Ten Ways to Apply Religious Studies After Graduation
“So what are you doing after you graduate?”
That question is among the most common inquiries that religious studies majors receive. For those less familiar with the field, it can be puzzling as to why someone would major in such a subject. Oftentimes majors are assumed to either be going into ministry positions or unskilled office work. While some graduates may choose those routes, most do not. Explaining our field is an ongoing project, but here are some starting points for thinking about how religious studies majors can apply their degrees.
1) Law, public policy, foreign relations/business, or government positions.
Many legal systems (including the United States) have complicated relationships with religion. On one hand, the ideals and norms that undergird laws and concepts of justice are frequently drawn from religious systems, either partially or completely. Additionally, societies which endeavor to protect religious freedom invariably end up needing legal specialists to evaluate or defend that principle in specific cases.
When it comes to international relations, governments and businesses often find themselves needing religion specialists. Imagine the State Department trying to operate without knowledge of religion, or a major corporation trying to break into a foreign market without understanding how people there think, live, and interact with one another! (Religion can alter business ethics, calendars, staffing, loan policies, etc.) While many students may find personal value or growth in taking religious studies classes, at the heart of the field is the effort to understand the many ways that others incorporate religion into their lives and societies.
“In fact, if I went back to college today, I think I would probably major in comparative religion because that’s how integrated [religion] is in everything that we are working on and deciding and thinking about in life today.”
—Former Secretary of State, John Kerry (2013)
2) Non-Government and Non-Profit Organizations.
NGOs and non-profits frequently work to achieve specialized social or humanitarian goals. Religious studies students—particularly those with a background in ethics—may find themselves marketable to agencies working to create social change. Whether it is political activism, refugee resettlement, disaster relief, or social assistance for populations needing aid, a religious studies degree can offer helpful skills for advancing, understanding, and evaluating NGO/non-profit work. These include communication skills, sensitivity to differences, specialized knowledge of religious communities, expertise in religious ethics, as well as skills that supplement work like grant writing, research, and fundraising.
3) Nursing, Health/Medical Sciences, and Psychological Care.
How people think about bodies and boundaries is an important subcategory within religious studies, and one that has obvious relevance for medical services. Many formal religions have restrictions as to what can and cannot be done with human bodies. Jehovah’s Witnesses, for instance, typically prohibit blood transfusions. Insulin—most often made from pig pancreases—may be problematic for Jewish or Muslim patients. Some patients may involve religious ritual as part of their medical practices. Religious literacy is therefore essential to those seeking to work in the medical fields, as it can offer insight into particular needs for diverse populations.
Additionally, given the wide-ranging array of beliefs, emotional orientations, and ritual behaviors, a working knowledge of religion can be incredibly helpful to psychologists. Religion can interact with individuals’ self-understandings both positively and negatively, and can guide individuals’ approaches to socializing with their world. Recognizing when a patient’s attitudes, ideas, or feelings may be related to a broader religious framework can be helpful to psychologists who wish to help.
4) Primary, Secondary, and Post-Secondary Education.
For those seeking to teach young children or teenagers, a knowledge of religion can be advantageous. Religion is a common and normal aspect of many parenting styles, and kids will bring those aspects with them to the classroom. An awareness of how and why students think the way they do can be an asset to educators. Teachers may also find themselves preparing students to meet a diverse world, both in and outside of the classroom.
Post-secondary education is the largest job sector for those holding PhDs in religious studies. Many (if not most) universities offer at least some courses in religious studies and need skilled professors to teach these. (In some cases, community colleges or regional campuses may only require a master’s degree to teach.) A religious studies degree can offer a gateway to graduate programs not just in religion, but also History, English, Sociology, Anthropology, and other disciplines in the humanities.
As a minor or second major, religious studies can offer marketing students an interpretive specialty that few business students pursue. Marketers strategize to promote new markets, new products, and boost sales. Religious studies teaches students how to interpret the attitudes, ideals, and values that various people hold, and sometimes hold quite deeply. Combining religious studies with marketing can offer marketing students a very specific skill set that allows them to recognize potential hazards, assets, and trends in their markets of interest.
6) Research and Archival Records Management.
For those seeking to do research—whether historical, sociological, statistical, or anthropological—religious studies can be an asset. As a significant sphere of human culture, religion affects many other aspects of society (politics, diets, hierarchies, values, etc.). A background in religious studies can bolster research in these other areas, and offer frameworks for understanding results.
There are many archives in the United States and around the world that need specialized religious knowledge to operate. Often this involves not just a knowledge of how to categorize or interpret records, but also language knowledge (Arabic, Hebrew, Chinese, etc.)
7) Creative Fields.
For those students pursuing creative goals (such as writing, music, etc.), religious studies can offer insight into provocative and challenging styles of communication. Many religious studies experts have noted the high traffic in symbols commonplace within religious systems. Students who learn how those symbols work and communicate meaning may find themselves in a position to apply that knowledge to creative fields. Additionally, understanding how religions can shape societies can be helpful to those interested in writing fiction or film. Musicians or artists may find wrestling with religious mysticism to be an asset to song writing. The tropes found in religious stories can also be useful for thinking about related concepts in one’s own writing.
Journalism requires a different type of creativity than writing fiction, fine art, or music, and so religious studies is valuable in different ways. Much as with research (see section six), journalists may find a working knowledge of religion to be a boon. A sophisticated understanding of religion can be the difference between a responsible and well-written article or a mediocre one; conversely, a lack of religious knowledge can produce naïve, uninformed, or unhelpful writing. Understanding religion can also be useful to those interested in political or wartime journalism given how frequently politics and religion overlap.
9) Clergy and religious services.
Although most students choose to apply their religious studies degree in secular fields, some students feel called to serve in an explicitly religious capacity. Many seminaries expect students to have some religious studies background (and some seminaries require it!) Additionally, religious studies can be helpful for those seeking to become religious instructors, charity workers, hospital chaplains, or parachurch organizers.
10) General intercultural and social competence.
At the end of the day, what religious studies offers students is not just technical knowledge about various religions, but the critical thinking and interpretive skills to navigate an ever-changing world. Religious studies teaches students how people think, act, and socialize together. It highlights important elements of cooperation, conflict, and cognition. It teaches students to empathize with difference, and to reflect on one’s own assumptions and attitudes. It also produces skilled writers, arbiters, and thinkers. Whether students choose to go into business or fine arts, law or education, medicine or non-profit fundraising, religious studies offers graduates a robust and beneficial skill set.
“The most important attribute that the academic study of religion offers to our students is even more vital and far more concrete: the ability to understand others. In a world in which we are increasingly exposed to difference of all types, what could be a more vital skill for navigating the future?”
—Prof. William Gruen,
Muhlenberg College (2016)