Are you thinking of studying Religious Studies?

Image shows prayer flags flying from a temple.

Religious Studies degrees come in a variety of forms.
They can include a comparative study of different religions around the world, targeted at students of any religion or none. They can focus more in the direction of Theology or Divinity, which focus primarily on the study of Christianity, and – though students do not have to be Christian to study those subjects – these degrees are often taken by students who are interested in becoming church leaders. Many Religious Studies degrees in the UK fall somewhere between the two.
While this means that it’s particularly important for Religious Studies students to investigate the exact courses of the universities they’re interested in, there’s usually a reasonable choice of modules – so you can tailor your degree to your particular interests and needs.

What kind of things can I expect to study?

Image shows a Bible, open to the Psalms.
The study of the Bible is likely to be compulsory.

In British universities, it is frequently the case that the study of Abrahamic religions and their associated texts is compulsory, while the study of other religions is possible through the student’s choice of optional modules. Modules on religious history, Bible studies and philosophy are also often compulsory.
Beyond this compulsory foundation, Religious Studies degrees can vary quite widely, from ethics to Biblical Hebrew. Other optional modules might include ‘The Spirit of Utopia: Critical Theory, Politics and Religion’ (Nottingham), ‘New religions and alternative spiritualities’ (Lancaster), ‘Dead Sea Scrolls: Texts and Contexts’ (Birmingham), ‘Emotions, Symbols and Rituals’ (Cardiff) or ‘Science and Religion’ (Leeds). Because of the wide range of optional modules available within most Religious Studies courses, it is possible for students to choose courses to match their own interests – whether that’s the Christian tradition, the spread of atheism, agnosticism and alternative spiritualities, or something else entirely.

What do I need for a Religious Studies degree?

Image shows a mosque.
Students of Religious Studies can be of any faith or none.

Importantly, what you don’t need for a Religious Studies degree is any particular religious faith or religious conviction. Atheists and agnostics rub shoulder on Religious Studies degrees with people from a wide variety of faiths and depths of conviction; it’s also perfectly fine, for instance, to study Religious Studies as a baptised Christian with some belief in God but who doesn’t attend church other than at Christmas. For degrees with a more significant component of Theology, students need not be Christians but will certainly have to have a lot of interest in the Christian faith, and be comfortable with learning about it from the perspective of believers.
What is essential, however, is that any prospective student of Religious Studies be tolerant, open-minded and respectful towards other faiths. Like any humanities degree, discussion and debate in seminars are an important component of the learning process, and students who are not comfortable with their views being respectfully challenged, or who are not capable of addressing the views of others in a respectful way, may struggle with this process.
Regarding specific A-level choices, universities usually do not specify required subjects for Religious Studies. A-level Religious Studies is not a requirement, though it may help inform students about whether the subject would suit them at university level. Students would certainly be well advised to take at least one essay subject, in order to obtain the reading, writing and research skills required for a humanities degree.

What skills will I acquire?

Religious Studies offers students an excellent grounding in all of the skills of a humanities degree, such as academic research, clarity of thought, writing skills and the ability to discuss difficult issues calmly and well. In addition, Religious Studies helps develop empathy and compassion in that students become more aware of the principles and thought processes shaping the lives of others around them.

Will I get to travel as part of my degree?

Image shows a statue of a bull at a temple.
Lancaster University offers students the chance to go to India and learn about religion in contemporary Indian life.

Travel is not a compulsory part of a Religious Studies degrees. Though there are exceptions, many degrees do offer a study abroad option – usually to European or North American universities.
Some courses, such as Ancient History and Theology and Religious Studies at Leeds, will permit you to spend a year in industry part-way through your studies, which can help boost your career prospects on graduation.

What careers are possible with a Religious Studies degree?

A Religious Studies degree isn’t required for any career other than teaching Religious Studies.  The demand for Religious Studies teachers is reasonably high, as it is frequently a compulsory subject at faith schools, leading to approximately 10% of employed Religious Studies graduates working in education. Other population careers for Religious Studies graduates include the legal, social and welfare professions, as well as advertising, marketing, human resources and sales. Theology is, for some, the route into a religious vocation, such as missionary work with a religious charity.

Related degrees

Prospective students of Religious Studies may also wish to consider:

  • Philosophy – this may suit students who are interested in parts of Religious Studies such as ethical debates, but who don’t want to focus entirely on religion.
  • History – much of the content of Religious Studies is effectively History, as students explore the development of religions and how they came to take their modern shape.

A final thought on Religious Studies

Image shows the choir of a typical English church.
Religious attendance in the UK has fallen significantly.

The religious landscape of the world has changed hugely in the past 150 years. In Britain in the mid-19th century, approximately half the population were regular churchgoers; now less than 7% of the population attend a religious service regularly. This is at odds with a global landscape where only about a sixth of people are atheists and often leaves us struggling to understand the actions of states and individuals that are strongly motivated by religion.
Given these circumstances, the understanding of faith in general and of the tenets of specific faiths that Religious Studies provides us with can be absolutely vital in understanding the world around us. Religious practices of one kind or another are found in practically every society on Earth, and to understand them gives us an insight into a vital aspect of human existence.

Image credits: banner; Psalms; mosque; bull; church.