Receiving a divine impact: Religious studies program reaches pearly gates

By Cara Kalouris

Youngstown State University is discontinuing its religious studies major as part of 26 associate’s, bachelor’s and graduate studies programs the university has sunset. 

Alan Tomhave, philosophy professor and chair of the humanities and social sciences department, said there’s been a national decline of interest in religious studies. 

“Many people attribute this to a decline in interest in organized religion, or the rise of the ‘none’s’, as in the people who choose the box for none when they fill out a form asking them about their religious beliefs,” Tomhave said. 

There are only seven students with religious studies listed as their major, according to Tomhave. The final student will graduate in four years. 

“We have great faculty who taught religious studies, but it is hard to overcome a lack of desire to learn about religion,” Tomhave said. 

Though the program review issued by YSU has condensed the department and taken away religious studies as a major, Tomhave said it has not affected students negatively. 

“I am hopeful that the impact will be as intended: to allow a refocus on programs that have more student interest and to make those programs even better,” Tomhave said. “In this specific case, it will allow for a refocusing of the philosophy major to better serve more students.”

YSU Provost Brien Smith explained the periodic program review process in detail.

“We go through and look at the programs that we offer and ask ourselves questions about, ‘Is it meeting the institution’s goals?’ Are they consistent with the university mission?’ This is something that we haven’t done in a while,”  Smith said. “A lot of programs came forward as being sunset.”

Sunset programs are courses that don’t have high demand, such as the religious studies major. Smith said keeping these programs at YSU would result in long-term financial consequences.. He said the university strives to provide financial resources to departments and majors that have strong demand. He’s also in favor of the change.  

“I am satisfied with the process,” Smith said. “Many faculty that I’ve talked to have been satisfied with it. Obviously and unfortunately, if you are one of the programs that came out as sunset, you would disagree with the outcomes.”

Retired YSU professor Bruce Waller is among those who disagree. He taught philosophy and religious programs for over 30 years at the university.

“Having distinct departments is very, very important,” Waller said. “Students were often in the department frequently, in fact almost invariably, sitting around talking about philosophy or politics or whatever, and it was very enriching. That’s something that’s lost when you don’t have a department.”

Waller said it’s important to have a major like religious studies because sources like Wikipedia do not provide sufficient information about religion.

“That is an important area. It is vital,” Waller said. “One of the key things that a university education is supposed to be providing is the ability and the knowledge to participate effectively in a democratic society.”

Both Waller and Tomhave suggested students read college-level books and essays on religion to educate themselves and said it’s possible to be manipulated by misinterpretations of religion.