Tuesday, September 30, 2014

How and Why Should You Bring Culture on The Edge in the Classroom

By Vaia Touna

PierreBourdieu, in his 1998 book On Television, wrote: “There is nothing more difficult to convey than reality in all its ordinariness…Sociologists run into this problem all the time: How to make the ordinary extraordinary and evoke ordinariness in such a way that people will see just how extra-ordinary it is?” (21) This is one of my favourite quotes, one that, as a social theorist, drives my teaching approach.

How do you make the students who come to your Religious Studies courses from all sorts of backgrounds and with all sorts of knowledge of what religion is (to name just one word, because I think the struggle to deal with popular knowledge is something common across the humanities), question that knowledge and the self-evidency that lies therein? This is where Culture on the Edge’s blog posts, I think, can play a crucial and very helpful role.

First of all, there is a variety of data to choose from on the site since the seven members of Culture on the Edge come from different disciplines yet all work in the academic study of religion, something that makes Culture on the Edge relevant not only for Religious Studies courses but for courses across the humanities that engage their students in social theories and critical thinking. From historical examples to what’s in the news today, the posts are all relevant and timely.

Blog posts are a fairly new genre, of course, and they could be used in classrooms in various ways:

  • Introduce a theoretical point in a way that it will spark a discussion, since most of our examples are familiar to the students and they are written to provoke their curiosity. 
  • Make useful, even unexpected comparisons. A blog post can serve as an example by which students can be asked to see if the point raised in the blog has application somewhere else, to something from the every day life of the students, something they can now see (in light of the blog post) as strange and therefore curious. That is, to see the familiar in a way that they haven’t thought of before.

The above two can also be helpful to:

  • Regain students’ interest at crucial moments during the course. 
  • Assess what they have learned. 
  • Provoke critical thinking. 
  • Provide examples of self-analysis and socio-analysis.

What makes the CoTE blog posts ideal for classes, is that they are often written with undergrad and grad students in mind and in such a way as to engage students by drawing from examples that are in most cases from their everyday world and in a way that one can introduce a complicated theoretical point in a simple, easily identifiable way. The blog posts then can bring a wide variety of human doings, activities (i.e., other worlds) into the classroom and the classroom into the reader’s world.

One of the most difficult and important things for students is to know if what they learn in a classroom has a practical applicability in their everyday life. Ultimately, then, the question that arises is why should a student take a religious studies course or for that matter any course in the humanities?

To give but an example consider introducing the idea that description and definition is not an innocent act, neither being as self-evident as one might think. Although there are plenty of posts one could cite as an example of this, Steven Ramey’s “The Curious Case of Flappy Birds” draws on an example that students are familiar with, a “game,” but it is also an article that does a lot more work than just describing or defining (an act that is not so unfamiliar when someone tries to describe or define “religion”). I have often heard that what we do in Religious Studies classrooms is disconnected from the “real” world (although I don’t doubt that that might sometimes be the case but only in the way professors teach their material at hand) but Ramey’s post is a great illustration of how everything is connected by comparing, defining “game” to defining “religion,” showing what this act of defining can accomplish, thereby allowing teachers and students alike to further elaborate the comparison in the classroom. That means that students are trained in critical thinking—applying findings from one area to make sense of another. What that further means is that everything in their world can become an occasion to reflect upon, problematize, analyze and not just receive passively as self-evident.

Efficient teachers and professors, in my experience at least, have been those who draw on examples from something familiar, contemporary and present it in a way that students haven’t thought of before, that is, in a controversial or counterintuitive manner; and, as far as I know, counterintuitive in cognitive sciences translates into something that will be memorable. Those teachers and professors who did this certainly gained my attention and curiosity. And like Ramey on games, this is just what so many of the blogs do at Culture on the Edge.

A blog post, or better said our blog posts, are not, of course, the ultimate analysis one can offer to one's students, but instead they should be approached as a venue for brainstorming, a teaser of a theoretical point that can further be analyzed in the classroom or they can even serve as assignments to students that complicate some point further through a comparison to a data set of their choice and with a more detailed analysis.

Given the benefits that we see deriving from the blog posts both as a resource for professors but also as beneficial to students who are now being exposed to the academic and (I would add) critical study of religion, we at CoTE have initiated a series of books entitled, “Working with Culture on the Edge.” They are designed to be little books that can also be used in classrooms as resourceful material, in which a main theme (for example, the issue of origins) gets complicated through a series of blogs written originally on the site by the Culture on the Edge members but now accompanied by invited responses and commentaries, even critiques and elaborations, from some of our graduate readership; the first volume, due out in 2015, is comprised of ten dialectical pairings that each complicate for the readers a central theme in different social and historical sites. 

The “Working with The Edge” books therefore take the idea of the blogging (succinct, provocative pieces that are timely and relevant) to another level because we now have, in one volume, not only the voice of the author but that of the reader as well; in fact, it is difficult to differentiate between the two when reading these pieces, for they are all now authors for yet other readers and so on.

To conclude, and to come all the way back to Bourdieu, CoTE blog posts demonstrate to students what it means to be a social theorists; of course, making the strange familiar and the familiar strange is only the first but very important step in becoming critical thinkers not only in the Academic Study of Religion but I would dare say in the humanities in general. For following flappy birds there will undoubtedly follow further training in fair description and argumentative analysis, all of which is aimed at making the ordinary fascinating.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Residual Assumptions

By Steven Ramey
University of Alabama

(This post originally appeared on the Culture on the Edge blog.)

In a recent email discussion among scholars about general issues of representations and Wendy Doniger’s controversial book (about which I have written on Culture on the Edge and Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog), P. Pratap Kumar, a colleague in South Africa, framed the issue through a clear, though contrived, contrast between the scholar and the devotee. He wrote,

Someone who is raised as a Hindu grows up listening to religious songs at Satsangs and even through Bollywood religious songs (there are plenty of Bollywood religious songs that Hindus listen to with utmost devotion) and never would have known that their Hindu texts contain many erotic statements and not just the singular term Linga. But on the other hand, scholars especially from the outside Hindu tradition (be they western or eastern) begin with Sanskrit language and then reading the highly specialised texts where they find statements that devout Hindus would have never heard of. From scholar’s reading, there are indeed very detailed erotic references in many Hindu texts, . . .
 We as scholars have to talk about these things because these matters are there in the texts from the Rig Veda to the epics in plenty of places. It is hard to fault a western scholar or any non-Hindu scholar for pointing these out and translating them for what they are.

What particularly caught my eye in this generalized contrast is the assumptions informing each side. The scholar’s training (as Pratap constructs her) forefronts the texts, assuming that whatever is in the text is a part of Hinduism. While many scholars are not focused on texts and translations today, the suggestion that something in the Vedas, puranas, or epics is fair game for representations of Hinduism is common. This earlier assumption retains a continuing influence. For the devotee (again in Pratap’s construction), if it is not in their experience of texts and practices, it is not Hindu.

It is easy to see the devotee’s construction as being narrow, limited to their own experience rather than the broader diversity that people identify with Hinduism. Yet, the scholar’s position, while perhaps appearing more expansive, simply reflects a different narrowing of the boundaries. Assuming that something in the text is automatically representative maintains a residual aspect of the European construction of religion, often termed Orientalism now, that the text is the basis for a religion. It actually sounds like the colonizers trying to be certain that they are not being fooled by those who are explaining cultural elements to them. “Where does it say that in the text?” they might ask.

Doniger’s interest in extending her readers’ conception of Hinduism and preserving it from homogenizing limiting forces appears expansive but retains its own limiting assumptions. What often appears to be obvious is obvious because the assumptions that determine the observation or description have been effectively naturalized as the way things are, not a specific choice in a particular moment. Of course, that naturalization is not universal, as others in other situations make different “obvious” choices that produce different boundaries and descriptions.

     Thanks to Pratap Kumar for permission to quote from the private listserv. Photo of  shivlingam with offerings by Steven Ramey

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Reflections on RELS 161: Contemporary Problems in Religion and Culture

By Ian Alexander Cuthbertson
Ph.D. Candidate, Cultural Studies Program, Queen's University 

Last year I redesigned a first-year religious studies course at Queen’s University in Kingston Ontario. The course is one of two full-year intro courses offered at the School of Religion, the other being a typical introduction to world religions course. In past years, the course had been split between two instructors and tended to be taught as a religion ‘and’ course where each instructor developed content in line with her own interests (religion and sex, religion and the environment, religion and science). Given the opportunity to teach the entire course myself, I developed a new syllabus with the goal of giving first year students a broad introduction not to ‘religion’ per se but rather to the academic study of religion. The theme for the course became ‘religion in modernity’ and topics included secularization, religious fundamentalism, new atheism, and new religious movements. Owing to my own interest in critical theory, I attempted to integrate a critical perspective into the course readings using Malory Nye’s excellent introductory text Religion: The Basics along with excerpts from J.Z. Smith, Talal Asad, Russell McCutcheon, and others. 

Entering the classroom last September I naively hoped that my students would become as excited about critical theory as I am. They didn’t. And although the course wasn’t a complete flop, it did not live up to my expectations. For the most part, the students hated the theoretical components that I included. Or perhaps they simply couldn’t understand why I seemed so interested in pointing out what religion isn’t – that it isn’t just beliefs or churches – that ‘it’ isn’t really an ‘it’ at all and is instead made up of countless acts of classification performed by self-interested actors. What came across instead was that different people see religion differently. Yes, the students seemed to say. We get it. But we want to learn about religion, not what people say about religion.

This summer I had some time to reflect on the challenges of including critical theory in a first-year intro course and went back to the drawing board. First, I identified some of the major challenges I had faced and then developed some strategies for addressing these. In what follows I briefly outline these challenges and strategies. 


1. Preconceptions (lack thereof): I had originally decided to focus almost exclusively on Christianity in the first half of the course – not only because Christian categories have so deeply influenced the academic study of religion, but also because I assumed my students, who had been for the most part raised in a society dominated by Christianity, would be familiar (at least in general terms) with that religion. They weren’t. In fact, most students came to the class with very little base knowledge of religion. Of course some students were themselves religious and had insights into their own particular traditions and denominations. Still, most seemed only dimly aware that there were different kinds of Christianity in the world, let alone religions in which god(s) are largely peripheral figures. It became difficult, therefore, to criticize dominant conceptualizations of religion (the world religions paradigm, say) when students had never taken a world religions course to begin with.

2. Relevance (lack thereof): Precisely because the students had very little basic knowledge of religion, it became difficult to show why they should care about any of the critical theory that I kept talking about. I was clearly very excited about critical theory, and that helped. But the relevance of critical theoretical approaches was lost when I would introduce a dominant way of understanding religion (as sui generis, say) and then proceed to critique that view. For one thing, I typically had hard time showing the students that one approach was, in fact, dominant. But my explanations (that this view renders religion apolitical, say) also failed to stick either because each view (religion as sui generis and ‘religion’ as culturally determined) seemed just as plausible as its opposite or perhaps because students couldn’t see why this actually mattered outside of the classroom. The satisfaction that comes with questioning a taken-for-granted way of understanding something was lost because any given way of approaching religion was never taken-for-granted - it was always a brand new idea presented by me.

3. Trust. A final challenge is that the students trusted me. When I designed the course I included primary source readings thinking the students would not want to trust my interpretations and would instead prefer to read the original sources themselves. But for the most part, students preferred to have me (or secondary sources) tell them what early twentieth century Protestant fundamentalists thought or what contemporary new atheists are all about. The problem was that this basic trust also made it difficult for the students to understand that I was presenting various opposing views that were not necessarily my own and that none of them were ‘right.’ Students seemed to have a hard time understanding that any particular view depends upon an historical context and is contradicted by a host of other, equally plausible and well-argued opinions. Rather than view a given theoretical approach as being better or worse for some particular issue or problem, students simply accepted each in turn.

Obviously I had a lot of re-drawing to do. Here’s what I’ve come up with.


1. Making the Taken For Granted: My goal this year is to encourage the students to take certain things for granted – at least at the outset. To do this, I will depend largely on the trust issue outlined above. This year, rather than providing a wide variety of opposing ways of understanding and approaching religion at the start of the course, I will consistently take a single approach. I plan to stick with the overall ‘religion’ in modernity theme and to keep secularization, religious fundamentalism, and new atheism as topics. But rather than question the ways fundamentalists, new atheists, and (some) scholars describe religion in terms of belief, I will present this view uncritically. The fate of religion in the modern world, I will argue, is really all about the struggle between religious and secular/scientific beliefs. Rather than presume, as I did last year, that students will come to class with a host of preconceptions about religion, I will work to create these views in my students.

2. Breaking the Spell: The title of the first lecture of the spring term will be: “Everything We Learned Last Term Is Wrong.” In the first few lectures of the second term I will give concrete examples of the preconceptions under which I (we) operated in the first term. Religion, I will reveal, is not only about belief; it is also about practices. In other words, I will wait until students have developed opinions about what religion is before working to critique and expand these views. Only in the second term will we do readings on ritual and habitus - readings that I had originally included in the first weeks of the course. Our exploration of ritual and habitus will not, of course, be limited to ‘religious’ ways of being and doing in the world, which will (hopefully) lead the students to wonder why certain kinds of ritual are deemed religious while others are not. 

3. The Other Jay-Z: Having shown students (and not merely told them) that there are vastly different ways of studying religion, I will be better able to introduce them to Jonathan Z. Smith, Russell McCutcheon, and other critical theorists. At this point the students should be better equipped to see not only that there are different ways to study religion but that these approaches trace the contours of the very thing they seek to analyze and describe. The students will have had the experience of operating under a set of preconceptions (religion is about what people believe) and will have seen how this view led us to be interested in certain kinds of phenomena (fundamentalism, new atheism). They will also have had the experience of criticizing this view and replacing it with a different one (religion is about what people do) and will have seen how this new perspective caused us to turn our gaze to other kinds of phenomena (rituals, clothing, meals). They will have experienced, first hand, that there is no data for religion and that religion is, instead, “created for the scholar’s analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization” (Smith, 1982). In other words, the students will experience first hand that the kinds of things that counted as religion in the first term depended upon the approaches we opted to take.

4. So What? I mentioned above that I found it difficult to explain why the students should care that different ways of studying religion actually create the object of study. I think this might seem more relevant once the students experience this process at work, but I would also like to focus on some other practical ‘real world’ implications as well. Last year I ended the course with a section on new religious movements (neo-paganism, Scientology, Satanism) and ironic and ‘hyper-real’ religions (Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Jediism, Dudeism). I plan to do the same thing again this year. But rather than focusing on how these phenomena fit into the larger underlying theme of religion in modernity, I will focus instead on struggles concerning classification and authenticity. The fact that Scientology is a religion in the United States and a cult in France along with controversy over Satanists’ plans to erect a monument to Satan in Oklahoma will become real-world examples of how different ways of understanding religion determine what is, or isn’t, acceptable/authentic religion.

Of course I have no idea whether this new approach will work and will likely find myself back at the drawing board again this time next year. Fortunately, it is exactly this opportunity to learn from my mistakes (or earlier attempts to put a more positive spin on things) that I love most about teaching.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Syllabus Project: Introduction to Religious Studies

By Leslie Dorrough Smith, Avila University

Introduction to Religious Studies (RS 111)

My intention in structuring the course in this fashion is twofold:  1) to provide students a strong introduction to the major categories of analysis that are used in the academic study of religion, and 2) to locate religion as an inherently cultural phenomenon, thereby displacing older theories of "belief" that have so long dominated our field (and, in my opinion, made critical analysis more difficult).  When I describe religion as an “inherently cultural phenomenon,” what I’m trying to do is demonstrate that, from a social sciences perspective, there is no religion apart from humans.  In our field there is an overriding sense that there are cultural things that impact religion which ultimately stand apart from the “religion itself.”  I want to strongly move away from the idea of a sui generis, “pure” religion by demonstrating that there’s nothing that we can objectively call “religion” that isn’t the product of human social life.

The first part of the course examines major theories (and theorists) of religion so that the students can see how certain ideological commitments inform the ways that the category of religion has been treated.  For every scholar listed in the syllabus, I provide an excerpt – usually no more than a paragraph or two -- from his/her writing that lays out the centerpiece of their model or their main contributions to the field.  I feature these primary sources in-class on overhead slides since my students often don't have much of a background in reading primary works.  For instance, I find that students do much better when we read Eliade’s Patterns in Comparative Religion (specifically, an excerpt from “Approximations: The Structure and Morphology of the Sacred”) in-class not only because it’s an older writing style that they have a harder time digesting, but also because the ambiguities embedded in Eliade’s writing are a bit easier to point out when I’m guiding them through it. Most of them will simply take for granted that “hierophanies” and “the sacred” are self-evident categories (because a scholar said so!), so when we’re tackling these concepts together rather than separately, I find that the level of our critical engagement rises.

With the trickier readings relegated to class-time, I then have the opportunity to provide  more readable, accessible pieces outside of class.  Note how heavily I rely on the Culture on the Edge blog -- students really like those pieces and get a lot out of them   I also sprinkle in there scholarly articles, textbook chapters, other scholarly blogs, and once in a while – gasp – a Wikipedia entry (which I have previewed, needless to say).  I use Wikipedia for two reasons: a) to provide students a rudimentary background on a particular topic to spark a conversation (as is true in the case of the Heaven’s Gate entry, which provides some background for the Mark Muesse reading on “legitimate religion”); and b) I approach it as data, asking how this very accessible, common resource – the authority of which is taken for granted by many – demonstrates the modern cultural boundaries of religion.  I use this second approach in particular when we briefly discuss snake handling.  We examine how the Wikipedia portrayal of snake-handlers differs from the portrayal of more mainstream Christians, like in the noteworthy fact that snake-handling Christians are not at all connected to the “Christianity” portal on Wikipedia. 

If the first half of the course examines the definitional boundaries used in the study of religion, then the second half of the course follows up by asking critical questions about how we treat religion as a social category.  Here we cover major intersections of social power (myth, ritual, race, class, gender, authenticity and legitimacy, etc.) to broach these questions. One important thing to point out is that I intentionally talk about the category of belief as one of the very last things in the course, making the case along the way that we can't even begin to talk about that category until we understand the contested nature of the social dynamics that give rise to those beliefs in the first place.  The second half of the course is also where students’ interest seems to peak, and I think this is because, in part, I’ve tried very hard to make the readings and topics culturally relevant and interesting.  You’ll see that some of the readings don’t have anything explicitly to do with religion (this is particularly true of some of the blog posts).  If you assume, as I do, that religion is an inherently cultural, human phenomenon, then we can find all sorts of ways that religion works just by talking about how society works.

So why, then, is the course a “religious studies” course at all?  I take great care early on in the semester to introduce students to my favorite definition of religion, which is the approach Bruce Lincoln lays out in Holy Terrors: Thinking About Religion After 9/11.  The gist of that approach is that religion operates just like any other social institution, but what makes it unique on the continuum of social practices is that it claims to be beyond human critique (whether in “God/The Bible says…” statements, the unquestioned authority given to certain moral positions, the highly popular concept of “religious experiences,” etc.).  Religion, to Lincoln, is fundamentally a statement that creates a power hierarchy.  That definitional emphasis helps us to talk about a very wide variety of things as religious, and by extension, it also helps the students begin to think of religion as a social strategy rather than as a discreet noun.

The final project, in fact, is organized in such a way that it pushes students to provide data for and demonstrate this idea that religion is a social strategy or mechanism through which groups gain social authority rather than a “thing” per se.  The assignment asks students to find ten (10) recent news stories that deal with religion’s social impact, and to write an abstract over each.  After they’ve done that, they must then write a short essay that shows how these abstracts (which I describe as their “data pool”) lend some credence to the idea that religion is a mechanism of social power.

I encourage them to find links and connections between the abstracts themselves, even when they may appear to have nothing in common at all; in this sense, I push them to find commonalities of gender, race, class, etc. so that they’re using the categories we discussed in the class to form an analysis.  I’ve also intentionally structured the assignment so as to enhance important writing skills (in this case, abstract writing and analytical writing) while simultaneously pushing them to be explicit about how "real world" events are connected to what we've discussed across the semester.

The assignment has worked quite well, overall.  I think it’s been successful, in part, because abstracts seem more palatable to write than a longer paper (it hurts a little less, in other words!).  This gives them the opportunity to write a few abstracts, run them by me, write a few more, etc., so that it’s something that they can actually work on across the bulk of the semester instead of having to wait until the last few weeks to begin.  I think it also works because it allows them to choose which current events they comment on, which allows some ownership over the assignment while providing a tangible thing as a jumping off point for the analysis.  


Fall 2014
This course will provide a critical analysis of religion as a human endeavor through historical, anthropological and sociological standpoints. Through the academic study of religion, students will become conversant with major themes, issues, figures, and phenomena that have been instrumental in religion’s social description and analysis.  CORE-II.

Through lecture, written assignments, group work, and interactions with various media forms (including print media, online resources, films, and material culture), students will:
1.       Learn the primary social features of religion and how such features function (Knowledge ILO, Higher Level Thinking ILO). 
2.      Identify how various data from the major world religions exemplify such features (Knowledge ILO, Higher Level Thinking ILO).
3.      Learn to interrogate the methodologies used in the academic study of religion, with particular focus on the role that dominant narratives and elite discourses play in the formation of these systems (Higher Level Thinking ILO). 
4.      Learn to think, write, and speak critically about religion as a social (and thus political) phenomenon (Communication ILO, Higher Level Thinking ILO).
5.      Analyze how identity formation is a central part of the social process (Knowledge ILO, Higher Level Thinking ILO, Personal, Spiritual, and Social Development ILO).
6.      Learn the significance of tolerance rhetoric, how it operates, and its implications (Personal, Spiritual, and Social Development ILO). 
7.      Identify the significance of classification as a social (and thus political) endeavor (Knowledge ILO, Higher Level Thinking ILO).
8.      Be able to think, write, and speak critically about their own historical, social, and cultural position(s) as it/they relate to religion(s) (Personal, Spiritual, and Social Development ILO, Core II ILO).

Note on Assessment:  All assessments for this class will take place in the form of examination, written assignments, or engaged participation, although the learning methodologies, as mentioned above, include a wide variety of experiences.

Complete Texts
McCutcheon, Russell T.  Studying Religion: An Introduction.  London: Equinox, 2007.

Nye, Mallory.  Religion: The Basics, 2nd ed.  New York: Routledge, 2009. 

Essays and Excerpts
Other readings will be on our course’s Angel site and constitute required reading for the course.  These include:

Countryman, L. William.  “The Bible, Heterosexism, and the American Public Discussion of Sexual Orientation.”  Chapter 9 in God Forbid: Religion and Sex in American Public Life, Kathleen Sands, ed.  New York: Oxford, 2000 (167-181).

Crouse, Janice Shaw.  “Five Myths About Same Sex ‘Marriage’.”  Concerned Women for America website (www.cwfa.org).  Access at: http://www.cwfa.org/content.asp?id=18578

Dudley, Jonathan.  “My Take: The Bible Condemns A Lot, So Why Focus On Homosexuality?  CNN Belief Blog.  Access at http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/06/21/my-take-bible-condemns-a-lot-so-why-focus-on-homosexuality/.

Eck, Diana.  “From Many, One.” Chapter Two in A New Religious America: How A “Christian Country” Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation.  New York: HarperOne, 2001 (48-69).

Esposito, John L.  Excerpt, “Violence and Terrorism.” Chapter 5 in What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam: Answers to Frequently Asked Questions, From One of America’s Leading Experts.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2002 (117-130).

Komoto, Amanda Hendrix.  “Excommunicating Feminism in the Mormon Church.”  Nursing Clio Blog, http://nursingclio.org/2014/07/10/excommunicating-feminism-in-the-mormon-church/, July 10, 2014.

Lawson, E. Thomas.  “Cognition.”  Guide to the Study of Religion, Willi Braun and Russell T. McCutcheon, eds. London: Cassell, 2000 (75-84). 

Lincoln, Bruce.  “The Study of Religion in the Current Political Moment.” Chapter 1 In Holy Terrors: Thinking About Religion After September 11.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003 (5-18).

Lyden, John.  “Religion Is An Illusion Produced By Psychological Projection.” Excerpt of Sigmund Freud.  San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1995.

Lyden, John.  “Religion Is The Opium of the People.”  Excerpt of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1995.

Martin, Joel.  “Almost White: The Ambivalent Promise of Christian Missions among the Cherokees.” Chapter 3 in Religion and the Creation of Race and Ethnicity, Craig Prentiss, ed.  New York: NYU Press, 2003 (43-60).

Miner, Horace.  Body Ritual Among the NaciremaAmerican Anthropologist 58:3, June 1956. 

Muesse, Mark.  “Religious Studies and ‘Heaven’s Gate’: Making the Strange Familiar and the Familiar Strange.” In The Insider/Outsider Problem and the Study of Religion, Russell T. McCutcheon, ed.  London: Cassell, 1999 (390-394).

Nelson, John K.  Myths, Shinto, and Matsuri in the Shaping of Japanese Cultural Identity.  Chapter 10 in Religion and the Creation of Race and Ethnicity, Craig Prentiss, ed.  New York: NYU Press, 2003 (152-166).

Prothero, Stephen. “A Brief Coda on Atheism.” Chapter 9 in God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World and Why Their Differences Matter.  New York: HarperOne, 2010 (317-329). 

Stahl, Ronit Y.  “The Burdens of Conscience: Thoughts on Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.”  Nursing Clio Blog, http://nursingclio.org/2014/07/04/the-burdens-of-conscience-thoughts-on-burwell-v-hobby-lobby/.  July 4, 2014.

Thompson, Robert J.  “Consecrating Consumer Culture: Christmas Television Specials.”  In Religion and Popular Culture in America, Bruce David Forbes and Jeffrey H. Mahan, eds.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005 (44-55). 

West, Traci C.  “The Policing of Poor Black Women’s Sexual Reproduction.”  In God Forbid: Religion and Sex in American Public Life, Kathleen Sands, ed.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2000 (135-154).

Additional Online Readings: 
We will be engaging several different posts from a blog called Culture on the Edge, which is the product of an international working group of scholars of the humanities who are interested in talking about the relationship between identity-formation and social life.  The URL for that blog is http://edge.ua.edu.  While we will look at several of these blog posts in class, I will occasionally ask you to read one or two outside of class.  To access those, please simply enter the title of the post (which I’ll provide in the schedule) into the search feature of that blog.

Four Exams (First two: 20 points each; last two: 30 points each) = 100
Three Reading Journal Checks (3 x 15 each, unannounced) = 45
Three In-Class Reading Reflections (3 x 15 each) = 45
Religion in Public Life Project = 40
ENGAGED Participation = 20

POINT TOTAL: 250 points
(*If your preparation for class is in question, I reserve the right to gauge your readiness using pop-quizzes, which will be worth 10 points each and will be added on to the total course points.)

This course includes four exams that will cover materials discussed in lecture, readings, and videos.  Exams must be taken on Canvas by the date designated for this class.  Your failure to take the exam will not result in a makeup opportunity except in the most extraordinary of circumstances.  If such a circumstance does arise, please see me/contact me ASAP.

Please note: NO EXAM MAY BE TAKEN IN COOPERATION WITH OTHER PERSONS AT ANY TIME.  Those who choose to do this will be subject to university and class policies regarding cheating.  See above (“Academic Integrity”) for more information.

Reading Journal
For this class, you will purchase a small notebook or blue book in which you will keep your notes from your readings; that is the only thing that should be kept in that notebook.  You are expected to summarize each of the readings (a short paragraph per article or chapter is sufficient) before each class; if there are multiple readings on a particular day, you are expected to produce multiple paragraphs.   I will periodically collect this reading journal (unannounced) and grade it based on both completion and accuracy.  As such, BRING THE JOURNAL TO CLASS EVERY DAY.  I will not accept late journals.

Reading Reflections
These in-class writing exercises will ask you to apply the knowledge you’ve gleaned from the required readings.  You may not consult notes or texts while writing these, but you will be notified ahead of time when they occur (see course schedule, below).  You will not be allowed to make these up unless you have an excused absence (i.e., a note from Nurse Carol, another medical professional, or an official note from the sponsor of a university event).

Religions in Public Life Project
One of the biggest challenges in learning about religion is the tendency to forget that religion, for most people, isn’t something “in between their ears,” but is a very real social force with tremendous cultural impact.  This exercise is intended to engage your awareness and analysis of how religion functions in American (and, if you choose, other) culture(s) today. 

To complete this assignment, you will select ten (10) different articles on different topics from major news sources that describe some aspect of religion in America or within another culture.  You will write an abstract (first identifying your source and date of acquisition) for each article.  Articles may be dated no earlier than July 2013.  Online articles are fine so long as they come from mainstream sources (NPR, New York Times, Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, etc).  News sources that are explicitly religious are strictly prohibited from this assignment.

After collecting and abstracting your ten articles, you will then write a 2-3 page paper that reflects on how these are, collectively, examples of religion working as a tactic or mechanism of social power.  A guide on  how to complete this final assignment is available on Canvas, and we will discuss it together later in the semester.

Engaged Participation
This is, essentially, a “talking grade.”  Those who actively, verbally participate throughout the semester and who seek me for help when needed will score well on this.  Those who do neither of these things won’t.  You are not given points for attending class, as this should be the minimum level of engagement that all students attain.  As such, here is a helpful rubric for you to determine how you will be evaluated:

General Rubric for Grading Participation: This rubric is provided for you as a guide to gauge your participation throughout the semester. Please remember that not all items listed are applicable to all students and it is not always necessary to exhibit each characteristic in order to earn the associated grade.
A:         Attends class regularly. Asks meaningful questions regularly. Provides comments and new information in a consistent and equitable manner. Interacts with a variety of participants. Reveals a solid understanding of the topic and readings as evidenced by thoughtful responses and questions.
B:         Attends class regularly. Asks meaningful questions regularly. Provides comments and some new information consistently. Interacts with a variety of participants. Reveals an adequate understanding of the topic and readings as evidenced by comments that rarely contain only superficial knowledge.
C:         Attends class regularly. Asks meaningful questions on occasion. Sporadically provides comments and new information. Interacts with other participants. Reveals a shallow understanding of the topic and readings as evidenced by loosely related comments.
D/F:     May or may not attend class regularly. Rarely asks meaningful questions. Provides minimal comments and information to other participants. Reveals a lack of understanding of the topic and readings as evidenced by irrelevant or absent comments.
COURSE SCHEDULE (subject to change)
Aug 27 (W) Introduction, Course Overview

Sept 3 (W) How to Study in College, Religious Studies v. Theology
Sept 8 (M) Religious Studies v. Theology; Why Religion (and How We Think About It) Matters
Readings: McCutcheon, Introduction and chs. 1, 2; Nye, ch. 1

Sept 10 (W) The Insider/Outsider Problem
Readings: McCutcheon, ch. 6; “Talk Like An Olympian” (blog)
Exercise:  Considering “Objective” Reporting

Sept 15 (M) The Insider/Outsider Problem, ctd.
Readings: Miner, “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema”; “Seeing the Ordinary as Curious” (blog)
            Exercise: Nacirema Translation

Sept 17 (W) The Essence of Religion: Religion as an Innate Human Act      
Readings: McCutcheon, ch. 3 and Frazer bio (all bios are in the back of the book); “Our Sofas, Ourselves” (blog)

**EXAM 1: FRIDAY, SEPT 19, 8 AM - SATURDAY, SEPT 20, 8 PM, 20 PTS, 60 MIN.**
Sept 22 (M) Religion as an Innate Human Act, ctd.
Readings: McCutcheon, Eliade and Tillich bios; “In Our Heart of Hearts” (blog)

Sept 24 (W) Religion as an Innate Human Act, ctd./Pluralism and Its Discontents
Readings: McCutcheon, Eck bio; Eck, “From Many, One” (focus on latter half of the article, where she discusses three approaches to religious diversity)

Sept 29 (M) The Essence of Religion: Religion as Unmediated Experience
Readings: McCutcheon, Otto and Schleiermacher bios; “Gettysburg” (blog)

Oct 1 (W) On Family Resemblances
            Readings: McCutcheon, ch. 7; Prothero, “A Brief Coda on Atheism”

Oct 6 (M) The Function of Religion: Religion as Social Neurosis
            Readings: McCutcheon, ch. 4 and Freud bio; Lyden on Freud

Oct 8 (W) The Function of Religion: Religion as Class Oppression
            Readings: McCutcheon, Marx bio; Lyden on Marx

Oct 13 (M) The Function of Religion: Religion as Society’s Self-Deification
Readings: McCutcheon, ch. 8 and Durkheim bio; “Border Wars” (blog)


Oct 20 (M) Video, With God On Our Side

Oct 22 (W) The Public Discourse On Religion: What’s at Stake?
Readings: McCutcheon, ch. 5; Crouse “Five Myths”; Dudley, “My Take”
            Exercise: Comparing competing (religious) discourses.  Please print excerpts from Dudley and Crouse (Concerned Women for America) and bring them to class

**EXAM 2: FRIDAY, OCT 24, 8AM – SAT, OCT 25, 8 PM, 20 PTS, 60 MIN**

Oct 27 (M) – Thinking About Religion as a Social, Political Phenomenon
Readings: Nye, ch. 2; Thompson, “Consecrating Consumer Culture”

Oct 29 (W) Power/Authority
            Readings: Nye, ch. 3; Lincoln, “Holy Terrors”

Nov 3 (M) Power/Authority, ctd., Ethics, Texts, and Traditions
Readings: Nye, ch. 7; Countryman, “The Bible…”
**READING REFLECTION 2, Topic: Power/Authority**

Nov 5 (W) Myth/Ritual, ctd.
            Readings: Nye, ch. 6, Nelson, “Myths, Shinto, and Matsuri..”

Nov 10 (M) Myth, Ritual, ctd.
Readings: “Subtle Screams” (blog)
Video (in-class): Inside Mecca

Nov 12 (W) – Identity/Distinction: Considering Religion and Gender, Race, and Class
Readings: Nye, ch. 4; Komoto, “Excommunicating Feminism in the Mormon Church”

Nov 17 (M) Identity/Distinction, ctd.
Readings: Martin, “Almost White”; “Santa, Jesus, and All Those Other White Guys” (blog)
            Exercise: Religious rhetorics of Hitler and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Nov 19 (W)  Identity/Distinction, ctd.: Intersectionality
Readings: West, “The Policing of Poor Black Women...”; “Out of the Mouths of Sailors: Cussing and the Power of the Selective Double Standard” (blog)
Video (more info on access TBA): People Like Us clips

**EXAM 3 – FRI, NOVEMBER 21, 8 AM – SAT, NOV. 22, 8 PM, 30 PTS, 75 min.**

Nov 24 (M) Authenticity and Legitimacy: What is “good” religion?  What is “true” religion?
Readings: Esposito, “Violence and Terrorism”; Wikipedia.org (“Heaven’s Gate (religious group)” entry); Muesse, “Religious Studies and ‘Heaven’s Gate’”


Dec 1 (M) Authenticity and Legitimacy, ctd.
Readings: Wikipedia.org (“Snake Handling” entry); “How Devoted Are You?” (blog)
Video Excerpt: The Holy Ghost People
**READING REFLECTION 3, Topic: Authenticity and Legitimacy**

Dec 3 (W) Belief and Experience: sui generis or constructed? Rational or not? Immediate or mediated?
Readings: Nye, ch. 5; Lawson, “Cognition”


Dec 8 (M) Considering Contemporary Religious Phenomena: The Global Picture
            Readings: Nye, ch. 8; “Can A State Be A Fundamentalist?” (blog)

Dec 10 (W) Considering Contemporary Religious Phenomena, ctd.
Readings: “Whose (and Who) Rules?” and “War of Words” (both on blog); Stahl, “The Burdens of Conscience”

MONDAY, DEC 15, 10 -11:50 AM (ON CANVAS)