The Study of Religion at Penn
“...it might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion.”
United States Supreme Court Justices Clark and Goldberg
in Abingdon v. Schempp
The Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in a variety of specializations within the study of religion. With particular strengths in the study of Christianity, Judaism, African-American religions, Islam, and Buddhism, the department emphasizes descriptive, historical, critical and theoretical approaches to the study of religion. The department maintains close ties with a large number of other programs and institutes at the University of Pennsylvania and beyond, and provides students with access to a wealth of library, museum and linguistic resources. At the same time, Penn's Department of Religious Studies is a small body in which students receive a great deal of individual attention from faculty members and the opportunity to interact with students from diverse subfields. Within this context of extensive resources and personalized guidance, each student works with an advisor to design his or her own course of study.
The Department of Religious Studies has a number of advantages over many other undergraduate programs. First, our core faculty shares research foci and skills in the study of material culture (art, manuscripts, archaeology, inscriptions, and other primary historical sources). As experienced researchers in archives, museums, and in the field, we are well-suited to lead serious students in intensive research to better prepare them for graduate study which requires research and evaluation skills. Moreover, the Philadelphia area is the center for a number of archives and special collections which students can use firsthand. To this end, we continue to build on our existing relationships with the Penn Museum and local material culture collections in the religiously rich city of Philadelphia (as well as in New York City, Baltimore, and Washington DC). Second, in cooperation with the Penn Language Center and other departments, the core faculty can help majors gain a high degree of proficiency in both a classical and vernacular language. Majors are able to take multiple levels of many languages (see a partial list below) to help them do research in archives and in the field. Third, the department is highly interdisciplinary. There are almost thirty faculty members at Penn which are affiliated with the department. These affiliated faculty come from humanities, fine and performance arts, and social science departments. This allows us to welcome double majors in related fields l(such as Art History, Anthropology, Near Eastern Languages and Literatures, and many others). Of course, we are not only focused on majors who plan to go onto graduate study in Religious Studies. Indeed, our faculty has the breadth to help students learn about religion more broadly. Whether engaged in research or in introductory study. undergraduate majors are encouraged to consult experts from multiple fields. Fourth, the department has been a pioneer in the incorporation of computer technology in the humanities and creatively uses interactive video, discussion boards, immersive websites, and visually intensive lectures. Fifth, the core faculty members are all accomplished authors and translators. Each is committed to ensuring that our majors are highly skilled writers and critical thinkers.
Why Study Religion?
Religion is a major source of inspiration, meaning, and controversy in human culture, informing history, politics, economics, art, and literature. It rivals trade as a major trans-national force across the globe. One cannot hope to understand world history and literature — or current events like Middle East politics, the recent insurgencies in Thailand, the genocide in Sudan, or US presidential elections — without knowledge of religion. Debates over science and religion, as well as religion and law, are often front-page news. Throughout history, inquiry into religions has inspired and troubled artists, musicians, filmmakers, and writers — including T.S. Eliot, Dante, Toni Morrison, Tagore, Tupac Shakur, Euripides, Rumi, William Blake, Margaret Mead, John Updike, Tolstoy, Leonard Bernstein, John Coltraine, George Lucas, Einstein, Gandhi — among countless others. Religious ritual and belief are also among the most powerful forces uniting past and present, shaping memory and identity from generation to generation, and across millenia.
Religious Studies is a diversified and multi-faceted discipline focusing on the study of specific traditions and the general nature of religion as a human phenomenon. It spans cultures around the world, ancient as well as modern. It also combines a variety of methodologies — including but not limited to textual, historical, literary, social scientific, philosophical, and art-historical approaches.
It is impossible to be a well-informed student of the Humanities and Social Sciences without a study of religion. Courses in Religious Studies provide excellent preparation simply for living life in a pluralistic society and global culture, and a Minor or Double Major can also enhance studies in a broad range of other disciplines, including politics, medicine, business, and law, as well as history and literature.
Majoring in Religious Studies can provide excellent training for a variety of careers, such as law, teaching, counseling, business, journalism, politics, writing, medicine, and the arts. Our department encourages students to become well-informed and independent thinkers prepared to learn and engage in scholarly research techniques — including collection of information and distillation and analysis of data with the help of critical skills and methods. The Major requires students to pay close attention to the facts through careful and unprejudicial reading of texts, have an open attitude toward sources, and make close observation of individual and group behavior. Students also apply critical analysis and interpretation of literary and material data, based on appropriate theoretical and methodological tools, and communicate findings and conclusions clearly and effectively through expository and analytical writing and oral presentation. The department faculty seeks to develop in students a number of important, valuable, and transferable skills required by any profession or position.