As a teenager in Catholic high school and church, Lauren McCormick of Toms River, N.J., was taught to look at the world in ways that centered around Jesus.
That was a dozen religion courses ago, including six in an esoteric field she now hopes to study for the rest of her life – ancient Near Eastern pagan religions.
A religion major at Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey, McCormick grew interested in studying all major faiths. “I could study for years on end and never get bored with it,” she said recently
Her fascination centered on 3,500-year-old Near Eastern beliefs after learning in her freshman year that their customs were similar to some Judeo-Christian traditions that involve seasonal rituals and certain views on divinity.
“The same elements are always there, but they take on different faces throughout different societies,” McCormick said. “We look to the same things to fulfill us religiously.”
McCormick, who just began her collegiate senior year, is one of more than 35 religion majors in Rutgers’ Class of 2006. That class is expected to have the largest number of religion majors in the religion department’s history, three times more than it did a decade ago.
That growth is part of a national trend of college students studying religion more intensely. A report from the American Academy of Religion said the number of religion majors increased 26 percent from 1996 through 2000, and that total enrollment in religion classes rose 15 percent.
An updated national survey is due next year, and anecdotal evidence suggests it will show more large increases, said Kyle Cole, president of the academy.
Last spring, 1,822 Rutgers students – majors and nonmajors – took religion courses, up from 1,279 in the spring of 2000, and 1,125 in the spring of 1995, department records show.
Professors cite three main reasons for the increases: 9/11 spurred many students to learn about Islam and their own religions; recent immigration has made Americans more curious about their new neighbors’ faiths; and Christian evangelical students seem more comfortable studying religion on campus.
“Since 9/11, it’s been very obvious that religion is a big player in the world and national events,” Cole said. “The more people understand religion, the better off our society and culture will be.”
Religion departments like Rutgers’ remain relatively small when measured against other departments.
Still, even non-majors are taking more religion classes to round out their courseloads, said Hiroshi Obayashi, chairman of Rutgers’ religion department.
The religion courses challenge students to think outside the philosophies of their own faiths, helping them understand why other religions have been embraced by millions of people around the world, McCormick said.
“One of my religious teachers, for Hindu philosophy, I’ll never forget the way he put it: He said it was an ‘exercise of your brain,’ ” she said.
At Rutgers, many who pick religion as a major, like Kenneth Lee of North Brunswick, N.J., choose it as a second major. Lee’s first major was psychology.
“Religion addresses certain core elements of people, of humanity, that can’t be addressed in any other (major),” said Lee, who graduated in May and wants to become a religion professor or a social worker. “It deals with the self, and the soul, man’s relation to the universe, man’s relation to fellow man.”
One reason the number of religion majors has not risen even higher, professors say, is because many students and their parents worry they won’t be able to get good jobs with the degree.
“Students here ask, ‘What can I do after I graduate with a religion major?’ Obayashi said. “That’s a legitimate question. … The only way we can answer that is, becoming a religion major is personally enriching, intellectually enriching, that’s for sure.”
“There’s no natural (vocational) track unless you become a professor or a priest or minister or something. But students are inventive,” he said. “Some of our religion majors have become medical doctors, judges … in the publishing industry, and we have one who’s been a federal prosecutor.”
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