The work of the department of Religion Studies at Muhlenberg College is the academic investigation of religious traditions in their thought and practice. Faculty and students study cultural and intellectual responses to basic questions of life and meaning. Our discipline, exploring essential aspects of human experience, is inherently cross-cultural, multidisciplinary, and analytical. Its geography is global; its chronology extends from antiquity to the present. We analyze texts, beliefs, rituals, arts, communities, cultures, and their integration into coherent worldviews. Our methodologies as well as our content interact with disciplines spanning the liberal arts curriculum from the humanities to the social sciences to the sciences.
Why Study Religion?
Religion has reemerged in recent years as a vital, dynamic, and irrepressible element of cultural life, both nationally and internationally. As a consequence, the need to understand the diverse religions of the world has become more urgent rather than less, contradicting what many observers predicted a generation ago. It is not possible to understand today's pluralistic and interconnected world without knowledge of the religious traditions that lie at the foundation of distinctive cultural outlooks worldwide.
Majors in religion studies have the opportunity to deepen knowledge of their own religious heritage while exploring those of others cross-culturally. Pondering the basic questions of humankind and how they have been addressed through history, while refining critical and analytical skills, remains the heart of a liberal arts education, and this enterprise is central to the study of religion. Students of religion explore some of the most fascinating areas of human endeavor, imagination, hope, and faith, and inquire into the many understandings of the divine, or ultimate reality, and manifestations of sacred practice across cultures. Religion is a field of study that is both personally rewarding and highly relevant in its applications to the contemporary world.
Religion studies majors and minors are well equipped to enter any field requiring a solid liberal arts preparation, including teaching, law, diplomatic service, human services, journalism, and business. Some pursue graduate studies in religion or a related field, while others choose to enter seminary. The skills acquired in the study of religion may be applied widely, and the special expertise provided by the major will prove invaluable as we enter the twenty-first century in an increasingly volatile world of intercultural encounter.
History of the Religion Studies Department
The study of religion at Muhlenberg College had its start with the college itself, which was founded as Allentown Seminary in 1848. College requirements for those first students included Christian Morals, Bible History, and the study of Biblical Antiquities. When the seminary became Muhlenberg College in 1867, the tradition of Bible Studies was continued, and a Department of Bible and Religion was in place by 1882.
In those early years, the study of religion meant what was called a scientific study of Christianity and its practice. By 1929, a course in the History of Religions was taught using a comparative perspective and tracing the development of various traditions including, but not restricted to, Christianity. The Psychology of Religion was part of the curriculum as well. At times in the past, Philosophy was a part of the Department of Religion Studies, but since 1953 Philosophy and Religion have been separate departments, recognizing the differences in methods and content in the two disciplines.
Initially course offerings in the Department of Religion Studies reflected the Protestant Christian character of the college and its student body. Today the department has a more pluralistic approach. In keeping with the enormous changes in the world and the increasing controversy surrounding religious issues,the department has sought to provide students the opportunity to image explore new dimensions of religion. Just as the college, mindful of the larger world and its challenges, seeks increasing diversity in its own faculty, staff, and students,so the department seeks greater diversity in its programs and course offerings.
As a result of these changes, students of religion at Muhlenberg may now study not only the three major religious traditions of the West—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—but also the Eastern religious traditions of India, China and Japan. Courses consider topics such as the Holocaust, the relationship of religion to politics and literature, and the relevance of gender to religious belief and practice. While retaining its commitment to biblical and historical studies, the department encourages students to take advantage of course offerings in diverse areas of inquiry in religion studies.