How do religions come into being? How do they affect people and societies? What role does religion play in various cultures and conflicts?
You encounter religion in all cultures, all over the world. Worldwide, there are no fewer than 10,000 religious denominations. Religion can be the driving force behind people, influencing their behaviour economically, politically, socially and psychologically. Worldwide, but also in the Netherlands, there are many conflicts, sensitivities and political discussions in which religion plays a role. Religious Studies is thus a very topical social degree programme that touches on difficult issues. These issues are important to policymakers, to education and to journalists. Religious Studies experts are needed in a world in which religion is a permanent part of everyday life.
The central question you will learn to ask yourself is not to what extent religions are 'true', but how religion affects people's lives and what people do with it. The interaction between religion, culture, and society is the main focus of this bachelor's programme. During your studies you will deepen your knowledge of various aspects of the major religions in the world (Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Judaism). You will use different perspectives to analyse religious expressions – texts, rituals and visual art – and place them in their cultural context. Because there are so many important factors in studying religion in relation to people and society, Religious Studies experts are broadly trained social scientists, with experience in anthropology, sociology, psychology, politicology, philosophy and ethics.
A highly challenging topic
After my final school exams, I took a year off to travel around India, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism play an important role in these countries. I am primarily interested in how religious beliefs in these countries relate to phenomena such as Hindu nationalism, development aid, the position of women, and anti-Muslim violence. That's why I decided to study Religious Studies and specialize in South Asia.
What I like about this programme are the interactive lectures in small groups: we have lots of discussions and we have to give presentations. I really enjoy the diversity and topicality of the content, too.
I think that the phenomenon of religion is an extremely challenging topic. Throughout the years I have acquired a broad knowledge of the various religions and their relation to such aspects as politics or globalization.
As a religious studies scholar, I hope to create a bridge between South Asia and the West. There is so much misunderstanding in the West around issues such as women’s rights and nationalism in these countries. This certainly has a negative effect on how India is portrayed in the media and on development policy. After my degree programme, I hope to be able to play an advisory role in these matters, for example in organizations such as Oxfam Novib, or at UN Women.’
Re-thinking how religion works
I was drawn to Groningen because of its reputation for being excellent for international students; the option to take my classes in English was also a big 'plus'. I am particularly interested in the scientific approach of studying religion, as well as studying religious practice and the significance of belief within communities; and the course here 100% meets my expectations.
The classes are incredibly interesting and the overall
environment is very friendly to international students, whilst the
professors are both knowledgeable and approachable. One of the
challenges that I have had is re-thinking how religion works; I
think I may have had previous biases in my ideas about religion and
I have tried to gain a new understanding of the subject as a whole.
My lecturers have been careful to critically present arguments from
across academia and within both Religious Studies and other subject
areas; it’s great to get a taste of various
My course is structured progressively, so everything meshes together and builds to allow a deeper understanding of the content - instead of having five overview classes at once! The professors here encourage students to develop critical thinking, they always encourage questions and they have tried to give us the tools necessary in conducting our own research, too, which is great.
Outside of studying, Groningen is a lovely city, it is small enough to feel cosy and yet has a great social life. It really epitomizes the Dutch idea of ‘Gezellig!’. I love being able to bike everywhere and Groningen is a very young and active city with a vibrant mixture of culture, shopping and nightlife.
Many chances to get in contact with our professors
I have been lucky to have travelled and have always been interested in getting to know new people and cultures. In choosing a degree, I decided I would like to explore the influence religion has on people's daily lives- and Groningen is a World Top 100 University!
My course has a balance of both well-structured lecturers, but
also a wide range of reading to do at home; we have so far looked
at different approaches to doing research on a religious issue.
I’m looking forward to the psychological and sociological
aspects of religion we are doing in the next block; but first I
have to revise the lectures of the last two months for the exam!
Luckily, the lectures have been very helpful and lead into the
final exam or
I would say that the course at the University of Groningen is special because we have so many chances to get in contact with our professors and the classes are quite small, so the lecturers even have time to meet up with us and answer any extra questions. Aside from learning in Groningen, I enjoy going to the market to buy fresh and local food! I live only a 5-minute walk from the Faculty, just to the north of the lovely city centre, which is great because the life in Groningen is very focused on students and the city offers loads of opportunities for sports, shopping and night life. There’s a large number of Student Associations, too, so everyone is
likely to find other people who share a hobby or interest.
Curious about how people give meaning to their lives
I chose Religious Studies because I am interested in various subjects such as anthropology, politics and philosophy, and because I was curious about how people give meaning to their lives. I became a Student Ambassador for the degree programme because I am really enthusiastic about it.
I am also Chair of the student mentor programme. Mentors help students get through their first year of studies as best they can. Being a mentor has taught me a lot about group dynamics, and how to get quieter groups to open up. As a member of the Board of the student society MATA, I’ve had a chance to improve my organizational and communication skills.
After I complete my Bachelor’s degree, I intend to do a combined Master’s programme in Spiritual Care and Education. That way, I will be able to apply the knowledge I have gained in a more social or personal setting. My current job at a hospital will surely be helpful in my degree programme in Spiritual Care, and vice versa: no doubt the subject matter of the degree programme will be relevant to my work. My experience as a mentor and Student Ambassador will dovetail nicely with the Master’s in Education.
You learn to look past the clichés about Muslims
I teach the course units 'Anthropology of Religion' and 'Islam'. The combination is a great way to learn about the link between the 'repertoire' of symbols, rituals and stories available to Islam as a historical tradition, and the divergent ways that individual Muslims and Muslim groups make use of that rich source to define guidelines for a good life, and derive comfort, strength and inspiration.
When the question of how people make use of the sources available to Islam to define their own lives and their society is made central, you learn to recognize that religion is not a blueprint for life; there is always an interplay between religious regulations and daily practice. This throws light on how changeable religious traditions are.
Students learn to recognize this interplay and to chart it. In concrete terms, you learn how a religious tradition is given shape in everyday practice and how you can use anthropological themes, theories and approaches to study religion. You learn to recognize the global developments in a specific culture or region. The course unit 'Anthropology of Muslim Societies' thus integrates the various topics and approaches taught in other course units in the programme.
The course unit is extremely socially relevant: political Islam is playing a major role in contemporary national and international relations and world order. The public debate sometimes reveals a very static view of Islam – people often think that it is a religion that has not changed since the seventh century and that that is what still determines all the thoughts and actions of Muslims. You will learn that people are not passive 'carriers' of a religion or culture. They are active actors who make use of different sources, which include religion, to define their own lives and to try to exert influence on their environment. If we produce one-sided explanations of the conflicts in which certain categories of Muslims are currently involved as being the result of Islam as a static, life-dominating religion, then you do not gain a proper view of the complexity of social, economic and political factors that contribute to people feeling hard done-by, insecure or who want to acquire power.
A greater knowledge of the practice of Islam in the daily lives of 'ordinary' Muslims will teach you to see that the dominant view of Islam as an aggressive, intolerant and primarily political religion does not dovetail with the meaning of that religion for the vast majority of Muslims. They simply want to live in peace and quiet. For them, Islam primarily has a personal value from which they derive strength, comfort and inspiration for their own wellbeing and that of their loved ones.
I will teach you to look past the clichés and to ask analytical questions in order to adequately research social phenomena.
to do something that makes a difference
Understanding the relationship between religion and politics is crucial. In the course Religion and Politics that I teach together with my colleague Joram Tarusarira, we're not just talking about electoral or parliamentary politics, but politics in everyday relationships, in the media, in grass-roots organisations - struggles over power, injustice, who is marginalised and excluded.
And we're not just focusing on 'religion' in terms of traditions like Christianity and Islam. We're also interested in the whole idea of 'religion' itself - who gets to define what 'religion' actually is, where it begins and ends, what its characteristics are, who its leaders and representatives are. What we show in the course is that how we define what 'religion' is, has a whole range of policy and real world consequences - it determines who can claim the right to freedom of religion or belief and who can't, for example.
In this course, you are introduced to a range of topics, concepts and skills relevant for exploring the relationships between 'religion' and 'politics'. You will get a broad historical overview of thinkers who have explored this topic, ranging from ancient times through to the contemporary world, so you can identify how things have changed but also how they have stayed the same. You will gain knowledge of foundational thinkers, as well as new developments. Along, you will develop the critical analysis skills to identify problems and inconsistencies in public discourses on religion and politics, and the communication skills to effectively explain these inconsistencies to a diverse audience. These are crucial skills to have if you want to go on and work in policy or the NGO sector, for example.
I am personally motivated to teach about these topics because I want to do 'something' that makes a difference in people's lives, that helps to address inequalities and injustices in global politics and society. For me, in our contemporary world, there is so much misunderstanding and misrepresentation of religion in general, and Islam in particular. This leads to injustices and inequalities that affect people on a daily basis - whether that is Muslim families always being singled out for extra security checks at the airport, or media commentators and politicians arguing that we should stop accepting refugees because they may be terrorists, or indigenous people in the US being unable to claim protection for their sacred sites because their traditional rituals are defined by courts as 'culture' rather than as 'religion' – I could go on. Yet so often we see discussions about 'religion' and 'politics' as abstract things that are not relevant to the 'real world'. I want you to realize that these things do matter and that utilizing more sensitive nuanced understandings of religion can help to address these inconsistencies, inequalities and injustices, in both big and small ways.
After graduating I was able to immediately follow an internship at a municipality. I was one of three students selected from among two hundred applicants. I was chosen among other things for my background in religious studies; my employer believed that I would bring in an interesting new perspective. The internship consisted of a two-year track during which I switched to a different municipal department every six months.
After that I worked for this municipality for another eighteen months as a policy officer for the Social Support Act and domestic violence.
I currently work as a project team member at JSO, a knowledge and expertise centre for the social domain. My job involves a variety of tasks in the social field, from developing quality measures for teenage mothers’ programmes to a stint as interim policy officer for youth affairs at a municipality. What I love about my work is that I operate at the very heart of society and I can make a real contribution.
Suddenly, I'm the expert
After completing my Bachelor's and Master's, I did my PhD research on religion and development cooperation and sexuality, for which I conducted field work in East Africa. This helped me further develop my religious-scientific view on development cooperation.
Religious Studies is a broad-based degree programme. It is
important to choose your (broadening) Minor carefully. I chose
Minors from the Faculty of Management and Organization, Development
Studies and Philosophy as they are all highly relevant to my work.
The training in research skills I
received during my time in Groningen proved really useful to me. It is not only useful for researchers, but also for Religious Studies experts who want to work for the government or for a civil society organization.
Being a junior researcher gives you a lot of freedom. I chose to follow a regular working pattern: I worked on my research during the day, and in the evenings I’d either work on my book, teach, give lectures, or serve on boards such as that of the NGG (Dutch Society for Religious Studies). Society expects a lot more from you once you’re working. Compared to when you were a student, you have greater responsibilities and are suddenly considered an expert.
After my PhD, I worked as coordinator at the Religion and Development Knowledge Centre of the Oikos Foundation, where I helped in the joint training of development workers, policy makers and academics in how religion relates to conflicts, disasters, gender, health and human rights.
I recently returned to the University of Groningen, this time as a postdoc for Kim Knibbe’s research project on religion, secularism, sexuality and health of the African community in the Netherlands.
My students won't let me get away with nonsense
When I was rounding off my Master's degree programme, my former secondary school offered me a job as a teacher of Religious Education for a couple of hours a week. I started off with eight hours, completed my grade-one teaching qualification in Utrecht, and am currently teaching religion for four days and social studies for one day a week.
I had a great time as a student. The Faculty owes its charm and
strength to its small size, which meant I could fulfil various
roles: I worked as an after-hours porter and as a mentor, set up
the book committee and organized the introduction camp. In that
same vein, I’m currently organizing a trip to Rome for the
fifth-year students at our school.
As a teacher I have to be on the qui vive; my students don’t let me get away with nonsense. Fortunately I had lots of debating practice at university.