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Academic Program

Religion class

Religious Studies is intellectually exciting because it provides access to the mystery of the other. Religion is one of the primary disciplines for investigating the boundary questions of life and death, of love and hate that characterize the human condition.

Students study religion at Swarthmore for a variety of reasons.  Some find the Department's offerings allow them to explore the religious traditions in which they were raised.  Others seek courses on traditions that propose radically different understandings of the world from those they have known. 

Still others are looking for a field that will allow them an opportunity to integrate such personal and intellectual interests as literary or feminist criticism, sociological theory, philosophical analysis, ethics, interpretation of art, or community-based learning. 


Since its founding in 1968, the Department has come to play a central role in the life of the Swarthmore academic community in its commitment to ethical responsibility, to a rigorously cross-cultural approach to the Liberal Arts curriculum, and to keeping Humanities relevant to the future of the College. 

Nearly one-third of the student body takes a course in religion each year, and over 40 students in the junior and senior classes choose to major or minor in religion.

One attraction of the study of religion is the cross-cultural nature of its subject matter. The discipline addresses the complex interplay of culture, history, text, orality, performance, and personal experience. Religion is expressed in numerous ways: ritual and symbol, myth and legend, story and poetry, scripture and theology, festival and ceremony, art and music, moral codes and social values. The department seeks to develop ways of understanding these phenomena in terms of their historical and cultural particularity and in reference to their common patterns.


Courses offered on a regular cycle in the department present the development of Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Afro-Caribbean religions, and Christianity as well as the development of religion and religions in the regional areas of the Indian Sub-Continent (Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, Muslim, Sikh), Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia (Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam), China (Taoist, Confucian, spirit cults), Japan (Buddhist and Shinto), Africa (Fon, Yoruba, Dahomey, and Kongo), the Middle East (Christian, Sunni and Shi'i Islam, Jewish, Gnostic, Mandean), Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Europe and the Americas (from New World African traditions, Vodou and Candomblé, to Neo Paganism, to Quakers past and present, and Civil Religion in North America).

Breadth in subject matter is complemented by strong methodological diversity; questions raised include those of historical, theological, philosophical, literary, feminist, sociological, and anthropological interests.

The Major

This multifaceted focus makes religious studies an ideal liberal arts major. One alumnus, now a physician, looking back on his Swarthmore years, wrote: "Religion offers a uniquely balanced vantage point from which to take in the liberal arts."  Major or minor in Religious Studies »

After Swarthmore

Some of Swarthmore's Religion majors are in professions within organized religion; others have become scholars in the field.  Many are engaged in activities such as law, medicine, social work, education, graphic design, writing, journalism, business administration, political organizing, and computer technology.