At a time when national studies reveal that fewer Americans are affiliated with a religion, more and more students in Virginia are lining up to major in the topic.
According to a study by the American Religious Identification Survey in 2009, the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation has nearly doubled since 1990. However, the interest of students on many college campuses nationwide has shown an increase.
There are currently 26 declared religion majors and 91 declared majors in the Department of Classics, Philosophy, and Religion, a significant increase in students since the merger of the three departments, according to the UMW website. Because of the strength of UMW’s religion major and the Department of CPR, classics professor Liane Houghtalin refers to the department as the “heartbeat of the university.”
At the University of Mary Washington, the religion major is a part of the CPR. The three departments merged in 1979 due to “administrative efficiency,” according to professor of religion David Cain. Cain feels that the academic study of religion, especially at UMW, is an essential part of understanding world culture, art and literature and is separate from spirituality and faith. The religion department offers a range of courses including Native American religions, Hebrew Bible, Religion in America and African American religions to name a few.
Since the merger of the departments, Cain has seen growth in faculty, budget and student interest in the religion major.
He is pleased with the growth of the major and the department, and hopes that the university is able to offer a greater diversity of religion courses in the future. In the 1990s, the department’s faculty consisted of nine professors; there are now 13 professors and the budget has increased by $255,000 to $1,186,383 in the past year alone according to the UMW website.
Danielle Rosenberg, a senior at Mary Washington, said, “I chose the religion major freshman year after taking a class with Dr. Cain—I liked the way he forced you to think and I liked the fact that it was very abstract but that the field could also be taken to a more concrete focus: to history.”
Rosenberg said she is currently studying Abrahamic religions and is doing her senior thesis on Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and significant figure in the Jewish community today.
Junior Deztinie Carter feels the classes offered in the religion major are the most interesting on campus.
“This semester I’m taking African American Religions and The World of Early Christianity, and I’ve learned so much,” Carter said. “I truly enjoy going to those classes.”
Dr. Lori Underwood, head of the philosophy and religious studies department at Christopher Newport University, expressed her confidence that the decline in nation-wide religious affiliation has not affected students on her campus.
“We are so diverse on our campus, our department has an open and tolerant appreciation for all religions,” Underwood said.
She does not feel that there is tension between students of different religious backgrounds, and that the numbers reflected in the national religion study does not affect any school-wide devotion to religion.
At CNU, the Philosophy and Religious studies departments have merged, making philosophy the primary major, and religious studies a possible choice for a concentration. Religious studies covers a wide field of religion, including Christianity, Judaism and Islam, as well as many others.
When asked about the number enrolled with this particular concentration, Underwood was unable to state a specific number but said, “the concentration in religious studies is a substantial concentration. The overall majority [of students majoring in philosophy] is in religious studies.”
Underwood is happy with the overall participation and enthusiasm of her students and is confident that the numbers on campus do not reflect those in the study that showed that 68 percent of the U.S. people view religion as “losing influence in American society.”
“There has been a growth in the number of our majors over the past years. I would expect an increase in interest [over the next decade],” Underwood said.
Professor John Morreall, Chair of the Religious Studies Department at the College of William and Mary, agrees that the interest in religion on W&M’s campus has not decreased. W&M has about 50 religion major students this year.
The number varies slightly from year to year, but it is pretty consistent, Morreall said.
“Nationally there are a number of people who are less and less happy with their individual churches, mosques, etc., I see that’s what [the national religion study] reflects. Our students come from fairly traditional families of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.”
Morreall added that the decline of national interest in religion or religious affiliation has not affected the interest in religious studies on his campus.
Morreall feels that the overall enthusiasm for studies in most religious fields is increasing.
“Religion has gotten more important, especially since the Middle East issues. [It is] a more popular major than it was 20 years ago,” said Morreall.
Arlene Battis, active member in the Jewish Community in Northern Virginia, belongs to the synagogue Olam Tikvah. Battis stressed the fact that religious interest is on the rise, citing the major renovation doubling the size of her “shul,” a synagogue, in order to accommodate the influx of members.
Islamic Student Association, on UMW’s campus, has seen a huge increase of participation and attendance in the past five years, said Drema Khraibani, president of ISA.
“[Participation] in ISA has increased since my freshman year,” said senior Adil Quraish and active member of the ISA. “I myself was not very active, but now I am active, I am an example of an increase in trend of people who are embracing Islam.”
The Jewish Student Association on the UMW campus has also seen an increase in participation in their group, according to Mandi Solomon, Co-President of JSA/Hillel.
Solomon predicts that participation, “will increase as long as leadership can keep planning events that are campus wide and well-known.”
The Catholic Campus Ministry on UMW’s campus also has a very active group of student participants each week.
“There’s not really a set number of students in our group, since we have many different events through the week and a building that students are free to come in and out of as they please. I’d guess that there are about 60 students who come around regularly,” according to Teresa Yao, CCM President.
Yao has only been a part of the UMW community for a few years but she is confident that the size of the CCM group has grown over the past few years.
By Gianni Bellini, Kathryn Flench, Kathleen Higgins Melanie Rossignol
A Personal Story of Religious Discovery
By: JESSICA MASULLI and KIRSTEN MORGAN
Amanda Keller, a senior Mary Washington student, was always a self-described bitter atheist. However, her time at Mary Washington has changed that label to open-minded Christian.
“It got to the point where my atheism became too overwhelming,” Keller said.
After struggling with her atheism, Keller began to become more interested in Christianity. She decided to start right at the source: the Bible.
After reading the entire Bible and starting to pray, Keller began to search for a more formal setting to study religion.
However, after joining two campus ministries, she realized that her homosexuality would not fit nicely with these groups. But this did not stop her.
She has since begun a different type of quest to understand “the richness of the spiritual world.”
She now has read the Bible, Bhagavad Gita, Upanishad and Dhammapada, on a path of reading every holy book.
“At this point, I can look at religion from every perspective. I can see that all of the religions are equally ridiculous and equally wonderful,” Keller said.
This entire process has now led her to take religion courses while doing a screenplay on the perceptions of Jesus for an individual study.
“Most of all, I’ve been left with this intense interest in other people’s religious experiences, in their conversion stories,” Keller said.