Studying religion
U. program meets a need
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"In religion and politics, people's beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from others."

— Mark Twain

It seems about time for the University of Utah to offer a major in religious studies. The U.'s program will not be the first in Utah — Utah State University has that distinction — but will be fourth in the Intermountain West — behind USU, the University of Wyoming and Arizona State.

Nonetheless, the U. is rightly meeting a need for its students, and the new program is almost certain to be popular, both among those seeking a degree in the field and for others who want to add to their understanding of this important topic.

In Utah, especially, religion and its importance in culture and its influence on government are hotly debated. U. graduates should be able to participate in those discussions. A background in the history of the world's religions and an understanding of various doctrines are essential for framing the future role of religion in students' lives and communities.

The major is a natural outgrowth of the university's existing minor in religious studies, which has grown rapidly from five to 15 declared students, with 10 more qualifying for the minor course.

The proposal accepted by the Utah Board of Regents states the major "will provide students with analytical tools that would equip them to better interpret events and public discourse, taking into account religious references, ethical values and cultural identities."

Since life in Utah, headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, sometimes seems to revolve around religious influence, it's important for students to be able to take the long view about the proper role of religion — any specific religion or no religion at all.

The USU religious studies program recognized its first graduate in 2007 and has attracted top-notch professors. Its classes are packed. Filling the Leonard J. Arrington Chair in Mormon History and Culture, Harvard-educated Philip Barlow is the first person to be specifically hired at a public university to study the history and culture of Mormonism.

At the U., the program will help students "live and work in a pluralistic and global society" as the regents were told. And that's exactly what a university should do.