Why should I major in this subject?

Religion has been and remains to this day one of the most powerful forces shaping human history. The spread of religious movements and the clash of religious ideas have had a profound affect on the world's cultures, societies, and civilizations. Countless wars have been fought and lives have been sacrificed in the name of religion, and the role that religious beliefs play in contemporary conflicts continues to be substantial.

Religion, however, has been more than just a destructive and violent force. Many of the world's greatest thinkers, poets, and visionaries have been religious figures. Religion continues to serve as a rallying cry for social activism and support for those in need. For many individuals and communities, religion provides a framework in which to structure and make sense of their lives and experiences. Surveys consistently show that a vast majority of Americans believe in God and practice religion in one way or another.

Religion, far from becoming irrelevant in the modern world, continues to shape world events, national policies, daily life, and cultural production in communities throughout the world. Militant movements with religious overtones have altered the political landscape of the twenty-first century, and religion plays a critical role in conflicts in Bosnia, China, Indonesia, Ireland, Israel/Palestine, and Sri Lanka, to name but a few. The European Union is debating whether to refer to God in its new Constitution, and a U.S. court has objected to the mention of God in the Pledge of Allegiance. The debate in this country over teaching evolution in public schools and the propriety of abortion or contraception continues, and the federal government has begun funding faith-based organizations. Closer to home, religion has shaped the skyline of Morningside Heights and the schedule of days our streets are cleaned.

The way in which religion shapes human thought and action, human history and current events, is exceedingly complex and vital to understanding the world around us. The Columbia University Department of Religion invites you to join us in exploring these issues.

What are some useful first courses that I should take in order to get to know this field of study? When should I take them?

Students often discover the Religion Department by taking a course that is offered in the Global Core, for example Islam, East Asian Buddhism, or African-American Religious Traditions. These are all excellent introductions to the study of Religion at Columbia, as are our other 2000-level "traditions" courses.
Students looking for an introduction to the conceptual questions that religion scholars engage will find Religion 101 or Religions in the Modern World to be valuable beginning points. These courses engage students deeply into topics that religious studies scholars engage, namely exploring the central, sometimes perplexing and always fascinating roles that religions play in the complexities of social life in multiple contexts.
While the 2000-level courses offered in the Department are designed with students with little background in religious studies in mind, almost every 2000- and 3000- level course in Religion is open to undergraduates without prerequisites.

What are the major requirements?

For the major, beginning in the fall of 2007,  a minimum of 36 points is required:

Required Courses

  • 2 Introductory courses to religious traditions (2000 level).
  • 4 Intermediate Religion courses (3000 level).
  • 2 Advanced seminars.
  • 2 Related courses in other departments (must be approved by DUS).

Specialization Courses

Consult with the Director of Undergraduate Studies about selecting courses for your area of specialization.

Junior Courses

  • Junior Colloquia (4 pts)

Why do the requirements take this form?

The introductory course requirements allow students to gain an intensive overview into particular religious traditions or approaches to religion. Students then follow these introductions with more focused lecture-courses that provide opportunities for developing depth of understanding in a particular set of traditions, comparisons, or approaches. Advanced seminars provide an opportunity to develop a focus in a specific area while working in close connection with a faculty member.


In the course of the major, students are introduced to numerous methods in which religion is studied, and likewise multiple examples where "religion" takes quite different form, shape and impact. In this multiplicity, we expect each student to develop depth of knowledge about one or more religious tradition, approach to religion, or topical focus. They build this depth through courses and seminars in the department, two courses outside the department and, in many cases, senior thesis research.

The Juniors Colloquium, the only required course, brings all majors and concentrators in the same cohort together to explore the history of the study of religion and the major methodological approaches used in the discipline. As such, the colloquium also presents a platform for students to consider methodological approaches for engaging their own research in religion. Many religion majors write a thesis proposal as a final project in the colloquium.

Whom do I speak to about this major? How does the department structure its faculty for advising purposes?

For information about the major and initial guidance once your declare religion as your major, you should consult with the Director of Undergraduate Studies.

When should I declare my major?

Although students conventionally declare their major in the sophomore year, you should begin exploring the major as early as your first year—for a taste of what it would be like to major in religion—and you should have completed either a course in one of the major world religions or another introductory course such as Religion 101.

Before declaring Religion as your major, you should speak with the Director of Undergraduate Studies or another faculty adviser about your program of study.

What research opportunities exist in or through the department?

We encourage our students to find resources for independent research in religion and assist where we can in forming research questions that are interesting to other scholars in the field.  The most compelling research available to you is, in fact, the one you design for yourself. All majors are encouraged to write a senior thesis: each student who chooses to do so works closely with a faculty sponsor who provides guidance through all the steps of research and writing. Students who choose to write a senior thesis must connect with a faculty sponsor and submit a prospectus in the Spring semester of their junior year.

Opportunities for collaboration with faculty on their research pursuits also exist from time to time, depending on the match of student and faculty interests. Several faculty members in our department are working on collaborative projects with undergraduates and students occasionally publish research developed in collaboration with faculty.

Will study abroad enhance this major?

Absolutely.  The study of religion is comparative by nature and any cross-cultural contact, study, or experience will help you develop the critical perspective on human action that we teach in our classes.  While study abroad is itself an extraordinary educational experience, studying religion in a cross-cultural context heightens awareness of the cultural, social, and intellectual challenges that scholars of religion face. Study abroad also provides the opportunity to observe, absorb, and analyze the religious structures, buildings, and iconography of the region, and above all to investigate how religion is structured in the daily life of other cultures.  In some cases, students have drawn on field work or research while studying abroad in developing their senior research.

How might a sample track or course of study look?

Individual plans of study will vary according to the needs and interests of each student. Consult with the Director of Undergraduate Studies and a faculty member in your field of interest to build your own plan of study.

How does one receive departmental honors?

To be nominated by the departments’ faculty to the College Committee on Honors, Awards, and Prizes, which makes the final decisions on all honors’ recipients and awards, you must have maintained a minimum GPA of 3.66 in the major and have submitted a senior thesis of distinction.  No more than 10% of the department’s graduating majors may be granted departmental honors.

Many students consider writing a thesis to be the capstone experience of their undergraduate career, and the opportunity to write a senior honor thesis is open to all Religion majors, regardless of GPA. Students often choose to write a thesis in order to pursue an advanced topic in greater depth than is possible in courses or seminars.

If you wish to write a senior thesis, you must consult with a prospective faculty adviser and submit a prospectus and letter of support by a religion faculty member who will direct the thesis to the Director of Undergraduate Studies no later than the spring of the junior year. The prospectus (5-7 pages) should detail a research program and the central question or questions to be pursued in the paper, preparation for the thesis, and a timeline. The primary adviser of the thesis must be a member of the Religion Department faculty. You may apply for up to 3 credit hours of directed reading with your thesis adviser toward the major. 

What awards and prizes are sponsored by the department?

Although no awards or prizes are awarded directly through the department, you should consult “The Prizes and Fellowships” section of the on-line Bulletin for information about prizes in the humanities and social sciences for which you may be eligible.

Are there any student clubs, committees, and/or activities offered within or through the department?

The Religion Department does not currently sponsor any student clubs or committees. However, interested undergraduates are welcome to attend and participate in the rich public programming (events, seminars, special readings, film series) sponsored by the Institute for Religion Culture and Public Life which in recent years has sponsored lectures or exchanges with notable individuals including journalist Nicholas Kristof, writers Jonathan Safran Foer, Jennifer Egan and artist Laurie Anderson, comedian Lewis Black as well as seminars and conferences on religion and jazz in Harlem, Latin American Pentecostalism, secularism and toleration. For general information about clubs and activities, see the Student Development and Activities website.

What career opportunities follow upon study in this field?

Recent majors and concentrators are pursuing careers in documentary film-making, law, medicine, public policy, and teaching. Others are enrolled in graduate programs, including religious studies, the philosophy of science, English literature, and history. Religion studies majors graduating from Columbia command an impressive range of knowledge about Western and non-Western cultures and traditions, and exhibit great ability to analyze and interpret texts, social life, and cultures.

Whom should I contact about graduate study in this field?

The best place to start is by talking with the professor or professors in the department who specialize in the subfield or area that you are interested in pursuing. This, in many cases, your thesis adviser (we strongly encourage students interested in graduate school to write a thesis). In addition, each fall the department hosts representatives from Harvard and the University of Chicago who hold informal informational sessions about their graduate programs in Religious Studies. Contact the Director of Undergraduate Studies for more information about these events or watch for postings.

Related Links

Department of Religion