Expansion aims to broaden religious studies major

Revised religious studies program could be implemented by fall 2008.

Mike Rose

If a proposed expansion to the major is approved, religious studies students may soon be exploring religions from a more worldly and modern perspective.

The religious studies program, which is housed in the department of Classical and Near Eastern Studies and currently has 14 students working on majors, could implement new courses and tracks by fall 2008, CNES professor Calvin Roetzel said.

The proposal was approved by the College of Liberal Arts’ Curriculum, Instruction and Advising Committee in April, Roetzel said.

For the expansion to be implemented, it will have to gain administrative approval. Roetzel said this would likely go through Provost E. Thomas Sullivan’s desk, with the support of CLA Dean James Parente.

“The University of Minnesota is behind the curve in religious studies programs,” Roetzel said. “We do have the resources to have a very viable program.”

Currently, the religious studies major is geared largely toward studying ancient religions, Roetzel said. The new program will put a heavier emphasis on studying modern religions.

There will also be tracks set up to study religions broadly across the world or to study a particular religion in-depth, such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam or Buddhism.

“One of our focuses was that students could focus their studies across different traditions,” Jeanne Kilde, coordinator for the Institute for Advanced Study, said.

Psychology senior Will Martin, who minored in religious studies and is also a member of the Campus Atheists, Skeptics and Humanists, said he felt there was a place for the study of religion in academia.

“It definitely is a justifiable program,” Martin said. “I think it’s kind of a gem.”

Through his coursework, Martin said he was able to compare various religions across different time periods. He added that it’s important for institutions to take a scholarly, analytical approach to the field, which he feels the University does.

“(The program) has been taken very seriously,” Martin said. “It’s vigorous and very intercultural.”

Martin said CASH, as a group, is very interested in violence and conflict that stems from religious differences. He feels that could be expanded on within religious studies but is available through different programs.

“It is a part of religious studies,” he said.

On the topic of religion and conflict, Martin invited Hector Avalos, a religious studies professor from Iowa State who has authored books on religious violence, to speak at a CASH event Thursday.

Avalos said he had two different feelings on the state of religious studies programs currently.

On a positive side, he said they were beneficial in raising awareness, particularly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“It’s necessary (to study religion) in order to understand the complex world in which religion plays a very important part,” Avalos said.

However, Avalos was critical of how many religious studies programs focused on an essential view of religions.

“There is a large pressure on academics not to criticize religion,” he said. “They assume religion is generally good.”

Avalos said more religious studies academics should voice their objections to religion.

The proposed revision to the University’s religious studies program seemed to be an aim to make the curriculum more mainstream and inclusive, Avalos said.

“It’s good, insofar that you’re trying to educate the public in how religion affects world events,” he said. “I support that.”

Karli Anderson, a geology senior who is minoring in religious studies, said she felt the program has been fair in how different religions are approached.

“I think the point of the classes is to examine what religion is and where it comes from,” she said. “I think that’s pretty fair.”

Anderson added that she felt courses in religious studies were very important.

“I don’t think you can understand a culture without understanding a religion,” she said.