The Academic Study of Religion

The academic study of religion is based on the fundamental distinction between studying about religion as a field of inquiry and being religious or a religious practitioner. Here at Gettysburg College, students can learn about many of the world's longstanding religious traditions, including Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, and Native American and Indigenous traditions.

Students learn different ways of understanding the phenomenon we call “religion,” and how to think about what drives religion in humans. Our department faculty teach and conduct research into religion with attention to the complexities of historical context and of the contemporary world. We explore systems of belief and practice across cultures and societies, and across time and space. To do this, we employ multiple disciplinary perspectives and approaches ranging from historical, comparative, phenomenological, ethnographic, philological (textual), sociological, to psychological.

We consider, for example, what is meant by the term “ religion,” a word rooted in European traditions that does not necessarily have counterparts in non-European languages. A “religion” is often thought of as a large scale “ism”—Buddhism, Judaism, or Hinduism, for example—but these terms are actually labels given to very complex phenomena. We train students to identify and analyze these phenomena in order to better understand the complexities underpinning some of the most pressing contemporary issues in global politics, technology, law and more.

“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.”

—Secretary of State John Kerry, announcing the Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives (part of the State Department) at the White House.