The top 5 reasons to study religion

study religion

I’ve been teaching at Emory University for over 20 years, and every new year I begin to obsess about a question (mostly as I’m frantically trying to get my syllabus together for the new term) that’s at the center of my intellectual passion and personal livelihood: how do you convince people to study religion?

For me as a professor of religion and chair of a department, I wonder about how best to “pitch” a religion major to undergraduate students, many of whom come into college thinking about—in too many cases more like obsessing about—pre-formed and fairly rigid professional aspirations and trajectories.

Forget about learning for learning’s sake, the life of the mind, or the enriching freedom of being “undeclared.”

The politicians tell them, their parents tell them, and their schools tell them: figure out your career.

That makes it very difficult to promote religion, or better, religious studies, to students.

  • Political science major? Clear path to law school.
  • Biology? Premed.
  • Economics major? An entrepreneur in the making.

Those majors make sense and lead students on a well-trodden path from student to professional, from youth to adult, from dependence to independence.

At least that is what they hope and their families are banking on.

So they are a “tough sell” as they say in the business, and require a proactive if not proselytizing move to bring more sheep into the Religious Studies fold.

A religion major?

Unfortunately we have history working against us, as the assumption that studying religion means being religious is burrowed deep in our culture and impossible to avoid.

Everyone thinks that if you study religion you’re planning to be a priest.

However, as we all know, people like — no love — to talk about religion, whether they are for it, against it, or somewhere in between.

So when folks hear that religious studies exists as a major or an option in graduate studies, they are often pleasantly surprised, though others have been offended by the very idea.

I’m getting ready to teach religion and sexuality in the fall.

This will be the third go round with the course and enrolment is already up to 200 students, who seem to be very interested.

The topic, of course, sells itself for 18 to 22-year-olds. What is not so self-evident, and therefore the point of the pitch I will have to make, is that the study of religion may be one of the most significant and rewarding intellectual pursuits in a college education.

  • Is it “relevant”?
  • Does it have “practical” value?
  • Is it a “stepping stone” to adult professional life?

To help answer these urgent questions, I present my top five reasons to study religion.

  1. It will help you get a job and make lots of money.
  2. It will blow your mind.
  3. It can be used to make the world a better place.
  4. It’s a social magnet: people love more than ever to talk about religion.
  5. Knowledge is power. Continue reading
  • Gary Laderman is Chair of the Department of Religion, Emory University and Editor of Sacred Matters Magazine
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