A growing number of college students are opting to major in religious studies rather than in such traditional areas as business and science. The trend, already striking, may well become larger in coming decades as an influx of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and other religious minorities further diversifies the U.S. population away from its Jewish and Christian roots.
In the 1994-95 academic year, more than 44,000 freshmen at 427 U.S. colleges and universities declared religion or theology as their major, according to a study published by the American Council on Education and the University of California at Los Angeles Higher Education Research Institute. Likewise, a 1995 study of 251 colleges, conducted by the Association of the Chairs of the Departments of Religion, cited a 36 percent increase in enrollment of undergraduate religion majors over the preceding five years. Along with the new interest in religion has come an evolution in curricula.
At one time, religion departments typically taught Christianity from a Protestant perspective, noted Hans Hillerbrand, chairman of the religion department at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. "Now," he said, "there is a richness of offerings. ... We try to combine serious academic work with questions that the students are concerned about," such as those pertaining to the meaning or priorities of life and the relationship of individuals to the community. Such courses as religion and law, religion and ethics, religion and medicine, religion and psychology and religion and film "try to probe the religious and ethical question of human existence."
Lonnie Kliever, chairman of Southern Methodist University's religious studies department, pointed out that undergraduate religion enrollment doubled this year at SMU. …