The Academic Study of Religion Is Crucial to Higher Education

A Statement by the AAR Board of Directors

December 16, 2020

Religious studies departments are on the chopping block as institutions of higher education look for solutions to the symptoms caused by financial uncertainty from the pandemic and several years of budget deficits. So far this year, the American Academy of Religion has been called on eight times to advocate for a department facing closure. This should not be the case. Today’s cultural landscape makes apparent the value of a well-informed society that is able to incorporate religious literacy into its democratic and public deliberations. The academic study of religion is essential to preparing students to face the moral, cultural, and political complexities they will confront in life. It is part of preparing educated citizens for the world.

At this critical moment in time, with the coalescence of the pandemic, environmental degradation, and cultural crises as evidenced by #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, the unjust treatment of immigrants, and the explicit rise of white nationalism, transphobia, homophobia, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism, complex and nuanced understandings of religions are more important than ever before. All people benefit from studying religion. Religion should hold a meaningful place in higher education as it holds such a critical position in both private and public lives. Religion matters. It is the way people around the world have expressed what matters most to them, including their social identities and aspirations. For this reason, the study of religion has become one of the main vehicles for informed reflection on human culture. People need to understand the controversies over religion that have shaped their society, the living reality of the various religions that are practiced in their midst, and the history of religious traditions currently influencing billions of people around the world. People need to understand how religion has been used to promote human flourishing and how at times it has been marshaled in the service of evil: slavery, xenophobia, discrimination, and so forth. And, even in what many think of as a “secular” society, it is important for people to understand how religion shapes politics, law, economics, and the public sphere in general. The urgency of the study of religion continues.

Religious ideas and values have been central to higher education from its beginning. In the last hundred years, the modern field of religious studies has evolved into the scholarly analysis of the phenomena of religion from multifaceted points of view—social scientific, humanistic, and scientific—helping to explain the practices, texts, arts, ideas, social cohesion, and conflicts of religious communities around the world. As universities evolve, the academic study of religion continues to be responsive to a global scholarly exchange to broaden its scope and interrogate established norms.

Because religious phenomena are complex, the methodologies for studying them have been wide-ranging and interdisciplinary, but the study of religion cannot be reduced to any one method or discipline. The study of religion requires its own academic home. Although professors in other departments such as sociology and political science have increasingly and of necessity become concerned with religious issues, the study of religion remains marginal in those disciplines and is not treated in a holistic way. The structures of curricula and academic organization signify to students, faculty, and the broader public what institutions value. In order to best support the goals of institutional leaders and contribute to their institutional missions, religious studies programs must be afforded the same resources and autonomy afforded to other essential disciplines and fields of study.

The academic study of religion plays a crucial role in the mission of colleges and universities as they seek to form students into inquisitive and responsible leaders who become lifetime learners who can think critically. They provide spaces for students to explore the basic and essential questions facing humanity—questions that inform, intersect, and live alongside those pursued by colleagues in fields ranging from cognition and human behavior to applied medicine and international business. Religious studies courses prepare students to work across religious and cultural divides to meet the challenges of today’s global marketplace. Religious studies courses help students to better understand themselves and others, to think creatively and critically, and to read and write carefully.

Familiarity with a diverse range of religious traditions and training in how to think and talk about religious difference are important skills for journalists, policymakers, teachers, and corporate executives alike. Understanding how communities and societies represent themselves—and being able to navigate and communicate across such differences—are key skills for professional success in fields as diverse as nonprofit administration and healthcare services.

The O*NET program, the primary source of US occupational information, identifies thirty unique occupations for which the knowledge and skills offered by religious studies programs are relevant and important. Over half of those occupations have been designated by the US Department of Labor/Employment and Training Administration as expected to grow rapidly or be in high demand. Already, according to Humanities Indicators research, religion faculty are more likely to teach courses in professional schools than other humanities faculty. With the support of the Teagle Foundation, the American Academy of Religion collected data on career outcomes for religion alumni across a national sample. These data showed that 82.5 percent were currently employed, 8.6 percent were not seeking employment, and 8.9 percent were not currently employed.

Among those employed, the responses illustrated nineteen different employment areas, many of which align with those projected by the O*NET system. Religion graduates have found meaningful careers throughout P-20 (preschool through adult) education, nonprofits, and governmental and religious organizations. Graduates also acquired skills that propelled them into growing areas related to the health fields, information technology, business and finance, and the law. Studying religion helps students contribute to the enhancement of society and enables them to make a meaningful living as full citizens.

The American Academy of Religion stands in solidarity with provosts across the United States in affirming the value of general education as a component of high-quality undergraduate degrees. Religious literacy remains an essential competency in K-12 curricula as well as curricula in higher education.

We call on leaders in institutions of higher learning to take the long view; to recognize the deep values accorded to humanity and societies through the academic study of religion; to acknowledge the centrality of understandings of religion as global citizens grapple with the challenges of creating a better future for the world; to work within appropriate governance structures for the evaluation of, and support for, religious studies departments and curricula; and to work collaboratively to support the academic study of religion.