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U.Va. Students Demonstrate Strong Interest In Religious Studies Not Just At The Holidays, But Throughout The Year

December 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.

U.Va.’s 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.

Student 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.

"It's gratifying to see how much interest undergraduate students show in religious studies," said Gamble, who studies early Christianity.

"The 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 today’s students."

Like 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 to undergraduates.

While 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.

"We're 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."

The 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.

But 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

chaired professorships and other faculty positions, to fund graduate fellowships and to support other departmental activities, such as visiting scholars and symposia.

In 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.

Gamble 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.

New 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.

The department is also supporting and contributing to a new interdisciplinary undergraduate major in Jewish Studies that was launched this fall.

Contact: Charlotte Crystal, (804) 924-6858

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: please contact the Office of University Relations at (804) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.
SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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