Although it may seem like a niche field, religious studies is actually a versatile degree program that opens the door to job opportunities across multiple industries. You might use a bachelor's degree in the field as a springboard to graduate studies in social work, law or business while others choose to continue to a master's degree or Ph.D. in religious studies.
Both undergraduate and graduate religious studies programs are available online, though the curriculum might vary depending on the institution. Some schools offer degrees that are intended for those of a particular faith. Others provide a broad look at religion across multiple faith traditions. Finally, some institutions may intend coursework to prepare you for specific religious studies graduate programs, such as those offered in a seminary.
With such a wide variety of religious studies degrees available, students should carefully review their options and select a school that's philosophy is most in line with their career objectives. To help you with that process, we talked to Dr. Gregory Hillis, religious studies Ph.D. and Continuing Lecturer at the University of California Santa Barbara, about his own religious studies degree and his thoughts on the discipline. Here's his valuable insight.
What to know about religious studies majors
Q: Why did you choose to major in religious studies?
Dr. Hillis: A great chain of seemingly random events. I suppose it didn't hurt that there were Buddha statues and many books on Asian art and religion such as the Daodejing (Tao Te Ching) lying around my parents' house when I was growing up. Also, the religious art of Tibet made a huge impression on me as a teenager. Have you ever seen it? It is impossibly colorful, dynamic, gorgeous, disturbing, erotic, terrifying, cartoonish, spellbinding, and psychedelic. I also read a variety of books on Buddhism and meditation in high school, and even met some Tibetan lamas, who were quite charismatic, all before leaving high school. By the time I got to college, I naturally gravitated to religious studies classes, and ultimately decided to make it my major.
Q. What was the most interesting part of your degree program?
Dr. Hillis: All three of my degrees (BA, MA, and Ph.D.) are in religious studies. To me the most exciting part of all three was the opportunity to learn the canonical languages so that I could read the ancient texts in their original languages (Sanskrit, Tibetan, Pali). It has also been extremely gratifying learning to speak modern Tibetan well enough to travel to India, Nepal and Tibet and discuss the subject matter of those texts in detail with indigenous religious scholars and practitioners.
Q. What was the most surprising thing about getting a religious studies degree?
Dr. Hillis: Perhaps the gradual realization that in the final analysis there is no meaningful difference between "culture" and "religion."
Q. How do you use your religious studies major in your career?
Dr. Hillis: In my case I use it every day, since I teach Tibetan, Sanskrit, and several classes in Asian religions in the UCSB department of religious studies.
Q. What's some advice you would have for a student considering pursuing a religious studies degree?
Dr. Hillis: If understanding the hidden and largely unconscious sentiments and motives of individual human beings and their societies is something a student thinks is interesting or important, I cannot think of a better field than religious studies. Where else can you delve deeply into the ethos, worldview, language, and myth of any and all cultures?
Sometimes religious studies is criticized for being "irrelevant" or "impractical," but I disagree. Many social, political, ethical, and even economic problems could be greatly reduced, avoided or even solved if more people were better informed and more sophisticated about their underlying religious/cultural causes. Thus, a religious studies degree has a direct application to a wide spectrum of human concerns.
For more insight into what a religious studies degree program and career path is like, check out our religious studies degree program page.
1. Faculty Directory, Dr. Gregory Hillis, University of California Santa Barbara, http://www.religion.ucsb.edu/people/faculty/gregory-hillis/
2. Email interview, Dr. Gregory Hillis, March 25, 2015