Think a religious studies major puts you on the fast track to divinity school? Think again.
“I loved being a religious studies major. It challenged me to think critically about how my faith affects who I am as a person,” says Kathleen Halloran, a recent graduate of the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. Halloran’s two majors, politics and religious studies, led her to the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC), where she is currently a paralegal helping low-income tenants resolve disputes with their landlords in Detroit, Michigan.
Students who study religion as scholars come from a variety of backgrounds with diverse points of view. Even though they may not always agree, these students find they are challenged by the questions and answers that emerge when studying religion and human interaction. Religion-focused majors give students a strong intellectual foundation full of critical thinking and analysis.
Studying religion can come in many different forms. However, there are two main branches to follow when pursuing a religious major. The first is theology, where a person studies one religion in depth, such as Christianity or Judaism, and examines how it fits into the grand scheme of all religions. The other is religious studies, where a person studies many different religions equally and what role they play in history and modern religious issues. Both take different aspects of other majors, such as history, English, sociology, etc., and put them to use studying religion.
There’s also a major difference between religious studies and theology, says Father Robert “Bud” Grant, Ph.D., associate professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa. “Religious studies addresses issues of religion from the outside, almost clinically,” he says. “Theology presumes faith.” Students then tackle questions of faith in theology classes using reason.
But even a theology major can be approached from different angles. It all depends on students’ interests and goals. Theology can be a path to grad school, or it can be the lens through which students study a particular specialization, such as Catholic studies, environmental studies, or youth ministry, says Father Grant.
There are also a wide variety of religious majors, such as world religions, youth ministry, and worship leadership. Students need to remember that religious majors and minors can always be combined with other areas too.
When students at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, are unsure of whether or not they want a religious studies major, the school sends them to alumnae Alyssa Houser, a 2009 graduate. She wasn’t sure of that path either, until she decided to combine sociology with religious studies. “I was leaning toward doing something with youth ministry,” she says. “When I added sociology, it opened up a whole new world.” She says a lot of students are unsure about pursuing a religious major. “I always tell them that it’s worth it.”
Houser graduated with a major in sociology and two minors: one in religious studies and one in Catholic studies. To fulfill her religious minor requirements at Loras, Houser took classes in world religions, Bible studies, ethics, and Catholic social teaching. “It’s a good experience. It’s a learning experience,” she says. “It’s a way to learn a perspective that’s not necessarily taught or valued in our society.”
Choosing to major in a religious discipline, like many other liberal arts subjects, does not directly correlate to one particular career. It provides students the freedom to pursue other interests that, when combined with a religious studies or theological background, lead to a wide variety of potential careers, such as teaching, psychology, nursing, business, or law.
Donna Marino, Associate Director of Career Services at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, says that Skidmore’s religious studies alumni are now in a variety of professions, including a lending consultant at a financial firm, an executive assistant to a District Attorney of Massachusetts, a rehabilitation counselor, the vice president of a software company, and a Baptist pastor.
Marino says, “Students should choose a discipline they love to study and wait to choose their work later.” Freshmen who want to major in a religious discipline should try taking interesting and diverse entry-level classes that spark their interests and passions.
Some students may want to double-major or minor in other fields to increase their academic exposure to certain subjects. However, students who don’t want to take on the additional course work can cultivate their passions while building their skill sets by other means. A great way to gain experience is by participating in cocurricular activities, such as joining a student group, volunteering, or participating in student government.
“These bridging experiences are critical,” says Marino. “We encourage students to be as involved as they can be, but we stress quality over quantity.”
Gaining experience in specialized areas outside of the classroom can help students narrow down potential careers. Politics and religious studies major Halloran participated in two spring break immersion trips and the Big Brothers Big Sisters program during her time at Holy Cross, which led her to the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. “I decided to join JVC because I wanted to do something that would allow me to work for justice in our country,” she says. “I saw a need, and I felt called to give a year of my time to the poor.” Now, because her JVC experience has been so positive, Halloran plans to pursue a legal career in public interest and “cannot imagine pursuing any career that would not involve working towards human dignity.”
Houser’s major/minor combination also lead to a career she loves at the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque. She is the Project Coordinator for Project Hope, a citywide employment initiative. “I’m planning on staying here for a while,” she says. “The experience I am getting now is invaluable, and I couldn’t imagine working anywhere else.”
One way to explore the wide array of jobs available to religious majors—and make them more valuable to future employers—is through internships. Marino says she encourages students to use their summer breaks as an opportunity to find internships. Students can gain hands-on experience or eliminate potential career choices. Because internships have specific lengths, there is no pressure for a long-term commitment.
Another option for religious studies students is to pursue graduate education. An advanced degree would build on students’ strong liberal arts foundation of critical thinking, writing, and self-knowledge by adding specialized skills toward their chosen career path. Those looking to enter the clergy usually obtain a master’s degree in divinity, but there are also graduate programs in theology, anthropology, literature, and philosophy. Students who wish to become doctors or lawyers in religiously focused areas should still pursue law school or medical school after their undergraduate work is complete.
But in the end, religious majors prepare students for any path they choose. “Skills that they learned—dealing with difficult questions—is what has availed them, is what they found useful,” says Father Grant. “You will have critical thinking skills. You’ll have empathy. You’ll have a rich reservoir of academic information.
Pursuing a religious major helps students develop a universal skill set that also increases their global understanding. By combining that foundation with specific skills developed through cocurricular activities and internships, students who study religion are well positioned to pursue almost any career they choose.