I’m currently in the middle of applying to graduate schools. Specifically, divinity and theological schools where I hope to begin a Masters program in some combination of religion and ethics. Those of you who know me well, know how terribly I procrastinate, so unsurprisingly most of my mental energy for these few weeks is going towards the applications. Instead of crafting a blog post about this process, I’m taking the lazy way out and sharing my “statement of academic purpose” with you. This sums up my education, and partly career, interests, and gives insight into what I hope to be spending my time on for the next few years. It feels weird to be thinking about the future already when we’re not even halfway through the #coloesc year, but this is the way our world works!
I hope you enjoy this. It’s might read a little jumpy, because I’ve taken out the school-specific pieces, but still contains a huge amount of what motivates my desire to study religion. If you have an thoughts, please comment with them, I’ll take any help I can get!
I am pursuing graduate education in of Religious Studies to further my learning and continue my decision process between studying religious liberty law through academia or practicing it. I am primarily interested in various ways in which religion and religious organizations interact with secular society. My undergraduate focus was was American Religion, and I found that my curiosity lies most strongly in work that concerns modern American religion and its interaction with other aspects of culture and politics, and the role it plays in society. I was initially drawn to American religion by the history of pluralism, religious liberty, and the changing ways in which American religious liberty has allowed for variances in belief structures and practices.
An influential class I’ve taken was titled “Religious Liberty”, taught by Professor Kathleen Moore. It solidified my inclination to focus on the intersection of religion and religious organizations with secular society. In this class, the meeting point of religion and secular discourse was the well-defined field of law, specifically the manner in which religion has been dealt with in American legislature and the justice system.
I plan to focus my Masters education on the interaction of religion and secular society in the legal sphere. This is a major way in which religious organizations and beliefs come into direct contact with each other and the secular world. In current legal and political issues such as women’s reproductive rights and gay marriage, religious beliefs come to the forefront of the debate. I am greatly interested in the religion clauses of the constitution and the subsequent laws and litigation that they have sparked. These laws, I believe, can be a valuable way to protect religious liberty and strive for plurality, but they are and have been easily misused and taken advantage of. In and outside the classroom I have sought discussion about these laws, because although they seem to have been intended to protect the rights of religious minorities, they can be used to enforce the beliefs of the religious majority.
Religion as an extremely powerful motivator on all scales. Historically, civilizations and conflicts have been sparked and blamed on religion, and this continues and is evident in the world news headlines of today. Many of my family members and peers are strictly atheist and struggle to understand my desire to pursue a career in Religious Studies. In my view, regardless of the truth held in any particular religious tradition, belief remains a motivator to individuals and a force in society that ought to be examined. I hope that studying religious liberty and religious organizations in the legal sphere will engage my interest in the influence religion has on secular society. Influence does not flow only one way, however, and I am additionally interested in the ways that modern society and western science has influenced religion
Learning about the “spiritual but not religious” movement in classes such as, “Religion in America Today” and “New Religious Movements”, sparked my interest in the theological and organizational directions religion is taking in modern times. I was raised and identify as an Episcopalian, and one major draw of the faith to me is the deep tradition and history that established religious organizations entail. I value the community and ritual involved with worship in a church setting. Theologically, however, I have been exposed to a variety of more fluid belief. I was raised in a culture that lightly incorporated aspects of the New Age movement and Eastern and Native American traditions, and they combined with my Christian theology rather than existing at odds with it. ( In my personal exploration of belief, I am drawn to Celtic Christianity and the work of J. Phillip Newell. The Celtic tradition stands out to me as time-tested proof that Christianity and strong respect for the natural world are intertwined. I believe that traditions like this are going to become increasingly viewed and cited as the worlds of religion and science rejoin.) This background is instrumental in my desire to study religious pluralism. Spirituality in general has always been interesting to me, and similarly to my interest in the intersection of secular society and religion, I find the interplay of science and theology in our modern world fascinating.
During my last year, I wrote a thesis advised by Professor Rudy Busto titled “Spiritual But Not Religious Organizations: A Viniyoga Case Study” that examined the ways in which viniyoga, a non-secular and non-sectarian yogic practice, functions in the lives of its practitioners and in the society around them. The process of researching and writing this thesis was beneficial for a number of reasons, including exposure to the process and challenges of academic work. My mother is a yoga teacher and therapist, certified by the American Viniyoga Institute, and for that I gained insight into the navigation of personal interest in the subject of research. I enjoyed the opportunity to pull my knowledge from a variety of classes and other sources together into a coherent and comprehensive project that explores a number of my interests: New Religious Movements, legal definitions, and sociological functions of religion. (I did not include my thesis as the writing sample with this application because it is significantly over the page limit, and I did not want to include only a section of it with no context.)
In my non-academic life, I see a validation of theories I have studied regarding the rise of a “spiritual but not religious” affiliation. I have a personal interest in this identification of “spiritual but not religious” or “none”, due both to growing up in diverse populations and because it allows for the blending of traditionally religious themes and modern secular science. There is a recent increase in people realizing that religion and science are not incompatible but rather seem, with a possible stretch of the imagination, to be coming full circle and re-connecting with each other. Many of my peers identify themselves as spiritual but not religious, and this growing group should be studied with the seriousness of other religious affiliations.
Eventually, I would like to combine my two major areas of interest and study the way new forms of religion and personal belief systems will operate in society. Our legal system deals with religions mainly as cohesive traditions, but as the meaning and function of faith and belief shift with time, policy and culture will have to reflect those shifts. This adaptation is already underway, and I hope to spend my career studying our system’s reaction.
I choose to major in Religious Studies while standing on a rooftop in the Old City of Jerusalem, thinking about the religious nature of violence in our world, while observing people of different faiths living together daily with little tension. I had a strong urge to understand the manner in which religious belief systems, many of which proclaims peace, had been twisted within human society until became the cause of wars. At the time, I still intended to use my undergraduate-level of knowledge about religion to work in international relations, but during my college career I became engrossed with the academic field.
Additionally, the way in which Professor Miller (Chicago) brings together religion, ethics, contemporary society, and politics is something I aspire to do. The incorporation of political philosophy, too, intrigues me, though the only exposure I have to a similar subject was in a course I greatly enjoyed called “Modernity and the Process of Secularization” taught by Professor Thomas Carlson. I would love to learn more about the theory and methods of studying religious ethics as they play into our contemporary political and social environments.
I spent my childhood abroad in England and Japan, and from that experience I initially intended to pursue a career in international relations. Although I moved away from that field academically, I thoroughly enjoyed participating in Model United Nations during my time at university, and still retain an interest in it. The variety of cultures around the world have led to drastically different ways in which religion has continued into modernity, and I believe there is a great deal to learn from international discourse. I was able to attend a number of lectures that made up the “International Symposium: Religious Pluralism in Global Perspective” at UCSB last year; it was fascinating to learn how pluralism takes different forms across the world.
I am currently thrilled by the prospect of studying the intersection of religiosity and secularity in the United States and then potentially carrying that to an international sphere. The unique formation and landscape of religious plurality in the U.S. creates a compelling study, but in recent history it has become increasingly evident that no country exists in a vacuum. I am not ready to cease study of American religion, but I am eager to expand it to a more broad cross-national level.
-Harlowe, Centennial House