The Major in Religious Studies

The Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania offers both a broad introduction to the study of religion and highly specialized training in several religious traditions and theoretical approaches. There are eight core and over 30 affiliated professors teaching courses on Religious Studies. Majors will work with internationally renowned scholars of Religious Studies and have the advantage of being at an institution that teaches over 65 languages and houses some of the finest libraries and museums in the country. The size of our department allows new majors to begin their studies with the benefit of guidance allowing them to tailor their major/minor program. Easy access to world-class libraries and museums allow students the opportunity to conduct serious research. Our faculty will help each student design a plan of study that will not only give them the foundations in the field, but also suit their individual ambitions and interests. To this end, instead of dictating which courses a student must take and at which level, the major is designed in consultation with each individual.

A first step is to meet with the Undergraduate Chair when first declaring a major to discuss your interests and to work out an approach to your studies. The Undergraduate Chair helps you plan courses and introduces you early on to professors with the relevant expertise to assist you in shaping your undergraduate learning experience at Penn. Your coursework will be based in the Religious Studies department itself, but religion-centered courses offered by other departments may be counted toward the major with the approval of the Undergraduate Chair. 

The Religious Studies major allows you and your faculty advisor/s to work out an individualized plan of study. Any plan should encompass the study of at least two religious traditions, and should provide you with a solid background in the approaches and methods of the discipline of Religious Studies. The plan of study must take account of more than one approach to the study of religion (historical, anthropological, philological, art historical, etc.) and contain at least three intermediate-high level courses (2000-5000 level courses).

We encourage students to be both creative and discerning. As you explore the field of Religious Studies, you may revisit your choices and foci in consultation with the Undergraduate Chair. In other words, your plan of study is not set in stone; it is intended as a roadmap for your intellectual journey in the department and can be altered as your interests grow and change.

A Religious Studies Major requires twelve courses including (not in addition to) a Religious Studies seminar and the Culminating Experience independent studies course (see below).  A typical course of study will include:

  • 3 entry-level courses (courses with course numbers between 0-1999)
  • 3 intermediate or advanced courses (2000 or higher)
  • 1 Religious Studies Seminar in addition to the intermediate/advanced courses
  • 1 Culminating Experience Independent Studies course (or the two-course honor thesis sequence)
  • 4 elective courses in Religious Studies


Religious Studies Seminar

The Religious Studies Seminar requirement is meant to ensure that students have an opportunity to pursue original research as part of their educational experience within the department. It can be fulfilled with any Religious Studies course at the 2000 level or higher which is identified as a seminar in the course list and entails a research paper or research project. Such seminars are normally taken with a member of the core Religious Studies faculty, but other courses may be used to fulfill this requirement with the consent of the Undergraduate Chair

The Culminating Experience

Students are also required to complete an independent studies course entitled The Culminating Experience. Usually taken in the final year of the major, it is meant to lead to a project—a paper or some other project—that builds on what the student has learned in their Religious Studies coursework. In some cases, and upon approval by the department, the student may choose to write an honors thesis as their culminating experience. In other cases, a student will conduct an independent research project or advanced one-on-one reading course with a professor of her/his choosing. Two or three students may even propose to design a joint “culminating experience” course in which they conduct an ethnographic field project, work on a documentary film, and interview several important religious figures or scholars. These projects or theses will be publicly presented to the faculty and other majors at the annual Department awards ceremony. This symposium is not a final examination or public defense of a thesis, but an exciting event in which each graduating major presents their work in a casual atmosphere.

We strongly encourage, but do not require, study abroad coursework, as it contributes to the department's aim to broaden your intellectual horizons. Study abroad coursework may be counted toward the major with the approval of the Undergraduate Chair. Up to two language courses may also be counted with the approval of the Undergraduate Chair, provided the course is focused on the study of religious texts (biblical Hebrew, Quranic Arabic, Sanskrit, etc.). If you can demonstrate that the study of a modern language is essential and directly connected to conducting undergraduate research (that is, for the completion of your Culminating Experience), it is possible to receive credit for one modern language course as well.

Honors Thesis

In lieu of the Culminating Experience course, a student may opt to write an honors thesis under the supervision of a faculty member. This process entails two courses, an independent studies course followed in the next semester by an honors thesis course, to be taken in addition to the 12 courses required for the major (In other words, if you commit to writing an honors thesis it will take 13 courses to complete a Religious Studies major with honors)

To receive Honors, you must have at least a high B in the concentration and at least a high B on the honors thesis. The Undergraduate Chair must approve any proposal to undertake Honors requirements beyond the regular major.


In the final semester before graduation, and after completing all required courses, including the Majors Colloquium and Culminating Experience, each student will prepare and present a portfolio and conduct an exit interview with the undergraduate chair. Before the official interview, each student must complete the short survey and compile a portfolio featuring at least three works from their undergraduate courses of which they are most proud. This could be research papers, course presentations, film or art projects, field reports, book reviews, or other assignments. In the interview they not only orally respond to survey questions, but describe these three works and why they chose them.  The Graduating Senior Survey is an open-ended questionnaire which asks graduating seniors to evaluate their experiences in the program and to propose improvements. We find that suggestions from our majors on how to improve the program greatly benefits future students.

After graduation, majors will be given the option to participate in an Alumni Survey on a regular, ongoing basis. This is a questionnaire which asks alumnae and alumni to evaluate their experiences in the program in the context of their "real-world" experiences.