Meaning of Life 101, with a Minor in Cheese

Four years ago, when I told my parents that I was planning on majoring in religion, I didn’t know that I was just being trendy.

A friend just sent me this article from last week’s Newsweek Education section about how majoring in religion has become an increasingly popular choice among American college students. According to the article, and much to the chagrin of parents, who might expect their children to major “[in] something useful, like economics or premed,” and not as frivolous or “esoteric” as philosophy or religious studies, the number of undergrads making this choice has doubled over the past four decades, increasing especially after 9/11.

While I’m disappointed that the article seems to imply that my religious studies education was apparently both the victim of Protestant and “elitist scholarly biases,” it seems to recommend the field for anyone “earnestly interested in the Meaning of Life.”

But is that what this is really about? Are these students simply soul searching? And what do they “do” with this degree?

When author Lisa Miller asked a professor of religion at Macalester College, she received the following response:

Graduates … tend to be people who want to do good in the world. Though a few do go on to pursue Ph.D.s in religious studies, the great majority find service jobs in education, social work, nursing, and nonprofits. Others follow an unconventional path. One recent graduate ‘opened a cheese shop down the street that is booming.’

While anyone who still believes that a college major necessarily determines one’s occupational future is simply being naive, the legacy of religion majors should not be cheese shops. It seems to me that the reason why religion majors’ numbers have been increasing since the 1970s and since 9/11 is that knowledge of religion has necessarily become a vital tool for understanding the world. When you look at it that way, religious studies doesn’t seem like such a crazy idea after all.

Jessica Miller graduated from Barnard College in 2009 with a BA in religion, and is psyched to finally have an answer to the question, “so what does one do with a religion major?” Her writing has appeared on Jewcy, Mashable, and the Huffington Post.  In her spare time she can be found sailing, playing music, and blogging about boomerangs.