Goals for the Religious Studies Major

University of Wyoming

With comment by Seth Ward


In the process of developing the Religious Studies Major, the faculty of the program has proposed that courses offered by Religious Studies at the University of Wyoming should lead students towards these goals:


3.1.1 A student who majors in Religious Studies at the University of Wyoming will be able to…


1) Describe several world religions and compare their key features.


2) Delineate how scholars have variously defined Religion and its key components, evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of those definitions, and discuss the methodologies arising from the definitions.


3) Analyze how a religion’s components interact with the culture to which it belongs, explaining how it shapes and is shaped by the surrounding society.


4) Use standard, neutral, scholarly terminology in describing and analyzing religions. This includes being able to speak and write about religions neutrally, without prescription or prejudice, advocacy or polemics.


3.1.2  Remarks about the Major’s Goals

Studying religion begins with the ability to identify and describe a religion’s key elements. In the same way a mechanic understands the parts of an automobile and how they work together to make it move forward, so too students should understand the main features of a religion, being able to articulate the function of each feature and how it fits with others to accomplish the religion’s goals and provide meaning to the religion’s members.


Students need to study different religions because that enables them to be compared. Comparison provides students with the insight and skills to identify the characteristics that religions share (or do not share) and the variety of ways those characteristics manifest themselves in different religions. In Religious Studies, Max Müller’s emphasis  of Goethe’s insight, “He who knows one, knows none,” has become a guiding principle. Knowledge of more than “one” in the study of religions provides the foundation for understanding. Understanding leads to insight, which enables students to draw conclusions about the nature of religion from the examples of specific religions, and in turn to be able to draw conclusions about particular religious situations with the aid of their general knowledge about religions.


Comparison also provides the basis for the successful understanding of the other three goals. Goal 2, defining “Religion  and assessing those definitions, depends upon comparative knowledge of several religions. A student’s mastery of Goal 3, understanding how religions shape and are shaped by their cultures, becomes strongest when it is clear how this ability functions in several religions and their cultures. Finally, Goal 4, the necessity and skill of using neutral, academic language in describing religions, is a requirement of being able to understand each religion without bias (insofar as that is possible) and hence to engage successfully in comparison.




Seth Ward


One way I often use to organize the key characteristics of the religious traditions I teach is “believing, behaving and belonging.” These might include understanding concepts about the central belief structures which shape world-views, how those who hold those beliefs are expected to act in the world, and how communities and cultures reinforce the beliefs and behaviors.


In order to do so, we must discuss such things as


  • rituals and religious practices;
  • aspects of belief and theology;
  • history, including the historical development of the other components;
  • religious law;
  • ethical teachings (these might include non-ritual “religious law” such as teachings by the religious tradition about interpersonal relations, slavery, contracts, international relations including land and jihad, definition of life, etc., and how or whether a religious tradition distinguishes between “moral law” and “ritual law”);  
  • spirituality and mysticism;
  • social and gender relations;
  • scripture and other religious literature;
  • symbols and how they are understood and restructured
  •  how “community” is understood and organized,
  • how religious authority is articulated;
  • how members of one tradition interact with members of another;
  • diversity within each religious tradition, whether about practice or observances, theological principles, or other issues;
  • that there have been changes and developments in all these areas over time and how they are understood by these traditions, and
  • how “modernity” has impacted religion.


Student submissions in my classes should demonstrate broad awareness and contextual understanding of a number of these characteristics, and need to have a reasonable focus. Moreover, students should be aware of how the characteristics they have studied in one religious tradition, trend, or society differ, cohere, or interact with those of another, or with the same issues in the broader society.


Within my courses, it is generally important to know how the various traditions have defined religion or the individual characteristics under study, as well as explanations and assessments of modern scholars.


Many of the courses have interdisciplinary components, and the issues under discussion in the course and in student participation may reflect political, historical social or intellectual issues.


Students should be able to write or speak about their own religious tradition and those of others with “critical empathy” – adopting an approach that is non-polemic, with reasonable empathy for traditions that they disbelieve in and critical analysis extending to their own tradition. Statements unique to one religious tradition, even if strongly believed by the student, should nevertheless be ascribed to that tradition. Although it may seem obvious when stated this way, people who are not members of a specific religious tradition do not usually accept the most central beliefs that religious tradition—that is why they are not followers of that religion! But it is not always so easy for students to distinguish between the kinds of statements about religions that are verifiable and those which reflect notions which must be accepted on faith alone. In other words, students should come to be able to distinguish between a statement such as (a) “Muhammad is the Messenger of God and final Prophet,” and (b) “Islam asserts that Muhammad is the Messenger of God and final Prophet.” (b) is historically verifiable, and is easily accepted as true, where as Muslims would assert the truth of (a) and non-Muslims, more or less by definition, generally do not accept (a).


The teaching of Religious Studies is, and ought to be, one of the many ways in which Universities offer a liberal education within our society. Religion is an important way in which ultimate values are articulated, and a critical understanding of how humans articulate values should be an essential component of an educated person’s training. A liberal education should also lead to the development of abilities to communicate clearly in writing and oral presentation, to cooperate with others, to raise issues and solve problems raised when examining documentation or a body of evidence, and the ability to define and refine options and elect among them.  


Updated Sept 2009