Religion has been called many things: an opiate of the masses, the cause of all wars, a spiritual retreat into the absolute. Those interested in the study of such an elusive field have to look no further than USF’s department of religious studies.
“Religion is always about what matters most to human beings, individually and collectively. It is therefore inseparable from sexuality, gender, marriage and family, politics, ethnicity, education, government, law, medicine, science, art and literature as well as the everyday life world of everyone living within the boundaries of culture and society on this planet,” said Department Chair Danny Jorgensen, whose expertise includes social theories of religion, Mormonism and new religious movements.
Despite its size many students don’t know just what the department studies.
“Religious studies is the scholarly study of religion – much like the scholarly study of politics, society, literature or art,” Jorgensen said.
The program focuses on interdisciplinary scholarly analysis of religion and the study of ethics, morality and public policy in regard to religion.
It’s important, however, to stress what religious studies is not.
“Religious studies involves an examination of all different religions and how they relate to different aspects of life,” he said. “It is not, by any means, a bunch of professors pushing their personal religion on students. We study religion in all of its complexity, aspects and multiple forms, especially as it concerns individuals, collectivities, societies and culture. What we do not do is advocate any form of religion.”
Students of the program study the values and myths surrounding religious people and identities, religious buildings and artifacts, ideas, movements, organizations and religious groups. This is then related to and connected with society and culture. In the study of ethics, religion is related to today’s social issues and public policy.
Professors in the department are experts in areas of study within religion, such as sociology, ethics, history, human suffering as well as religions of the far East and South Asia, religions in antiquity, religion in American culture, major world religions and new religious movements such as Scientology.
“(The professors) are hired in specialized areas, showing the department’s attempt to give the broadest perspective on religion,” said Christine O’Brien, a graduate student in religious studies who also teaches Introduction to Religious Studies.
Religion affects everyone the world over. It is a part of world culture seen on television, in the daily news and in people’s personal lives. Many students who choose to major in religious studies do so for personal reasons.
“I chose to major in religious studies because I would like to be a rabbi one day,”said senior Andrew Frankel. “I plan on working in the Jewish community. The study of religion is important because it gives people a better understanding of different religions outside of their own; it makes you open up your mind and think.”
For some, the choice is less personal.
“I majored in religious studies because I felt like everything in my life thus far was pointing me in that direction,” O’Brien said.
“I couldn’t get into any good classes in my first major (English lit) or my second major (journalism). I took religious studies courses to fill in my schedule and had an epiphany while sitting in (professor Paul) Schneider’s Intro to World Religions course.”
Sophomore Parker Melton takes a more philosophical approach to studying religion.
“In so very many aspects of our world at present and at past, religion has been pivotal in its influence on entire societies and on singular individuals,” Melton said. “To know religion is to know ourselves and others.”
“Basically (religion’s) one of the most important, yet least understood aspects of life in many areas of the world,” said freshman Alicia LoBianco, a religious studies major. “If everyone could take a step back and learn about other religions and cultures for a moment, maybe we could all understand each other a little better and try to work toward that ‘global community’ we hear so much about.”
Because religious studies covers a wide range of topics, it leaves majors with a wide variety of job options. Graduates from the program can be found in the fields of education, religious practices, journalism, law and even medicine and business.
“Our MA (master of arts) graduates are now school teachers, professors or they have continued the family business, or they are in the book publishing business, or they have become counselors, and a few are in the church, synagogue or mosque-related religious education,” said James Strange, director of the master’s program.
Strange is an expert in early Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls. He has also participated in field archaeology annually since 1969 and has directed archeological excavations in Sepphoris, Israel, annually since 1983.
Politically speaking, religious studies bridges the gap between cultures and religions.
“One need only look at our domestic and foreign affairs in the last thirty years to see the utility, the necessity of learning about the ‘other’ who is ‘us,'” said assistant professor Kathleen O’Connor, who specializes in Islamic studies. “Our lack of knowledge, understanding and appreciation of the Islamic religion and culture is disastrous to us at home and abroad.”
Many students, however, are apprehensive about picking religious studies as a major.
“A lot of people have this fear of becoming too critical of their own religion,” said O’Brien, who also said religious studies can help students understand their own religions better in a positive way.
Most importantly, religious studies focuses on the applicable aspect of the discipline.
“The study of religion is about what makes us human, what is most meaningful to us as individuals, families, communities, societies, nations,” O’Connor said. “Americans desperately need to learn about world religions in order to learn about ourselves, and second, to learn about others whom we interact with politically, economically and socially. If you want a simple answer to why we need to know about world religions and cultures, tolerance at home and understanding abroad would be at the top of the list.”
The Religious Studies club is open to anyone who would like to learn more about religious studies. Aside from providing information, this club also organizes outings to visit and study different places of worship. There are also exit courses in religious studies, such as Life after Death, offered to anyone interested.