Irrelevant religion courses?

Many of us took courses in college we felt were unnecessary but few of us got to vent about it on University of Iowa sophomore Allie Wright uses her space to complain about how she found a religious studies course to be fairly irrelevant to her major–journalism.

Again, I am pursuing a career in journalism, and while that requires me to learn and understand many different topics, ancient religious beliefs are probably not going to be one of them.

On second thought, I’m not sure many people can successfully integrate these lessons into their career. Other than a pastor or rabbi of some sort, how many people regularly use statements and ideologies from a Tolstoy piece during their time as a doctor, lawyer or stockbroker?

Most of the comments did not respond well to the column, arguing that she should not avoid a class just because it doesn’t directly impact her career. One student, however, argues that religion courses would be especially beneficial to Wright.

How as a journalism major can you cover different countries and cultures without knowing all about them? Shouldn’t this class allow you to know more about what you could be covering in the future? Your major above all could benefit from this class the most.

Like Wright, I attended a school that required some religion-related courses, and it sort of annoyed me at the time. Sure, I voluntarily attended Wheaton College where theology is kind of a big deal, but the religion-related classes didn’t particularly interest me initially.

Most of my precious hours were spent slaving over the student newspaper and summers spent in newspaper internships, where I believed I would glean the skills needed for a future job in journalism. You can see some of that thinking come through in Wright’s arguments, where practical experience trumps the classroom experience.

My point is that experience is more important than most courses offered at universities. Don’t get me wrong — college degrees are extremely important — but I think they are mainly just resume builders, at least for students in liberal arts programs.

No one can get a decent internship without being in college, and internship experience is often what leads to a job, not the classes one takes while in his or her undergraduate career.

However, the classes I took played an invaluable role in the writing I do now. One of my religion courses included sociology of religion, one of the most important classes in shaping how I think about religion reporting and journalism in general.

My professor challenged us to figure out ways to empirically measure something as amorphous as religion. Not only did the class teach me how to read tedious surveys and historical background, it showed me how you can report on something as vague as religion.

Anyone can learn the basics of the cops beat on the job with no formal education in criminology, but understanding and studying the intricacies of religion can help you understand the “why” question in the journalism who, what, where, when, why, how questions.

The pie chart in the upper left-hand corner shows world religions by percentage, as the CIA breaks them down. It’s a little outdated, but it gives you the idea of just how religious the world is, something no journalist should ignore.

Journalists love to see experience on the resume, but perhaps some undervalue the role of a solid education. If you were giving career advice, what would you tell Ms. Wright?

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

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  • Jerry

    Journalists love to see experience on the resume, but perhaps some undervalue the role of a solid education. If you were giving career advice, what would you tell Ms. Wright?

    My advice: read a few GR reviews and ask her to be a religion “ghost buster” for a couple of stories.

    Her problem is that she sees religion as irrelevant to a career in journalism. I fault the university because they should have made it clear with real-life examples exactly why one needs to know about religion and how often news stories she will report on will involve religion.

    I’m sure student newspaper assignments have no religion and any summer internships would reinforce that religion is unimportant. So that’s the second part of the problem.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Thanks, Jerry. Solid advice.

  • Brett

    What Jerry said. Unless I were in a Professor Kinsgfield mood, in which case I might offer her the relevant amount of pocket change and suggest she call her parents to tell them her lack of curiosity about a fundamental characteristic of human life provokes serious doubt about her becoming a journalist.

  • Bill P.

    I would have no advice. (Would any suffice?) But I do have a plea: Please, please find another career.

  • Julia

    Three of my brothers have journalism degrees. Two of them became lawyers and the other covers the crime beat in Memphis. I have a science undergrad degree, a liberal arts masters and a law degree. Another brother is an MD who is now working on an MBA to deal with the financial changes coming in medicine. My sister has a psychology degree and now works in management in a book store.

    You never know where your career is going to go. To look at university as a trade school is incredibly short-sighted. It’s highly unlikely that you will have the same occupation your whole life. Anything you learn about the human condition will help you in understanding your clients, your patients, your business contacts, the subjects of news stories, etc. etc.

    BTW My MLA cohorts were mainly adult students stuck in their careers because their knowledge was not broad enough to be moved up. Their companies paid for their MLAs. They were technically trained, but couldn’t mix and mingle with the elite people of the business world, particularly the Europeans, because they only had technical training.

    Same with journalism. How to understand China without knowing something about Buddhism, the Tao, and especially Confucianism? Even civilizations that are supposedly atheist have been formed by ancient belief systems who influence doesn’t just go away. Look at Russia where Russian Orthodoxy has become very influential again. How do you expect to understand Saudi Arabia without understanding the thinking of Wahabi Islam?

  • Allie

    While I can see your reasoning, I think you omitted the fact that I did write about another religious studies course I am in that will benefit my career.
    I just believe that one of the classes I am in was a little outdated, compared to the kind of writing I plan on working on in my career.
    Thank you for your feedback!

  • Brett

    Allie — I was snarkier than I should have been in giving you the upshot of the answer given to me by profs when I asked the same questions about literature courses and the like required for my own j-school degree. I’ll apologize for the snark, which was uncalled for, but their answer was the right one & I think it still is.

    And I’m not just saying that because after a few years in news I found myself called to ministry and had to explain to people how beneficial a journalism degree was in seminary ;-)

  • Mark Baddeley

    This is off-topic for the post, but hopefully on-topic for a theme GetReligion has been repeating recently.

    The pie chart on World Religions gives us relatively fine grading for ‘Christian’ – Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, and Other. And each of these have their own distinct color, as though they are quite different faiths. And yet ‘Muslim’ and ‘Hindu’ and ‘Buddhist’ each get just one piece of the pie with a single color. That kind of schema certainly contributes to the idea of ‘one Islam/Hinduism/Buddhism’ etc that then fails to grasp that some of the conflict is a conflict internal to certain broad faiths between sects as different as Catholic/Orthodox/Protestant.

    I wonder if a pie chart that broke the other world religions up into their sects, and used shades of colors, not distinct colors, for sects within a world religion (all sects for the same religion have different shades of the one color), might not be a very needed improvement – could have a knock-on benefit then for reporting over time.

  • Mike Hickerson


    What is it about your other religious studies class that you enjoy? Here’s what you wrote:

    I am currently enrolled in a religious studies course called Religion and Society. In this class, we read court cases and talk about how religion was applied in the courts’ rulings. Many of the cases have to do with marriage between people of different races.

    I think this class has actually helped me in my journalism career, since I am able to more easily understand legal jargon.

    This sounds more like a law class, not a religion class. Is it helping you understand religion(s) more adequately, or just legal jargon and race relations?

    My free advice (meaning, it’s worth what you pay for it): subscribe to for the next month and read every post.

  • Ann Rodgers

    I have no idea how a reporter can cover politics, anything involving the Middle East, relief work after a natural disaster, social life in a small town, anything concerning 9/11, neighborhood efforts to improve bad housing and reduce violence, immigration, popular culture or a host of other topics without having a basic grasp of the world’s major religious traditions and how they function in society. You will find religious faith at the heart of all of those topics and many, many more.
    Journalism isn’t simply a matter of how well you can put words together. You need a well-formed intellect to be able to step back from the facts at hand and place them in a larger context. You gain the tools for doing so in the classroom, whether in religious classes, sociology classes, or history classes. When I am writing stories today I find myself drawing on classes that I took more than 30 years ago on everything from Catholic mysticism to black history. I would be a poor reporter without that academic background.

  • Judy Harrow

    Hi, Mark (#8)

    I agree with your suggestion about shading the sects within each religious grouping. Apparently, whoever drew up this pie chart only considered Christianity worthy of close attention. Also, did you notice that “Atheist” is misspelled?


  • Rebecca

    I’m still in college (full disclosure: as a religion major) so I don’t have any career advice that isn’t speculative. The idea of my college experience being a “resume-builder” is pretty depressing though. Don’t get me wrong- I’m not trying to be a penniless poet or a starving (liberal) artist. My next step after college is probably going to be a grad school so I’m probably pretty unfairly biased. Personally I think one of the greatest feats the devil ever accomplished in America was making us think we didn’t need to learn about other people’s religion.

    Think of it this way: when journalists make mistakes like we see on GetReligion about politics or economics- if they make the factual errors, ignore or are oblivious to vital issues, etc- we can say they are not only doing a disservice to their profession, but in a sense they are being irresponsible with the information they have gathered. These are matters of importance that people need to hear about and the stories they consume affect the way they think about and understand these issues. Why else are these stories being written?

    And why shouldn’t it be the same with religion? The best way to deliver this information is to be well-rounded enough to be able to understand it and put it into context. The best way to do this is through a college class with a professor knowledgeable in the subject.

    I’d really love to take Ms. Wright’s piece to my professors at the religion department. I bet they’d have lots of interesting things to say!