Why the New Name?
Department faculty voted unanimously last spring to change our name from “Department of Religion” to “Department for the Study of Religions.” Our proposal was subsequently approved by the College faculty and Board of Trustees. So why the new name? Here’s an explanation.
This issue has actually been stewing for a while. The problem with “Department of Religion” relates both to issues within the field and the department’s history at Wake Forest. For much of the 20th century, the Department of Religion operated on a seminary model and offered courses primarily in Christian theology and biblical studies. This should not be surprising given Wake’s Baptist heritage and it was also the case at many other religiously affiliated schools. So “Department of Religion,” both at Wake Forest and many other schools, was for a long time nomenclature for “Department of Christianity.”
Further, many students coming into our introductory classes have little idea what the academic study of religion is all about. They tend to imagine that we are like a small divinity school meant to teach students “how to be religious.” And our majors consistently report that their peers often assume that they will be heading off to seminary after graduation. “Why else would you major in religion?” they are often asked. Of course, some of our students do go to seminary and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that; but most do not. All if this is understandable given that religion is not something generally taught in most public school systems.
In contrast to these prevailing misperceptions, the reality is that the Department has changed significantly over the last two to three decades. From the 1980s forward, the Department began expanding its course offerings to include a limited number of non-Christian traditions. This diversification has continued apace since the mid-1990s with faculty hired specializing in African traditions (1993), Islam (1996), East Asian traditions (1998), South-Asian traditions (2005 & 2007), African American traditions (2007), Native American traditions (2008), Religion and Nature (2011), Judaism (2012), and Chinese traditions (2014). Over this time, we have expanded from six to fourteen fulltime faculty members, and now offer courses on a broad spectrum of traditions, geographic contexts, as well as methodological and theoretical approaches to the study of religion and culture. Given the substantial changes in our make-up, identity, and mission, a name change seemed worthy of consideration.
Our goal was to find a name that communicates most clearly what we do in terms of both teaching and scholarship. The most obvious alternative would have been “Department of Religious Studies.” After all, almost 70% of comparable departments in the United States have chosen this name. But while “Department of Religion” carries problematic historical baggage, “Religious Studies” is also widely acknowledged to be a less than perfect designation for the discipline. “Religious” as an adjective modifying “studies” wrongly suggests that we are really enthusiastic, indeed “religious” in the way we study or teach religion. As many of us remind our students at the beginning of each semester, however, we are not here to “promote” religion or even teach students “how to be religious.” Rather, our goal is to teach students how to understand, interpret, and critically engage the phenomena of religion in the cultures under study.
In the end, we settled on “Department for the Study of Religions.” There is precedent for this option (e.g., the University of Toronto, the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, the University of Sydney, and Harvard’s Center for the Study of World Religions). And while it is admittedly a somewhat wordy title, in our view, it communicates most clearly the academic nature of our approach. Moreover, “Religions” (plural) connotes the plurality of traditions, both global and indigenous, covered in our classes and reflected in the specialization of our faculty. As something of a pragmatic compromise, the major and minor will be designated “Religious Studies.”
We hope this clarifies the reasoning behind our name change. It should be clear that the new name does NOT reflect a change in who we are as a department. That has remained constant for over two decades now. Rather, the new name is meant to convey more accurately what and how we have been teaching for quite some time. We hope you agree. Of course, we would welcome your feedback on the new name. Feel free to write Dr. Ford, Department Chair at firstname.lastname@example.org.