Top Religious Studies
The goal of religious studies is to explore various world religions to gain an understanding of the differing cultural perspectives that guide humans' relationship with a higher power. Programs may focus on Christianity , rabbinical studies, holistic theology, pastoral counseling or other types of classes that examine theological expression and spirituality across the globe.
Religious studies and theology teachers are honored by the American Academy of Religion, which has more than 10,000 members at some 1,000 colleges, universities, seminaries and schools in North America and abroad. Recent winners of the AAR Award for Excellence in Teaching fill leadership roles at schools including the following:
- University of Northern Iowa (2012)
- Union Theological Seminary-Presbyterian School of Christian Education (2011)
- Emory University (2010)
- Episcopal Divinity School (2009)
- Le Moyne College (2008)
Classes taught by these prize winners touch on wide-ranging topics including life and death, religion and ecology, the spirituality of healing and American church history. Some religious studies schools may take a secular approach, with topics such as philosophy, sociology, anthropology, psychology and the history of world religions. Below are some of the different religious studies courses available.
Although as of this article’s publication date, no comprehensive rankings of religious studies programs are available, U.S. News & World Report did provide rankings of the universities with the best programs in philosophy—which may include a religious studies focus. In their 2012 rankings, U.S. News & World Report named the following five universities as the best schools with philosophy programs and degrees:
1. University of Oxford
2. University of Cambridge
3. Harvard University
4. University of California, Berkeley
5. Princeton University
Learn about religious studies courses and focuses
Holistic theology studies
Some natural healing-focused institutions offer an alternative approach based on holistic theology and a quest to understand the harmony of mind, body and spirit. Courses may discuss how the divine mind integrates with science and physics, and studies can include parapsychic phenomena, metaphysics, naturology and even quantum cosmology.
Pastoral counseling studies
Rather than relying on the religious aspects of spiritual counseling alone, the study of pastoral counseling also includes classes in psychology and other behavioral sciences. When seeking a school for pastoral counseling studies, look for accreditation from organizations like the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education.
Shamanic studies may focus on connecting with spirit guides through trance, drumming, wilderness quests or meditation. This approach seeks to communicate with and entreat spirits to provide healing and harmony.
Spiritual counseling studies
Spiritual counseling studies can be centered on addictions therapy, grief therapy, couples counseling, life coaching or other subjects, with classes such as channeling, angelology, energy healing or intuitive development. A spiritual counselor learns to take a holistic approach to assist those seeking a state of contentment and harmony.
Religious education schools may offer basic Bible study courses or advanced degree programs in world religions. The idea is to focus on specific religions, including doctrines, beliefs, customs, rituals and rites, history and the role of the clergy. Bible schools and Christian colleges provide an education that aims to assist missionaries, ministers, church musicians, teachers and others.
Theology students can learn about God through current and historical perspectives; this approach may complement studies in subjects such as divinity or philosophy. More information on graduate schools for theology studies is available from groups like the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada.
World religion studies
Students explore varying belief systems and philosophies in courses about the religions of the world, including Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism and many other denominations.
Careers related to religious studies
Individuals typically seek religious studies for personal enrichment or as a step toward careers in the clergy. Clergy members lead religious worship and perform other duties for a certain religious faith or denomination, while offering spiritual and moral guidance and support. Types of clergy include priests, ministers, pastors, rabbis, preachers, chaplains, rectors, vicars, imams and so on. Those with a religious studies background may also choose to work in non-profit or community organizations.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), national earnings for clergy reached a median annual wage of $44,140 in 2011, with the lowest 10 percent earning up to $23,570 nationally and the highest 10 percent earning up to $78,420 nationally (BLS.gov, 2012)
Nationally, the industries with the highest level of employment for clergy in 2011 included religious organizations, hospitals, home health care services, nursing care facilities and state government. The top-paying employers as of 2011 were the federal government (executive branch) and individual and family services. The highest-paying states for this occupation in 2011 were the District of Columbia, California, Colorado, Massachusetts and New Jersey (BLS.gov).
Learn more about religious studies schools
Prospective students can browse through available programs, request information from schools and compare course descriptions. It's worth doing some research so students can find the best religious studies schools for their individual needs and goals. Online programs may offer flexible schedules allowing students to work at their own pace. Potential students should check that their school has been accredited by professional accrediting organizations, such as those approved by the US Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.
American Academy of Religion