Interest in diversity a key factor
Millsaps College senior Brad Corban loved his course on the Old Testament because it allowed him to read the Bible as a collection of books written by many authors rather than “some old white guy in the sky.”
“It’s infinitely rich,” he said, adding how studying religion in college has helped him rethink the meaning of faith. “It allows you to appreciate how different people can have religious experiences with very different religions and practices.”
Corban is one of a growing number of college students pursuing a degree in religion. No longer a discipline reserved for aspiring clergy and scholars, religious studies is gaining popularity among students preparing for careers ranging from medicine to law to journalism.
The trend reflects a surge in interest in the world’s diverse faith groups, which scholars say only intensified after Sept. 11, 2001.
“Student interest ends up driving what colleges are going to be doing,” said Kyle Cole, director of college programs for the American Academy of Religion, which recently surveyed North American religion departments.
“Most people don’t get religion taught in any other way except in Sunday school or church,” Cole said. “But the diverse culture we have now gets people interested.”
A report from the American Academy of Religion found the number of religion majors increased 25 percent from 1996 to 2000, and enrollment in religion courses rose more than 15 percent. An updated survey is due in November, and Cole said preliminary data show even more interest.
The popularity of religion courses prompted the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg to create a religion degree, offered for the first time this semester.
“Over the past few years we’ve had more and more people show up in religion classes,” said USM religion professor Daniel Capper. “All of my classes were full.”
Once USM’s only full-time religion professor, Capper now shares teaching duties with two religion scholars – one specializing in Islam and Judaism and another who teaches courses on philosophy and religion.
Capper, who teaches comparative religion and classes on Buddhism, mysticism, religion and healing and religions of the Caribbean, believes more students are signing up for religion classes because the United States is in the midst of a “spiritual resurgence.”
And religion courses offer people a place to study “without someone trying to convert them,” he said.
Before Southern Miss launched its religion degree this month, Millsaps College in Jackson had been the only college or university in the state with a religious studies degree. Other private Christian colleges in Mississippi offer Christian studies degrees, which teach from a Christian perspective.
Affiliated with the United Methodist Church, Millsaps College formed its religion department in 1930 (the name changed in the 1990s to the department of religious studies).
“Religious studies is a nonsectarian approach to understanding all religions and religious systems in our world,” said James E. Bowley, chairman of Millsaps’ religious studies department. “It’s often been said that you don’t understand your own religion if you don’t look at other religions.”
But this nonsectarian approach can challenge students who enroll in classes with firmly held beliefs.
That’s why Bowley lectures early in the semester about how to read religious texts from an academic perspective.
“When it comes to religious texts people have usually only read those texts in one context,” he said, explaining how reading religious texts differs from studying something such as English literature. “People do not come at all with the same openness to thinking about things in different ways.”
Millsaps junior Jessica Hoffpauir said studying religion has challenged – and enriched – her Catholic beliefs.
“It’s helping me reflect on what I believe and why,” she said.
Hoffpauir said she had “no clue” what to major in when she started college, but decided on religion after taking a freshman interdisciplinary course about the history of ideas that shaped the world.
“I thought if I studied religion I could get the best of religion, history, anthropology, sociology and philosophy,” said Hoffpauir, who’s considering a career in teaching. “I didn’t want to spend four years studying something that would bore me to tears.”
So far she’s enjoyed learning about faiths including Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism and is currently taking a course on women in biblical literature.
“I’m shocked at how easy it was for me to accept other people’s beliefs,” she said. “All of our beliefs don’t necessarily conflict.”
By the numbers
Number of departments of religion, religious studies or theology in North America: 1,131.
Students enrolled in college or university-level religion courses in 1999-2000: 685,000.
Students enrolled in college or university-level religion courses in 1996-1997: 593,000.
Number of religion majors in 1999-2000: 31,194.
Private, nonsectarian: 4,721.
Other religion: 563.
Source: American Academy of Religion.