MTSU to be first public university in Middle Tennessee to offer religious studies major

Story and Photo by Eric Goodwin / Contributing Writer 

Beginning Fall 2017, MTSU will offer a Bachelor’s degree in religious studies through the College of Liberal Arts. It will be the only program of its kind at a public university in Middle Tennessee.

The Board of Regents approved the program in November 2016. Previously, students could only minor in religious studies through the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies in the College of Liberal Arts.

Assistant professors Rebekka King and Jenna Gray-Hildenbrand  will oversee the program. Both professors played key roles in formulating religious studies at MTSU.

Religious studies is about “cultural literacy and religious literacy- that ability to understand, interpret, describe, analyze and critique various religious traditions,” according to Gray-Hildenbrand.

“A lot of the time the confusion people have is that they assume religious studies is going to be theology,” King said. She said that the program is unlike some colleges because MTSU takes an “interest in how religious people” answer theological questions, opposed to offering answers to those questions.

“We’re interested in what people do with the existence of God, or what people do with the idea that God doesn’t exist,” King said. “We’re interested in the way that religion has an impact in people’s social world.”

Gray-Hildenbrand said that any MTSU student planning to interact with other humans in the workforce should consider religious studies.

“In our increasingly multicultural society, we are becoming so diverse, just here in Murfreesboro and at MTSU. When (they) graduate from MTSU, we want our students to be able to work in a culturally diverse environment,” Gray-Hildenbrand said.

Students involved in religious studies at MTSU have the opportunity to learn about religion outside of the classroom. For example, the introductory religious studies course RS 2030: Religion and Society takes trips to various religious sites around the community.

Gray-Hildenbrand said that curiosity is paramount to religious studies students. “That’s usually what gets people in our class,” she said.

“One of the things we work really hard on in our introductory course is a lot of self-reflexivity,” King said. She said it’s important for students to be able to set aside their own beliefs on “how the world ought to be” in order to look at world religions more objectively.

Neither professor went to college with the purpose of studying religion.

King, who frequently saw diverse religious communities in Toronto where her mother was from, went to college not for religious studies, but for the purpose of studying English. She said that she found herself frequently studying the religious developments of the characters she studied in novels and “very quickly gravitated toward religious studies.”

Gray-Hildenbrand, after deciding chemistry wasn’t a good fit, took courses she was interested in and found that religious studies was perfect for her. “I wanted to think about religion in a different way,” she said.

Ethan McHugh, 21, is the president of the Religious Studies Association at MTSU. His current major is Philosophy, but he will graduate with a degree in Religious Studies, having already taken many of the religious studies courses required in the program.

McHugh, similarly to King and Gray-Hildenbrand, said he “had no idea (religious studies) would be something that would interest me at all.” He said he took Religion and Society to fulfill his general education requirements, and “absolutely fell in love with it.”

“I owe everything that I will take away from college to the religious studies program,” McHugh said.

Gray-Hildenbrand said one of the program’s biggest priorities is making sure students succeed. “We take mentorship very seriously- we work with our students closely, especially our majors and minors,” she said.

“We’re working with students to have a diverse array of skills that they can then clearly articulate and put on their résumés,” she said. “We will not leave them hanging.”

McHugh said that religious studies is important now because it helps students understand who they are in the context of their relationships with other humans.

“It really helps you make sense of who you are, who the people are around you and how you relate to them in a world that is increasingly globalized,” McHugh said.

Follow Eric Goodwin on Twitter at @mr_ericgoodwin. 

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