An interdisciplinary field of study that bridges the humanities and social sciences, the academic study of religion involves much more than the ideas and practices associated with the world's most well-known religious traditions. In addition to exploring public and private concerns that seem explicitly religious, students learn how seemingly secular political affairs, organizations, and conflicts have developed through religious beliefs, behaviours and rituals.
By the time they graduate, every concentrator possesses a number of skills that are essential to the humanities and humanistic social sciences. Those skills include a strong ability to convey complex ideas and argument in writing, an ability to draw upon evidence and interpretations generated through close readings of primary and secondary texts, and an ability to apply scholarly insights to students' everyday worlds.
But students also develop and refine these skills in the context of knowledge more specific to Religious Studies. That knowledge includes a deep and empathetic understanding of varied aspects of human life, such as forms of ethics, community, obligation, and concepts of selfhood. This knowledge orients the development of skills such as writing, interpretation, and application by attuning students to aspects of social life and modes of media that other disciplines often overlook or misrepresent—including sacred scriptures, spiritual experiences, and forms of violence that invoke religion.
Most students begin their studies in Religious Studies by taking an Introductory course (0-1999). These courses often involve general introductions to religious traditions or to major themes in the study of religion. Many courses at Intermediate (200-999) and Advanced courses (1000 and above) level focus on particular topics or themes.
Yet as we explain in our discussion of courses, our courses do not have prerequisites, and students who are new to the academic study of religion often find that the topics featured in Intermediate and Advanced courses provide excellent points of entry into Religious Studies. Feel free to reach out to the instructor of a course if you are not sure that a particular course is right for you. And reach out to the Director of Undergraduate Studies (Prof. Daniel Vaca) to discuss any questions about how to begin engaging Religious Studies.
As detailed in Brown's Bulletin, a concentration in Religious Studies includes a minimum of nine semester-long courses. Those nine courses include only two required courses:
- RELS 1000 (Theory and Method in the Study of Religion). Students usually take RELS 1000 in their junior year. This course engages and explores major conceptual questions in the study of religion, many of which students already have encountered less directly in other courses. This course helps equip students with knowledge and methods of analysis that will enrich their studies in more advanced courses or independent research, including an honors thesis.
- RELS 1995 (Capstone Seminar). Students usually take RELS 1995 in their final year. It provides a setting for students to reflect explicitly on what they have learned in Religious Studies and to generate a project that distills or builds on the ideas and issues they find meaningful. Those projects take a variety of forms; some students pursue creative projects such as podcasts, for example, while others complete a portion of their honors thesis. The variety of forms that these assessments take reflect the many ways that concentrators in Religious Studies understand and apply what they have learned.
Among a concentrator's seven elective courses, they must have at least two Intermediate courses (0200-0999) and two Advanced courses (above 1000). We also encourage students to develop familiarity with diverse forms of religious life. Although we do not require students to take a particular number of courses dedicated to a particular assortment of religious traditions, we ask concentrators to ensure that their seven course include the study of more than one religious tradition or culture.
Courses cross-listed from other departments and courses listed in other departments but taught by Religious Studies faculty count toward the program of study automatically. Students who transfer to Brown, study abroad, or otherwise petition to include Brown courses not cross-listed with Religious Studies must complete at least five courses in Religious Studies at Brown.
Up to two courses taught by faculty in other departments also can count toward the program, as long as you can justify the relevance of those courses to your course of study in Religious Studies. See the FAQ for more information on having a particular course approved.
Throughout your course of study, concentrators are encouraged to continually articulate and cultivate their primary questions and thematic interests in dialogue with the Director of Undergraduate Studies or relevant faculty advisors. In the final year of study, concentrators will undertake a capstone project that builds on those questions and interests. Capstone projects can take the form of an honors thesis or another project devised within the Capstone Seminar (RELS 1995). Those projects take a variety of forms. Some students pursue creative projects such as podcasts, short stories, or scrapbooks, for example. Other students produce more conventional academic essays or complete a portion of their honors thesis. The variety of forms that Capstone Projects take reflect the many ways that concentrators in Religious Studies understand and apply what they have learned.
Mentorship and Advising
The Department of Religious Studies is deeply dedicated to ensuring that concentrators feel seen, supported, and known. We practice this principle not just by offering a high number of smaller seminars, where you will have closer contact with faculty members, but also through committed advising. In addition to receiving advising from the Director of Undergraduate Studies, concentrators are assigned a concentration advisor whose interests relate to your own.
Faculty regularly offer opportunities for collaboration with undergraduate students. Collaboration can occur on undergraduate-led projects (e.g., UTRA projects) as well as research assistance for faculty-led projects.
Although we welcome and encourage students to declare Religious Studies as a primary concentration, many students also find it to be an ideal second concentration. This is because the study of religion generatively complements a wide range of other fields of study, from Economics and Sociology, to Classics and English. Dual concentrators often write honors theses in Religious Studies that also draw on their expertise in their other concentrations. The Director of Undergraduate Studies would be happy to discuss complementary courses of study with you.