Separating Philosophy from Religious Studies and Theology (Updated)

Separating Philosophy from Religious Studies and Theology (Updated)

In research on higher education, philosophy majors, religious studies majors, and theology majors are often grouped together. This is because the questionnaires used to create the main data sets on which this research is based group these majors together. This is not merely weird, given how different these fields are, but possibly detrimental to the reputation of philosophy, as it is suspected that philosophy majors fare better than the others on many metrics, such as later income, standardized test performance, degree usefulness, and so on.

Now there is something we can do about it. We can comment on one of the questions in  one of the main surveys used for higher education research, the American Community Survey (ACS). This is “Question 12”, the question which asks the survey respondent’s major. ACS is considering eliminating this question. Instead, we should tell ACS to keep question 12 but allow “philosophy” as its own, distinct major. The public comment period on this ends in a few weeks, so you might as well go to this site and comment right now. It won’t take long.

This information is courtesy of Kathleen Wallace, chair of philosophy at Hofstra University. She has helpfully put together more information about this issue, including why it is important, along with four other suggestions about what we can do about it. The short version is below. A more detailed account is available here. Thank you, Professor Wallace.

UPDATE (12/16/14): Professor Wallace informs us that there is a Chronicle of Higher Education article on changes to the American Community Survey. And, as a reminder, if you haven’t yet commented here, please do so. The deadline is December 30th, 2014.


How Data May (Mis-)Represent Outcomes for Philosophy Majors and What You Can Do About It — NOTE: time-sensitive action item below, Dec. 30, 2014 deadline
Kathleen Wallace, Philosophy Department, Hofstra University

Philosophers need to respond quickly to inaccurate statistical data concerning the success of philosophy majors (Action Items after a short explanation).

Significant sources of data used by researchers studying U.S. higher education and outcomes for undergraduate majors are

  • National Center for Education Statistics (NCES)

distinguishes “philosophy” as a subfield within a general category “philosophy & religious studies.” But, often the aggregated general category is used in research.

  • American Community Survey (ACS)

ACS uses NCES codes and may or may not combine philosophy and religious studies majors. (If I get explanation on this, I’ll post update on my website. UPDATE: In response to an inquiry, the ACS writes: “It looks like the main questions are whether or not we break down “Philosophy and Religious Studies” (4801) into further subcategories and if so, what forms we make those data available.  For ACS, we do not break down that category into further subcategories during any of our processing steps, therefore we would not have those data available.  Any respondent who wrote “Philosophy”, “Religious Studies”, “Theology” etc. would all be coded to one category (4801).”  So, it is really important that philosophers get in their comments — that philosophy and religious studies (and theology!) should be processed and reported as distinct majors — on the ACS question 12 during the public comment period.)

  • National Survey of College Graduates (NSCG, conducted by NSF)

NSF combines philosophy and religious studies majors in NSCG.

Even when a data set distinguishes philosophy and religious studies majors, for consistency (comparing apples to apples) researchers working with multiple data sets aggregate data, combining philosophy and religious studies.

A more detailed explanation of the different data sources and their uses is available on my website.

Take-away point:

Research on student outcomes is widely disseminated, reported on publicly, and affects both student (and parent) perception of desirable or acceptable major and how university administrations decide funding and program priorities.

If we want researchers to use disaggregated data and treat philosophy as a distinct major, then data collectors need to consistently process philosophy and religious studies as distinct majors. (See Action Items for how to contact them about this.)

Many suspect that philosophy majors do better than religious studies (and many other) majors. But as long as the data is aggregated, we have no idea.

Action Items:

  1. Contribute a comment about ACS: DEADLINE of December 30, 2014!

ACS is proposing to eliminate Question 12, the question that asks for the respondent’s undergraduate major.

The Public Comment Period ends on Dec. 30, 2014. Tell ACS to process and report Question 12 with disaggregation of philosophy and religious studies; the majors should be processed, coded and reported as distinct majors. [1]

Here’s where you go to comment on ACS Question 12:

  1. Contact NSF about distinguishing philosophy as a field of study from religion and theology. The NSCG project director is John Finamore, [email protected]

Maybe even ask your science colleagues to do the same.

  1. Ask the APA how you can help it, as a national organization, to address the issue of accurate and meaningful categories of information with the agencies that collect and distribute the source data
  1. Counter reports in the media. Comment on the article or write to the reporter or a letter to the editor of the local newspaper. Contact the researchers mentioned in an article, etc. to raise a question about or point out the potential problem with aggregated data
  1. Talk and/or write to social science and higher education researchers about the issue; maybe there are researchers at your own institution who work on higher education; maybe your institution has an institutional research office — how does it collect data, e.g., how are surveys of alumni worded to distinguish between majors? how does it aggregate (or not) data that it collects and reports? Is your institution, your department doing a good job of accurately gathering, compiling and disseminating data?

[1] See Mervis, Can Question 12 Survive? at AAAS’s Science Magazine, 13 November 2014


(art: pencil carvings by Dalton Ghetti)


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Nick Byrd
9 years ago

Thanks for bringing this to our attention. I commented. I hope others will too.

Dale Miller
9 years ago

Actually, at my school religious studies is a track within the philosophy major. We’re a joint department, and we don’t have the numbers for separate majors.

Dale Miller
9 years ago

Our case is really idiosyncratic in that our religious studies majors take at least 24 hours in philosophy. Some of these will be Eastern thought courses that we call PHIL but could as easily call RELS. But most will be standard philosophy courses like Ancient, Medieval, Modern, etc. So we would call them all philosophy majors for data-collecting purposes. But our reasons don’t generalize very far, obviously.

George Rainbolt
9 years ago

Many thanks to Dr. Wallace for doing all this investigative work! I have commented on the ACS and email Mr. Finamore. In both cases I urged the separation of Philosophy, Religious Studies, and Theology. While these majors are sometimes administratively housed together in various ways, they are distinct fields of study. In the interest of accurate data, I think that they should be distinct on questionnaires.

the Onion Man
the Onion Man
8 years ago

I’m not necessarily opposed to this idea, but I would certainly interpret the push here as further evidence of academic philosophy’s problem with provincialism. What do you do with e.g. Buddhist philosophy, or (as in the article linked to here recently) classical Chinese philosophy?

The idea that philosophy is even in principle separable from theology is an artifact of the “Enlightenment” discourse of secularism. That doesn’t mean philosophy, theology, and religious studies are all doing the same thing, but it does mean that the division needs to be justified and explained, coherently and consistently.

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  the Onion Man
8 years ago

The idea that politics is even in principle separable from monarchy and state religion is also an artifact of the Enlightenment, but there as in philosophy the reasons for making that separation should probably be clear enough.

As for what the separation consists in, here’s a first stab. Theology begins with certain unquestioned religious assumptions as fundamental and draws out their consequences. Philosophy, insofar as it addresses religious questions, begins by questioning the assumptions theologians get to take for granted and concerns itself only with what can be established without the benefit of controversial religious presumptions. And religious studies is an umbrella term that also and chiefly includes questions of which people believe which religious things and engage in which practices, how these sociological trends arise, and what practical consequences are likely to follow from them.

the Onion Man
the Onion Man
Reply to  Justin Kalef
8 years ago

Who says state religion is separable from politics? You may not like or agree with the idea that the de facto state religion of the United States is a form of secularism–you may take issue with the idea that “Enlightenment”-style secular liberalism is properly speaking a religion at all–but these are not seriously contested propositions within the field of Religious Studies.

More generally, the word “religion” is doing a lot of unexamined work in your response. The very idea of a universal category of “religion” is inseparable from the particular history of Christianity, especially Protestant Christianity. (See J.Z. Smith, “Religion, Religions, Religious”). So no, I don’t accept your definitions or categories at all. In fact I would point to them as examples of the kind of minimally-informed provincial thinking all too characteristic of philosophers when they brush up against theology or religious studies.