THIS CITY OFTEN seems obsessed by wealth. But these days, Hong Kong is getting religion - or, at least, its colleges are. In the past five years, there has been a marked increase in the number of religious studies courses offered by local universities, from short programmes to doctoral degrees. Ben Kwong Man-bun, 46, is taking up a master's programme in Buddhism at the University of Hong Kong. A stockbroker, he sought solace in meditation after the 1997 Asian financial crisis, and later became a Buddhist. 'I saw many clients lose money, turning from rich people to people with negative equity and then going bankrupt,' says Kwong, who signed up as a part-time student in 2002. 'I lost money, too, and faced redundancy. I became unhappy and started to ask why life was like this, that nothing was permanent.' He says his classmates include professionals such as lawyers and doctors seeking in-depth knowledge not provided in monasteries - from the principles of the religion to its history and development. A better understanding of Buddhism has made him a happier person and even helped him at work, he says. 'My moods don't go up and down with the stockmarket now. I know that nothing is permanent in life. One moment the market is good and at another it could be bad and I may lose again.' Religious groups welcome the growth. 'We are happy that universities are providing chances for people to get a deeper understanding of religions,' says Au Kit-ming, executive director of Hong Kong Buddhist Association. 'It's a good thing for society. People will learn to be kind.' Although the Baptist University has offered degree courses in religious studies since 1991, the surge in such programmes only appeared a decade later. In 2001, the University of Hong Kong led the wave when it initiated undergraduate and postgraduate programmes focusing on Buddhism. Chinese University followed with master's programmes in Taoist and Christian studies. And thanks to funding from various religious groups, the institution has established research centres specialising variously in Buddhism, Catholic studies and Taoism over the past year. Lauren Pfister, who teaches comparative religion at Baptist University, says the trend in Hong Kong mirrors a revival of spirituality in the west. For example, more than 150 new religious research centres have opened in universities across the US over the past decade. The executive secretary of the Hong Kong Christian Council, Chan Kim-kwong, concurs, citing an 'awakening' of religious consciousness in the city. The number of Christians rose from 529,700 in 2000 to 660,000 in 2004. Uncertain times fuel such revivals, as religion provides a mooring while people are buffeted by economic upheaval, political instability, natural disasters and outbreaks of disease. 'Many people started thinking about the meaning of life and, after Sars, began asking questions about death and the afterlife and sought answers in religions to find peace of mind,' says Chan. Other observers such as Jing Yin, director of Buddhist Studies at Hong Kong University, attributes the boom to a need for balance between the spiritual and the material. Chinese University has sought to address such needs through its school of continuing and professional studies. After introducing theology programmes a few years ago, the school is launching a certificate course in Taoist culture this year. 'We have noticed that more people feel lost nowadays and they want to use the courses to adjust their values and rethink their lives,' says Christine Man Yuen-ying, programme leader for the courses. There's also a pragmatic factor behind the boom: funding from religious groups. Call it a convergence of interests. As universities struggle with cuts in public spending, wealthy faith-based groups fill a gap by sponsoring the new courses and research centres. 'People today have deeper questions about religion,' says Lai Pan-chiu, head of cultural and religious studies at Chinese University. 'But religious groups may not be able to answer them, and prefer to give money to host courses to teach people.' The Fung Ying Seen Koon, a temple organisation, helped finance the university's master's programme specialising in Taoist studies, which was launched in 2002. Similarly, the university's three new research centres were launched with $10 million in contributions from religious groups. Lai Chi-tim, the director of the Chinese University's centre on Taoist studies, says the courses are not designed to promote any faith, but adopt a neutral approach to teaching students about the history and ideology of religions. 'We use an analytical and value-free system to teach Taoist studies,' he says. Young people are also starting to take an interest. The Baptist University says the number of students applying to major in religious studies rose from about 400 in 1991 to 1,700 this year. 'Many students choose religious studies as their elective courses,' says Pfister. 'Some even want to switch to our course after year one. This never happened in the past.' Even so, such students are still in the minority. Roydon Tang Tai-ching, 24, was the only one in his class at secondary school to opt for religious studies. 'All my classmates were surprised by my choice,' he says. 'Religions are studied from a neutral point of view, but most people can't understand that. They ask me if I want to become a priest or minister, and ask me what kind of job I can do after graduation.' That's not surprising when tertiary education is seen as a springboard to a steady job if not a high-flying career. Religious studies may train graduates to become ministers, but Pfister says many people end up in fields as diverse as printing and logistics. Although the focus is on religion, the courses help students to be more open-minded and deal with other people, he says. The training also teaches individuals to deal with difficult situations. Gordon Li Ka-chun, who is pursuing a doctorate in Taoist studies, realises his career prospects are limited. The 31-year-old could aim to return to the classroom: there's still a shortage of teachers in his field. But for Li, what matters is the life-changing experience his studies provided. 'I've learned about the principles of life and have clear objectives, such as respecting my parents and being kind to others,' he says. 'I'm not confused, I'm happy.'