Attention: Pomona College is planning for a full return of students in fall. Learn More

Why I Majored in Religious Studies

Rachel Marandett ’20

When I first got to Pomona, I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to study. The only thing I was sure of was that I wanted to walk into class every day and be surrounded by interesting people engaged in interesting discussions. Thus, I was particularly captivated by the humanities and social sciences, and tried courses ranging from anthropology to philosophy to sociology to history. While each of these disciplines certainly had its merits, I found them each steeped in their own particular methodology and lines of discourse in a way that didn’t quite fit the interdisciplinary, engaging classroom dynamic I was looking for. I was lucky enough, however, to stumble upon a course as early as my freshman fall that far exceeded what I wanted out of my college experience. This was my freshman writing seminar, titled “Muslim Literary Landscapes,” taught by Religious Studies Professor Zayn Kassam. It was in that classroom that, the first time, I started to acquire the language and theoretical concepts I needed to critically engage in the conversations I knew I wanted to be having but didn’t quite know how. Having the opportunity not only to discuss the nuances of Islamic identity and Western otherization but also to thoughtfully integrate my life experience with that of my diverse and thoughtful peers brought me great joy and made it quickly clear that Religious Studies was where I belonged on campus.

Ever since the end of that class, I have spent my time at Pomona steeped in interdisciplinary, multilayered discussions of the role of religion in shaping our contemporary world. Growing up in an a-religious household, I didn’t have an effective sense of the pertinence of the practice and theory of religion to socio-cultural and political structures. Through taking classes across the department ranging from “Religion, Politics, and Global Violence” to “Prison, Punishment, Redemption,” to “Dreams and the Afterworld in Islam,” I found my niche in studying Islam and Judaism in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. This passion prompted me to go abroad both to Morocco and the Czech Republic and, ultimately, to integrate these interests into a thesis project on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Over the course of my time at Pomona as a religious studies major, I have been fortunate enough to have access to innumerable unique opportunities including a fellowship with the Humanities Studio and a Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP) grant to delve into the study of both the Holocaust and the Israeli-Palestine conflict the summer before my senior year. These opportunities, combined with the close relationships I have developed with professors across the department including but not limited to my advisor Professor Kassam, have made my academic experience at Pomona one I wouldn’t trade for anything. There is something deeply special about the professors, courses, students, and opportunities in the small but powerful Religious Studies Department and I feel deeply lucky to have the chance to be a part of it for four years.

Talia Ivry ’21

I came to religious studies somewhat late in the game—I had always been interested in literature, history and philosophy, and I spent my first few semesters at college taking classes in different humanities departments along with social and natural sciences.

I took my first religious studies class sophomore year on a whim—Post-Holocaust Philosophy Theory with Professor Oona Eisenstadt—and became enamored. The readings came from all over—philosophers, theologians, even fiction writers and the discussions, always passionate, retained a quality of thoughtful reverence. I quickly learned that religious studies does not only entail learning about the structure and doctrine behind religious belief, but delves into broader questions of how these beliefs manifest and shape the consciousness of a society, and the ways in which we can continue to see their various influences today. In an academic context like Pomona, religious studies is not about indoctrination or theology, but about exploring the effects of religion on people, institutions, and thoughts, both historically and at the present moment. In other words, in religious studies classes, you’ll never ponder the question “Does God exist?” but rather, “If God exists, why do people suffer?” (in Professor Darryl Smith’s Problem of Evil class), or “How has belief in God shaped our world?”

The Religious Studies Department at Pomona employs a wide range of academic topics, encouraging the study of religion and religious tradition spanning the globe. The interdisciplinary nature of the department attracts students from all backgrounds; in my view it’s one of the departments most truly representative of the liberal arts experience. No matter your personal views on religion, learning about its far-reaching currents will intrigue you. What other subject could be labeled at various points the “opium of the people,” “literary entertainment,” and the spiritual sustenance without which man could not live?

With the help of the Religious Studies Department, I was able to study to spend a summer in Israel learning about the Abrahamic religions. I participated in Claremont Mckenna College Professor Gary Gilbert’s archaeological dig in Akko, an experience that expanded my academic world and gave me ideas for my thesis.

I majored in religious studies, in short, because I couldn’t choose between psychology, history, English, or philosophy, and religious studies includes all of these and more. It is, in my view, the epitome of a liberal arts major.

Renee Susanto ’21

Despite growing up in the hailed multicultural mecca of Southern California, my ethnically ambiguous features always resulted in some form of the question, “What are you?” Being ethnically Chinese, and culturally Indonesian, and of course, American born and raised, never gave for an easy answer. With our nearest relatives almost 600 miles away and a sparse Indonesian cultural community in proximity, I grew up with a lot of questions about my ethnic background. As a result, I clung to my church community for a semblance of cultural/familial community. 

In my freshman fall, I took Professor Erin Runion's “Prisons, Punishment, and Redemption” course which dealt with how ideals of redemption in hegemonic Christianity theology translated in the broken American incarceration system. Although I grew up in a deeply religious household, I saw my identity as a Christian and my values of social justice to be on two separate planes; yet, some of my peers saw practicing justice as synonymous with practicing their faith. I continued to explore such questions about the relation of social justice with religion in Professor Zayn Kassam's "Religion, Ethics, and Social Practice" class. Through that class, I interned with Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, where I not only learned a differing narrative of immigration by listening to the stories of detained folx at Adelanto Detention Center, but also had the opportunity to co-organized conference around immigration right here in the community. 

This summer, I lived and conducted research in Indonesia and became intrigued by Islam's deep intertwinement with the culture – a contrast to the West’s hegemonic Protestant Christianity landscape. In the course of interviewing members of my grandma’s ethnic Chinese church, attending lectures at Universitas Indonesia, and talking with scholars, I was able to translate my deeply personal questions about my ethnic/racial identity into academic interests. Being in Indonesia raised questions about the role of religion (specifically Islam) in Indonesian politics as well as the connection between ethnic/religious minorities. 

Religious studies is a major that I feel has been truly intersectional because it has not only allowed me to explore the deeply personal aspects of my identity (my faith, social justice praxis, and ethnic/racial identity), but also develop a holistic understanding of myself as a whole individual. In religious studies classes, no question is off limits; they challenge you to reckon with your preconceived notions while also giving you opportunity to pose (hard) questions about one's faith in relation to ethics, race, gender, culture, class -- the list goes on. 

However, aside from its interdisciplinary nature, what make the religious studies major specifically unique at Pomona College is the faculty. At the end of sophomore year when I was at the crossroads of deciding what to study, a friend asked me, "Where do you feel like you are mentored the most?" Ultimately, that's what pushed me to declare: the faculty have continuously demonstrated their own personal investment in my personal, academic and career endeavors.