GOLETA — The students call their major "religion on the ground." One studies a singles group looking for love in a Los Angeles synagogue Friday nights. Another compares Hinduism and Christianity. His master's thesis profiled Cesar Chavez, founder of the United Farm Workers, as a religious mystic.
A class schedule at the religious studies department of UC Santa Barbara reads like a road sign in a global village: Islam in America, medieval Judaism, early Christian novels, Taoism and Shintoism, along with related languages from Arabic to Ugaritic. The array of ethnic faces here is as vast as on any University of California campus. But a closer look at the faculty, dressed in turbans and Indian jewelry, hikers' vests and slouched sport jackets, illuminates the sweep of this program.
Tucked inside the Humanities building, a California-rustic box of stucco and glass, their offices are dotted with Buddhas and prayer rugs, ritual swords and a global selection of sacred texts, all facets of the larger picture they are trying to create: UC Santa Barbara's religious studies program brings together the jumble of modern culture and reassembles it under the heading of religion.
Though the standard university approach to the study of religion draws heavily from the Protestant, Catholic and Jewish traditions (not surprising in a country that is, according to the most recent census, 84% Christian), Sikhs, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Native Americans and others get equal time here. And though some observers fear that this sort of broad egalitarianism can dilute all religions, many clearly see it as the future.
"It is very California," says Barbara DeConcini, executive director of the American Academy of Religion, an Atlanta-based scholarly group of about 8,000 academics. "It's also way ahead of its time. UC Santa Barbara is one of the leading religious studies programs in any public university or state school. Others have looked to them for how to do it."
Facing the Pacific, on a bluff laced with trails leading down to the beach, the school has always seemed to catch the winds of change along with the ocean mists. Richard Hecht, a keeper of the department's history, remembers the impulse that led to the school's unconventional approach.
The program's founder, D. McKenzie Brown, was an expert in India's politics and history and, says Hecht, he wanted religion courses on campus because he felt his students needed to know more about that part of life in India. Exposure to the country's religious life, Brown believed, would help them understand its social problems. That was in 1958.
The first member of the new religious studies faculty was a political scientist. Then came a sociologist. The first wave of faculty also included a religion theorist, Walter Capps, who liked to combine religion and politics. (He later won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and served from 1996 until his death in 1997.) Paul Tillich, a towering German theologian who fled Europe before World War II, joined them. By 1964 there was a full-fledged religion department for undergraduates. Five years later a doctorate program was added.
"From the beginning, there was a sense that religion and culture needed to be studied," says Hecht, who was a philosophy student at the school in the '60s and now teaches Judaic studies there. "The school never followed the seminary model." Nonetheless, when he joined the faculty, his colleagues in other departments assumed that the religious studies program trained people to be ministers.
"They thought we were clerics with a professional career, like monks who had come out of the monastery to work in the world," says Hecht, who adds that it took many of his 37 years at the school to correct the misperception.
But within the department, the distinctions could not have been more clear. Asian religions were incorporated in the very first class offerings in the early '60s, even as more predictable subjects were all but eliminated. Church history, Bible study and theology all got sidelined. By conventional guidelines, UC Santa Barbara set aside the basics.
It was a bold step, avoiding the traditional seminary format. Top-rated universities from Harvard and Yale to Princeton had been founded with close affiliations to ministers and churches. The schools still support divinity programs that train Christian men and women for ordination, and universities across the country have followed the Ivy League plan.
Instead of promoting any one religious faith, all of them are researched and analyzed, says Wade Clark Roof, head of the UC Santa Barbara department. Religion is studied by comparison: How is God different for a Hindu, say, than for a Jew?