A Religious Studies Major at BYU Pt. I

Okay, I know it will probably never happen, but…why can’t we blog about it as if it will happen?

Let’s say that a new major in Religious Studies is going to be offered this fall (meaning that we’ll have to use the resources currently available). How should the program be structured?

Most majors have four kinds of classes that a student must take (besides the general education requirements):

Core Classes: These are usually 1-4 classes that outline the general content of the field. The History department, for instance, requires:

  • World Civilizations to 1500
  • World Civilizations from 1500
  • American History Pt 1 
  • American History Pt 2 (these aren’t the actual titles)

A Theories (of Religious Studies) Course: This is usually taken during the sophomore year and serves as an introduction to the discipline. It is based in the methods used in the discipline.

Electives: Six to nine classes taken in various ‘areas’, most of which have to be from an area of ’emphasis’.

A Capstone Class: This course is usually taken during the senior year. Here the student gets more individualized assistance working on a large project.

So here are some questions for Part I:

What Core Classes should be required of all majors? Should a course on Mormonism, for instance, be required seeing as how we are at a LDS religious institution; and if so on what aspect of Mormonism (history, philosophy of religion, etc.)? Assuming that World Religions is one of the Core Classes, should the World Religions course currently being offered through the Religious Education department count? The same could be asked about New Testament or Old Testament courses if those should be required.

My opinion, given that we’re starting the major in the fall and don’t have faculty offering classes in a wide variety of religious traditions, is that four groups of classes should be required (students can choose one class from the group where more than one is listed)–World Religions, a class on Mormonism (the History of Mormonism or Philosophy of Religion of Mormonism), a class on the Biblical World (NT, OT, History of Christianity, etc.), and a class on textual interpretation (Intro to Hermeneutics, for instance). I don’t think the courses from Religious Education should count toward these requirements because the goals of the courses are different (although I think these courses should count toward their requirements), the approach is significantly different, and most of the classes are two credit hour classes. I could be persuaded that four required courses are too many, but I’m not sure which course to drop. If push came to shove I guess it would be the course on the area of the Bible (sorry Bible scholars).

It should be obvious by now that I have little to no idea of what I’m talking about so feel free to answer these questions in any way you see fit.

Since this is part I there are several other parts yet to come in which we can discuss other related issues (so you might want to save the comments related to those parts for there). I’m also open to suggestions, so let me know if you have other ideas.

The future parts will cover the following topics:

Pt II–The Theories Class(es): What topics should be covered? Who, or what books, should be read? Should an additional class be required for the junior year? How will this class serve to help students decide whether to major in religious studies? In other words, how will this class deal with student preconceptions of what religious studies is (an important question for our perceptions as LDSs)?

Pt III–Electives and More: What areas of emphasis should be offered? What other kinds of interdisciplinary work could be supported (e.g., religion and economics)? What departments and which personnel should be relied on?

Pt IV–What is the future direction of the department? What other areas of study should be incorporated? Are there LDSs who could teach in those areas? Could we ever talk of a graduate program? What is the future of the current RelEd program?

Before posting let me go over a few ground rules:

1) Let’s not discuss ‘how’ or ‘when’ such a program could materialize. I know odds are against it (ever happening), so let’s keep this in the purely hypothetical and discuss the ‘how’ or ‘when’ at a later date. Any post that begins with “This will never happen…” will be ignored.

2) Let’s also not make it personal. While we’ll discuss who could be involved/what kinds of emphasis can be supported in the next post, I want to make sure that this post (and all future posts on this series) does not denigrate any one. I’m not sure what criteria to use for this, but posts coming of as ‘personal’ will be removed. 

59 Replies to “A Religious Studies Major at BYU Pt. I”

  1. To me, a “religious studies” course would require a substantial history component, in order to prepare students to contextualize the various faiths they examine. For example, Mormonism, no matter how inspired it may be, is at least in part a product of 19th century American culture. Knowing what was going on in the United States at that time is illuminating with regard to Joseph Smith’s teachings and practices, even if one believes those teachings and practices absolutely originated with divine revelation.

  2. Take a look at some religious studies BA programs at schools in the U.S. for comparison:


    Just looking at the requirements for some of these programs makes me drool. Of course, any program at BYU would have to start modestly. The biggest challenge would be devotion of faculty time and resources to teaching, advising, and administration of the program from various departments on campus (Religious Education, History, Philosophy, Anthropology, English, etc.).

  3. What a great idea for a post!
    The questions that you raise for part 1 are interesting, and I think that they reveal greater tensions in the study of religion more broadly than just the study of religion at BYU. The lack of a core method, or even a core area of study (that debate over what counts as “religion” is a whole sub-field) make it difficult to design a major in Religious Studies anywhere, let alone at BYU.
    Of course, I don’t think that this a reason to throw up our hands in despair. Rather, it indicates that there is hard-work ahead of us. But I think that the answer to what the core classes are might come more easily when we’ve defined the goals and methods of a Religious Studies major.
    For me, I think that given the methodological biases in Mormon Studies towards history and philosophical theology provide a good basis from which to build a RS major at BYU. The study of religious history and the history of ideas are good bases for undergraduate education, especially at the introductory level.

    I think that a good survey class on the history of the proofs for the existence of God or the problem of evil, for instance, allows one to read broadly in the Western tradition from Aristotle, to Augustine, to Aquinas, Hume, Kant, etc. Of course, a comparable course in Eastern thought, such as a Hindu/Buddhist comparative philosophy course, or even just a good historical survey of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism might be good.

    World Religions classes are okay at the intro level, but even still they are rife with methodogical problems. I think that a class like this would have to be taught by the right kind of person. No, I don’t think that the RE version of this course should count because because it is more an exercise in seeing Mormonism in all religions than an academic approach.

    I am not sure that Bible classes should be required for the major either, but I think that they certainly could. I think that such courses would have to differ from the traditional bible courses offered by introducing students to the critical study of the Bible, not just devotional approaches.

    Lots to think about!

  4. Another good course idea would be something like “Religion and its critics” which would look at the crisis of religion in modernity, challenges of science, reason, etc. I think that these kinds of classes are really thought-provoking for undergrads.

  5. TT: “Religion and its critics” sounds like a fun course. Speaking of fun, I wonder if one of the reasons a RS degree program hasn’t been offered at BYU previously stems from the fact that students might be turned away from more “useful” degree programs (i.e. engineering, nursing, business, etc. zzzzzzzzz) to study something that has wide interest among the student population, but little practical value in terms of future earning potential. The world of religious studies scholarship is small, far too small to accommodate a sudden influx of young LDS religious studies scholars. Still, this could work to the advantage of the RS program in that interest might allow the program to become selective, even highly selective, in its enrollment. Future expansion into a graduate studies program would allow graduate students to take on the teaching of lower-level courses to the more casual learner.

  6. I just looked at the Rel Studies program at Indiana University for comparison. Their course offerings are in four areas:

    Critical Issues
    Eastern Religious Traditions
    Western Religious Traditions
    Special Studies

    The basic requirement is 27 hours, which must have at least one course above the 100 level in the first three areas and one course at the 400 level. That’s the core requirement. I’ve listed some of the choices in each area below.

    The course entitled “Intro to the Study of Relgions” (R264)is in the Critical Issues area and is strongly suggested. The two Traditions areas cover what you might expect: strong on history, sacred books, theology, and philosophy. The Critical Issues offerings were things like:

    Rel & Ethics (100)
    Rel & Pop Culture (100)

    Rel & Ecology (200)
    Intro to Study of Religion (200)
    American Religion and Politics (200)

    Rel & Critics (300)
    Rel & Contemporary Thought (300)
    Rel & Comparative Studies (300)
    Rel & Literature
    Rel & Feminist Critique
    War and Peace
    Social Theories
    Modernism and Fundamentalism
    And others…

    Rel & Media (400)
    Religious Philosophy (400)
    Psychology of Religion (400)

    So I’d go for:

    The Intro to Religious Studies in order to get a theoretical background.

    A history of Christianity, because this will [lightly] expose students to lots of different forms of Christianity and their various hermeneutics

    An Eastern religion(s)course with same focus on history and hermeneutics

    A course in religion and politics or something similar so that the “lived” aspect of Religious Studies comes out in some very practical ways.


    PS I don’t anything about this stuff, either.

  7. When I think about the “core classes,” I think of the basics that you need to know for that field.

    For example: I’m currently a business major, and my core classes comprised of:

    Organizational Behavior
    Operations and Supply Chain Management

    Which, in my opinion, gives one an overview of what business in general is comprised of.

    For religious studies, I would say core classes should comprise of 5 courses:

    American Religions (which would cover Mormonism, the branches of Mormonism, and other religions that have their roots in America)

    Eastern Religions (When I say this, I’m thinking India eastword, including China, Korea, Japan, Bhuddism, Hinduism, and other levels of eastern religions)

    The Biblical World (Including religions and cultures behind the NT and OT figures, as well as a study of the people and the events surrounding the record that we have. Perhaps a bit into the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Apocrypha here as well?)

    Linguistic Studies (I really like the idea of a Hermeneutics course, even though I had to google it to find out what it actually was…I’m not as smart as you guys…)

    Language Course (Most likely Hebrew, but Greek could also be taught here. Religious studies at BYU would most likely focus on the Bible, and Hebrew and Greek would almost be essential to understand the bible better. Mind you, I’m probably way off, but that’s what my mind thinks.)

  8. but little practical value in terms of future earning potential

    Actually, I wondered about this myself. Religious Studies programs sell themselves as feeding into various professional disciples such as medicine and law. They teach critical thinking, writing, and general cultural awareness. So earning potential for an undergrad major doesn’t seem too bad…unless you want to be a prof.


  9. 27 hours! Holy cow, what do you do with yourself? I remember my freshman year and looking at the 80 hours (I think it is less now) of major requirements in Biochem and basically having my four years planned out for me.

  10. For this proposal (hypothetical as it is)to work, it would have to integrate many of the already existing offerings on campus. Sociology offers a number of religion-focused classes (as does history and philosophy).

    I think that it needs to be inclusive of a wide range of approaches. It should include both those interested in social problems and those interested in ancient studies.

  11. 27 hours! Holy cow, what do you do with yourself?

    Funny you should mention this. I can’t remember what major or school website I saw this off of (as I was writing this post), but it said something to the effect of “students are highly encouraged to find a minor or second major that will work toward career preparation.

    I wonder if one of the reasons a RS degree program hasn’t been offered at BYU previously stems from the fact that students might be turned away from more “useful” degree programs

    As I said (maybe not too clearly), in this post I’d like to steer clear of having to justify the major, but I will say that this is a large problem with the humanities in general (and anything not ‘applied’), and this issue probably deserves it own post.

  12. To perhaps rephrase (and elaborate on) some of the ideas mentioned above, Religious Studies is a relatively new ‘discipline’. Looking 20 or so years back many state schools did not have a religion department or a religious studies major. ‘Religion’ for the most part was dealt with in ‘professional’ (i.e., Divinity Schools or seminaries) schools which trained clergy to work in their own religious institution (as a pastor for instance). This has changed in only the past few decades, and so BYU not offering a religious studies major is not entirely backwards.

    The critique of the rise of religious studies programs (that TT and others allude to) is that a primary assumption driving them is that religion is a universal phenomenon. Religion, these critics contend, is born of a certain time period and cultural context. It has a ‘history’. There is no native word for ‘Hinduism’ for instance; and there is no word for ‘religion’ in Chinese until the late 19th century (do to Western contact). To treat religion as a universal phenomenon is to carry forth the colonial mentality. For a wonderful treatment of this see Sharpe, Eric J. Comparative Religion: A History. 2nd ed. La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1986. (I was actually going to suggest this as a part of the methods course in part II)

    So this raises the question, what is the study of religion? Is it the study of an object? Is it a particular approach to the creation of meaning (i.e., historical, philosophical, anthropological, etc.)? Is it a combination of approaches (i.e., interdisciplinary)? Is it a distinct approach?

    These kinds of questions make it difficult to decide on what the core courses should be (Is there such a thing as ‘world religion’ for instance?). And when we get to the methods course it will be even more difficult.

    I didn’t want to make this post too technical, so I’ll stop here and maybe post a more straightforward response to all of your posts.

  13. Since so many of the responses seem to be calling for different disciplinary approaches, allow me to raise a few specific questions and recapitulate the suggestions so far.

    Okay, here’s what we have so far:
    *Historical survey(s) (maybe two, one on the West and one on the East)–thanks brandt. You also reminded me that language(s) need to come into play, but maybe we can leave that out for now.
    *A course on ‘lived’ religion (per Mogget’s suggestion).
    *An Introduction to the ‘field’ course
    *A topical course suited to BYU’s current strengths (per TT’s suggestion).
    *A course on something to do with Mormonism

    So, what are your thoughts in regards to these selections? How do we choose the four(?) core classes? What needs to be eliminated? A more specific question–If we do an ‘Introduction to the Field’ course, how is that going to be different than the sophomore course on theory? Also, should Mormonism not be an essential element to the program?

  14. I guess the theoretical question I’m working on is deciding which of the possible outcomes of a RS major puts the tightest constraints on the core courses.

    If folks want to do RS as part of a dual major in a professional field like law or medicine, then I wonder if grad schools will care so much about precisely which classes they took. But for students who want to do grad school in Religious Studies, I’d imagine that core courses need to be aligned with those of the major programs so that graduates are competitive.

    In the later case, I’d say that Mormonism is best as an elective offering rather than a core requirement. Offerings in the Eastern and Western traditions seem required. A theory course, likewise. And finally, I’ll hold out for at least one course that examines the intersection of religion and modern life in some fashion.

  15. One other thing to think about is how RS would interact with BYU’s religion GE requirements. I’m sure the university wouldn’t allow RS majors from replacing all their “devotional” RE courses with “historical/critical” RS courses, but surely there would be some overlap. Would this lead to demanding a larger RS credit load requirement than other universities as a result?

  16. “but little practical value in terms of future earning potential”

    I think that matters little to BYU, the Music and Art schools are quite large and boast very little future earning potential.

    In terms of requirements: It seems like the general classes would require focus on philosophy and critical argument to help build a foundation higher level coursework. Typically Phil 110 is one of the options to meet a GE requirement, but it would that they would make it required or strongly recommended like History of Civilization is required from Arts majors wanting to move on to 300 level courses.

  17. RE #16: I’ve always felt that the latter should be the stronger guiding factor. Not that pracitical application/usefullness to one’s future career should be neglected; but I’ve always thought that my ‘responsibility’ per se was to create ‘religionists’, or ‘historians’, etc. Certainly not entirely in the professional sense (although hopefully there will be some), but at the BA level. To what degree those practical factors should impact the way or what I teach, I really haven’t thought that much about.

  18. SteveS, your comment takes us to perhaps the most ‘sticky situation’. No doubt that there will have to be some concessions made, especially as things start out; but if I were to share the thoughts off the top of my head they would be as follows:

    Only allow two RS classes to count toward RelEd requirements. No RelEd classes will count toward RS unless they are cross-listed (RS will of course pull from RelEd).

    Publicly, the explanation of the latter is that RelEd classes are 2, not 3, credit-hour classes. Privately, the outcomes of the courses are much different.

    Now, this doesn’t solve your problem of taking many more kinds of religion-oriented classes than other schools require. Nor does it answer some of the potential pedagogical problems (what happens when students introduce what they ‘learned in RS’ to their ‘RelEd class’ and vice versa?). Also, on what basis are RelEd classes to be cross-listed? But it does mitigate to some degree the overlap.

    I’m open to better solutions.

  19. So, is the rational behind having only 27 hours in the major requirements that they want to leave open enough hours for people to get their pre-med/dental/law/business classes as well? Why not bump the requirements up to 75-80 hours like some of the harder sciences and produce robust scholars?

  20. TT: I think that a good survey class on the history of the proofs for the existence of God or the problem of evil

    I think the problem of evil would be a must-do. Especially if it also included the various LDS treatments. (Nate’s done some nice stuff here for instance) Contextualizing the LDS view as well as showing it’s not as “answered” as some think is helpful.

    The proofs for God is a must do. Especially Anselm as that proof ends up being much, much more complex than it first appears. Heck, you could do several different takes on what Anselm’s argument really is.

    I think a discussion of ex nihilo would be helpful especially for Mormons who don’t understand the concept. Perhaps as part of a course that also outlines the Trinity and then perhaps the concept of God in other traditions such as mainstream Judaism, Kabbalism, and then Islam.

    Your later suggestion about religion’s critics would be pretty great as well although at BYU that could be controversial depending upon how it is taught.

  21. BTW regarding major hours. What is BYU’s Philosophy department now? I can’t recall when I was getting a philosophy major along with my physics and math ones. (I ended up skipping it so I could graduate a semester earlier since I was getting letters from the admin about having too many credits) Physics took a ridiculous amount of requirements (in fact you could get a math major with just a couple extra classes).

    OK I just checked and a phil major is 27 hours upper division plus some lower level ones that are variations on GE requirements. So probably about 40 something hours total.

  22. TT (#22): agreed. For context for degree program size at BYU (note: credit hours listed do not include GE requirements):

    Anthropology (Sociocultural): 51.5 credits
    Sociology: 48 credits
    American Studies: 45 credits
    Humanities: 56-84 (I was a humanities:music emph. major; graduated with a total of 181 credit hours; guess I couldn’t get enough!)
    History: 45-62 credits
    Philosophy: 43 credits

    Low average: 48 credits
    High average: 55.5 credits

    Lowest GE education requirement: 31.5 credits.
    Credits needed to graduate: 120 credits.

    Many options exist in the GE program to enrich the student’s education through combinations of courses instead of one blanket course (such as taking The United States Through 1877 plus American Government and Politics instead of American Heritage). RS students could also have additional language requirements or be required to take a minor or pre-professional track of courses to graduate.

  23. #23 Clark,

    I think you might be a tad too far down the philosophy/theology track and too deeply into Western thought. Students could chose that sort of focus, but that shouldn’t be the core part of the program. One of the things the core courses must do is give some kind of broad exposure to the discipline, which is far wider than theology and philosophy. Believe it or not, at what is supposed to be the #1 school, neither theology nor philosophy is required, but both can be selected.

    We could give the overview with a “world religions” course, but TT has already pointed out some of the issues involved with that. Better to give the overview with classes in different traditions, I think.


  24. Clark,

    I’m confused whether you’re talking about a course or whether you’re talking about a (or a series of) core course(s).

    It seems like the vote so far is as follows:
    -Four Core Classes:
    * Religious Traditions of the West
    * Religious Traditions of the East
    * Introduction to Religious Studies
    * Something to do with religion in its lived concreteness

    A course on Mormonism is out. Was it too parochial to require it?

    A course playing on the strengths of BYU is kind of out unless TT, Clark, or someone else can make a stronger argument for it to replace one of the other four. Or restructure the four.

    A world religions course is out do to it’s methodological difficulties, but in some regards is being replaced by the survey courses of West and East.

    A course on the Bible is out as some of the Biblical world will be covered in the survey course, and perhaps it makes the major too Bible-oriented.

    Doing the total on credit hours we’re somewhere between 39-48:
    4 core classes.
    1-2 Theory classes (we’ll discuss these later)
    7-9 Elective classes
    1 Capstone class

    Earlier the question was raised, and now seems like a good time to discuss, what should we do about language requirements?

  25. Horaay for language classes!

    It seems it would really depend on what the student’s emphasis is.

    Does RS usually require language training?

    And although I am partial to Semitic languages, it seems Greek and/or Latin would be more universal. Or perhaps French or German or some other modern research language might be useful depending on what the students future plans are.

  26. Smallaxe,

    One of your future posts is going to be about books. Since I have no clue what I’m talking about, could I get you and the other folks who have some opinions to post the titles so I can go take a look? We can postpone the discussion until the next post.


  27. I understand and appreciate smallaxe’s parameters for this discussion, but I don’t think we can talk about what it would look like to have an RS major at BYU without an examination of the reasons why it won’t happen because the two issues are interrelated. First, having an RS major at BYU would be something of an oxymoron since RS departments usually take a “scientific” or at least “sociological” approach to the study of religion. Such an approach would be anathema at BYU. Religious institutions of higher learning usually have theology departments not RS or Religion departments and it shouldn’t surprise us that BYU would probably follow a similar trajectory.

    Further, most of the coursework in other theology programs (systematic theology, history of Christianity, philosophical theology, patristics, history of biblical interpretation, etc.) would be considered wholly irrelevant to the “gospel” by the large majority of BYU students. They’d have a difficult time drawing a distinction between religion (as an academic field of study) and the gospel or the church and as such it would be difficult to make the case for such a program’s relevance. In other words, the study of religion at BYU as presently constituted is confessional. The academic study of religion is non-confessional and sometimes appears to be anti-confessional since truth claims are bracketed or even contradicted for the sake of discussion. Such an approach, which is inherent to the academic study of religion and a basic requirement for success in a theory and methods course for example, would discomfit most BYU students and be rejected out of hand by the adminstration.

    So what does that leave our hypothetical BYU religion department to teach? American religious history? The history department can do that. Biblical Hebrew? The Near Eastern Studies major does that. The Problem of God? The philosophy department does that. I think it would be hard to make the case to the administration that a Religion department is needed at BYU. I don’t make this argument in an effort to discourage the conversation, but rather to suggest that whether such a program would ever be possible has everything to do with the level of resistance it would face from the administration. Understanding the reasons for that resistance plays a huge role in how one would begin to conceive course requirements for a major that would both meet their approval and also be considered a legitimate degree in religion. I don’t think you can discuss one issue without the other. In order to construct the curriculum you need to consider what it is exactly that the administration would find objectionable and the philosophical/theoretical reasons why.

  28. Mogget, I think some of the theory I mentioned translates though. While I can understand folks more focused on the history or sociology of religion not finding proofs of god or the problem of evil important I think they form a massively important role. I’d suggest though that a class covering proofs include eastern traditions as well. You’d think there isn’t much overlap but surprisingly there is, especially between the western mystical traditions and the east. I think Anselm is a great pivot point there.

    I’d also suggest that one can’t really grasp the history or sociology without grappling with the reasoning about the big ideas.

  29. Junia,
    I know that this isn’t necessarily the direction that this thread is supposed to take, but if I understand you correctly, you are saying that BYU students are incapable, constitutionally or otherwise, of approaching religion scientifically, rather than devotionally. I find this hard to believe, supposing that BYU students are more like Notre Dame students than Bob Jones students on the whole. Further, “devotionally” oriented students at non-religious schools take religious studies classes all the time. They either get on board or they don’t, and I don’t see why BYU students would be any different.
    I also hear you saying that anything that challenges faith would not be acceptable at BYU, and I also find this hard to believe given that they teach science, read Neitzsche, etc. RS is so closely related to sociology, anthropology, ethnography, history, and philosophy (all of which are accepted and taught at BYU) that I am not sure that its students or faculty are simply incapable of studying religion from this angle.
    That said, even if I grant your arguments, do you have a solution for how to produce a RS program at BYU that navigates the difficulties that you raise?

  30. I’ll put up the next post soon, and that will deal with language requirements as well as what to cover in the intro class and methods course. So let’s hold off momentarily on that.

  31. I’d agree with TT. While I don’t doubt there are BYU students who would have trouble treating religion academically it seems there are no end of students who already treat it academically. At least there were plenty when I was at BYU.

  32. TT,

    Notre Dame is a perfect example of exatly the point I was trying to make. Notre Dame does NOT have a Religious Studies department and, I’d venture to say, never will. Notre Dame has a theology department. According to the department’s mission statement it aspires to be the international center for Catholic theology. Despite the efforts to embrace ecumenism and pluralism, the department’s mission statement explains that it “is explicitly Christian and Catholic in its religious tradition. It is committed in a particular way to the interpretation and articulation of the Catholic tradition and to the fostering of reflection and praxis concerning all aspects of Catholicism’s various theological, doctrinal, liturgical, spiritual, historical, cultural, and canonical expressions and embodiments. Although Catholicity is neither quantifiable nor fully achieved anywhere, the department’s Catholic identity is reflected in the composition of its faculty, in the nature and content of its curriculum, and in its responsiveness to the intellectual and pastoral needs of the Catholic Church and to the intellectual and future ministerial needs of its students”

    BYU could certainly attempt to follow a Notre Dame model in establishing a theology department. There might, however, be some question about whether and how such a department would be related to Religious Education, as it begins to look redundant in a variety of ways. Further, some Mormon Studies folks have rejected the notion that Mormonism has “theology” at all so there might be some quibbling about whether it makes any sense to call it a “theology” department. Still, some kind of faith-seeking- understanding model might work, but someone would have to show me how that’s significantly different from what is already in place.

    A theology department with a mission statement like Notre Dame’s is nothing like a religion/religious studies department. I would argue that they are two different beasts entirely. Contrary to TT’s accusation, I have not suggested that “anything that challenges would not be acceptable at BYU.” Studying science is manifestly different from studying religion theoretically. Many religious people (including many Latter-day Saint scholars) become uncomfortable when others discuss religion from a methodologically agnostic point of view. Certainly some BYU students would be able to handle it and perhaps even thrive in such a program, but from my experience, the administration would never support it. Even the innocuous kind of work that has been done by some sociologists of religion at BYU has met with disapproval on occasion.

    I don’t really blame the administration for what I speculate would be their profound resistance. What possible case could ever be made to them for the worth of studying religion in a way that brackets truth claims?

  33. Hm. There are religious universities that do have Religious Studies majors that are separate from their theology and/or divinity programs. I’m at one.

  34. From SMU on Religious Studies, which is in the College of Humanities and Sciences:

    Rigorous courses span four areas: philosophical (religious ideas and values), historical (religious movements and institutions), scientific (behaviors and systematic ways of thinking), and textual (religious traditions and scriptures). Additional humanities courses – such as history, philosophy, and anthropology – expand your religious studies perspective and help you fully appreciate how religion enriches lives.

    And for the record, my family, graduates of, and students at, BYU one and all, do not fit this caricature:

    Further, most of the coursework in other theology programs (systematic theology, history of Christianity, philosophical theology, patristics, history of biblical interpretation, etc.) would be considered wholly irrelevant to the “gospel” by the large majority of BYU students. They’d have a difficult time drawing a distinction between religion (as an academic field of study) and the gospel or the church and as such it would be difficult to make the case for such a program’s relevance.

    But I must say that the Catholics reading over my shoulder were quite amused.

  35. Junia,
    I don’t believe that there is any danger of overlap with the Religious Education dept. The Religious Education dept does not exist to promote the academic examination of religion (ours or any others). It exists to make bad men good and good men better. It is, first and foremost, applicational and homiletic. As presently constituted, there is no department on campus that studies religion or provides a model to so do. For that matter, the members of the Religious Education department are far too overworked to consistently make contributions to mainstream academic fields of religous study.

    In any case, we won’t ever have a theology department. To do that, we’d have to have more of a systematic theology. For that matter, the purpose of a theology degree in a religion with a lay priesthood escapes me (no-one will do this full time). Instead, we could have a religious studies department that allows us to define some of the truths in our religion and in the religions around us.

  36. anon,
    I don’t know what exactly is meant, but I can tell you that Johns Hopkins has neither a theology nor a religious studies graduate program. It may be a reference to JHU’s Near Eastern Studies dept, but that isn’t a religious studies program per se.

  37. Junia,

    Way to crash the party. As I had mentioned earlier I didn’t want this to turn into a justification of a RS major at BYU; and I believe I had good reasons for so doing (beyond the practical reason of focusing the discussion on one topic at a time, and that the current conversation is much more fun).

    To put it succinctly, a RS major at BYU, in my opinion is more persuasively argued inductively rather than deductively. This is to say that while I agree that the issues of curriculum and administrative resistance to the program as a whole are inter-related, the latter need not be tackled before the former. IMO, the ‘specter’ of RS is more fierce than the actual program itself; and any argument made from a theoretical basis for the creation of a major has the deck stacked against them in the case of BYU. You’ve already admitted (and TT has affirmed) that parts of a RS program are already being offered in various parts of the University. Designing a curriculum and presenting it as being comprised of primarily things that are already offered or already acceptable (‘philosophy’ as a discipline for instance is certainly acceptable although it to can be construed as antithetical to many of our religious claims), and then tackling specific issues that rise from the curriculum itself will be much more fruitful.

    For instance, in terms of what we’ve laid in the ‘core courses’ what would be problematic? This is not to say that there is nothing problematic about them, or that the problematic areas won’t reflect deep theoretical divides; but when looked at from this angle it doesn’t seem to be all that different (in terms of the potential threat) than what’s already there.

  38. Smallaxe,

    I’m perplexed by the original post and subsequent discussion–if everyone here is so certain it won’t ever happen, then what’s the point of discussing possible scenarios for the impossible?

    And if it isn’t impossible after all, then Junia raises important questions about feasibility in the real world.

    If the discussion is a priori removed from any basis in a real-world context, then it’s not very meaningful to proceed to a discussion of particulars. For example, for Clark certain (philosophical) questions are vital for a religious studies program due to his particular (philosophical) training and interests. But of course, in many real-world rel. stud. departments the question of evil isn’t terribly central.

  39. John C. You didn’t read my comments carefully enough. Had you done so you’d know that I agree with you. You’re right that the Religious Education program does not exist for the academic study of religion. I think, however, that any hypothetical department of religion at BYU would end up looking like a theology department (instead of an RS department) that in turn would come to closely resemble RE ultimately. I think there is good reason to believe that the academic study of religion of the kind that goes on in RS departments would seem contrary to BYU’s explicit mission and would therefore be resisted by some. Having said that, I agree that conceiving of a department of theology as such at BYU presents its own challenges (a lay priesthood being only one of them) which is why I think the whole endeavor is futile from the outset.

    smallaxe, my apologies for crashing your party. I wouldn’t have done so had I not been personally invited to weigh in on this discussion. I don’t disagree that parts of an RS curriculum already exist as courses at BYU. That’s not the point. What’s at issue is how you would make the case for the relevance of a religion department. The fact that many of the courses already exist actually makes it harder to argue the case for establishing a department not easier. The only (or primary) thing that an RS department could offer that might be unique would be a series of theory and method courses required of all majors. Unfortunately, the very courses that would constitute the core of the program, would also have the most potential to cause concern.

    For what it’s worth I don’t think core classes like “Religions of the East” and “Religions of the West” gets you out of the “World religions” problem. It also seems preposterous to let anyone major in religion at BYU without having taken a course on Mormonism.

    Please do carry on with the conversation you’d hoped to have as I’m bowing out.

  40. Seeing that many universities around the country have undergrad RS programs, but not graduate ones-what about a graduate program in Religion at BYU? What would that look like?

    Also, I am curious to see what the OP’s and subsequent commenters’ undergrad degrees were in; as well as to what degree you were proficient in latin/greek/german/french before grad school???

  41. Seeing that many universities around the country have undergrad RS programs, but not graduate ones-what about a graduate program in Religion at BYU? What would that look like?

    The RelEd dept actually did have a master’s program until a few years ago. I have no idea what it entailed, but maybe someone else knows more about it. I’m sure it didn’t resemble what we probably have in mind as far a developing a new one.

    Also, I am curious to see what the OP’s and subsequent commenters’ undergrad degrees were in; as well as to what degree you were proficient in latin/greek/german/french before grad school???

    I never took latin/greek/german/french at all as an undergrad.

  42. Junia,

    It’s a public party, please comment on anything you feel the need to.

    What’s at issue is how you would make the case for the relevance of a religion department. The fact that many of the courses already exist actually makes it harder to argue the case for establishing a department not easier. The only (or primary) thing that an RS department could offer that might be unique would be a series of theory and method courses required of all majors. Unfortunately, the very courses that would constitute the core of the program, would also have the most potential to cause concern.

    I think this needs to be separated into two issues here because you’re conflating them in an attempt to rebut my argument.

    1) The relevance of a RS program. Does it offer anything distinctive, for instance?

    2) The non-threatening nature of a RS program. Does it subvert the mission of our religious institution, for instance?

    While it’s possible for the same group of people to object to both these claims, it’s a little unfair of you to pose issue #2, and then refute my explanation of it with issue #1. Claiming that “parts of a RS program” are already offered on campus is not the same thing as saying “there is no need for a RS program because it’s basically already being offered.”

    I’m not sure if I was unclear in my previous response, but let me try to articulate things a little better. Proving the non-threatening nature of a RS program is easiest done by demonstrating that similar things are already being done on campus. Arguing for the uniqueness of the discipline is 1) Methodologically precarious even within the field (Perhaps you can name two theories unique to RS that isn’t already being taught or could possibly be taught in BYU’s current structure). 2) Creates the need to provide a theoretical justification for the approach at a religious school. Which no matter how rationally presented, may not win the day. I prefer instead to argue it inductively, or from the particulars of the things being taught. IF the same people who question the non-threatening nature of the program, then have the concern about its uniqueness (which they may or may not), I don’t see how an argument along the lines of the benefits of interdisciplinary studies cannot be mounted in combination with the growing discussion about ‘religion’.

    Perhaps this is more of a tactical approach, but personally I think it’s the most viable.

    Here’s a thought (tongue in cheek of course), perhaps BYU should have a RS major where the areas of study is anything but our own tradition. I’m rather sure most LDSs would have little problem with the notion of approaching other traditions in a more disengaged manner.

  43. Smallaxe,
    Are you in a RS or Theology grad program now? Did you feel you had to play catch up? or does your program not require those things?

  44. I think a grad program in RS makes more sense at BYU than an undergrad program, however I’ve never attended the school.

  45. Anon,

    It sounds like you are thinking about doing a graduate program in RS, perhaps we should discuss this privately. I will email you.

    Re #52: What makes you think a graduate program makes more sense?

  46. Junia,
    I afraid that we seem to be missing each other points. You seem to see the development of an RS program into a theology program as an inevitability at BYU. I don’t view it as such.

  47. That’s BYU’s new MA degree, only available to CES people. I don’t know much about that one.

    “The RelEd dept actually did have a master’s program until a few years ago. I have no idea what it entailed, but maybe someone else knows more about it.”

    This is the old degree, which was axed for good reasons that I won’t publicly go in to. BYU takes enough of a pummeling from us. Axing it was a really good move on someone’s part. I had a relative go through it.

  48. For what it’s worth I don’t think core classes like “Religions of the East” and “Religions of the West” gets you out of the “World religions” problem.

    I realize this, but I think: 1) More time devoted to these kind of survey courses provides more opportunity to teach the class in a way that’s sensitive to the issues raised in opposition to them. 2) The alternative of not teaching them is more of a dis-service than teaching them, even if taught in an unsophisticated way.

    It also seems preposterous to let anyone major in religion at BYU without having taken a course on Mormonism.

    I agree. Perhaps we can save this for part III where we will discuss Areas of Emphasis, and then raise the issue of area requirements.

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