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U. students looking for world experience can soon major in religious studies

Published: Friday, Aug. 3 2012 5:49 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah State Board of Regents has approved a new religious studies major at the University of Utah.

The number of students minoring in the religious studies program is small but grew threefold in the past year, allowing the college to add the major in the fall semester because of student demand.

Robert Newman, dean of the College of Humanities, added the religious studies minor four years ago, saying it was something that he realized could be a magnet for students.

"We have a number of faculty and students that had interest (in the major)," Newman said.

Students will now have the opportunity to earn a bachelor's degree in religious studies, joining other schools in the region that offer the degree including the University of Wyoming, Arizona State University and Utah State University.

"It means that students study religion from various disciplinary approaches, (like) sociology, anthropology for instance," said Muriel Schmid, the director of religious studies. "It is not only about a comparison between various world traditions."

The College of Humanities will house the major, which allows students to take several other classes in the field of study, such as philosophy, political science, arts and history.

Currently the minor draws from 13 different departments and programs.

Newman said student interest is not just in religion, but also in gaining valuable experience in complex international affairs.

"I think the interest for the study of religion is twofold: to acquire intercultural skills and to acquire tools to analyze cultural phenomena where religion plays an important role," Schmid said.

Jordan Rainey, 28, graduated from the U. in May of 2011 in comparative literary and cultural studies, which is evolving into the religious studies major. He described the major as a study in humanity through different angles, with religion being the oldest study.

"It was for me an immense experience," Rainey said. "It gave me a bigger view of the world."

His major allowed him to take classes in Hebrew, which also helped him see more perspectives in the world aside from his own.

The major is looking to adopt students from the religious minor and other majors that use religious studies.

In a proposal written by Schmid to add the major, he referred to a recent study conducted by the American Academy of Religion that found that "the proportion of the world’s population that claims membership in the world’s four largest religions — Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism — actually increased over the past century, from 67 percent in 1900 to 73 percent in 2005. The number is predicted to reach 80 percent by 2050."

However, Newman said that the popularity of the major was not the same a decade ago. With virtually no interest in the discipline, the college needed a clear trajectory of growth and a good prediction of student interest in order to add the major.

The college saw an immediate interest in the field of study after the minor was added and shortly after he started evaluating if a major could be put into place, Newman said.

"It takes time for the students to gain interest in the major," he said. "The major has come of age."

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