Students Demonstrate Strong Interest In Religious Studies Not Just
At The Holidays, But Throughout The Year
15, 2000 -- As
final exams draw near, students may add hasty prayers for divine
intervention to their studying routines. Many University of Virginia
students go a step further, demonstrating a year-round interest
in religion and spirituality.
religious studies department, the largest of its kind among U.S.
public universities, offers several perennially popular classes.
Both the "Introduction to Eastern Religion" and "Introduction
to Western Religion" courses draw approximately 300 students
each semester. The "Theology, Ethics and Medicine" and
"Religious Ethics and Moral Problems" courses also garner
similarly high enrollment.
interest in such courses, particularly in the religious traditions
of other cultures, has grown steadily over the past decade, according
to Harry Gamble, professor of religious studies and department chair.
Each year between 2,500 and 3,000 students -- including 150 to 180
majors -- register for religious studies courses.
gratifying to see how much interest undergraduate students show
in religious studies," said Gamble, who studies early Christianity.
growth in our enrollments hasn't come at the expense of Christianity
and Judaism, in which interest remains strong, " Gamble said. "I
think it stems from an increasingly global awareness on the part
of todays students."
some religious studies programs at other American public universities,
the U.Va. department was founded in the mid-1960s. Over the past
30 years, the department has grown from four to 26 full-time faculty
members whose expertise covers the broad array of world religions
-- Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism and
African religions as well as many topical courses, such as "Women
and the Bible," "Myth and Ritual," "Human Genetics,"
"Ethics and Theology," and "Evil in Modernity."
With cross listings from other departments and interdisciplinary
courses, the religious studies curriculum offers more than 150 classes
programs elsewhere tend to take a theoretical approach to the study
of religion, the U.Va. department takes a tradition-based approach,
Gamble said. Religions are studied in depth on their own terms.
Rather than working from the top down, trying to apply abstract
concepts to different religions, the faculty work from the bottom
up, exploring the histories, literatures and institutions of individual
religious traditions. Only after exploring those factors do the
faculty ask how general theories and categories may apply.
generating a new method of doing comparative religion," said Peter
Ochs, the Edgar M. Bronfman Professor of Modern Judaic Studies.
"Instead of imposing abstract terms on religions, we bring pairs
of religions into dialogue and observe the kind of language those
practitioners use to understand each other. So two by two by two,
as we compare religions in depth, we are generating a new vocabulary."
many strengths of the department have not gone unnoticed. For the
past decade, the undergraduate program in U.Va.s religious
studies department has been ranked first or second in the country
by the Gourman Report, which rates undergraduate programs at universities
nationwide. And in the most recent National Research Council report
(1995), U.Va.'s doctoral program in religious studies was ranked
first among public universities and sixth overall.
the department is not sitting on its laurels. As part of the larger
College of Arts & Sciences campaign, the department is seeking
to raise $6 million to establish
professorships and other faculty positions, to fund graduate fellowships
and to support other departmental activities, such as visiting scholars
particular, Gamble's wish list includes faculty who could add to
the offerings in Chinese religions, Islamic studies, Jewish ethics,
medieval Judaism, and Hinduism. In addition to increasing the offerings,
a larger faculty also would enable the department to offer smaller
classes to undergraduates.
would like to improve the department's ability to enroll top graduate
students who are attracted to U.Va. because of the caliber of the
faculty, but who can't afford to study here without financial support.
funds also would enable the department to foster interdisciplinary
research and the development of new, interdisciplinary courses in
such fields as history, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, ethics
and literature. For example, the department will create a "Religion
in American Democracy" course, which should open for enrollment
in the fall of 2002, Gamble said.
department is also supporting and contributing to a new interdisciplinary
undergraduate major in Jewish Studies that was launched this fall.
Charlotte Crystal, (804) 924-6858