Religious studies programs are popular at US universities

When Richard Comstock approaches the lectern at a state university here to talk about ethical values and the role of religion in America today, there's no hue and cry about separation of church and state or keeping religious teaching out of the classroom.

Yet Professor Comstock's audience is made up of students here at the University of California's surfside campus. And traditionally public educational facilities in the United States have been off bounds for religious teaching. Even student denominational groups must meet off-campus or in restricted areas.

What Professor Comstock, a former Protestant preacher, teaches, however, not only isn't taboo, it represents one of the fastest-growing courses of study at scores of tax-supported schools as well as private colleges across the US.

At the University of California at Santa Barbara the discipline is called ''religious studies.'' Public institutions tend to use this term, while private schools such as Syracuse University in upstate New York offer similar courses within a ''Department of Religion.'' Whatever the designation, teaching about religion (as opposed to teaching courses in religion) is usually separate and distinct from theological training.

Some colleges, such as Harvard, offer both kinds of programs. Others, including the University of Southern California, emphasize religious history and ethics but shun theological training.

Religious studies programs have come into their own at US colleges over the last two decades, a period, ironically, during which court rulings have been cementing the wall of separation between church and state. The discipline got a legal boost in 1963, however, when the US Supreme Court drew a clear distinction between the teaching of religion and teaching about religion. The high court frowned on the former in public schools but, in effect, blessed the latter as a necessary academic pursuit to ensure the education of the whole man.

Now the classes of Professor Comstock and his colleagues at Santa Barbara often exceed 200 students. Twelve full-time faculty members teach courses leading to undergraduate and graduate degrees. These courses range from the study of cultures of the East to contemporary Western theological thought, from seminars on religion and politics to courses on contemporary ethics.

Similar offerings are available at many of the 900 colleges and universities throughout the US which list religious studies or religion-related curricula, says James Wiggins, executive director of the American Academy of Religion and chairman of the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. Although exact statistics are elusive, Professor Wiggins says some sources estimate almost 1, 700 faculty members now teach in this discipline.

Messrs. Comstock and Wiggins characterize the students enrolled in religious studies today as more traditional (in terms of denominational ties) than their predecessors in the 1960s; more interested in contemporary Western religious thought than mystical Eastern religions; eager to relate political, social, and even technological problems to religion; and desirous of raising questions of ethics and personal morality in a theological context.

''We've insisted on (religious) history, but the present-day student is now-oriented.'' points out Comstock. In response to this demand for the relevancy, Raimundo Panikkar, Santa Barbara religious studies professor and a native of Varanasi, India, teaches a highly popular undergraduate course, ''Scientific Responsibility, Technological Unemployment, and the Arms Race.'' The class deals with ethics and value problems in a technological world. Many of Professor Panikkar's students are computer and engineering majors.

Professor Wiggins says the 1,200 to 1,300 Syracuse students who take courses each semester in the Department of Religion also lean toward contemporary studies in Western culture and have a strong interest in the Bible. Medical ethics and issues of morality in business management also hold strong interest for students of religion, Wiggins points out. An emerging trend in the last few years: the study of the role of women in religion.

Religious studies and the offerings in departments of religion vary from college to college, as one would expect. Many take an interdisciplinary approach , interacting with majors in the humanities or more recently the sciences. In contrast to other majors, most students decide on religious studies once they are in school

In addition to Santa Barbara and Syracuse, other schools cited as noteworthy in the field include Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, University of Virginia, Temple, Emory, University of Chicago, Harvard, Yale, Vanderbilt, and Southern Methodist University.

What does the future hold for religious studies? Does the field need a sharpening of academic focus? David C. Smith, executive director for the Society for Values in Higher Education - analyzing the diversity of programs at nine public and private colleges in the Association of American Colleges' ''Forum for Liberal Education'' - points out a need for a ''home'' for the ''discipline of reflection.'' ''One must be concerned that the interdisciplinary exuberance of scholars of religion does not detract from, or become a substitute for, the further establishment of the discipline,'' Smith says.

Yet he hastens to quote the famed theologian Paul Tillich, who once wrote: ''Religion does not need a home. It is at home everywhere, namely in the depth of all functions of man's spiritual life.''

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