A brief and incomplete history of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies.
North Carolina State University — formerly North Carolina State College of Agriculture and Engineering (or “State College” for short) — was founded in 1887, but did not offer courses in religious studies during its first forty years, or in philosophy for even longer.
Far more surprising is the way in which the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at NC State has historical roots in Bible study classes at the YMCA.
In 1920, the “Y” played a significant official role in campus life. Students had to pay a small fee to the Y which allowed them to use its basketball courts, pool and bowling alley, as well as rooms for a literary society and campus publications. Sunday chapel services also were mandatory for students, and there were voluntary Bible classes. William Norwood (“Red”) Hicks II, an academically outstanding student at State who was actively engaged in student affairs, rose through the ranks of the Y’s student leaders, serving as president in his senior year. His experience teaching Bible study led him to decide on a career in education after receiving his B.S. in mechanical engineering in 1923.
By 1925, Hicks was working for State and the Y when a new president of the college, Eugene Clyde Brooks, came into office. Brooks made two important changes in campus religious life — he made chapel attendance voluntary and instituted non-sectarian religion courses for credit. To further this second goal, Brooks arranged for Hicks to earn a master’s degree in theology at Oberlin College in Ohio, which he did in 1927–28. In the fall of 1928, Hicks returned to State College as an assistant professor and head of the new Department of Religion, of which he was the only faculty member. The first course that he offered for credit was The Life and Teachings of Jesus. This was later split into separate courses on The Life of Jesus and The Teachings of Jesus. A general Introduction to Religion and a course on Comparative Religion were soon added.
In 1939, the name of the department was changed to the Department of Ethics and Religion, reflecting the introduction of several ethics courses, which Hicks described as follows:
“Social Ethics, a study of the ethical codes and practices of the larger professional and business groups, with appropriate emphasis on the nature and evolution of moral values; Ethical Problems of Adolescence, a survey of adolescent-youth adjustment, approached from the ethical angle; Problems of Marital Adjustment, a vocational course in which the pertinent findings of biology, psychology, sociology and ethics are focused upon the personal problems of premarriage adjustment and family living.” (1)
The department began teaching courses in philosophy in 1949, when its name was changed to the Department of Philosophy and Religion. It then entered a growth period during which it expanded the range of its course offerings and appointed several new faculty. Most notable among them were Paul A. Bredenberg (who served the Department from 1950 to 1986), W. Lawrence Highfill (1956–1986), and W. Curtis Fitzgerald (1956–1992). Bredenberg worked mainly on theories of meaning and their relationship with the arts. His teaching ranged from introductory philosophy courses, logic, and history of philosophy, through philosophy of religion, theory of knowledge, and philosophy of art. Highfill specialized in Asian religions, especially Buddhism, and taught Religions of the World, Hinduism and Islam, Buddhism, Religion and Ethics, and other courses in religious studies. Fitzgerald taught more than half a dozen courses in religious studies, the introductory philosophy course, the course on existentialism, and a seminar on Kierkegaard. He would eventually serve as Assistant Head of Department in 1974–1985 and 1986–1990 and play an important role in recruiting leading faculty in religious studies.
In 1959, John Caldwell became chancellor of State College. He immediately set about transforming it into a university, creating the School of Physical Sciences and Applied Mathematics and the School of Liberal Arts, which was authorized to offer degree programs in the humanities. The B.A. and B.S. in philosophy were introduced in 1963/64 and signed on eleven students in 1964/65. State College became North Carolina State University in 1965. “Red” Hicks retired in 1966, after serving as department head for almost 40 years.
Hicks was replaced as department head by Robert S. Bryan, who had earned his Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Virginia in 1957 and had previously served as a member of the faculty at Thiel College (1958–1965) and Wright State University (1965/66). When he arrived in 1966, the department had a faculty of five or six and offered a big, multi-section course called Marriage and Family Living. Bryan dumped it, despite his devotion to his own marriage and family, and started hiring Ph.D.s from the top graduate programs to teach rigorous courses in philosophy and religious studies.
Bryan’s appointments in philosophy included Tom Regan (1967–2001), Donald VanDeVeer (1969–2000), William R. Carter (1970–2004), Barbara B. Levenbook (1980-2021), Christine M. Pierce (1982-2014), Louise Antony (1986–1993) and Joseph Levine (1986–2000). Regan, who specialized in ethics, was soon recognized internationally for his work on animal rights, which helped put the NC State philosophy program on the world map. VanDeVeer worked mainly on ethics; Carter on metaphysics; Levenbook on philosophy of law; Pierce on ethics, feminism and gay issues; and Antony and Levine on philosophy of mind and language. In religious studies, Bryan’s appointments included James Moorhead (1975–1984), a specialist in nineteenth- and twentieth-century mainline Protestantism, James C. VanderKam (1976–1991), a scholar of early Judaism and the Hebrew scriptures, William Adler (1984– ), a specialist in early Jewish and Christian historiography, and Tony K. Stewart (1986–2011), an expert in premodern Bengali and Sanskrit religious literature. All these scholars developed significant national or international reputations, and several of them went on to distinguished appointments in other institutions.
Bryan also oversaw the expansion and strengthening of the department’s curriculum, the introduction of a B.A. in philosophy with a concentration in religious studies in 1978, a B.A. in philosophy with a concentration in philosophy of law in 1984, and minors in philosophy and religious studies in 1989.
1990s to Present
Robert S. Bryan retired from NC State in 1989, after twenty-three years of distinguished leadership. He had built up an outstanding undergraduate department with about eighteen faculty and a remarkably congenial atmosphere. He was succeeded by Edwin A. Martin (Head, 1989–1995), Tom Regan (Head, 1995–1999), Harold D. Levin (Interim Head, 1999–2003), Douglas M. Jesseph (Interim Head, Fall 2003), and Michael Pendlebury (Head, 2004– ). Bryan’s successors followed his lead in hiring promising and well-qualified Ph.D.s from top graduate programs. Appointments have included Douglas Jesseph (1991–2008), John Carroll (1995– ), Marina Bykova (2000– ), Gary Comstock (2002– ), Stephen Puryear (2008– ), Veljko Dubljevic (2016– ) and Stephen Ferguson (2017– ) in philosophy; and Jason Bivins (2000– ) and Levi McLaughlin (2012– ) in religious studies. Bryan’s successors have also followed his lead in pursuing the highest academic standards. As a result of these strategies, the department has been able to maintain both a high level of scholarly productivity and high-quality academic programs.
There have been a number of important developments in the department since 1989. An interdisciplinary undergraduate minor in cognitive science was introduced in 1990. In 1994, the B.A. in philosophy with a concentration in religious studies was replaced by a full-fledged B.A. in religious studies. The Logic and Cognitive Science Initiative was established in 2004 to foster growth and development in cognitive science, formal logic, and related fields of cognitive philosophy, including philosophy of science, philosophy of language, theory of knowledge, and analytical metaphysics. In 2005, the department took over the administration of the interdisciplinary undergraduate minor in health, medicine and human values. Between 2006 and 2009, it introduced a B.S. in philosophy with a concentration in logic, representation and reasoning (2006), a graduate minor in cognitive science (2007), a B.A. in philosophy with a concentration in ethics (2007), an undergraduate minor in ethics (2008), and an undergraduate minor in logic and methodology (2009).
The department’s name was changed from the Department of Philosophy and Religion to the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies in Fall 2009. This change was made in order to emphasize that the department provides a home to two independent disciplines — philosophy and religious studies — each with its own faculty and programs. It was also intended to signal clearly that, in its teaching and scholarship on religion, the department does not seek to advance the practice of religion or of any particular religion, but only to study religion academically as a significant human phenomenon.
The number of tenured and tenure-track faculty in the department increased to a peak of 23 (16 in philosophy and 7 in religious studies) in Spring 2008. This fell to 18 (13 in philosophy and 5 in religious studies) in Fall 2011 as a result of natural attrition coupled with several years of budget cuts in the wake of the financial collapse of October 2008. The number increased to 22 (15 in philosophy and 7 in religious studies) in Fall 2020. Four of these faculty members had teaching obligations in both the department and the College of Humanities and Social Sciences’ division of Interdisciplinary Studies (in the fields of Africana studies, women’s and gender studies and science, technology and society).
The department fosters high standards of scholarly and academic excellence. In its instructional role, it still focuses on providing quality undergraduate programs and courses to a wide range of NC State students. These undergraduates include philosophy and religious studies majors, students taking one or more of the six undergraduate minors administered by the department, and students who take the department’s courses to support their primary interests or to satisfy general education requirements, college requirements, or requirements of other majors or minors. Notwithstanding its focus on undergraduates, the department now offers several educational opportunities to graduate students in other disciplines through a selection of graduate courses and the graduate minor in cognitive science. (2)
(1) William Norwood Hicks, “Two Decades of Teaching Religion in a State University,” Oberlin Theological Review, June 1947, p.20.
(2) Significant parts of this brief history were borrowed largely verbatim from articles published in the Department’s annual electronic Newsletter between June 2008 and June 2012. Additional details were drawn from the Department’s records and later newsletters. The main contributors to the history (either through newsletter articles or more directly) were David Auerbach, Robert Hambourger, Ken Peters, Ann Rives, and Michael Pendlebury, who prepared the article. The article was most recently updated in November 2022. If you notice any errors or can provide additional details about the Department’s history, please inform Michael Pendlebury at firstname.lastname@example.org.