By: Zoe Olesker
When I tell people that I am majoring in Public History and minoring in Religious Studies, the first thing they say is typically about their own faith: “That’s wonderful. I read the Bible and go to Church on Sundays.” This is a learning experience, as my mom says. People don’t really know what Religious Studies means. They have a very clear idea of History when I say that’s what I’m studying, but people hear “Religion,” and they think “Theology.”
I am a proud product of the Catholic education system. I credit it for having formed my religious, moral, and ethical foundation. It taught me about Theology, but it did not teach me much about Religion. Theology is the faith-based study within a religion, while Religious Studies is the analytical study of Theology, religious institutions, and those who practice them. This is a big reason as to why I wanted to study religions at a secular institution.
In Religious Studies, I have studied a variety of religions across time and space. I have learned how people practice their religions through courses like “The Quran and Islam,” how religion operates in the world in courses like “Sex and the Bible,” and the experiences of various religious groups in courses like “Race and Religion.” In Religious Studies, I have deepened my knowledge of religions, learned about the influence of religion in different societies, and developed my appreciation for religious diversity. Now that I have made the case for Religious Studies, one might ask why it matters as someone earning a History degree.
Simply put, religion is the primary motivator for people, rivaled perhaps only by wealth and power. Regardless of what one’s religion might be or how religious one is (including not at all), personal belief (or lack of) in something that transcends the material world educates every decision we make: the clothes we wear, the way we interact with others, the threshold of risk and danger we’re willing to endure, the wars we wage, the way we spend our money, the way we vote during elections, the way we speak, the way we cut our hair, the things we eat, the media we consume… Religion (again, and a lack of) affects everything. Historically speaking, religion has educated fashion, media, war, colonization, enslavement, abolition, legislation and law enforcement, marriage practices, economy, literacy, and education, and so many other facets of life across time and space. Religion affects everything.
By studying religions, we study the world’s inhabitants: our neighbors and our strangers, then and now. It allows us to critically understand what people believe, how beliefs have developed, how beliefs have spread and interacted with others, and what we are to do with the results. I have researched and written on American nativism against Irish Catholics, how the origin of the Quran affects Muslims over a thousand years ago and today, and how holiness in the Bible, through the study of Ancient Near East cultures, cannot be achieved without hospitality and justice. I can study human history through the lens of what makes us uniquely human – the belief in something greater than us, how this belief has affected our relationship with each other for better and for worse, and where we ought to go from here.