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 (  Access at:

Dudley, Jonathan.  “My Take: The Bible Condemns A Lot, So Why Focus On Homosexuality?  CNN Belief Blog.  Access at

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,, 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,  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  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”; (“Heaven’s Gate (religious group)” entry); Muesse, “Religious Studies and ‘Heaven’s Gate’”


Dec 1 (M) Authenticity and Legitimacy, ctd.
Readings: (“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)

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