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Religious Studies at ETSU

The program in religious studies at ETSU is an interdisciplinary program hosted by the Philosophy Department. The program also includes faculty and courses from a broad range of departments in fields which contribute to the academic study of religions, including the departments of History, English, Anthropology & Sociology, and Appalachian Studies.  The program sponsors an interdisciplinary minor in religious studies, structured to reflect broadly recognized best practices in the field appropriate in a public university. 

Interdisciplinary MINOR at ETSU

The Religious Studies Minor is a 21-credit hour interdisciplinary program of study hosted by the Philosophy Department, and including faculty and courses from the departments of History, Sociology and Anthropology, English, Appalachian Studies, and other fields. The program is designed for students interested in the historical, social, scientific, and philosophical study of religions and religious thought throughout the world. It may be elected as preparation for professional graduate education in theology or ministry. Students specifically interested in critical and philosophical issues in the study of religions may also concentrate in religious studies within the philosophy major (see Philosophy Major [PHIA] Philosophy and Religious Studies Concentration [RELI]).

The Study of Religion in the Liberal Arts

The study of religious thought and ideas has been a part of university education since its beginning in Europe in the 11th century.  For many centuries, the focus of this endeavor was the study of theology, philosophical issues raised by theological inquiry, and the study of religious texts and the languages in which they were written.  Historical inquiry and the philological study of religious texts assumed a more central role in the study of religion and university education in the Renaissance and Reformation in Europe (especially in the 15th and 16th centuries).  The emergence of religious liberty, science-modeled methods of inquiry in the study of history and culture, and in-depth encounter with religious traditions in other regions of the world in the 18th and 19th centuries gave rise to religious studies as a university field along side theology and biblical studies.  Religious studies came to incorporate many of the contributions of social scientific approaches to the study of religion, along with emergent methods of inquiry that made no demands or assumptions about scholars’ and students’ own religious backgrounds, views, or religious identities.

Religious Studies as a Field

The academic study of religion and specific religious traditions includes the study of the history and ethnography of religions, the social scientific study of diverse religious practices and institutions, the critical study of religious texts, and philosophical issues in the study of religion.  This later category includes metaphysical, ethical, and other philosophical issues that arise within the thought-traditions associated with specific religious traditions, and questions raised by the fact of religious diversity in the world and apparently contradictory teachings and claims across traditions, and issues concerning method and theory in the study of religions. 

Religious studies courses may focus upon the history and ethnography of specific religious traditions (eg. History of Christianity, History of Islam History of Judaism), or religion and culture in a particular region of the world or era in history (American religious history, History of the Holocaust).  Other courses will focus on specific approaches to the study of religions (the anthropology of religion—at ETSU: Religion, Culture and Society).  Another group of courses will focus upon critical and philosophical issues, either from within a particular tradition (eg. Buddhist Philosophy) or across traditions (Philosophy of Religion;  Religion and Ethics; or Women, Gender, and Sexuality in Western Religious Traditions). Major and minor programs of study typically require students to distribute course selection across religious traditions in different parts of the world and different approaches to the study of religion, so that students learn to think about religion as a cultural phenomena beyond their location within a specific culture, historical frame, or tradition.   Students should also expect to encounter and learn diverse methods of inquiry from across the academic disciplines that contribute to the study of religions. 

The Study of Religion in a Public University like ETSU

Public Universities such as ETSU create a special environment and special opportunities for the study of religion in a religiously diverse civil society and world..  This environment is partly a result of public institutions’ constitutional obligation not to promote any particular religion or religious ideas, but to maintain an open environment for inquiry in which any person, whatever their religious identity, background, or views, can study the whole range of religious traditions and practices, and study them through the methods of any academic discipline that yields insight and understanding.  To this end, no assumptions are made about scholars’ and students’ own religious outlooks or identities.  The religious traditions that we study are all approached by means of the same methods of critical inquiry.  No tradition, practice, or text, from any culture is beyond the bounds of study and critical examination.  Students’ liberty to entertain diverse ideas and views about them are respected, and the community of scholars should model civil tolerance and forbearance.  Some of the highest ranked departments and programs in religious studies in the United States are in public universities, including departments with Ph.D. programs, such as UNC-Chapel Hill, Virginia, Indiana, Iowa, UC-Santa Barbara, UC-Riverside, and Florida State.  Non-church-related private universities sometimes follow the same model as public universities in their programs of religious studies, including Princeton, Brown, and Stanford Universities.

Church-sponsored and related colleges may approach the study of religion with a view to articulating a confessional theological tradition, and to bringing its voice to bear in a broad range of scholarly conversations.  This is an entirely appropriate, though different, academic enterprise. Such programs of study typically focus on somewhat different issues in Biblical Studies, and may otherwise place more emphasis upon theology and ethics in a particular tradition.  These differences do not, in themselves, imply less or more rigorous standards of inquiry on the part of either approach to the study of religion. They may, however, be reflected in different kinds of courses and programs of academic study , different criteria of qualification for hiring faculty, and focus upon different themes in the context of otherwise similar looking courses. 

Some major private (and even non-church-affiliated) universities have programs of study that encompass both religious studies and theology.  Schools with such programs include Duke, Emory, and Vanderbilt in the southeast, and leading national centers for the study of religion such as Harvard, Yale, and Chicago.  In some cases, universities with departments of religious studies cooperate with theological schools to offer more diverse programs of study leading to the Ph.D.  Such schools include Columbia University (with Union Theological Seminary and Jewish Theological Seminary), UC-Berkeley (with the Graduate Theological Union) and the University of Pittsburgh (with Pittsburgh Theological Seminary).  Following this model, ETSU cooperates with Emmanuel School of Religion and the Institute of Buddhist Studies at the University of Katmandu in Nepal to make available to students additional courses and opportunities for study abroad! 

In the context of American civil society, it is a great blessing and advantage to have access to diverse institutions with diverse approaches to the study of religion.  ETSU can cooperate with institutions whose approach and priorities are different from ours because public universities, and their programs, are a meeting place on equal ground for persons and ideas from diverse backgrounds with diverse interests.  Providing this meeting ground is our role as a public university in the study of religion.