As a college student, I rarely make it through a conversation without being asked the question: “What are you majoring in?”
I understand that this seems like a perfectly innocent question, a polite part of small talk. Let me clarify. I don’t mind being asked about my major, but I dread answering the question I know will inevitably follow: “What are you going to do with that?”
Or the less polite version: “What are you going to do with that?”
Without fail, upon finding out that I am a religious studies major, adults ask about my post-grad plans for applying my studies in “the real world.” I am confident that other liberal arts students can relate — here’s looking at you, creative writing and philosophy majors. In an era when jobs are scarce and financial security is the new fantasy, those of us whose academic interests do not follow a pre-professional track are forced to defend our majors all too frequently.
Yet, because majoring in religious studies is rare today, doing so comes with an additional set of questions. I have answered some of the most frequently asked questions here.
Are you going to become a rabbi?
As a Jewish student, I get this question a lot. To me, it suggests that the discipline of religious studies is not considered a worthwhile pursuit unless it results in becoming a clergy member.
This attitude is akin to discouraging a child who is passionate about aerodynamics from learning about how airplanes fly because he doesn’t aspire to become a pilot; there is nobility in studying something simply because you find it interesting. A love of learning should not be extinguished because the subject of your passion does not correspond with your career goals.
Are you, like, super religious then?
This question reflects the most common misconception surrounding religious studies. And here’s the most important takeaway: the academic discipline of religious studies and one’s personal religion are not necessarily the same.
On my first day of college in my freshman seminar, “Introduction to Religious Studies,” the professor vowed to the class that she would never ask about our personal faiths. My professor likened that inquiry to being as inappropriate as her asking whom we had hooked up with the night before. A student’s personal faith has no place in the classroom unless he or she volunteers the information as a way to contextualize his contribution or enhance her point.
What bothers me about this question is the assumption that the academic study of religion is limited to religious students. A similar line of thought would require all women’s studies majors to be female, all Middle Eastern studies majors to be from the Middle East, all French majors to be native French speakers, and so on.
In fact, after three years in the department, I have found that most of the students who major in religious studies actually identify as atheists or agnostics. Rather than study a faith from their own affiliation, religious studies students tend to approach the subject from a distance.
But maybe the most problematic part about this question is the way it’s typically asked in a condescending tone, as if being religious is a bad thing. In response, I find myself downplaying my Judaism for fear of being judged because religion is somehow seen as shameful today.
Do you go to a theological seminary?
No, I attend Colgate University, a liberal arts college with no religious affiliation. The religious studies department at Colgate functions very differently from a theological seminary.
First, our religious studies department covers all religions, rather than subscribing to one and presenting it as truth. And while a religious studies curriculum may cover many of the same topics as a theological seminary would, the method of approach at an academic institution is completely different.
A seminary student reads the Bible as the Word of God; a religious studies student recognizes that the Bible is a guidepost of faith for millions, but treats it simply as an influential text that has shaped various ideologies, become ingrained in society, and generated everything from national laws to wars. When viewing the Bible in this light, the approach looks less like a Bible study and more like an English major’s analysis of a classic work of literature.
Because the discipline of religious studies approaches religion objectively, treating it like any other subject worthy of examination, it is an accepted department at non-religious institutions.
Which religion is best?
This question is like asking a history major which era is her favorite; all of them deserve to be studied and are integral to understanding the discipline as a whole.
In the religious studies department, professors do not place a value on religions when teaching about them. There is no definitive ranking. I can personally answer which religions I find most spiritual, most tolerant, or most unfamiliar, but within an academic setting I cannot judge a religion’s worth.
So, are you going to become a rabbi? (Again.)
Still no. I’ve included this question twice because of how frequently people ask it.
And here’s another answer: religion seeps into everything. It affects every aspect of society, which is why a religious studies student can apply his or her degree to any line of work. The idea that a religious studies major is confined to holding a theological profession is narrow minded and false. I know graduates with degrees in religious studies who are now working in fields ranging from politics and education to arts and medicine.
Can you even do math?
Liberal arts universities pride themselves on providing students with a well-rounded education, enforcing distribution requirements so that students are exposed to all areas of study. Religious studies majors take a handful of math and science classes in the same way that physics majors take a handful of humanities classes. Yet, for some reason, no one would dare imply that a physics major couldn’t write well.
This question reveals the prevailing attitude that religion and intelligence are mutually exclusive. It is indicative of the elitist stigma against “religious freaks” as being uneducated. The extent to which people appeal to this stereotype is demonstrated by people applying it not only to religious practitioners, but also to students who study religion.
Yes, religious studies majors can do math. And yes, religious practitioners can, too. Religious people can have a firm mastery of the natural world and still appeal to their faith; having faith does not mandate a disregard for the practical and neither does a study of that faith.
Why didn’t you choose to study something more marketable?
Many people have expressed doubt regarding my ability to get a job. They liken my major to a scarlet “A” adorning my resume. Well, as a rising senior, I guess I’ll find out if they’re right soon enough.
But I like to think that my future employers will appreciate the skillset that a religious studies degree imparts. Through my studies, I have learned how to think critically without passing judgment, understand other cultures, and express my ideas more clearly. My fingers are crossed that some professional fields will value those skills.
Are you converting from Judaism to Christianity?
Nope. Religious studies departments don’t focus solely on Christianity despite its prevalence in the United States. And when teaching about Christianity, professors use critical techniques to approach the religion objectively; their purpose is not to proclaim its truth or proselytize to their students.
Wait, you study all religions? Can you tell me about karma and other obscure religious stuff?
Yes, I can. However, it should be noted that religious studies is not just the examination of various faith traditions. Yes, there are specific classes on, say, Buddhism or Catholicism, but there is also another dimension to the discipline. Religious studies is interdisciplinary, and many courses examine the intersection of religion with other areas of study to determine its influence within society.
I personally prefer the classes that review the subject of religion as an entity, rather than those that focus on specific religious traditions. These courses provide a contextualized view of the role religion plays in all corners of the world. For example, I’ve taken religious studies classes that examine the intersection of religion and politics, analyze the psychology of belief in God, chronicle the rise of secularism, compare the treatment of women within religious traditions, discern a religious responsibility to the environment, consider the merit of faith as a response to tragedy, and explore the relationship between religion and modern medicine.
Are you going to become a rabbi?
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