It seems a bit of an irony that a state founded by a group seeking to establish a community that could worship without interference is missing an obvious symbol of religion. There is no university in the state that offers a degree of religion, theology or Bible studies. Parenthetically, there is also no degree in Book of Mormon studies.

Most colleges and universities in the state offer some classes in religion, with Brigham Young University offering the most, as expected. This seems a natural result of BYU mandating that students take religion courses as a graduation requirement.A glance through the catalogs of the state colleges and universities shows courses titled "World Religions," "Sociology of Religion," "Comparative Religions," "Philosophy of Religion" and "Bible as Literature." There are also classes in the language of religion, Greek and Hebrew. The University of Utah has some religious studies courses that are privately endowed, but it is a fledgling program and does not yet offer a degree.

A natural consequence of what is not offered in the colleges and universities of the state is the lack of religious instruction in Utah high school programs. This statement doesn't ignore the released time religious instruction programs offered to high school students by various religions. The point is that high school students generally don't get an opportunity to study comparative religions or world religions as part of the school curriculum. If they do study comparative religion it is usually from a denominational teacher who isn't expected to be sympathetic or objective when teaching about other religious traditions.

What this means is that most of us who are educated in Utah public schools will live among Mormons, Catholics, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews and Protestants without knowing very much about them. Because we don't know much about each other, it is easy to be suspicious of the beliefs of others and to have mistaken ideas that get in the way of honest, caring friendship. For the religiously uneducated, the world is made of "members" who are understood and "nonmembers" or everyone else. These others are not understood as individuals with tightly held ethical and religious beliefs. Who would ever join a group called "nonmembers?"

The fact that Utah offers no college degree in theology, or religion, also means that virtually every leader of every denomination except Latter-day Saints will have been educated out of the state. Perhaps, because these religious leaders have often not grown up in Utah, they will have misunderstandings about the Mormons just as Mormons often misunderstand them.

View Comments

The fact that Utah offers no college degree in religion or theology also puts Utah in a national minority. Most states have such programs, many at state schools. The estimate by the American Association of Religion is that there are 1,236 colleges and universities offering the B.A. degree or higher in the United States that include in their courses some degree or program in religion or theology. This number translates into 53 percent of the colleges and universities in the nation offering religion or theology. Utah is not in that 53 percent.

As expected, most of the religion and theology programs nationally are at private institutions. The survey, published in Religiousstudies News, notes that 82 percent of the religion and theology programs are at private schools and 18 percent at public institutions. It is interesting to note that 24 percent of the religion programs are at private schools that are not religiously affiliated. It is also interesting to put the 18 percent at public institutions in perspective. The fact that 18 percent of the religious education programs are at public institutions is evidence that such a program can exist without violation of the constitutional tradition of church and state separation.

Even though 53 percent of the colleges and universities in the United States offer a program in religion or theology, the trend is not up. There has been a significant drop in the number of undergraduate majors in religion and theology in the period from 1984 to 1990. The Religiousstudies News notes "unrenewed tenure slots, the outright closing of prominent departments, and a steady reduction in the number of undergraduate majors." The national argument at its simplest goes like this: "While it would be nice to continue to have a religious studies department, during steady-state or declining economic years a department is a luxury which the university cannot afford."

It seems that the study of religion, either formally in school or less formally in the home, is the first small step to religious practice. It may be that in our zeal to protect the religious ideas of our youth, and to avoid government sponsorship of religious education, we have become religiously illiterate. The result is that we don't understand our neighbors who may be different.

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.