REL299: Understanding Religion


This course explores the principal theories and methods that have come to shape academic study of religion. The course is designed to acquaint students with the major questions, approaches, and perspectives that guide the critical exploration of religion as a human reality.  By the end of the course, students should have a basic of the principle theories and methods that undergird the study of religion, how these theories have shaped and continue shape the questions that scholars of religion ask, and how these theories and methods can be employed to yield deeper understanding of the phenomena that we judge to be religious.


The following materials are required reading for the course.  Texts are available in the bookstore.
  • Bradley Herling, A Beginners’ Guide to the Study of Religion, 2nd (Bloomsbury, 2016)
  • Daniel L. Pals, Introducing Religion: Readings from the Classical Theories (Oxford, 2009)
  • Other journal articles and reserve materials


Participation and attendance: My basic assumption is that we are mutually dedicated to the common cause of education conceived as the advancement of critical thinking.  Because of this basic assumption, I assume that you will come to class prepared and ready to participate in class discussion.  This means, first, that you will have completed assigned readings prior to the class meeting.  (Many of the readings are difficult and I do not expect you to understand them completely; I do, however, expect you to engage the material seriously and to ask about anything you do not understand.)  Second, I expect that you will be ready and willing to discuss the material, i.e., to raise questions, criticisms, thoughts, etc.  Class participation is worth 10 points toward your final grade.  I also assume that you will be in attendance and on time to all class sessions, barring unforeseen circumstances.  Each unexcused absence will result in subtraction of 1 point from your final general participation grade.
 Weekly forums: You will participate in weekly discussion forums through the Moodle page. Some of these forums will prompted by me, others will be more freeform.  Forum participation is worth points toward your final grade.
 Midterm examination: Your midterm will be worth 40 points.
Final examination: Your final exam will be worth 40 points.


A total of 100 points is possible for the class.  The point breakdown is as follows: class participation = 10 points; weekly forums = 10 points (2 points each); midterm exam = 40; final exam = 40 points.  The grading scale is as follows:
92-100 points: A
90-92 points: A-
87-89 points: B+
83-86 points: B
80-82 points: B-
77-79 points: C+
73-76 points: C
70-72 points: C-
60-69 points: D
Below 60 points: U
 **A NOTE ABOUT GRADING: A grade is an assessment of your effort and your abilities; therefore, simply fulfilling the course requirements does not constitute an A!  Exceptional work will warrant an A; good work will win you a B; adequate work will get you a C; below adequate work gets you a D; a final grade of U means that your work has been unsatisfactory.  (A word of warning: I am a difficult, but fair grader, and I am always willing to discuss a grade with a student.)


With regard to academic honesty, the Centre College Student Handbook states:
A high standard of academic honesty is expected of students in all phases of academic work and college life. Academic dishonesty in any form is a fundamental offense against the integrity of the entire academic community and is always a threat to the standards of the College and to the standing of every student. In taking tests and examinations, doing homework or laboratory work, and writing papers, students are expected to perform with honor. In written and oral work for college courses, students will be held responsible for knowing the difference between proper and improper use of source materials. The improper use of source materials is plagiarism and, along with other breaches of academic integrity, is subject to disciplinary action. . . . If the instructor has a concern about a student’s academic honesty, the Associate Dean of the College must be notified (Academic Honesty/Dishonesty).
The Academic Honesty policy will be strictly upheld.


Preliminary Issues in the Study of Religion

10/12: Course Introduction
10/13: What we do when we study religion academically
  • Herling, Chapter 1, pp. 1-28
10/14: Definition, Theory, Method
  • Pals, Introduction, pp. xiii-xxvi
10/15: Defining religion: E.B. Tylor
  • Pals, Chapter 1, pp. 1-35
10/16: Defining religion: James George Frazier
  • Pals, Chapter 2, pp. 37-70
10/19: Defining religion: Clifford Geertz
  • Pals, Chapter 11, pp. 341-43, 347-62
10/20: On the possibility of defining religion
  • Talal Asad, “Anthropological Conceptions of Religion: Reflections on Geertz” (journal article)
10/21: On the possibility of defining religion (cont.)
  • Bruce Lincoln, “The Study of Religion in the Current Political Moment” (reserve)
10/22: At the intersection of definition and theory
  • Herling, Chapter 2, pp. 29-56
10/23: Insiders and/or outsiders
  • Mark Q. Gardiner & Steven Engler, “Semantic holism and the insider-outsider problem” (journal article)
10/26: Study and belief
  • Russell T. McCutcheon, “A Default of Critical Intellengence? The Scholar of Religion as Public Intellectual” (journal article)
10/27: At the intersection of theory and method
  • Herling, Chapters 3 & 4, pp. 57-123
10/28: At the intersection of theory and method (cont.)
  • ****Jonathan Z. Smith, “Religion, Religions, Religious” (reserve)
10/29: At the intersection of theory and method (cont.)
  • Thomas A. Tweed, “After the Quotidian Turn: Interpretive Categories and Scholarly Trajectories in the Study of Religion since the 1960s” (journal article)
10/30: Midterm

Central Theories in the Study of Religion

11/2: Karl Marx
  • Pals, Chapter 5, pp. 143-70
11/3: Emile Durkheim
  • Pals, Chapter 4, pp. 99-42
11/4: Sigmund Freud
  • Pals, Chapter 3, pp. 71-97
11/5: Max Weber
  • Pals, Chapter 8, pp. 237-70
11/6: Victor Turner
  • Victor Turner, “Frame, Flow, and Reflection: Ritual and Drama as Public Liminality” (journal article)
11/9: William James
  • Pals, Chapter 6, pp. 171-203
11/10: Rudolf Otto
  • Pals, Chapter 7, pp. 205-35
11/11: Mircea Eliade
  • Pals, Chapter 9, pp. 271-87, 297-308

Perennial Questions and New Perspectives in the Study of Religion

11/12: Contemporary trends and new perspectives
  • Herling, pp. 125-61
11/13: The question of definition … again!
  • Kevin Schilbrack, “What Isn’t Religion?” (journal article)
11/16: Civil Religion
  • Robert Bellah, “Civil Religion in America” (electronic resource)
  • Eric Bain-Selbo, pp. “From Lost Cause to Third-and-Long: College Football and the Civil Religion of the South” (journal article)
11/17: Feminist perspectives in the study of religion
  • Janet Leibman Jacobs, “Hidden Truths and Cultures of Secrecy: Reflections on Gender and Ethnicity in the Study of Religion” (journal article)
11/18: Queer perspectives in the study of religion
  • Ellen T. Armour, “Blinding me with (queer) science: religion, sexuality, and (post?)modernity” (journal article)
11/19: Critical race theory in the study of religion
  • Craig Prentiss, “Coloring Jesus: Racial Calculus and the Search for Identity in 20th Century America” (journal article)
11/20: So, what are we doing when we study religion academically?
  • Herling, Conclusion, pp. 163-69
11/23: Final exam