What is it? Like some deities, this course can take on many different forms. You can focus on one religion, or dip into Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Sikhism or Buddhism. You can study the philosophy of religion: if there is a God, why is there suffering? Or you can focus on ethical issues such as abortion or euthanasia.

What is it? Like some deities, this course can take on many different forms. You can focus on one religion, or dip into Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Sikhism or Buddhism. You can study the philosophy of religion: if there is a God, why is there suffering? Or you can focus on ethical issues such as abortion or euthanasia.

Why do it? To wrestle with big questions such as, "Why are we here?" and "Are we destined for an afterworld?" And to understand the beliefs that fuel conflicts, from Israel to Ulster.

What skills do you need? to be a believer – in fact, students who are very religious must be prepared to step back and look critically at their faith.

How much practical work is there? None.

Ratio of coursework to exams: 0:100

Is it hard? "It's harder than many people think – especially to get high grades," says John Summerwill, chair of examiners in religious studies at AQA. "There's plenty of intellectual challenge. There's often a short space of time to master topics – you might only get 10 weeks to get to grips with Buddhism."

Who takes it? Mostly girls. Plus many students at church or independent schools.

How cool is it? Surprisingly cool. The number opting for religious studies is on the increase. "I don't think it's true that interest in faith is falling away," says Mr Summerwill. "Institutionalised religion isn't popular but there is a great interest in spirituality these days."

Added value: Enlightenment. However, it's more likely to turn you off than on to religion. "There's nothing like a course in religious studies to destroy your faith – especially if it's a naive faith," says Mr Summerwill.

What subjects go with it? English literature, history, philosophy and psychology.

What degrees does it lead to? Philosophy, religious studies and theology.

Will it set you up for a brilliant career? There's the church, or a nunnery. However, religious studies is also a respected qualification for any profession, and can be useful if you work with people of many faiths.

What do the students say? "We studied how you can account for God and evil in the world," says Naomi Ralph, 17, also takinghistory and politics at Woodford County High School for Girls. "At AS we looked at the New Testament, and this year we've concentrated on the fourth Gospel."

Which awarding bodies offer it? AQA, CCEA, Edexcel, OCR and WJEC.

How widely available is it? Not that widely.

c.rudebeck@independent.co.uk

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