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Why Study Religion?
Religion: Why People Do What They Do
The events of the latter half of the twentieth century and the early twenty-first century have made it clear that religions and their practitioners must be understood for a successful life in the twenty-first century. In the United States, religious adherents have become an important part of a major political party and voters repeatedly show that religious issues affect how they vote. Many debates about public issues take place in religious terms and politicians are quick to reveal their religious bona fides.
This is also true for religions around the world. The rise of the Hindu National Party (BJP) in India and the reemergence of Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism in Communist China have revealed the enduring character of religious belief and its importance to followers. To take a negative example, terrorist acts in New York, London, Delhi, and Madrid—as well as the deaths of countless suicide bombers—have shown that religious beliefs can be more determinative of personal choices than life itself.
Religious motivation happens close to home as well. Wyoming itself was built upon the actions of many different religious groups. Native Americans linked the natural landscape to the sacred realm at holy sites now known as the Devils Tower and the Medicine Wheel. Catholic and Episcopalian missionaries were among the first non-natives in the region, first aiming to convert the natives and later providing religious services to the earliest white settlers. Mormons walked across Wyoming to their Zion in Utah, and then returned from the west, settling not just the region’s western edge, but also the Shoshone Valley, where they dug the Cody Canal to bring water into that desert landscape. People who followed these different religions helped make this state what it is today.
Religious Studies professor Paul Flesher has observed, “As a general rule, religion is one of the three main motivating factors people draw upon when they make life-changing decisions—right alongside family and economic concerns.”
Religion: Why People Believe What They Believe
For many individuals, religious beliefs shape the way they view the world around them, their own place in that world, and their understanding of their life journey through that world. Although most people draw upon concepts and teachings from the health, medical or sports professions when they think about their bodies, they draw upon religious ideas (consciously or unconsciously) when they consider their spiritual and psychological makeup. Religious notions about the soul, an individual’s personality, ideas about life after death, or beliefs about the supernatural and its impact on each individual shape the way most people think about their “inner nature”—even many who are quite secular.
Neuroscience research may be pushing back the boundaries of our understanding of the brain’s physical, chemical and electrical workings, but the makeup of the individual “self” remains elusive. Interest in what happens to the self after death remains high in popular culture as well as religious teachings—whether we think of the “Zombie apocalypse,” the many post-death and near-death states in the Harry Potter series, or the constant “resurrections” that occur in many video games. Popular culture may claim such issues for itself, but the questions (and often the answers’ form) come from religious ideas.
Religious Studies: How to Study the World’s Religions - Ours and Theirs
The discipline of Religious Studies teaches students about the character of the world’s different religions, both religions important in our own country and those important in nations around the world. At the lower levels, courses emphasize how followers express their beliefs and practices through literature and art, theology and worship, ethics and laws, politics and government. In higher level courses, students learn how to analyze religious expression and products, as well as to investigate the ways religions and other cultural phenomena interact—from political parties and government institutions to more popular expressions in film, TV, and popular music.
The goal of the courses is not to persuade students to believe in a particular religion (or not to believe in it), but to analyze it. Courses help students understand why people commit to a religion, believe its teachings and practice its way of life. They provide students with the intellectual tools to study the ramifications of such commitment, both at the individual and societal levels.
Religious Studies classes teach students how to analyze and understand human behavior and its motivation. That motivation may come from beliefs or regular practices, it may be reactions to social pressures and organization both within a religion and outside it. It may stem from agreement or disagreement with public pronouncements, speeches and debate.
The field trains students to see connections, analyze cause and effect, and explore the “big picture.” It enables people to understand secondary and tertiary ramifications of actions and plans, as well as to evaluate how effective plans and acts can be (or were) for their primary, intended purposes.
Religious Studies after graduation: Where can a Religious Studies major lead?
The subject matter of religion and the skills one develops by studying it constitute important training for careers that depend upon understanding human behaviors, desires, and decision making. These include: law, medicine, journalism, education, counseling, advertising, marketing and public service.
Combined with the study of language, Religious Studies is an excellent preparation for working internationally in diplomacy, business, non-government organizations or education.
Concentrating in Religious Studies, whether by taking a major or a minor, is also good training for careers involving the presentation or the analysis of information. These include: museum work, writing, publishing and editing, education and broadcasting.
The emphasis on analysis and writing likewise makes Religious Studies a good pre-professional field. Indeed, it is among the top five fields for those wishing to succeed in law school.
And of course Religious Studies can be good training for a career in the religious professions—from ministers, priests and rabbis to youth leaders, music directors and even monks—even though students are not trained to believe any particular religious tradition.