Religious Studies Courses


100.        Mystery and Meaning: An Introduction to the Study of Religion.

What is religion? Why are people religious? What power does religion have for individuals and societies? How does religion function as a way of knowing, acting, and being in the world? How did the study of religion arise in the modern West, and how scholars of religion go about studying it? What ways have they devised to grasp the rich varieties of religious experiences and expressions that they classify as religions? Throughout the course, students will study a wealth of material that may be regarded as religious, from societies past and present, literate and non-literate, and from around the globe. Finally, students will reflect on the place of the religious in contemporary society. Offered each semester.

200.        Explaining Religion.

Why are people religious? This seminar explores both classic and modern interpretations of what religion is, does, and means. The course places emphasis on introducing basic methodological and theoretical tools for the study of religions and their intellectual historical background. This entails exploring a selection of readings that have been and are influential in religious studies, drawn from diverse academic disciplines. The course considers basic methodological approaches for understanding religion as a human construction, offers a general picture of the field of religious studies as a whole, and provides basic research skills that will develop students’ abilities to do independent research. Offered every fall.

2000-2999. Religion in the World.

These 100-level thematic courses are designed to introduce the fascinating interdisciplinary field of religious studies. Each course examines a particular theme or topic, highlighting a key interpretive approach or approaches for understanding religion. Courses highlight the diverse academic strengths of the department’s instructors.

101.                        Sacred Cinema.

Films often wrestle with profoundly spiritual issues and questions: Is there a god(s)? What is life all about? Who am I? Is there a way that a person (society) ought to live that is existentially real, true and meaningful? This course explores three types of American popular film dealing with religion: (1) Films that revision traditional religion to make it relevant for a contemporary audience; (2) films that are not explicitly religious (with no obvious symbols, personages, sacred histories in the plot) but nonetheless explore themes and questions that are central to religion; (3) the religious documentary.

103.        Religion and Ecology.

How does religion shape human understanding of, and participation in, ecological systems? This course samples widely from a range of religious traditions to come to a better understanding of the diverse ways that people have developed for interacting with animals, plants, water and the land, and how those behaviors work in tandem with systems of knowledge and practice. The class has a substantial focus on environmental ethics, and thinks hard about how different religious systems might contribute to either or both environmental degradation and solutions to environmental problems. Traditions sampled may include Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Daoism, Judaism, Buddhism, Native American religions and Wicca/Neo-Paganism. Also offered as ASIA 105 and ENVS 103.


205.        Hebrew Bible: Plagues, Promises, and Prophecy.

SPEAKING INTENSIVE The legends, myths, historiography, prophecy, and poetry of the Hebrew Bible recount the history of a people caught between global superpowers of the second and first millennia BCE. They also recorded proclamations of justice in the face of injustice, the redemption of the oppressed, and the power of their god. Plagues were promised to the wicked and healing for the righteous. No prior knowledge of the Bible, Judaism, or Christianity is required. Indeed, students should not expect the Bible to be read as a devotional text, but rather consider how the Bible has been read, understood, and deployed in its ancient and modern contexts. Fulfills HU Distribution (2013 curriculum). Cross-listed with HIST. Speaking Intensive.  HU Distribution (2013 curriculum).Counts as an elective for public health minor.

206.        New Testament.

In ancient Palestine, Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish peasant from the backwaters of the Roman Empire, was put to death as an insurrectionist. His followers perceived that his life, death, and resurrection held significance on a cosmic scale. The New Testament focuses on critical and contextual reading skills in ancient and modern contexts. No prior knowledge of the Bible or Christianity is required. Indeed, students should not expect the Bible to be read as a devotional text, but rather consider how the Bible has been read, understood, and deployed in its ancient and modern contexts. Major assignments will ask students to design an Instagram feed for the Apostle Paul and to pitch one of the Gospels as the next viral Netflix hit. Also offered through European Studies.

242.        Norse Mythology

This course is an introduction to the pre-Christian religion of Scandinavia. Beginning with an introduction to pagan sources outside of Scandinavia, the course examines the major sources for Old Norse mythology. We will discuss Christian influence and the ongoing expression of myth in a Christian context. The course ends with some consideration of the continuing reinterpretations and adaptations of Norse mythology in cultural expressions such as Wagner's Ring cycle and Marvel's Thor.

282.        Love, War, and Hindu Myth: Ramayana.

For centuries, the Ramayana has figured heavily in religious imaginations across South and Southeast Asia. This course explores the telling and retelling of the story of Rama: a god born as a human prince, who is exiled to the forest for 14 years, and who enlists the aid of an army of monkeys to wage a war against a demon king and rescue his kidnapped his wife. We begin by studying one of the earliest renditions of the story in Sanskrit, addressing questions about its composition, narrative structure, and themes. We will then explore premodern and early modern vernacular renditions - in Tamil, Avadhi, Bengali, Persian, and Thai. The course culminates in modern, and often transnational, re-imaginations. In each case, we will examine the religious, social, and political conditions that prompted the retellings. Special attention will be paid to how these epics are represented in different mediums: art, dance, literature, film, and comics/graphic novels. Fulfills the HU distribution ( 2013 curriculum ). Also offered in Asian Studies and Global Studies.

283.        Love, War, and Hindu Myth: Mahabharata.

About ten times the length of the Odyssey and the Illiad combined, the Mahabharata is a compendious ancient epic. We will familiarize ourselves with the complex narrative that has captivated South Asians for over 2,000 years: 100 babies gestating in earthen pots; a queen who inexplicably drowns her newborn children; a king who loses everything in a game of dice; the manifestation of the divine in the middle of a battlefield; a cataclysmic war between feuding cousins. We will pay close attention to the multiple registers through which the text is refracted: the social, the historical, the political, the sacred. The course culminates in an examination of the life of the Mahabharata in classical and contemporary times, focusing on how it is retold in diverse mediums: art, dance, literature, film, and comics/graphic novels. Fulfills the HU distribution ( 2013 curriculum ). Also offered in Asian Studies and Global Studies.

Surveys of Religious Worlds

221.        Religions of South Asia.

This course introduces the history and diversity of some of the major religions of South Asia, including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. It considers religious ideas and practices that both define and dissolve the boundaries between these traditions, including techniques of bodily and spiritual perfection, visual and auditory practices, and inter-religious interactions. We will draw upon a broad range of literary, philosophical, historical, and ethnographic sources to gain a nuanced understanding of these religious traditions and the historical and cultural contexts in which they developed. Fulfills HU distribution (2013 curriculum). Fulfills DIV13 requirement (2013 curriculum). Also offered in Asian Studies.

222.        Buddhist Religious Traditions.

This course offers an introduction of Buddhism from its genesis in India to Buddhism important role as a global religion today. Topics include the basic teachings and practices of early Buddhism in India in the sixth to fifth centuries BCE, the development of sophisticated philosophical teachings, meditational techniques and religious practices, lay and monastic life that arise with the historical spread of Buddhism into Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, Tibet, China, Japan and, more recently, the West. Offered every other year. Also offered in Asian Studies.

223.        The Religious Life of China.

This course surveys China’s unique religious heritage through a selective survey of major thinkers, texts and cultural expressions. The primary emphasis is on the historical development and mutual influence of the “three teachings”— Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism — with special attention given to the relationship between philosophy and popular practice, and to the interaction among political and religious institutions. Topics include gods and the sacred, ritual, ethics, human nature, meditation, mysticism and salvation. Offered every other year. Also offered as ASIA 223.

224.        Islamic Religious Traditions.

An introductory examination of that religious tradition which, originating in seventh-century Arabia under the inspiration of the Prophet Muhammad, has come to include one-fourth of humankind, and predominates throughout the Middle East, North and East Africa, Pakistan, portions of India and Indonesia. The course considers the career of the Prophet and the growth of the central institutions of Islamic civilization and endeavors to identify the varied aspirations and concerns of Muslims in the contemporary world. Also offered in Asian Studies.

225.        Religious Traditions of Judaism.

An introductory examination of the religious traditions of Judaism from the biblical period through the 21st century. Just as Christianity is no longer the religion of the Hebrew Bible, neither is Judaism. Emphasis is placed on the development of Rabbinic (modern) Judaism and its evolution in the modern world. The course also covers recent movements and events such as the emergence of new forms of Judaism, Zionism, the Holocaust and the birth of Israel.

226.        The Religious Life of Japan.

At the Far Eastern end of Asia, Japan has benefitted over the centuries from a complex inter-mingling of indigenous and foreign traditions that gave rise to Japan’s unique religious heritage. Students will learn about the different ways of being religious from pre-history to modern times through studying the ways of the kami, religion and the arts (for example, the tea ceremony), Pure Land and Zen Buddhism, State Shinto, new religious movements, and spirituality in contemporary Japanese popular culture. Also offered in Asian Studies.

227.        Religion in Ancient Greece and Rome.

This course is an exploration of the development and evolution of religion in the worlds of ancient Greece and Rome. We first study the religious systems of each, and then examine how these systems affected each other and how each coped with systems that infiltrated from other regions. Finally, we examine the effect that the religious assumptions of the Greco-Roman world had on Judaism and Christianity (which were but two options among many) and the benefits that all of these systems offered to potential adherents.

231.        Christian Religious Traditions.

A survey of the development of Christian traditions from the first century to the present. This course focuses on the historical development of what came to be called Christianity, the diversity of the traditions, and the eventual establishment of what we now think of orthodox Christian positions on issues like the divinity of Jesus and salvation. This course also focuses on key issues of gender, women’s place in Christianity, and church-state relations.. Special attention is given to the diversity of beliefs and practices in what we usually imagine as a monolithic tradition.  Offered annually.

281.                        American Religious Lives

In this course we will look at the diversity of religions practiced in America to think about what that diversity means for understanding the range of human religious experiences. We will also discuss religious diversity's perennial challenge to Americans' conceptions of equality and inclusiveness, and how recognition of a tradition as a religion is often implicated in one's access to legal protections and civil rights. Of particular interest in this class is the significance of American religions in the construction, maintenance, and frequent re-formation of identities, principally as it pertains to notions of community, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and class. Important to this course is also the effort to understand our own identity formations in relation to the powerful impact that religions and debates about the role of religion in American life has had on us, even when we were not aware of it, or even if we are not originally from the United States. Fulfills HU Distribution (2013 curriculum). Fulfills DIV13 Distribution (2013 curriculum).

288.        Cults and New Religious Movements.

The rise of new religious and spiritual movements (NRMs) in North America since the 1960s is a response to the rapidly changing religious, social and political conditions of the modern world. The objective of this course is to explore the origins, nature, beliefs and practices of NRMs. Who joins these groups and why? Do NRMs “brainwash” their followers? Are NRMs dangerous and violent? How have NRMs been portrayed in the mass media and in particular, by the news media?

Topical Courses

218.        Fantasy Religion.

Animated films or anime in Japan are a fascinating part of pop culture that attracts a huge audience of fans. As part of a global leisure industry, anime can offer an imaginary space not only to entertain, but to explore key questions about spirituality, religion, and the sacred. By viewing anime like Anno Hideaki’s Neon Genesis Evangelion, Shiro Masume’s Ghost in the Shell, and Miyazaki Hayao’s My Neighbor Totoro, this class will explore topics as the nature of the gods (kami), Shinto as nature religion, Christianity Japanese style, apocalyptic (end of the world) themes in anime, evil and the demonic, and so on.

238.        Global Christianities.

This course provides an introduction to and exploration of Christian traditions of non-Europeans. In the course we will initially explore the complexity and diversity of early Christianities, especially as they emerged in places like Ethiopia, where Christianity took on explicitly different forms of doctrine and practice. We will then look to South Korean churches as they have become one of the dominant missionary presences in Asia today to understand how Christianity is certainly no longer, though it perhaps never was, a purely European affair. We will also look to contemporary Native American Christianities to understand how populations who have experienced violent colonialism as they were being introduced to Christian traditions are speaking as leaders in traditions that have historically seen them as “a perpetual mission field” rather than full participants. Later in the semester we will focus on migrant and refugee populations and the role interpretations of Christian traditions play in the trauma they experience, and how other interpretations of Christian traditions became a means through which some of them might find empowerment and agency to resist the violence perpetrated against them. Also offered in Global Studies and Caribbean, Latin American, and Latino Studies.

245.        Medieval Christianity.

Approximately half the history of Christianity is medieval Christianity, from the fall of Rome to the Reformation. This course surveys that period of history, with particular attention given to changes in monasticism, heresy, the papacy, and popular Christianity. For popular Christianity, topics will include veneration of saints and their relics, stories of the Grail, and the sacraments. Also included are major shifts in devotion to Christ and Mary, which are important for both church history and the history of popular Christianity.

267.        The Holocaust.

This course focuses on the development of the Holocaust from 1933 to 1945, within the contexts of Christian anti-Semitism, Nazi ideas of race and empire, and World War II. We also address the relationship between the Nazi genocide against the Jews and Nazi persecution of other groups such as Slavs, Roma and the disabled. Finally, we consider the Holocaust’s implications for Jewish and German identity, Christian and Jewish theology, international law, and understanding genocide broadly. Also offered as HIST 267 and through European Studies and Peace Studies.

272.        The Crusades.

The medieval phrase “taking the cross” described a variety of military actions, often characterized as God’s will. They were influenced by and generated new ideological expressions of legitimate religious violence. This course looks at crusades to the area known as the “Holy Land,” and the expanded ideology of crusading that underpinned attacks against heretics, Iberian Muslims, Jews, pagans, and others. Issues engaged include: crusaders’ motivations; ideas of Christian holy war and just war; Islamicate perceptions of the crusades; pogroms against Jews; the Military Orders such as the Knights Templar; and cultural interaction and non-interaction among western Christians, eastern Christians, and Muslims in the “Latin East.”

273.        Religion and Visual Culture.

This course considers the interaction between visuality and religion: the role that seeing might play in religious practice and the role that religion might play in visual practice. It explores not just the ways that images and objects can embody and communicate meaning, but also how they can elicit powerful responses (e.g. fascination, excitement, faith, desire, or fear) in those who view them, and how they help humans to constitute the worlds that they inhabit. The course draws upon case studies from multiple religious traditions. Also offered in Asian Studies.

299.        The Meditative Mind-Buddhism.

LAB ( REL-299L ) is required The Meditative Mind-Buddhism & Neuroscience of Mindfulness.This course takes a multidisciplinary approach-looking at meditation and mindfulness from both the lens of religious studies and cognitive science. Mindfulness is both a biological and neurological phenomenon and a religious-cultural construct. How we go about understanding it as a human experience or state of consciousness means looking at it multi-dimensionally from both empirical scientific and religious-historical-cultural perspectives. Religious scholars study mindfulness as an important component of Buddhist meditation, and as a phenomenon in new religious movements and self-help psychotherapeutic therapies. Studying using the tools of religious studies, we can understand its evolving cultural, historical, and spiritual importance. Neuroscientists study mindfulness because it seems to be a universal state of consciousness available to all whether one is a Buddhist or not. It can be treated as an object of empirical research as something that causes profound physiological and neurological changes in our brains and bodies. Some of the questions explored: Is there an object or process that we can call meditation? What about "mindfulness"? To what extent does culture and religion construct mindfulness as a phenomenon? To what extent is it simply a natural human cognitive phenomenon? Does neuroscience have anything to teach us about Buddhism and religion more generally? Does Buddhism have anything to teach neuroscience more generally? This course cannot be used to fulfill the requirements of the Biology major. This course counts as an ancillary course for the Neuroscience major.

3000-3999. Special Topics.

These 200-level courses deal with significant topics in religious studies. Offered occasionally. The content of each course or section will vary and will be announced each semester.

307.        Jesus in the Gospels.

This seminar studies one or more of the gospels as the literary product of ancient Jewish and Christian history and religion. It examines how the author(s) understood the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus with respect to early Christianity and Judaism, how the evangelists communicated that understanding to their ancient audiences. Students will work collaboratively and individually to develop a sophisticated understanding of the texts in their ancient literary and historical contexts and their modern reception by Christians. We will especially consider the role of Christianity in the propagation of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust/Shoah and how Christianity developed in the shadow of the Roman Empire.

331.        Pilgrimage as a Spiritual Journey.

This course explores the experiences, rituals, stories, beliefs, temples/shrines, images and traveling communities associated with the religious phenomenon of pilgrimage. What kind of travel is pilgrimage? Does it have a particular structure? Are there different kinds of pilgrimages? What kind of religious experience does pilgrimage provide? These and other questions are examined through a close study of selected pilgrimages in Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism.

334.        The Ways of the Gods: Shinto in Modern Japan.

Shinto or the “Way of the Gods” has long been viewed as the “archaic indigenous religion” of Japan. This course explores how, in fact, Shinto is an invented religion that changed radically throughout modern Japanese history as it evolved from local cults worshipping kami to state Shinto and new religious movements in the pre-war period to its modern guise today as religious organizations independent of state control. Topics include: Shinto mythology, religious ultra-nationalism, emperor worship and the imperial system (also called State Shinto), the Yasukuni shrine war memorial issue, Shinto in popular culture, and the role of contemporary shrines and festivals, and kami worship and ecology. Offered every other year. Also offered in Asian Studies.

335.        Religion and Violence.

This course focuses on the intersection of and assumptions about the relationships between religion and violence. Looking at various instances of the use of force and coercion, as well as verbal and symbolic violence in religious contexts, this course engages the course topic through specific case studies, both historically distant and contemporary, to draw attention to the intersections of political, economic, and demographic concerns that shape instances of “religious violence.” This course also engages with how we may define “religion,” how we may define “violence,” and how they are perceived and discussed together in cases of terrorism, war, and persecution of minority groups. The primary goal of the course is to examine our own as well as the broader society’s assumptions about religion and violence, and to develop better critical approaches to understanding their relationships to one another. Also offered through Peace Studies.

337.        Postcolonial India: Film & Literature.

This course is an exploration of South Asian religions and postcolonialism through fiction and film, taking as its starting point that postcolonialism refers both to the temporal period following colonialism as well as a deep engagement with and critique of the colonial experience. We will examine how novels and cinema have provided an enduring medium over the past 70 years to grapple with notions of religious identity, history, myth, gender, and sexuality. Each week, a particular fictionalized narrative will be read through the lens of postcolonial theory, so that students can explore the aforementioned themes alongside interrogations of modernity, nationalism, Orientalism, and ideas of the "subaltern." Fulfills HU distribution (2013 curriculum ). Also offered in Asian Studies, English, Film & Representation Studies, and Global Studies.

4000-4999. Special Topics Seminars.

These 300-level seminars deal with significant topics in religious studies on an advanced level. Offered occasionally. The content of each course or section will vary and will be announced each semester.

Special Courses

360.        Majors Seminar.

This is an in-depth examination of theoretical and methodological approaches to the study of religion that will enable students to do sophisticated independent research. Required of all majors in religious studies, ideally in the spring of their junior year.

450, 451. Directed Studies in Religion.

An individual study program for students showing special interest and aptitude in the study of religion, as approved by the department chair and the instructor under whom the work will be completed. A term paper is required as the product of the special study. (A 2.5 average is required.) Also offered as ASIA 450 and 451 at the discretion of the instructor.

489, 490. SYE: Senior-Year Experience.

An individual study program for candidates for majors in religious studies that fulfills the requirements for their SYE and may be taken in place of REL 360 with approval of the department chair. (A 2.5 average is required.) An extended term paper is required as the product of the special study.

498, 499. SYE: Honors.

This is a departmentally-approved honors project requiring an extended term paper that is the product of the special study. A cumulative GPA of 3.5 in the department is required to do an honors project.