UC Berkeley faculty members work to resurrect religious studies program

Paolo Harris Paz/Staff

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UC Berkeley discontinued its religious studies program in 2017, making it one of two campuses in the UC system to not have a major in religion. Some campus professors are looking to change that.

This year, a group of faculty members working under the dean of arts and humanities and the Berkeley Center for the Study of Religion has worked to design a new major in religion, which the faculty members hope will open to students for fall 2020.

“Religion is one of the most powerful forces shaping the modern world, as recent events from Sri Lanka to New Zealand have shown, not to mention cases currently pending before the United States Supreme Court,” said UC Berkeley history professor Ethan Shagan, who is working to revitalize the religious studies program, in an email. We do a huge disservice to Berkeley students if we don’t once again let them major in this fundamental field of human engagement and inquiry.”

According to Shagan, the professors working to bring back the program hope the new major will consist of a highly interdisciplinary curriculum incorporating the humanities and social sciences.

He added in his email that the study of religion is essential in other academic fields such as anthropology, literature, history and cognitive science.

The faculty members involved in reviving the major also hope the program will be popular, especially as thousands of campus students take courses in religious topics each year.

“Our committee (is) extremely excited about the intellectual content of the major we’ve been designing,” Shagan said in his email. “We are certain that it will be popular.”

Sarina Shohet, a campus junior and the founder and president of the Interfaith Action Initiative, added in an email that many of the campus religious studies programs were moved to the Graduate Theological Union, or GTU.

The GTU focuses on providing individuals with interreligious and interdisciplinary perspectives on religion, according to its website. It also works to equip leaders with an ability to think critically and within certain ethical frameworks all of which GTU claims to be “essential to building a more just, peaceful, and sustainable world.”

Shohet said in her email that the GTU is a “great institution” that puts together a wide range of events and facilitates “ever present discourse.”

“Unfortunately, (religion) is not as emphasized or central to student life, especially undergraduate student life,” Shohet said in her email. “I think it should be.”

Talha Mirza, a first-year campus law student and a co-president of the Berkeley Law Muslim Student Association, said he hopes the major will be flexible and allow students to choose a concentration so they can study “whatever religious vein” they want.

Mirza added that students should be able to write a senior thesis so they can study one specific facet of religion in great depth.

“Religion, politics and race are not things people want to talk about. But they’re three things that really shape our discourses,” Mirza said.

Mirza added that studying religion can help society “get to the root” of different challenges and ongoing debates, including the discussion about allowing women to choose what to do with their own bodies.

Both Mirza and Shohet said the study of religion is critical to dispel different stereotypes and preconceived notions people have about different religions.

“The more we do deny (religion’s) role, the less people know, and the more misinformation, stigmas, stereotypes, and hatred are allowed to circulate,” Shohet said in her email, adding that a religious education has the ability to unite people.

She also emphasized the importance of understanding different religious beliefs. She pointed to a specific example in which she brought up the seven days of creation to her roommate, who had never heard of the concept.

For Shohet, this kind of understanding is just as essential as understanding different political ideologies and economic systems.

“Religious beliefs are often just as, if not more, fundamental to their societies,” Shohet said in an email. “If we want to be educated professionals one day, we should know the main forces that drive our societies.”

Shagan said in his email that before the program is launched, the faculty members in support of the project, who would be working outside their home departments, want to be fully confident in the administration’s support for the program.

Shagan added that while many students take courses on religious topics each year, the new program is still going to need funding.

The structural difficulty of running a major without a department is what brought the old major in religious studies to an end, according to the email from Shagan. He added that the program had to either rely on the central campus to provide money to hire temporary lecturers or “twist the arms” of faculty members to leave their home departments to teach religion.

Both of these options, however, became increasingly challenging because of the financial crisis that struck in 2008. As a result, the major in religious studies was eventually discontinued.

“This is super, sincerely, utterly sad to me,” Shohet said in her email. “At the best public university in the world? Doesn’t really add up to me.”

Shohet added that she is greatly appreciative of other campus requirements, especially the American cultures requirement.

Shohet also feels, however, that students should also have to take a course in religion.

“We can’t deny how big of a role it plays in our world,” Shohet said in her email. “Look around! There are places of worship on every street corner. Even in Berkeley. The more we do deny religion’s role, the less people know.”

Contact Mallika Seshadri at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @SeshadriMallika.