Religion Department

Whether you are a skeptic or a believer, it’s hard to deny the influence of religions in the world. There is no answer to the question of what it means to be human that does not intersect with religion.

The manifest power and pervasiveness of religion in the “real world” stands in inverse proportion to its miniature status in the university, where religion is often reduced to a personal matter of belief or a product of its sociopolitical environment. The work of the Religion faculty and students at Reed aims to correct this inverse relationship. We approach religions as the ground on which people answer profound and practical questions about collective identity, the nature of reality, legitimacy of power, or the purpose of existence. Because people’s answers to these questions have differed across cultures and times, we do not ascribe to a particular theory of religion as universal. Rather, the department’s curriculum teaches students the skills needed to empathetically understand and critically explore the diverse ways humans shape and make sense of their worlds. To achieve this aim, the department approaches Religion both as an interdisciplinary (or multidisciplinary) field of study and as a discipline with its own distinctive questions and methodologies.

Intrinsically Interdisciplinary and Cross-Cultural

The interdisciplinarity (or multidisciplinarity) of Religion as a field of study is rooted in the dynamic role religious beliefs and practices play in shaping subjects studied by other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, such as art, literature, economy, politics, built spaces, laws, culture, psychology, and public health. In exploring the power and dynamism of religions in human lives, the department thus employs a variety of philosophical, social scientific, literary, aesthetic, and historical modes of analysis, which makes the major one of the most intentionally interdisciplinary and cross-cultural majors at the college.

Taking Gods Seriously

As a discipline, Religion takes gods and spirits seriously as entities with which humans live and make worlds. It approaches religions as media of expression through which different religious peoples communicate and relate to one another in time and space. By examining various religions globally, relationally, and in terms of their plurality of lived expressions, the discipline of Religion works to develop analytical concepts and cross-cultural methodologies for understanding the diverse ways humans have understood their worlds and explained themselves through gods, prayers, devotional objects, divinations, acts of worship, scriptures, images, and storytelling.

"What are you going to do with that?"

Despite its vast diversity and enormous complexity, many believe they intuitively know what religion is. It is not uncommon for Religion students to feel like they need to defend the “academic” nature of their pursuit to family and friends. This is unavoidable given that religions have been built into our world to address problems regarding the nature of truth, existence, and authority in ways that are equally communicable to a curious five year old as they are to an aging sage. The upshot of the pervasiveness and power of religion in the “real world” is that anything one plans to pursue in life beyond Reed will have a religious dimension to it that rigorous interdisciplinary and cross-culture training in Religion is bound to illuminate and advance in distinctive and productive ways.