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Major Change at the U,
Degree in Religious Studies

University of Utah undergraduates may now spend their college years focusing on Dante and Buddha, Zoroastrianism and Zionism, Martin Luther and Joseph Smith, the Bible and the Quran -- and everything else related to the world of faith. Read the Salt Lake Tribune article, dated July 17, 2012

On Friday, the state Board of Regents approved the addition of a religious studies major to the flagship school's options. It follows a religious studies minor that the U introduced several years ago. Last year, the number of religious studies minors tripled from five to 15, according to the proposal the regents approved. It also said that 10 more have been cleared for it. "The minor was going so well, we decided to move toward a major," Robert Newman, dean of humanities at the U, said in a phone interview. "Religion is central to a multicultural society. It's a natural for our college."

New Undergraduate Degree

This new undergraduate degree will prepare students to address religious issues in two ways, the proposal said. It will "familiarize students with other traditions in order to prepare them to live and work in a pluralistic and global society" and "provide students with analytical tools that would equip them to better interpret events and public discourse, taking into account religious references, ethical values and cultural identities." It is a "compelling proposal and certainly a need within our curriculum," Newman said. "I am delighted to see it achieve fruition.

For the new religion major, students can take classes from faculty throughout the school, including English, philosophy, history, art, Middle East studies and others. That is also how the major works at Utah State University, which launched its own religious studies program in 2007 and now has upward of 40 undergraduates, said Philip Barlow, who directs it. Barlow applauds the U's move, noting that the school will have the region's fourth such program, after USU, University of Wyoming and Arizona State. For a long time, Barlow said, "people were afraid that the academic study of religion would surreptitiously foster or undermine religious commitment." The U's move, he said, suggests "a maturing of the field and the culture." To Barlow, it's a vitally important field of study. "No force in human existence may eclipse religious motivations in how people live their lives," he said. "At the least, it ranks right there with economics."

Salt Lake Tribune Editorial further discusses the Religious Studies Program. Studying Religion-U Program Meets a Need "In religion and politics, people's beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from others." -- Mark Twain Join the Discussion Post a Comment It seems about time for the University of Utah to offer a major in religious studies. The U's program will not be the first in Utah -- Utah State University has that distinction -- but will be fourth in the Intermountain West -- behind USU, the University of Wyoming and Arizona State.

Meeting a Need for U Students

It seems about time for the University of Utah to offer a major in religious studies. Nonetheless, the U is rightly meeting a need for its students, and the new program is almost certain to be popular, both among those seeking a degree in the field and for others who want to add to their understanding of this important topic.

In Utah, especially, religion and its importance in culture and its influence on government are hotly debated. U graduates should be able to participate in those discussions. A background in the history of the world's religions and an understanding of various doctrines are essential for framing the future role of religion in students' lives and communities. The major is a natural outgrowth of the university's existing minor in religious studies, which has grown rapidly from five to 15 declared students, with 10 more qualifying for the minor course. The proposal accepted by the Utah Board of Regents states the major "will provide students with analytical tools that would equip them to better interpret events and public discourse, taking into account religious references, ethical values and cultural identities." Since life in Utah, headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, sometimes seems to revolve around religious influence, it's important for students to be able to take the long view about the proper role of religion -- any specific religion or no religion at all.

The USU religious studies program recognized its first graduate in 2007 and has attracted top-notch professors. Its classes are packed. Filling the Leonard J. Arrington Chair in Mormon History and Culture, Harvard-educated Philip Barlow is the first person to be specifically hired at a public university to study the history and culture of Mormonism.

At the U, the program will help students "live and work in a pluralistic and global society" as the regents were told. And that's exactly what a university should do.

Last Updated: 9/30/19