Religious Studies: A Guide for the Perplexed
The curriculum in Religious Studies is designed to allow students the maximum flexibility in pursuing their interests, while at the same time providing a strong academic foundation in the study of religion as a scholarly discipline. Many students develop their initial interest in Religious Studies as a result of taking HUM 124: The Ancient World, in which they encounter the religious history of ancient India, the story of the Buddha and Mahavira, the religious cultures of ancient Israel, and the origins of Christianity. In HUM 214, students discover the influences of Christianity on medieval European culture, survey the beginning of Islam and the Caliphates, and explore developments in South Asia.
Since the Humanities core courses provide all UNC Asheville students with some degree of religious literacy, the introductory course offered by the Religious Studies faculty – RELS 200: Introduction to the Study of Religion – seeks instead to equip students with some of the analytical tools that scholars use to study religion as an academic subject. Students read and discuss selections from classical theorists such as Rudolf Otto, Mircea Eliade, Sigmund Freud, and Karl Marx; as well as explore categories such as sacred space, myth and text, ritual and morality. All students who are interested in declaring a major or minor in Religious Studies should plan to take RELS 200 as one of their first RELS courses.
Because religion encompasses such a wide variety of phenomena that can be approached from so many methodological perspectives such as history, philosophy, literature, or the social sciences, there are few required courses within the thirty-five hours of course work expected of majors. RELS 280: Asian Religious Traditions is required for majors, but is also open to any interested student without prerequisite. RELS 312: Religion in America to 1865 and RELS 313: Religion in America Since 1865 are also required courses for majors, but again are open to any student.
Beyond these courses, students majoring in Religious Studies may take a variety of departmental offerings or even take courses outside of the department designated as "approved electives" for Religious Studies credit. The only requirement is that three additional hours of course work must come from each of the three distribution areas: Religions of the West, Religions of Asia, and Interdisciplinary Approaches to Religion. See the UNC Asheville course catalog for more specific information, including a list of the departmental courses and approved electives that fulfill these distribution requirements.
During the spring semester of their junior year, majors take RELS 398: Theory and Method in the Study of Religion, which fulfills the major and information literacy competencies and prepares them for RELS 490: Senior Research Seminar. Students should complete RELS 490 during the fall semester prior to their anticipated graduation date. The Senior Research Seminar serves as a capstone experience: students choose a topic to research in consultation with departmental faculty and then produce a final project (usually a written thesis) that utilizes some of the analytical tools and methodological perspectives that were first introduced in RELS 200. For more information, refer to the Senior Research Project page under the Curriculum menu.
Studying Religion in Asheville
When Travel and Leisure magazine in 2013 named Asheville one of the top ten college towns in the U.S., it neglected to mention the wide variety of religious practice in the area that makes the city and the region a living laboratory for studying religion as it is lived within a multitude of communities. From the impressive Roman Catholic Basilica of St. Lawrence in downtown Asheville to numerous Buddhist retreat centers in the surrounding countryside; from Wiccan and Celtic circles to various chanting and meditation groups, Asheville offers a diversity of religious life that is unusual for a town its size. Special Collections in Ramsey Library holds many archival materials, including a significant collection of manuscripts and publications that document Jewish life in western North Carolina. A few hours away are the rapidly expanding Hindu, Jain, and Islamic communities of Charlotte and Atlanta. And for many students, the mountains and other scenic wonders of western North Carolina offer their own type of sacred space.
Mark Twain once wrote that "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness." In an effort to expand their understanding of religion as it is lived and practiced in cultures throughout the world, one-third of our majors have participated a study abroad opportunity. Over the past few semesters, Religious Studies majors have spent a few weeks in Italy, entire semesters in Japan, Ghana, India, and Spain, and over a year in Prague. During the semester break in 2011-12, Professor Kate Zubko served as a faculty member for UNC Asheville's first study abroad experience in India, accompanied by a number of Religious Studies majors. The department supports these endeavors by offering academic credit for courses taken abroad.