The Long Beach State Religious Studies Department has seen a decline in religious studies majors amidst the declining rates of religion among younger generations.
One-third of Gen Z consider themselves religiously unaffiliated, making them the least religious generation yet, according to a 2021 American National Family Life Survey. The same study also reported that 18% of Gen Z identify as atheist or agnostic.
Sophia Pandya, the Religious Studies Department chair, said Gen Z is straying away from institutional religions because of discriminatory beliefs against marginalized groups, like the LGBTQ+ community.
“With the rapid social change of the last 15 years or so, it’s considered absolutely acceptable to be gay, trans and nonbinary,” Pandya said. “At the same time, you have religious institutions that are still holding on to the disapproval of those forms of identity.”
The department began to see a steep decline in students in 2007, around the time of the Great Recession, according to Pandya. Compared to the 55 students who applied to the major in fall of 2007, only 18 applied last semester, according to CSULB Institutional Research and Analytics.
“Our numbers are not what they used to be,” Pandya said. “As soon as the recession ended, that’s when our numbers declined and they did not yet increase. This particular semester, our enrollment is not so great.”
The Religious Studies Department currently has 12 students as majors, nine students as minors and 14 as graduate students, according to institutional data. The department is hoping to encourage enrollment by changing its name to the Department of Religion and Global Spiritualities next year.
“I felt strongly that we needed to incorporate the word ‘spirituality’ because that is how many people express their faith these days,” Pandya said. “We have people turning to things like yoga, or even things like therapy in ways that we would turn to religion.”
The department also hopes to attract students by hiring a new Jain Studies professor, who will teach concepts like non-violence and yoga in relation to religion.
Professor Kathryn Chew said students who are not religious or spiritual can still benefit from learning different perspectives through religious studies courses.
“All Americans are told to not talk about politics and religion at Thanksgiving but here we are as a department,” Chew said. “We’re not telling people what to believe, we’re just saying this is what’s out there.”
Chew said that many students leave religious studies courses with a greater appreciation for global religions and are able to properly interact with those with different beliefs.
“They can go out there and say ‘I can understand different perspectives that people have and even if I may not share them, I can appreciate them, and see how they intersect with mine,’” Chew said.
Students from the department have pursued careers as lawyers, doctors, teachers, librarians and workers at non-governmental organizations or charities, according to Pandya.
Religious studies master’s student Joshua Duncan said the program taught him to think outside of the box and exposed him to non-mainstream cultures. Duncan said studying religion is beneficial because of its implications on societal issues.
“You can’t discuss Roe v. Wade, or anything associated with that subject, without religion,” Duncan said. “It’s the same thing with the death penalty. It just comes into the picture automatically.”
Master’s student Javier Fernandez said that religious studies courses have made him more globally conscious and empathetic. Despite the declining rates of religion amongst younger generations, Fernandez believes that students will still be interested in the classes.
“I find that people, even if they’re not affiliated with faith, are so interested in learning about religion because it is such a powerful force in our world,” Fernandez said. “It has the potential to incite violence, the potential to divide us and the potential to unite.”