Our Department is dedicated to the academic study of religion, offering courses in the fields of American religious history, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism, as well as introductory courses, comparative courses, and courses on methods and theories in the study of religion.
Religion is a major aspect of every human culture. In all civilizations in the world, religion helps shape the institutions of law and government, influences family and parenting practices, plays a major role in attitudes toward medicine and science, and resonates in the creative work of artists and writers. At an individual and collective level, it helps provide answers to some of the biggest questions and dilemmas of human existence. The study of religion is a diversified and multi-faceted discipline focusing on the study of specific religious traditions and the general nature of religion as a phenomenon of human life, including the cultures around the world and ancient as well as modern, in an inquiry that involves a variety of textual, historical, phenomenological, social scientific, theological, philosophical and artistic methodologies.
Religion is, of course, a major source of controversy and inspiration in politics, art, economics, literature, and history. One cannot hope to understand on-going events in Middle-East politics, the Sri Lankan Civil War, recent insurgencies in Thailand, Indonesia, the genocide in Sudan, or even the electoral politics in America without knowledge of religion. Of course, the controversies over science and religion, as well as religion and law are often front-page news. Moreover, artists, musicians, filmmakers, and writers throughout history like T.S. Eliot, Dante, Toni Morrison, Tagore, Tupac Shakur, Euripides, Rumi, William Blake, Margaret Mead, John Updike, Yukio Mishima, Tolstoy, Leonard Bernstein, John Coltrane, George Lucas, Einstein, Gandhi -- among thousands of others -- have been troubled and inspired by their study of religion.
Simply put, it is impossible to be a well-informed student of the humanities and social sciences without a study of religion, and students would be well-served in their academic and later life by a systematic study of the role religion and its study plays in history, society and politics.
A brochure of course offerings for each semester is available at the Department office prior to preregistration for that semester. Courses are also posted online.
Since religion is important for the majority of the world’s population, majoring or minoring in Religious Studies is an excellent way to learn about a culturally diverse world. It can also be an excellent way to think about the meaning of life—to learn about how other people understand today and have understood in the past, the meaning of life and to develop your own views on this most fundamental of questions.
Both the Religious Studies major and minor are extremely flexible, which means that it is easy to shape it to serve one’s particular interest, whether that is to learn about a particular religious tradition, to explore the intersection of religion and politics, or to gain cultural background that will make you a better teacher, lawyer, doctor, counselor, artist, journalist, or leader. With some planning, it is not difficult to combine a Religious Studies major or minor with other majors and minors.
The Religious Studies department, like Penn in general, is a secular and pluralistic institution, and the faculty are committed to studying religion with the tools of academic scholarship. This means that we do not seek to promote religion in general or convert students to a particular religious viewpoint. Our goal is to help students better understand religion as a part of human experience through the study of history, ideas, culture, behavior, texts, and other media of communication.
For more information on our department and the major and minor in Religious Studies, please feel free to contact our Undergraduate Studies Chair, Steve Weitzman.
I often say that if I headed back to college today, I would major in comparative religions rather than political science. That is because religious actors and institutions are playing an influential role in every region of the world and on nearly every issue central to U.S. foreign policy."