North Central College religious studies and theology majors take in a class at Koten Chapel.

Religious Studies vs Theology

Reviewed by Jacob Imm

Aug 27, 2021

Religious Studies vs. Theology

Although theology can be an aspect of religious studies and religious studies can be an aspect of theology, these college degrees are distinct in important ways. Whereas religious studies programs explore major world religions, such as Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism, theology maintains a more singular focus on the study of God. 

But the core focus of these programs isn’t the only major difference. Keep reading to learn more about religious studies vs. theology to determine whether a degree in religious studies or theology is right for you. 

What Is Religious Studies?

Over time, cultures develop their own internal sets of values, morality and theories about humankind’s relationships with the Divine and one another. These philosophies are simultaneously ancient and yet vibrantly alive to this day.    

So, what is religious studies? A religious studies major focuses on the founding, evolution and flourishing of major world religions, including: 

  • Judaism
  • Christianity
  • Islam
  • Buddhism
  • Hinduism
  • Taoism

But this academic pursuit doesn’t simply focus on the religions themselves. 

It also covers the foundational scholars who studied religious dogma and developed philosophies out of their findings. This allows you to trace the impact such thoughts had on human notions about morality, human rights, law, and gender relations. From there, you can see how such ideas evolve and change over time.

Through comprehensive coursework, students can gain a deeper understanding of the continuous impact these religions have had in a number of areas, including but not limited to: 

  • Economics
  • Anthropology
  • Diverse cultures
  • Sociology
  • Legal systems 

By investigating religion, you can gain a better understanding of the underlying motivations for human behavior and our shared history. 

What Does a Religious Studies Major Cover? 

Religious studies coursework will vary depending on the school. At North Central College, for example, religious studies majors begin with introductory courses on the major world religions. From there, students have the freedom to select courses from each of the following areas:

  • Biblical studies – Introduces the Bible, both the New and Old Testaments. 
  • Theology – Focuses on understanding the nature of a divine creator and the ontological arguments for a creator’s existence.
  • Ethics – Studies the concepts of morality, right and wrong, and the codes civilization has developed surrounding such notions. 
  • Asian traditions – Covers the three primary philosophies springing from India, China and Japan. 

How Long Does it Take to Earn a Degree in Religious Studies?

Degree requirements vary from school to school, but at some institutions students can earn a bachelor’s degree in religious studies within four years. At North Central College, students are required to take the following courses to graduate:

  • A minimum of 32 credit hours of religion courses
  • A minimum of 10 credit hours of religious electives 
  • A religious capstone class 

During this time, students may also be required to take classes in philosophy, literature, history and foreign language. 

Those looking to pursue a master’s degree in religious studies  will typically need an additional 1-3 years of education. Religious studies majors who want to earn a doctorate in their field (a goal that 67% of religious workers pursue) will need to dedicate another four years (on average) to their coursework and dissertation.

If you’re interested in entering a graduate school for religious studies, North Central College offers a master’s degree program in partnership with Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary (GETS). This means that North Central undergrad students are eligible to take graduate-level classes that can count either toward their electives or a future master’s degree—whether at GETS or elsewhere.

Career Paths with a Degree in Religious Studies

What can you do with a religious studies degree? Religious studies investigates the fundamental aspects of human society, culture and history. It forces students to think, debate and communicate persuasively. And it prepares young people to have a deeper understanding of the world’s religions and cultures. As a result, it paves the way for several different career branches, including: 

  • Education – Whether it’s teaching at a religious or secular school, the in-depth knowledge of history and global studies adequately prepares religious studies majors to teach younger students. It also opens up the possibility of obtaining an advanced degree to teach at a collegiate level or pursue a career in research. 
  • Law – Robust critical thinking and communication skills open up the legal world to students interested in law. Lawyers have the freedom to focus their practice as they choose—be it on religious freedom or general legal principles.  
  • Religion – Some students that enter religious studies have plans to join the ministry or become a religious leader. Often, religious studies is a precursor to graduate-level religious studies in a seminary school.
  • Social work – This field allows religious studies majors to put their knowledge to work. Students can focus on addressing specific issues, making positive changes in society and impacting people’s lives on a personal level.
  • Nonprofits – Many of the world’s largest nonprofit organizations are religious-based and seek to influence the world for the better.

Find out more about North Central College

What Is Theology?

Theology is the systematic study of God. It derives from the Greek words theos (God) and logos (knowledge). 

In his book “Institutes of the Christian Religion, the widely known theologian John Calvin put it, “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” To Calvin, the pursuit of theology was the same thing as the pursuit of wisdom. According to his worldview, understanding theology is not only important for grasping the divine nature of a creator, but also for understanding humanity’s place in a universe that’s created by God. 

Theological studies is more closely related to the rigorous training of spiritual leaders and thinkers within specific religious traditions—whether they take place in a seminary, monastery, semikhah or elsewhere. That said, theology is often closely tied to the Judeo-Christian religions; as a result, there’s a greater emphasis on using religious studies as a vehicle to pursue a personal faith or belief and develop one’s relationship with God. 

Although theology takes a much more intensive dive into Old and New Testament scriptures, it’s similar to religious studies in that it also focuses on a variety of related fields, including:

  • History
  • Anthropology
  • Archeology 
  • Philosophy
  • Sociology

Religious studies differs from theology in that religion functions more as a backdrop than a central tenet of personal faith. Religious studies is broader, more focused on learning about all world religions as opposed to one. Therefore, it tends to be more analytical and objective while comparing and contrasting various religious faith and their practices in terms of their impact on the world. 

How Long Does it Take to Earn a Degree in Theology? And What Can You Do With It?  

A bachelor’s degree—the most common degree earned by those with careers related to theology—usually requires four years of study at most undergraduate institutions. However, many who opt for an emphasis on theology do so as preparation for divinity school. There, they can dive deeper into the pursuit of the divine while obtaining a master’s or doctorate in theology. In most cases, it takes about 3-4 years to complete divinity school

Those who graduate with such degrees often follow one of a few select career paths: 

  • Religious educators and researchers
  • Ministers and pastors
  • Guidance and marriage counselors  
  • Historians
  • Biblical translators and scholars 

Do You Have to Be Religious to Study Theology? 

Although you do not have to be religious to study theology, your should be prepared to spend a lot of time discussing, researching and wrestling with the fundamental nature of God. There’s a greater emphasis in theology than in religious studies on how the union of the philosophical schools of thought, deriving from Athens and Jerusalem, impacted the development of Christianity as well as Western society and philosophy.   

The roots of theology are in Christians seeking to understand their God. But that’s not always how the subject is approached. As Paul Badham, professor emeritus of theology and religious studies at the University of Wales notes, “Theologians tend to fall into these two categories. Some are studying theology because they wish to move from faith to a fuller understanding of that faith. Others are studying theology because they want to understand what it is that Christians believe.” (Sagepub Journals)

That said, even if you are non-religious, studying theology opens up a world of fascinating philosophical discussions. 

Students can wrestle with religious topics that have been debated for millennia by some of the world’s greatest minds, such as theodicy—the question of why a good Omnipotent God would allow evil things to occur. Just this single issue alone opens up a world of philosophical study since there are compelling arguments from the Plotinian, Augustinian and Irenaean schools of thought.  

What to Think About When Considering a Degree in Religious Studies vs. Theology 

Are you interested in the analytical pursuit of world religions and a better understanding of how they’ve impacted world history to this day? If so, religious studies is likely a more suitable major for you. 

However, if you have a personal faith or belief, and wish to dive deeper into the philosophies underpinning both Judaism and Christianity, then a theological focus is probably more in line with your interests. 

Fortunately, schools like North Central College offer students the opportunity to broadly study world religions via religious studies or to specialize in theological studies. Find out more about North Central and get started on the path to your degree today.



2021 Religious Studies Degree Guide | Find Your Future Faster. (2021). College Factual.

North Central creates formal partnership with Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. (2019, October 30). North Central College.

Calvin’s Theology: Nearly All the Wisdom We Possess. (2017, September 17). Place For Truth.

2021 Theology & Religious Vocations Degree Guide. (2021). College Factual.

Badham, P. (1996, March 1). What is Theology. SAGE Journals.