Syracuse University’s new Religion and Society Program
Syracuse University’s new Religion and Society ProgramMarch 31, 2003Kelly Homan Rodoskikahoman@syr.edu
Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences has unveiled a new interdisciplinary program that will provide students with an opportunity to study the pervasive role of religion in contemporary society-from national politics and international relations to economic development and popular culture.
The Religion and Society Program, which will be offered for the first time during the Fall 2003 semester, will be available to undergraduate students as both a major and a minor. Course requirements are aimed at providing students with an understanding of several major religious traditions on their own terms, as well as perspectives on the social and cultural roles played by religion in various periods and places, and on particular aspects of human cultures such as politics, violence and group identity.
The major and minor in Religion and Society are designed to encourage study of the interaction of religion with other aspects of public affairs, such as politics, diplomacy, law and business on the basis of a broad understanding of various religious traditions.
James Watts, associate professor of religion in The College of Arts and Sciences and director of the Religion in Society Program, says the program may be especially useful to students in the professional schools and colleges on campus who are interested in pursuing careers in many areas, including journalism, international relations, law, government or foreign service.
“We think that in this time, when religious conflict headlines the news, this program will put SU on the cutting edge of educational responses to a rapidly changing world,” says Watts.
The program, which was designed with the goals of the University’s Academic Plan in mind, includes more than 50 courses and involves 29 faculty members from eight departments in The College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Architecture and the College of Law. Courses are broken into two areas: traditions, and religion and society. The traditions area is comprised of religion courses that will provide a foundation for study. The religion in society area is broadened to include related interdisciplinary courses. Majors must choose four courses from the traditions area and four from the religion and society area (the remaining two courses needed for the major can be chosen from either area). Minors must choose three from each area.
Watts says that the program’s courses are all currently offered on campus. “We could identify at least 20 faculty members, not in the religion department, who were teaching courses with a religion component,” says Watts. “Through the program, we are bringing people together with a common purpose.”
Milton Sernett, professor of African American Studies in The College of Arts and Sciences, says he is glad to have his course on African American Religious History positioned in the Religion and Society Program.
“My course is particularly well-suited, for the religious experiences of African Americans are best viewed through the lens of history, that is to say religion as embedded in the social experience of being a people attempting to construct meaning in the midst of the struggle for freedom and justice. Religion is always engaged with experience-making an understanding of the historical and social context essential.”
Margaret S. Thompson, associate professor of history, says that current world events have underscored the relationship between religion and politics. Also, religion is a key factor in American politics-abortion and sexuality are just two of the many examples where religion and politics intersect.
“As citizens, when we come to understand events, ideas and issues, we do so on the basis of all sorts of factors,” Thompson says. “Religion is one of those factors.” It is important to understand how religion affects our own response, she says, and also the responses of the key decision makers in the United States and around the globe.
The Religion in Society Program was in the planning stages well before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, says Richard Pilgrim, associate professor and chair of the Department of Religion. Those events, he says, emphasized the need for and appeal of this kind of interdisciplinary program.
“We are very pleased by the positive response from the University and from the other faculty members, whose courses and expertise are necessary for the success of this program.”
Watts is hopeful that the program will be expanded in future years to include graduate students, more faculty members and the development of new courses.