Religious studies may not seem like the most practical field of study for a college student; the concepts are abstract, philosophical and often obscure. So why does Mary Washington offer it as a major? According to the UMW College of Arts and Sciences website, “Religion plays a crucial role in human experience and society.” Indeed, religion influences every aspect of life, especially in the U.S. From our political system to our cultural setup, religion underlies everything. Studying religion in an academic sense opens one’s mind to see and understand religion’s influence in everyday life. Therefore, all students—even those who do not plan to major in religious studies—should take at least one religious studies class.
Religious studies is “inherently interdisciplinary,” according to the College of Arts and Sciences website. Its broad scope touches every facet of society, and students often choose to major in religious studies to supplement another major, such as English or psychology. Understanding religion academically opens one’s mind to understanding people of different traditions and seeing the influence religion has on the culture around us.
“A student might choose this major as a way to understand their own experience or attempt to become familiar with what is driving a lot of conflict or religion and politics in our everyday world,” said Jennifer Barry, associate professor of Classics, Philosophy and Religion. “I have talked to several non-majors who have loved each RELG class they have taken and frequently voice regret that they didn’t double major.”
For students who are interested in religious studies but unable to add it as a major, taking a few classes as electives can be just as beneficial.
“I’d say that majoring in religious studies or only taking a course or two have the same effects on students,” said Mary Beth Mathews, professor of religious studies. “You get a chance to change your focus from perspectives you may be more comfortable with and instead look at the world in a different way.”
A background in religious studies will prepare students for the more diverse, complex world they will enter after graduation. Having some basic knowledge and respect for others’ cultural and religious traditions goes a long way toward building bridges in an increasingly divided world.
“One of our alumni became a video game designer and said his experience at UMW helped him understand how gamers interact with and become online communities,” said Mathews.
Because the academic field of religious studies is important and applicable to all students, regardless of major or interests, all students should take advantage of the religious studies program at UMW to broaden their horizons.
“Religion is an interdisciplinary topic and is therefore applicable to all majors offered at Mary Wash,” said Barry. “That applies for outside the University as well. We have several UMW alumni that write to us on the regular to let us know how often they have used their knowledge in unexpected ways.”
This understanding of different religions helps foster mutual respect and healthy relationships in school, the workplace and beyond.
“I have always wanted to take a religion class because I think that learning about different religions is really fascinating,” said Emily Whitt, a senior accounting major. “It is important for everyone to have knowledge of different religions.”