Department of Religion near its 50th anniversary

Academic unit teaches some of our most sensitive aspects of culture to a growing variety of students
Ancient Jain statues carved out of rock found in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, India.
Ancient Jain statues carved out of rock found in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, India. (Stock image.) In 2021 the Department of Religion received its largest ever donation, $1 million, to create a program in Jain studies.

Sometimes a good thing doesn’t start with a kickoff gala or groundbreaking ceremony; it starts with a lot of question marks, like the ones surrounding the study of religion at the U of I in the 1970s.

Gary Porton, now a professor emeritus, was hired in 1973 as the first professor with a full appointment in religion at the U of I. Little did he know that someday his hire would be considered a landmark moment as the Department of Religion is poised to celebrate its 50th anniversary next year. Back in the 1970s it was unclear to some people why religion was being studied at a state-run university.

“Everybody at the university understood that the academic study of religion is something quite different from seminary and those kinds of places,” said Wayne Pitard, professor emeritus of religion, who began teaching at the U of I in 1983. “But it was beyond the university level that there was concern that this might be problematic.”

Times have changed. Since those uncertain first days, the Program for the Study of Religion became the Department of Religion in 2008, marking an important step forward for the unit. Acceptance and appreciation for the department’s role has grown immensely. The department currently employs nine professors, a lecturer, two post-doctoral students, and six professors emeriti. Students study a variety of religions from Buddhism and Christianity to Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism. In Fall 2021 the department received its largest donation ever, $1 million, to establish a program in Jain studies, making it the 28th U.S. school to develop such a program.

From left: Jon Ebel, Alexia Williams, and Cornell McKinnis II
The scope of student topics at U of I has grown. Alexia Williams (center) and Cornell McKinnis II (right), both recently hired, are the first two faculty members to specialize in African American religions in the Department of Religion. At left, department head Jon Ebel.

The department has begun collaborating with other academic units to increase cross-cultural perspectives. Recently the Department of Religion partnered with the School of Veterinary Medicine to offer a course titled, “Religious Perspectives on the Care of Animals” (VM 694). The course, first offered in Fall 2021, is the first of many such courses that the department plans to develop.

“We heal and support people better when we understand something about their religious perspectives,” said
Jon Ebel, head of the Department of Religion. “So what we hope to do is to help train better, more religiously alert and religiously sensitive doctors, nurses, and veterinarians (while expanding) these types of offerings into other corners of the university.”

The veterinary community, even beyond the U of I itself, has taken notice of what’s happening here. Ebel and his colleagues are advising the University of Arizona’s College of Veterinary Medicine on how to develop a similar course, and several national bodies of veterinary professionals have also reached out to the department for more information.

Ebel has talked to department heads in the College of Law, College of Education, and Gies College of Business about developing similar interdisciplinary courses in the curriculum. The study of religion itself is also growing in its scope. Recently the department welcomed Leonard Cornell McKinnis II and Alexia Williams, the first two faculty members in department history to specialize in African American religions. Both also hold appointments in African American studies.

Ebel said that while the number of students who major solely in religion is relatively small, many students have double-majored in religion and other subjects such as mathematics, psychology, law, and microbiology.

A larger number of non-majors have taken religion classes and come away with meaningful lessons, he added. 

“Lawyers and people in business operate in a religiously diverse world and they’ll have associates, partners, and customers who come from different religious backgrounds. They will do better when they know their coworkers, customers, and partners better,” Ebel said, “It feels risky to major in religion, because there is no direct pipeline from our major to Boeing, but it isn't as risky as it feels.”

He’s confident of the department’s future and the potential it offers to students and alumni in today’s world.

“The last 50 years in the study of religion at the University of Illinois have been amazing and transformative for students and faculty,” Ebel said. “For me personally, it's an absolute thrill and an honor to be a part of it.”

Editor's note: This story first appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of The Quadrangle.

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Christian Jones