Online Degrees in Religious Studies

"In a world shaped not merely by 9/11 but by Iraq, Bosnia, Kashmir, and the West Bank -- and not merely by abortion, but by gay marriage, intelligent design, euthanasia, and stem cells -- Americans increasingly accept the idea that we need better to understand the diverse range of religious phenomena," the American Academy of Religion (AAR) wrote in a report titled The Religion Major and Liberal Education.

The report goes on to say that religion has always been an inescapable part of politics, economics, foreign policy, social mores and domestic interactions. Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright felt so strongly about the role of religion in diplomacy that she wrote in her book, The Mighty and the Almighty, that "no American ambassador should be assigned to a country where religious feelings are strong unless he or she has a deep understanding of the faiths commonly practiced there."

Religious studies degrees and certificates are available at the undergraduate, master's and doctoral levels. Many online liberal arts degree programs are interdisciplinary, and include studies in anthropology, history, sociology, language, literature and more. Fields of emphasis include Jewish, Islamic, Christian, Hindu, or Buddhist traditions as well as religious cultures of Africa, China, Japan and the Americas, to name only a few.

Depending on the school and the religious studies program, one-, two- or three-year master's degree programs offer terminal degrees or degrees for students preparing to enter doctoral programs. A Master of Arts in Religion (MAR) or a Masters in Divinity (M.Div.) are the most common degrees for those called to religious careers. Doctoral programs, which can take up to six years to complete, prepare graduates to enter academia as professors or researchers or prepare them for scholarship in their fields of specialization.

Religious studies is no longer only a precursor to seminary studies for pastors, priests and rabbis but a liberal arts major that has become increasingly important in today's world for careers in journalism, international business, policy analysis, the law, education, health care, human rights, the diplomatic corps and even in intelligence agencies.

The AAR report states that "an unprecedented confluence of world events, public perceptions, and educational insights has created exciting possibilities for the growth and re-imagining of [religious studies]." To that end, many religious studies programs are shifting from a "seminary" model to a "comparative" model that promotes an understanding of a variety of practices, beliefs and histories of different religions.

As a liberal arts discipline, religious studies teaches students skills that employers want to see -- critical and analytical thinking as well as communication and writing skills. Students also learn to appreciate another perspective, formulate and defend a position, understand ideas and values different from their own and gain a more highly developed political awareness.

Students enrolled in online degrees in religious studies could have the opportunity to learn about other religions from fellow students who might practice those religions in different states or even different countries. Online religious studies degrees promote the essence of the field -- dialoguing with different people to compare and understand the diversity of religion -- both the similarities and the differences.

Religious studies at a glance:

  • Common career paths: nonprofit work, religious counseling, church administration, education, media
  • Salary: The median salary for philosophy and religious studies majors was $41,000, and $61,000 for graduates, according to a 2018 study from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW).
  • Graduate degrees: 53 percent of students earning a bachelor's degree in philosophy or religious studies went on to earn a graduate degree, the CEW reported.

Religion is far more than just a belief system. Religion impacts -- and is impacted by -- nearly every element of human society, including history, philosophy, psychology, politics and cultural practices. Doctoral degree programs in religious studies help enable scholars interested in studying the interplay between religion and society delve deeper into the comparative and interpretive aspects of religion.

Programs and Specializations

Other doctorates with a more specific focus include:

  • Doctor of Theology: most often focused on Christian theology
  • Doctor of Ministry: a professional doctorate for those in the Christian ministry
  • Doctor of Religious Education: prepares graduates to teach or administer religious education programs for members of faith communities

In addition to choosing a degree type, students also choose a specialization. Coursework varies depending on your area of concentration, which can include Christianity, Judaism, Islamic studies, Asian religions, or more generalized studies in the philosophy of religion, ethics, theology or modern religious thought.

Ph.D. doctoral programs in religious studies often necessitate language requirements so that students can explore religious texts in the original language and read scholarship from various countries. Individual programs may also have other requirements -- research or teaching assistantships, publishing works related to your specialty and foreign travel or an exchange program.

Online doctorates in religious studies tend to concentrate on a specific religion, such as Christianity. Online students may be required to complete brief but intensive campus-based visits, or residencies, and students in an applied field such as ministry may also be required to work with a local church or religious organization during their degree program.

What Does a Doctoral Degree Program in Religious Studies Entail?

Admission to an online Ph.D. program may require a master's degree in religious studies or a related field, but some schools accept students with only a bachelor's degree. Other requirements may also include GRE scores and, in some cases, foreign language competency. Check with your school for specific admissions qualifications.

The Ph.D. in religious studies generally takes between three to seven years to complete, with dissertation research being the most variable factor for full-time students. Most programs include two to three years of directed reading and discipline-specific coursework, after which students prepare for comprehensive examinations, which can be both oral and written. Finally, students move on to the dissertation phase, where they address a specific issue in their area of expertise and write a work of original scholarship.

Choosing a doctoral degree program is a big commitment. Start your research by browsing through the programs below and requesting additional information from prospective schools.


  • The Religious Studies Major and Liberal Education, American Academy of Religion, Association of American Colleges and Universities,, accessed November 2018
  • Five Rules of the College and Career Game, Georgetown University, Center on Education and the Workforce, file:///C:/Users/amenezes/Resources/cew-fiverules.pdf, accessed November 2018
  • The Mighty and the Almighty, Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs, Madeleine Albright, Harper Collins Publisher,, accessed November 2018
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