Being able to think critically about religion means having to overcome a lot of preconceptions, both positive and negative, and confronting your own values and beliefs.

Maria Antonaccio

Learning about the breadth and depth of religion as a human phenomenon was a revelation for Maria Antonaccio, who started college intending to major in English. That plan changed after she took several religion courses as electives, and discovered a new lens through which to view the world — one that asked probing questions about the human condition that went far beyond personal belief in God. Her passion for exploring the answers launched an academic career that brought her to Bucknell in 1994.

"Students may have grown up in a religious tradition without really thinking critically about religion from a comparative, historical or pluralistic perspective," says Antonaccio. "I teach about religion as an activity of human culture. I'm not here to indoctrinate students into a religious belief system, or to tell them that a certain denomination or tradition is the right one. My job is to help students think about what the religions teach us about human life and human values."

Antonaccio teaches a range of courses that are intended to demonstrate the relevance of religious studies to contemporary ethical issues, including environmental ethics, God and morality, the ethics of consumption, and the end of nature and the posthuman future. They attract students from all three of Bucknell's colleges, who are often eager to explore religious beliefs and ethical perspectives that may differ from their own.

"Students often come into the classroom thinking of ethics as rules of right or wrong, or in terms of divisive social issues like abortion or euthanasia," she explains. "I try to get them to understand that they're already evaluative thinkers who face ethical decisions every single day, and that there are going to be a lot of ambiguous moral situations, both large and small, to navigate throughout their lives." Honing the skills to do that well is a goal of all of Antonaccio's courses.

Antonaccio argues that majoring in religious studies has many unexpected benefits for students.

"Being able to think critically about religion means having to overcome a lot of preconceptions, both positive and negative, and confronting your own values and beliefs," she says. "It can also make you stand out to employers as someone who's intellectually curious and independent-minded. They see your resume and say, 'Wow, you're a religious studies major. Tell me about that.' "

Posted August 2018