The State of Religious Studies Education on YouTube


by Andrew M. Henry

Despite stiff competition from cat videos and corporate-sponsored content, educational YouTube channels have carved out a respected niche in the landscape of online video. Borrowing the style of video bloggers pioneered in the early years of YouTube (likable hosts, fast-paced editing, splashy animations), these so-called “edu-vloggers” have proven YouTube’s potential as a platform for disseminating fun yet rigorously academic content for the broader public.

In fact, educational content on YouTube has entered something of a “Golden Age” over the past few years. CrashCourse, a channel founded by the YouTube celebrity brothers John and Hank Green, has garnered millions of subscribers and hundreds of millions of views publishing series on astronomy, physics, politics, literature, and world history. Veritasium, a science and technology channel hosted by Dr. Derek Muller, has attracted almost 4 million subscribers publishing videos on obscure topics such as “The Most Radioactive Places on Earth” and “Is Glass a Liquid?” The non-profit organization Khan Academy has made significant inroads on YouTube with video series on algebra, grammar, biology, and economics.

And this is just a small sample. Dozens of other channels are enjoying similar success in the disciplines of:

Physics: (PBS Spacetime, minutephysics)

Science: (SciShow, AsapSCIENCE)

Mathematics (Vihart),

Philosophy (Philosophy Tube)

Geography (GeographyNow!)

Linguistics (NativLang)

History (Step Back History)

Botany (Brilliant Botany)

Some of these creators are academics with graduate degrees in their respective fields. Others are popular bloggers and opinion leaders. Some are supported by $500,000 budgets and full-time staffs, others are one-person operations. All of these channels have thousands, if not millions of monthly viewers. And, taken as a whole, all of their videos have been used in thousands of schools, colleges, and universities worldwide.

But what is notably absent from this list?: Religious Studies.

To my knowledge, there are no large (100,000+ subscribers) YouTube channels that focus on religion from an academic perspective. Of course, some edu-channels do occasionally cover topics about religion. CrashCourse has published several excellent videos on Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism—each video garnering over a million views. The channel ExtraCredit published a well-researched and well-received series on Ancient Christian schisms. The pop-culture channel Wisecrack has even published a hilarious yet informative video titled “South Park on Religion” that rocketed to 100,000 views within a few days.

However, these brief forays into Religious Studies can never achieve more than a summary of some very complicated topics. A YouTube channel specializing in religion could offer a more thoroughgoing treatment of these topics all while fostering an online community of interested individuals. However, while scholars of religion have excelled in the realm of blogs and podcasts, YouTube remains an untapped resource for education about religion even while the business of edu-content is starting to boom and take its place in school curricula worldwide.

What would such a channel look like?

If you can pardon a few brief paragraphs of self-promotion, I can share my experience trying to start a Religious Studies YouTube channel from scratch. I don’t presume to be “that” next big creator who brings religious studies to YouTube, but I do think my YouTube channel can help us visualize what a Religious Studies edu-channel might look like.

In 2013, I launched Religion For Breakfast, a channel that I market as a fun and engaging dose of religious studies “for daily life.” While toiling in YouTube obscurity for two years, the channel has finally started to catch on and has grown to over 1000 subscribers as of August 2016 thanks to several dozen videos about ancient Christianity (my own subfield), religious studies theory/method, and general “Intro to Religion” topics about religion that I produce in my small Boston bedroom.

The videos have sparked countless fruitful discussions with complete strangers online about religion. I have received emails from high school students asking which religion departments they should attend for college. I am aware of half a dozen tenured professors who use my videos in their classrooms and report positive responses from their students. And I have started to notice a small cadre of individuals forming an online “Religion for Breakfast” club interested in discussing the academic study of religion.

In short, it seems religious studies can thrive on YouTube. Despite the vitriol associated with online discussions about religion (and the dozens of YouTube channels that perpetuate this vitriol), there is an undeniable interest online to learn about religion from an academic, nonsectarian perspective.

Challenges do remain. Compared to other social media platforms, YouTube has high barriers of entry. To compete with the larger channels, production quality needs to be top-notch, requiring a significant investment in equipment (studio lighting, professional grade microphones, HD video cameras, editing software), savvy online marketing skills (search engine optimization, branding, graphic design), and even acting skills (talking to a camera is hard!). However, in a world where video is the king of content, and in a world where YouTube is the 2nd largest search engine on the web, the discipline of Religious Studies cannot afford to ignore the potential of YouTube as an educational platform.

Andrew M. Henry is a PhD candidate in the Department of Religion at Boston University. His research interests include magic and demonology in Late Antiquity, particularly the material culture of magical practice such as amulets, curse tablets, and apotropaic inscriptions. He is also the host of Religion For Breakfast, an educational YouTube channel committed to raising the quality of discussion about religion on YouTube. 

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