Many people remember a 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case as one that banned school-sponsored devotional Bible readings. What's often forgotten is that same case, Abington v. Schempp, actually opened the door to religious studies in the public schools. For those fearful of transgressing the First Amendment by even mentioning the topic, the court actually said such study was not only constitutional but that "education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion."
That led to a steady growth of religious studies at public universities since the 1960s. The last time this was measured by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, in 2007, the nation's universities produced more than 5,000 graduates with religious-studies bachelor's degrees and nearly 5,000 more with minors in the field. They taught more than 5,000 graduate-level students, some in degree programs, some not. Everything from the 1960s fascination with Eastern religions to the post-Sept. 11 interest in Islam fueled interest in the field. A more recent trend has been to study not just comparative religion but to launch specific degree programs in Judaism, Islam, Catholicism and other faiths.
So it's significant that the University of Pittsburgh is cutting its graduate-level religious-studies program. Two other humanities programs, classics and German, are still walking the plank but have a chance of being preserved. My colleague Bill Schackner has the story here.
"These are very difficult times for universities and the real budgetary concerns that prompted these proposals are not likely to go away any time soon," wrote Patricia E. Beeson, Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor at Pitt.
While the announced cut of the grad program doesn't say anything about the fate of undergraduate religious studies, those universities with graduate programs in the field have significantly larger faculties than those without, according to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences study.
John Fitzmier, executive director of the American Academy of Religion, a professional association of scholars in the field, said religious-studies programs have faced cutbacks in public universities in other states.
"In some cases we’ve had modest success with letters saying, 'Please, try something else,'" he said.
Advocates for retaining religious studies positions, he said, have stressed the importance of understanding today's diverse religious world in fields as diverse as medicine and diplomacy. (As far as the latter is concerned, I've often heard it said that the 1979 Iranian revolution and subsequent hostage crisis involved a failure by U.S. diplomats to grasp the religious drama unfolding in Iran.)
Mr. Fitzmier said the number of tenure-track professorships in religious studies has actually increased since the depth of the recession, but there remains a backlog of doctoral graduates seeking positions.
"We hear about the pressures on humanities all the time," Mr. Fitzmier said, lamenting the news that German and classics are also on the chopping block at Pitt -- from which he graduated in 1973 with a minor in religious studies and a major in math education.
"That kind of says it all in terms of the humanities," he said.
"Some of it is based falsely on the notion that humanities undergraduates don’t make as much money as people in professional programs like accounting or business," he said. "There are all kinds of studies on why that's not so obvious."
Many humanities students, in fact, go on to well-compensating careers, with a surprising number of religious-studies grads going into medicine -- where the taboos and sensitivities of various religious groups are increasingly important to understand.
But beyond career preparedness, many "are trying to make the case that the study of humanities is really important for American culture, and to have a strong citizenry we need not just the sciences, not just business, but a well-rounded education."