents celebrate their religious faith. They oversee religious functions and worship, offer spiritual advice to their peers and hold religious ceremonies that underscore the beliefs of their religious group.
- Many clergy members have a graduate degree.
- You typically do not need to be certified to work in this field, although you may need to become ordained.
Marriage and Family Therapists
Some religious studies majors find their calling in a place you might not expect: as a marriage and family therapist. The critical thinking skills and the in-depth studies of psychology, anthropology and sociology that characterize religious studies can be useful for examining the psyches of others and offering them guidance.
These professionals counsel and advise families and couples in crisis, offering actionable tips that might be able to help improve their relationships and their lives. They listen to their clients, guiding them through their feelings and helping them to develop important relationship skills. Marriage and family therapists may also refer their clients to other resources within the community if required.
- Marriage and family therapists typically need a master’s degree to practice in this profession.
- These workers must become licensed to practice in their state.
Social and Human Service Assistants
As public servants, social and human service assistants dedicate their careers to helping others. They help struggling families and individuals in their communities find the resources they need to improve their lives, and they gauge community needs in order to brainstorm services or programs that could help. Social and human service assistants may also help people locate and apply for federal and state benefits, then regularly check in with clients afterwards to ensure those services are being distributed appropriately.
- A high school diploma and on-the-job training are the starting requirements for this career, although an associate degree could lead to better job prospects.
- These professionals don’t need to be certified to conduct their work.
Religious Studies Salaries and Career Outlook
Annual Mean Wage
|Philosophy and Religion Teachers, Postsecondary
|Marriage and Family Therapists
|Social and Human Service Assistants
Religious Studies Associations and Organizations
There is currently no universal form of certification for a religious studies graduate. However, there are multiple organizations that offer support for professionals in this field, either through continuing education or research.
- American Academy of Religion (AAR) — 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. Explore their website for employment listings, resources, and membership information.
- North American Association for the Study of Religion — This organization dedicates their work to the historical, critical and social scientific approaches to the study of religion. They offer membership opportunities along with conferences for religious scholars and clergy.
- Association for the Sociology of Religion — The ASR offers research and information regarding the study of the sociology of religion. They are also a source of memberships, annual meetings, grants and awards.
- Religious Education Association — The Religious Education Association (REA) is an association of researchers, professors and practitioners within the fields of religious studies and religious education. This association connects professionals with continuing education, networking opportunities and membership opportunities.
- African Association for the Study of Religions — This association focuses on the study of religion from an African perspective, focusing on the historical relevance of religions in Africa’s history. Consider exploring their website if you are looking for resources, research, news or opportunities in this interesting facet of religious studies.
Religious Studies Majors
- Associate of Arts in Religion, Liberty University, https://www.liberty.edu/online/associate/religion/
- Clergy, CareerOneStop, U.S. Department of Labor, https://www.careeronestop.org/Toolkit/Careers/Occupations/occupation-profile.aspx?keyword=Clergy&onetcode=21201100&location=
- Historian, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/historians
- Marriage and Family Therapists, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/marriage-and-family-therapists#tab-1
- Master’s of Art in Religious Studies, University of Chicago, https://divinity.uchicago.edu/master-arts-religious-studies-amrs
- Online Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies, Arizona State University, https://asuonline.asu.edu/online-degree-programs/undergraduate/bachelor-arts-religious-studies
- Postsecondary Teachers, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/postsecondary-teachers
- Social and Human Service Assistants, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/social-and-human-service-assistants