A Religious Studies Major at BYU–Pt. III

In our two previous posts we discussed the curriculum as well as what to cover in the theory and introductory courses for our new major. In this post I’d like to raise the issue of how the “areas of emphasis” should be structured and who/where we could draw from in creating classes from these areas. 

Areas of emphasis (or areas of study–AoS) are organized differently depending on the organizing committee’s perception of “religious studies” as well as the school’s strengths. Below are three options of organization, although often times more than one is adopted to meet the diverse opinions of what constitutes religious studies, as well as the fact that they often overlap (how can one do sociology of religion for instance without focusing on an area or tradition?):

  • By Area:

            Religion in America, Europe, Africa, etc.

            A strength of this approach is that it allows one to do more inter-disciplinary and inter-traditional work. A weakness is that if strictly interpreted one could end up knowing very little about any particular tradition outside of one geographical location. It’s also possible to end up ill-trained in many disciplines, but proficient in none.

  • By Tradition:

            Islam, Judaism, Christianity, etc., and at BYU, I would imagine, Mormonism.

            A strength of this approach is that it allows one’s work to extend beyond a geographic location. Islam, as we know, is a major religion of SE Asia for instance. A weakness is that in some cases the category of a religious ‘tradition’ is a construction of Western attempts to assert a universality of ‘religion’ (see for instance Oddie’s Imagined Hinduism). Working according to ‘traditions’ therefore could play into this bias.

  • By Discipline:

            History, Philosophy, Sociology, Anthropology, etc. 

            A strength of this approach is that it gives the student a firm grounding in a particular discipline. A weakness is that these approaches sometimes lack the depth into a particular tradition. A philosopher of religion, for instance, might not be well informed about the history of Christianity.

So, here are the questions:

Given BYU’s current scenario, how should the “areas of emphasis” be structured? What kinds of areas of emphasis could be offered?

Which faculty members should be drawn from in teaching classes in these areas? Related to this question are the more sensitive issues of: Should current classes in Religious Education count? Will faculty from RE be allowed to teach classes in RS? On what basis will this be determined?

In responding to these latter questions, let’s try to keep comments from becoming too personal.

8 Replies to “A Religious Studies Major at BYU–Pt. III”

  1. Great set of questions again! I think that a combination of geographical area or by tradition would be the best. This way, you can do SE Asian religion to avoid the Hinduism problem, but still have the Western traditions as specific areas of study. At the undergraduate level, I am not sure that specialization needs to occur at a greater level than this, though that would depend on the number of faculty that could support a sub-specialization, such as medieval Christianity or contemporary Chinese religions, etc.
    I don’t think that disciplinary or methodological divisions work all that well, particularly in preparing people for graduate school and the way that the field is currently practiced.

  2. Can I ask a sincere question – even if perhaps it may rub people the wrong way? (And such isn’t my intent in the least)

    What would one do with a religious studies major?

    That is, what are the job prospects?

  3. What would one do with a religious studies major?

    If I had to make a couple of guesses:

    1) Write software for text searching/indexing
    2) Make chocolates

    Or is that what physics degrees are for?

  4. I think by discipline is the only area that would work for the following reasons:

    1) You need to get the religious studies major away from the religious education department as fast as possible, otherwise they are going to want to have their tentacles in it. If you can argue that they are not specialized enough to get involved then you have a fighting chance that they won’t

    2) Clark does bring up a good point about jobs. At BYU you are going to have to sell the jobs aspect because Mormons don’t have the “professional clergy” option that someone in another denomination would have. If you are unprepared or unacceptable to other colleges for teaching then you will most likely be unemployed, you can’t fall back on pastoring at the local church. The job market for Mormons is simply 1/20 of what it is for other denominations. You need depth and specialization for this, which is best handled on a by discipline basis.

    3) It’s more traditional. BYU doesn’t have a good reputation for turning out people who are ecumenical and/or academic when it comes to religion. Yes, there are exceptions and they prove the rule. BYU will need to play the game as it is played for now. Once it gets some clout it can branch off into more experimental areas.

  5. What would one do with a religious studies major?

    I think this problem extends beyond RS and into almost every ‘non-applied’ field (history, philosophy, anthropology, math, biology, etc.–just about all of the humanities, social and hard sciences). Of course with many other majors you can add a teaching certificate and at least teach high school biology, etc..

    Most majors judged by the bar of “what are you going to do with it”, don’t have the clear answer that more applied majors such as business, journalism, etc. do. One could say that the contemporary university education is still rooted in European notions of educating the ‘upper class’, who didn’t bear the brunt of work in society, and so much of what is learned is inapplicable to daily living. One could also say that a university education is meant at creating knowledgeable individuals who are better human beings because of their education, and so our questions of “what are you going to do with a degree in X”, actually instrumentalize the educational experience and miss the larger goal. Both perspectives are probably correct to some degree.

    With that said, my personal opinion is to major in what you love, and if it happens not to be an applied discipline, then minor in something practical. I think there is the general realization in many parts of the ‘real world’ that much of what is learned in college will never be used (or needed) at work, and even if someone majors journalism, for instance, they still may not write a very good press release. In this sense it seems that the ‘discipline’ of one’s major is perhaps an appealing point for many companies, and discipline can come from all kinds of fields (granted that the specific skills learned may be different, internships which tend to be done in applied fields are usually appealing from the perspective of an employer, and often times ‘who you know’ gets you a job faster than anything else you could know).

  6. David, I agree that one can always simply get a job completely unrelated to ones college degree. (Although I think my own degrees have been extremely useful in my careers) That wasn’t the point I was raising. More about the career track this offers. i.e. what opportunities for employment that are tied to the major are available.

    I certainly wasn’t trying to be snarky – especially since my careers aren’t directly in my major fields. Although as a practical matter I do think it helpful to study things that will help you get a job later.

    As you note the lack of Clerical jobs (with a capital C) seems a big problem.

  7. I wouldn’t say that most religion majors are seeking careers in ministry, not by a long shot. Instead, they are looking to do international diplomacy, non-profits, law school, graduate school, or pretty much just about anything. There are a lot that are interested in religious violence issues right now.

  8. That’s interesting TT and just the kind of answer I was inquiring about. The diplomacy issue is especially interesting. Do folks along that track plan on doing the formal diplomat route? Regarding law, is there an interesting track on law or is it more the “if I’m going to law school I have more freedom in my undergraduate degree than most” kind of thinking.

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