Departmental Overview

A Brief History of the Carleton Religion Department


Departments of Religion in the U.S. came to define themselves as independent departments in large numbers beginning in the 1950s and 1960s. Typically, such departments engaged the imagination and talents of scholars who sought to differentiate their work from the professional tasks pursued in divinity schools and seminaries by defining Religious Studies as an interdisciplinary field within the Humanities and Social Sciences.



Carleton’s Religion department, which reflects these developments, was founded in 1955 by physicist/theologian Ian G. Barbour, who was joined a year later by David J. Maitland as College Chaplain. A major first began to be offered in the early 1960s. In these early years, the department offered relatively few courses, most of which were in the nature of surveys of world religions and focused on the study of the sacred texts and traditions of Christianity. Additional appointments, beginning with Bardwell L. Smith in 1960, enabled us to expand our offerings in Asian religions (both south and east Asia), in Christianity (both Protestant and Catholic), in Judaism, in North American religion and, most recently, in Islam. In addition to broadening the scope of the department’s offerings, these new appointments have greatly diversified the approaches to the study of religion represented in our curriculum. As our current course offerings indicate, we now teach a very broad range of courses covering most of the world’s major religious traditions, as well as courses in themes and issues (e.g., mysticism, monasticism) that encompass multiple traditions, specialized courses in particular religious thinkers and texts (e.g., Kierkegaard, Tao Te Ching), in particular aspects of religious experience (e.g., Conscience and Community: Challenges in Catholic Moral Theology; Gender, Sexuality and American Religion), and on topics of special interest (e.g., Religion, Reason and Romanticism; Religious and Moral Issues of the Holocaust; Native American Religious Freedom; Muslims on the Margins). Students who take our courses today will be exposed not only to a wide range of religious phenomena, but also to an array of issues that occupy scholars of religion: the analysis of religious symbols and rituals, the interpretation of religious literature, the composition of religious communities, and the dynamics of religious traditions as they respond to changing circumstances, to name but a few.


Despite the dramatic developments that have taken place in the Religion department in the five decades since its founding, certain intellectual commitments have remained constant. Faculty continue to see the study of religion in all its facets as central to the goals of a liberal education: fostering a deeper understanding of what it means to be human by examining how people in diverse times and places have addressed basic human questions about the meaning of life, the source of moral value, and the nature of reality. Moreover, while we recognize that these questions are never entirely separable from the real-life concerns of students and faculty alike, we believe that these questions should be explored in an academic setting where no presuppositions are made about the truth of particular religious claims or the value of particular modes of religious experience. So, now as always, our goal is to examine religion as a significant and pervasive expression of human culture, both in the past and the present. It is our hope that students who study religion at Carleton emerge with those intellectual skills that are central to a liberal arts education—reading perceptively, thinking analytically, writing clearly—together with an appreciation for the distinctive role of religion within human experience. The Department of Religion at Carleton is a place where various influences on both the subjective and the objective dimensions of human religion and religious experience can be critically examined and openly questioned in an intellectually relevant and vital manner.


But the study of religion at Carleton extends beyond the offerings of Religion Department faculty alone. Sociology of Religion and Myth, Ritual and Symbolism are some of the courses frequently offered in other departments that are cross-listed in Religion and for which Religion majors may receive credit toward their degrees. Many religion courses also count toward other majors and concentrations, such as American Studies, Asian Studies, Medieval and Renaissance Studies, and Women’s and Gender Studies.


The Religion Department is housed on the third floor of Leighton Hall. The Department Lounge is designed to be a comfortable and welcoming space where students can gather for informal class discussions, sit and read quietly, or enjoy a cup of tea as they wait for an appointment with one of their professors. In the lounge area students will also find files of materials on graduate and off-campus programs, a “Religion in the News” binder, a bookshelf of books by faculty in the Department, and a collection of periodicals. The display case offers a visually interesting array of materials on a subject related to religion which changes each term.