University of Massachusetts Amherst

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Frequently Asked Questions

Religion, in its many forms, has been a significant area of human activity throughout history, and it remains a potent force today in modern politics, society, and culture. Its study is an essential part of a global liberal arts education. For a more expansive (and humorous) discussion of the importance of studying religion, see Nathan Schneider's dispatch, "Why the World Needs Religious Studies."

Religious Studies examines beliefs, rituals, practices, and social structures from communities around the world. Students examine the history and formation of these practices, beliefs and structures, as well as their reinterpretations over time. Religions are studied academically both in their own contexts and comparatively. The 1963 Supreme Court Case Abington v. Schempp drew the distinction between teaching religion as an advocate and teaching about religion, the later being permissible as not violating the separation of religion and state, opening the doors to the academic study of religion in public schools, including public colleges and universities.

People with and without religious affiliations can participate in the academic study of religion, and gain important insight. The academic study of religion introduces critical skills of interpretation and analysis of religious texts, practices, and phenomena. It also broadens one’s understanding of the nature, purpose, and varieties of religious behavior, orientation, and belief both within and across religious traditions. One may learn how religions have affected and influenced one another over time and how they continue to affect both religious and secular individuals and societies across the world today.

There are many opportunities for using an education in religious studies!

Advanced Education in Religious Studies:

This background and training prepares students for advanced training in either the academic study of religion at the graduate level for an MA or a PhD degree or, alternatively, at a Seminary for religious leadership for an M.Div., theology, or rabbinical degree, or training in pastoral counseling, or in teaching.

Professional Endeavors:

Many go on to become community leaders of different kinds. This includes work as clergy or other religious leadership, but also as facilitators of dialogue, creators of inclusive policy, and in other work involved in bridging communities on the basis of religious understanding. There are NGOs and other private organizations which hire individuals with Religious Studies training. Diplomacy and Journalism are two other fields which increasingly are interested in those with training in Religious Studies.

Further, having a grounded understanding of religious thought and practice is crucial to work in the fields of history, anthropology, political science, communications, and many other fields of work and study that involve community relationships.