At first glance, religious studies might seem like a rather useless field to get involved in. While investigating the many different viewpoints on God or gods, the soul and other metaphysical realities can certainly be a fascinating experience, you would be forgiven for thinking such highly conceptual studies have few practical benefits.
There is, in fact, much to be gained from a religious studies education. Even taking only a few classes in the subject can help introduce you to new forms of thinking; by stretching your own horizons, you gain a better understanding of how people from a variety of backgrounds perceive the world.
In addition, there are more concrete skills to be gained from religious studies, including conducting research, performing unbiased analysis and writing formally using the Chicago citation style.
Although you might not have considered taking a religious studies class before, what you will learn will benefit you long after you have left college behind.
Expanding Your Worldview
If you were born in the United States, chances are you were either raised Christian or grew up in an unaffiliated household as a religious “none.” In either case, minority religions like Buddhism, Islam or Hinduism probably seem exotic to you. Learning about these belief systems will expose you to ideas that you are not familiar with, thus widening the field of your imagination.
For instance, a Christian who is confident in the existence of an immortal soul might be surprised to hear that Buddhists do not believe in such a thing. Instead, they believe everything is impermanent, inconstant and evanescent; hence, there can be no such thing as a soul.
Yet the Buddhists’ belief in universal transience does not lead them to despair and nihilism, but rather to conclude that humans are capable of improving themselves by practicing good, morally virtuous action, which can be done through following the eightfold path.
While it is true that nothing can ever remain the same, people still possess the ability to willfully direct the course of change in their lives, eventually escaping suffering through nirvana or spiritual transcendence.
Furthermore, just as a Christian can gain new and challenging ideas through learning about Buddhism, so too can a member of a minority religion in the United States attain a new perspective through learning about Christianity. For example, many Hindus believe in a supreme Goddess of some sort, usually referred to as Devi. As such, a Hindu may be interested to learn more about the Christian view of God, where the Almighty is typically thought of as male.
As you begin to learn others’ beliefs, you will naturally come to understand their perspectives. For instance, those who study Islam will quickly be made aware of the religion’s most fundamental tenet: tawhid, or the unity and oneness of God.
According to Islamic belief, God is one and indivisible; to attribute divinity to anything other than him is to commit shirk, or idolatry, a sin which is unpardonable if forgiveness is not sought.
It is because of tawhid that a Muslim might be made uncomfortable when a Christian claims that God exists as the Trinity, or when a Hindu argues that God takes the form of many deities. Just as well, a Christian or Hindu will likely be deeply offended if their core beliefs are denounced by a Muslim as “sinful.”
Of course, one of the greatest goals of any believer is to comprehend the true nature of God. Yet, differences in how we perceive the truth of God can lead to miscommunication, creating unnecessary tension and even animosity between people of different faiths.
Hence, part of the importance of studying other religions: to know what other people believe and why and develop a better idea of where they are coming from. A Christian or Hindu who understands a Muslim’s conviction will better be able to communicate with them while still respectfully disagreeing, and vice versa.
Building Your Skillset
In addition to expanding your understanding of others, you will also gain practical tools and knowledge through taking religious studies courses. For example, studying religions usually requires the ability to conduct research. There are many resources you must read through in order to acquire a deeper understanding of a belief system, from sacred texts such as the Bible or the Qu’ran to secondary sources including textbooks and commentaries.
Moreover, learning to do research in religious studies teaches you the methodological approach known as the phenomenology of religion. Essentially, taking this approach means examining a religion based purely on the way it presents itself, without any distortions due to personal values or beliefs. To do otherwise is to risk introducing your own ideas — or worse, your own prejudices — into your research. Thus, taking a religious studies class will teach you to not only search for information but to evaluate it in a manner free from your own preconceptions.
Formal research in religious studies also means becoming acquainted with the Chicago style of citation. Although there are multiple forms of documentation with this style, religious studies scholars tend to use the Notes and Bibliography System (NB). This system of documentation uses numbered footnotes linked to short citations at the bottom of the page, along with full-length citations in a bibliography at the end of the document. Even if you do not plan to major in religious studies, you will still find this a useful style to learn if you are interested in any of the humanities, from history to the arts.
Although it may not seem like a practical field to some, religious studies carries with it a variety of advantages and benefits. Learning about other belief systems will not only introduce you to new ways of thinking, it will also aid you in communicating with people whose background and beliefs differ from your own. In an increasingly interconnected world where tensions seem to be rising between people of different faiths, the knowledge that will allow you to bridge the gap will become even more valuable.
Additionally, learning to do research within religious studies will not only acquaint you with Chicago style; you will also learn phenomenology of religion, which will give you experience with researching and writing from a neutral standpoint. In a time when people’s trust in the media is eroding, those who can be relied upon to examine and share information without allowing their bias to shape their findings will surely be sought after.
Certainly, it should never be said that religious studies is useless. You will find much to be gained from this field, whether you take only a few classes or decide to make it your major.