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Major change at U. — degree in religious studies

Published July 17, 2012 2:39 pm

Higher education • State's flagship school joins USU in offering such a program.
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University of Utah undergraduates may now spend their college years focusing on Dante and Buddha, Zoroastrianism and Zionism, Martin Luther and Joseph Smith, the Bible and the Quran — and everything else related to the world of faith.

On Friday, the state Board of Regents approved the addition of a religious studies major to the flagship school's options. It follows a religious studies minor that the U. introduced several years ago.

Last year, the number of religious studies minors tripled from five to 15, according to the proposal the regents approved. It also said that 10 more have been cleared for it.

"The minor was going so well, we decided to move toward a major," Robert Newman, dean of humanities at the U., said in a phone interview.

"Religion is central to a multicultural society. It's a natural for our college."

This new undergraduate degree will prepare students to address religious issues in two ways, the proposal said. It will "familiarize students with other traditions in order to prepare them to live and work in a pluralistic and global society" and "provide students with analytical tools that would equip them to better interpret events and public discourse, taking into account religious references, ethical values and cultural identities."

It is a "compelling proposal and certainly a need within our curriculum," Newman said. "I am delighted to see it achieve fruition."

Meeting in Cedar City on Friday, regents also approved the U.'s proposed doctoral program in dental surgery, which hopes to admit students for the opening of a college of dentistry next year.

For the new religion major, students can take classes from faculty throughout the school, including English, philosophy, history, art, Middle East studies and others.

That is also how the major works at Utah State University, which launched its own religious studies program in 2007 and now has upward of 40 undergraduates, said Philip Barlow, who directs it.

Barlow applauds the U.'s move, noting that the school will have the region's fourth such program, after USU, University of Wyoming and Arizona State.

For a long time, Barlow said, "people were afraid that the academic study of religion would surreptitiously foster or undermine religious commitment."

The U.'s move, he said, suggests "a maturing of the field and the culture."

To Barlow, it's a vitally important field of study.

"No force in human existence may eclipse religious motivations in how people live their lives," he said. "At the least, it ranks right there with economics."

pstack@sltrib.com