Why Study Religion?


Can you understand the world today or human history without studying the role of religion in human affairs?

The authors of the History and Social Science Framework for California Public Schools (1988 ) explicitly acknowledge “the importance of religion in human history” and insist that students must become familiar with the basic ideas of the major religions and the ethical traditions of each time and place. Students are expected to learn about the role of religion in the founding of the United States because many of our political institutions have their antecedents in religious beliefs and practices. Students should understand the intense religious passions that have produced fanaticism and war as well as the political formations (such as separation of church and state) that allow different religious groups to live amicably in a pluralistic society.

John Kerry, United States Secretary of State

“…If I went back to college today, I think I would probably major in comparative religion because that’s how integrated [religion] is in everything that we are working on and deciding and thinking about in life today.”

James W. Malone, U.S. Religious Leader:

“It is impossible to interpret world events today if one does not grasp the role of religion. From Poland to the Philippines, from Soweto to San Salvador and from India to Ireland, the fundamental issues of existence are permeated by religious ideas, institutions and loyalties.”

Ernest Boyer, President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, writes:

“…I believe that it’s simply impossible to be a well educated person without learning about how religion has, throughout history, consequentially shaped the human story in almost every culture. And I believe that the sacred texts of all the great religions should be introduced to students with reverence and intellectual insight. Students simply cannot know art without reflecting on the influences of religion — from the Hindu cave paintings to Buddhist art to the temples of ancient Greece to Michelangelo to the great cathedrals of the Middle Ages that so inspired Henry Adams and Marc Chagall. They cannot know literature without understanding how religion has shaped the world’s great writers, from Homer and Euripides of ancient Greece to the writers of our day, from T.S. Eliot to John Updike to I.B. Singer. Students cannot understand music without grasping the power of religion that inspired performers and composers from Hildegard, the great twelfth-century nun/composer, to Leonard Bernstein. Virtually every discipline has been influenced by religion. In psychology we have William James’ landmark study, The Varieties of Religious Experience, and in sociology we have Max Weber’s classic work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. And, of course, there’s no conceivable way for students to understand the conflicts in the Middle East or Northern Ireland, or our own history here in the United States, without understanding the consequential role of religion.”

June O’Connor, Professor Emeritus, Department of Religious Studies, UCR:

“The study of religious worldviews enables us to understand and to appreciate one another better than we would do without such study. The inevitable differences among us will be better informed, more justly understood, and hopefully, more effectively negotiated, we believe, because we have taken time seriously to examine one another’s religious heritages. This sort of understanding in turn will enable us to take action together on concerns and crises shared in common.”

United States Supreme Court Justices Clark and Goldberg in Abingdon v. Schempp:

“…it might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing that we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistent with the First Amendment.” (Clark)

“…it seems clear…from the opinions in the present and past cases that the Court would recognize the propriety…of the teaching about religion, as distinguished from the teaching of religion, in the public schools.” (Goldberg)

John Polkinghorne, Cambridge professor of mathematical physics, author of One World: The Interaction of Science and Theology:

“The world known to the twentieth century is a good deal curiouser and more shadowy than the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries could have conceived. That in itself is no great cause for religious rejoicing…. To acknowledge the limits of rationality, objectivity and determinism is not to relinquish a belief in reason, a respect for reality or a search for order. It may however lead to greater openness to the variety of the world and our experience of it, an acceptance that beside the insights of science, expressible in the quantitative language of mathematics, there are the equally necessary insights of religion, expressible in the qualitative language of symbol.”

University of California Faculty – Robert Adams (Philosophy, UCLA), Robert Goheen (Mellon Fellowships in the Humanities, Princeton), C. Warren Hollister (History, UCSB), Joseph Kerman (Music, UCB), William J. Lillyman (German, UCI), and James Murphy (English, UCD).

In 1983 this University of California Universitywide Panel to Oversee Campus Reviews of the Humanities identified the Humanities as consisting of “the study of languages and literatures, history (including that of ideas and of the arts), philosophy, and religion — these are the major humanistic disciplines.”

Related Web Sites

Why Study Religion?

American Academy of Religion

Society for the Scientific Study of Religion

Departments of Religious Studies at the University of California

UC Berkeley
UC Davis
UC Los Angeles
UC Santa Barbara