Course Descriptions Fall 2024

Visit the Course Catalog for the official course description and listing

FALL 2024 COURSE FLYERS: REL 304:Spirituality and Transformation:
From Sufism to Self-Help  and  REL 260: Global Muslim Lit & Film 


REL 101: Religions in World Cultures

This course introduces religion by surveying the worldviews, practices, and institutions of global religious traditions. It considers both common and
distinctive spiritual preoccupations of religious practitioners and the astounding variety of religious expression across the human family. It examines the historical development of religions, their sacred writings, their myths, rituals, and symbols, and their contemporary forms. The course is also concerned with methods of studying religion. [GM2,H,V]

REL 102: Contemporary Religious Issues

An exploration of how religious people and ideas shape contemporary life. The course examines religiously-influenced issues such as the separation of church and state, the role of religion in violence and terrorism, and debates between religion and science. The course also looks at positive roles of religion and spirituality in modern culture.  [SS,V]

REL 103: Religion, Myth, and Fantasy

A study of the nature of fantasy and the fantastic, and their relation to religion and religious expression. Students examine various texts and tales, as well as films, from a wide range of historical times and traditions around the world, focusing on the modes through which they convey different kinds of religious experience, beliefs, and meanings. Themes include fate of the soul after death, conflict of good and evil, and boundaries between the real and the unreal. Offered during fall semester.[GM1,H]

REL 104: Saints, Mystics, Ecstatics

An introduction to the comparative and historical study of religion through an examination of three often interrelated types of religious personality: saint, mystic, and ecstatic. After considering classic and recent studies of these three types from both Western and Eastern perspectives, the course analyzes autobiographical, biographical, hagiographic, iconographic, and cinematic portrayals of representative figures, focusing upon the expression of the figures’ defining experiences and followers’ responses to the persons’ lives and experiences. [GM1,H]

Theory & Methods

REL 240: Theories of Religion

Following a brief survey of the history and development of the scholarly study of religion from the Enlightenment to the present, this seminar closely examines some of the most influential theories and methods employed in the field. Reading both classic and contemporary texts, we consider approaches that range from the anthropological, sociological, and psychological to the historicist, phenomenological, comparativist, feminist, and postmodernist. We also consider recent considerations of religion from the perspective of biological and cognitive-scientific perspective. Classes involve a combination of lectures, extensive discussion, and student presentations.[H,SS,W]

Prerequisite: 1 course in Religious Studies or Permission of Instructor

Domains of Inquiry

Transformations (Traditions and Practices)

REL 211: Hinduism: Unities and Diversity

This course is an introduction to the vast, complex religious tradition of India known as Hinduism. The course begins with a survey of the historical development of key Hindu concepts, texts, and practices, with special focus on Hinduism’s extensive mythological tradition. We will also study the many forms of Hindu worship and meditation. The course considers issues of recent and contemporary concern such as the relationship between Hinduism and politics both in colonial and independent India, differing views regarding caste and gender responsibilities, and Hinduism outside India. Course materials include novels and documentary films addressing issues within contemporary Hinduism. No prerequisite. Counts toward Asian Studies major/minor. [GM2, H, V]

REL 212: Buddhism: From India to Asia and Beyond

An introduction to the development of Buddhism and its spread throughout Asia. The course begins with the rise of Buddhism in India and the development of Buddhist philosophy and religious practice. It then examines Buddhism in China, Japan, Tibet, southeast Asia, and the West, focusing on adaptations in Buddhist practice and belief in different environments. Counts toward Asia Culture Cluster and Asian Studies major and minor. [GM1, GM2, H, V]

REL 213: Judaism: Faith, Communities, Identity

An introduction to the religion, history, and literature of the Jewish people. Among the areas covered are: the Biblical heritage; the development of rabbinic Judaism; ritual and the holy life; the reactions of Judaism to modern developments such as political emancipation, the Holocaust, and the state of Israel; and contemporary Jewish problems. [GM1, H, V]

REL 214: Christianity: From Jesus to the Third Millennium

A study of the main branches of Christianity—Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant —in a worldwide scope with reference to their common Biblical inheritance, historical developments, characteristic doctrines, and institutional expressions. Together with a central text book, other readings are assigned by authors representing the viewpoints studied. [GM2, H,V]

REL 215: Islam: History, Faith, and Practice

An introduction to Islam, a religion that flowered into a world civilization.  It covers the vast and dynamic range of Muslim religious life from Muhammad’s time to the present.  The broad survey spans the foundational texts to the Quran and prophetic traditions as well as later Islamic thought, including jurisprudence, theology, and mysticism.  The course highlights modern debates within and about Islam.  Topics include political Islam, religious pluralism, the limits of jihad, and the possibilities of Islamic feminism.  [H, V]

REL 216: Religions in Africa: Historical and Contemporary Expressions

This course is an introduction to the study of traditional African religious systems, thought, and experience. The course explores the way African religions are related to different forms of social organization and conflict, notions of authority, and power. It also explores the ways African religious thought and practice have been affected by and transformed through colonization, missionary activity, and the continent’s integration into the global economy. [GM2, SS, V, H]

REL 218: Confucianism: Self and Society

Who was Confucius, and what is Confucianism? How did people in a Confucian society perceive and define selves, families, society, and state? How have these notions sustained a millennia-long civilization and religious tradition in East Asia? Revolving around the themes of self and society, this course explores the philosophical and cultural history of the Confucian tradition from its inception to the present day. Probing the cultural, religious, gender, and sociological aspects of Confucianism, students will develop a systematic understanding of the intersections and interactions of individual, community, and society in countries under a Confucian tutelage. Course materials consist primarily of canonical texts and modern scholarship, supplemented by literary narratives and movies. [GM1, GM2, H, V]

REL 231: Religions in American History and Culture

From the religious traditions of Native Americans to the religions brought to this continent by Europeans, Africans, and Asians, there is a rich tapestry of religious belief, practice, and culture in the U.S. This course focuses on the history of religious life in North America, the cultural aspects of religions in this region, and the diversity of religious expression. The course also considers how religion relates to group, regional and national identity.  [GM1, H]

REL 232: Religions in Latin America

This course focuses on how religious practices and beliefs have contributed to culture, ethnic identity, and public life over time in Mexico, Central and South America, and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. The role of the Catholic Church in colonization and nation formation, and its place in popular culture is considered. Other topics include the rise and spread of Protestant Christianity in the region as well as indigenous and African-origin religions. [H,GM1]

REL 233: Female Divinities and Demons in East Asia

This course examines the various forms in which women figured in the spirit world in premodern and early modern China, how these roles evolved, and what they tell us about the nature of Chinese religion and about the social roles and relations attributed to women. Readings will include primary texts and modern scholarship on popular female divinities. Comparisons with the Western tradition and the neighbor culture of Japan will also be integrated into discussions. [H, GM1]

Representations (Texts and Contexts)

REL 201: The Biblical Imagination: Torah, Prophets, Writings

An Introduction to the religion of ancient Israel this course is an examination of Biblical perspectives on the great questions through close reading of selected texts; appropriation and interpretation of the book as “Scripture” by both Jewish and Christian communities. [H,V]

REL 202: Christian Scriptures

An introduction to early Christianity with special attention to its Judaic context, the life and teachings of Jesus, the letters of Paul, and the rise and expansion of the Christian community. [H,V]

REL 203: Religion and the Literary Imagination

This course interprets the religious meanings and implications of a selection of 20th century novels. The focus is upon the problematic relationship of the religious protagonist to society and God, or to some other ultimate concern. Other themes considered include the conflict of faith and doubt, tensions between religious commitment and aesthetic yearnings, moral and ethical responsibility in the confrontation with evil, and religious dilemmas arising from the encounter between different cultures and religions. [H,V,W]

REL 204: India’s Religious Texts: Sacred Word, Sacred Sound

This course introduces the oral and written traditions of South Asian religions including Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Islam with selections from a range of texts including the Vedas; biographies of the Buddha; and Hindu, Sikh, and Islamic mystical and devotional poetry. The course examines the use of oral and written traditions in religious practice. [H,V]

REL 207: The Quran

A study of the Quran that focuses on the origin and compilation of the text, a sociocultural history of its interpretation, and its function in Muslim life. The course also examines the Quran as scripture and its major themes. [H,V]

REL 209: Sacred and Scared: Strange Tales and Popular Religions in East Asia

Divine beings, powerful spirits, vengeful ghosts, prophetic dreams, and monstrous creatures—stories of both the sacred and the scared abound in East Asian religious folklore and literature. Among the earliest examples of Chinese and Japanese literary narrative, the so-called “tales of the strange” (zhiguai) have maintained their popularity and shaped the religious landscape of East Asia for almost two thousand years. An inquiry into the rich tradition of ghost stories and fantasy tales of the oddities, this course provides a comprehensive overview of folk religions and cultic practices in China, Taiwan, and Japan. Students will consider the religious conceptions of self and other, body and soul(s), karmic retribution and afterlife, and the precarious relationship between the living and the dead in a non-west context, comparing zhiguai tales with Western Gothic stories and religious fables, etc. Scholarship on popular culture, folklore, and religious secularism and syncretism in East Asia will also be integrated. [GM1, H]

REL 260: Global Muslim Literature and Film

This course introduces students to global Muslim culture and civilization through literature and film.  Geographic regions include the Middle East, South Asia, Africa, North America and Europe; historical periods span both pre-modern and modern. Topics covered include but are not limited to: constructions of race, religion, and gender; diaspora and immigration; political Islam and Islamophobia in cultural contexts. Course materials focus on fictional storytelling although they may be rooted in actual historical events. [H,GM2]

Power and Difference

REL 217: Latino/a Religions: Not Just Catholicism 

A study of the religious traditions of Latinas and Latinos in the United States. The course looks at various forms of Catholocism, the growth of Protestantism in Hispanic communities, and a variety of Afro-Caribbean religions. Emphases are placed on the lived devotions of Latinas/os, on the differences among Mexican, Caribbean, Central and South American groups, and on the role of religion in ethnic identity formation and maintenance. [GM1, H, V]

REL 222: Interreligious Cooperation and Conflict

This course explores the intersection of religion, ethics and politics through the lens of interreligious cooperation and conflict.  It focuses on the connected histories of Judaism, Christianity and Islam – the “Abrahamic faiths”- through a study of doctrine, ritual and social life.  Special attention is given to practices of representing “nonbelievers” and to historical interactions between the religious communities in order to highlight the complexity, fluidity and dynamism of religious identity.  [H, GM1, V]  Prerequisite: REL 101 or permission of the instructor. 

REL 225: Sex, Gender, and Religion

How have religions helped shaped attitudes about traditional gender roles? This course explores ideas about gender and sexuality in the world’s major religions. Topics include ideas about gender from texts and oral traditions, ideas regarding gender and spiritual capability, and the connection between religious notions of gender and larger social, political, and economic issues. The course also examines various feminist critiques of religion and reform movements within religious traditions. [GM1, H]

REL/JS 226: Jewish-Christian Relations: From Enmity to Dialogue?

Judaism and Christianity claim common roots, yet historically defined themselves often as adversaries. Throughout most of history, Christianity relegated Judaism to a status of tolerated minority. This course explores complicated Jewish-Christian interactions since the “parting of the ways,” to medieval persecutions of the Jews, to processes of modernization and emancipation, to recent attempts at dialogue spurred by the tragedy of the Holocaust. While not free from controversies, these attempts do often result in interfaith reconciliation. (Cross listed with Jewish Studies.) [GM1, H3, V]

REL 228: Religion and Politics in Africa

This course is a critical introduction to the study of politics and the way religious forces and discourses have shaped and continue to shape general notions of the good in African societies and nations. The course will begin with classic studies of institutions of social and moral order in Africa and will move through the way African religious and political systems came into articulation with the colonial and postcolonial state. The second half of the course will examine moral quandaries like political corruption, and moral reform movements like Pentecostalism, against the backdrop of economic structural adjustment and the decreased sovereignty of African nations. [GM1,GM2,H,SS]

REL 308 Visual Culture and Religious Identity

This course introduces the concept of visual culture as a window into the study of religion. Secondary texts are juxtaposed with primary sources. These sources suggest that the construction of religious communities and identities has taken place in the context of cultural exchange. We look at how various traditions have used images to construct community boundaries and ideologies. What and when have communities shared, disputed, and diverged? How has the presentation of “others” been an aspect of religious identity? [GM1, H,W]

REL 309 Jews in the Americas

This course analyzes Jewish life, religious practice, and identification throughout the Americas. Rather than taking a single national framework, we compare Jewish life in multiple local and national contexts, evaluating how particular contexts have influenced Jews; how Jews have influenced various societies, cultures, and religious practices; and the construction of transnational Jewish networks, practices, and identities. We evaluate contexts individually as well as in exchange with each other. We also consider the roles of various languages in Jewish life, including Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, English, Spanish, and Portuguese (though all readings are in English translation).
[H, GM1, W]

REL 312  Religious Body and Sexuality

This course explores the use and understanding of the body through the lens of gender and sexuality in major Asian religions, including Confucianism, Daoism, Shinto, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. We will investigate a variety of body images, inscriptions, and practices in relation to piety, divinity, gender, identity, morality, mortality, and modernity in China, Japan, and India. Our discussion topics include ritual choreography; femininity and masculinity; pregnancy and procreation; fasting and feasting; illness, spirit possession, death; worship of the body-relic, repugnance of bodily decay; artistic mediation and imagination within the Asian religious context. We will also consider how the body affords an indispensable index to cultural difference and diversity between the West and the East. Course materials consist primarily of literary, anthropological, social, and historical studies, supplemented by visual arts, fictions, and films [GM1, H, W]

REL 322  Spirits of Capitalism

This seminar explores the relationship between global capitalism and phenomena like spirit possession and “witchcraft” in different historical and cultural contexts in Africa and the diaspora. Rather than approach such phenomena as exotica, we will instead seek to understand them as sophisticated forms of theory and practice. In the first part of the course, students will engage with classic theories of capitalism and its critics. The course then engages with specific case studies of possession-based religions and moral panics about witchcraft as vital windows into the relationship between economic forces and religious development. [GM2, H]

REL 350 Religions on the Move: Dynamic Approaches to the Religious History of the Americas

Typical narratives of religious history in the Americas start with the arrival of Christian Europeans on the eastern seaboards who then inevitably move westward across the hemisphere, converting or displacing all in their path. This seminar-style course presents alternatives to this colonial story by examining various histories and ethnographies of religious people that move, instead, on north/south axes, from west to east, or in multi-directional ways. Emphasis is placed on transnational flows and cultural contact. [GM2, W]

REL 351  Special Topic: Black, Jewish, Black & Jewish

This course centers contact to examine ways that Jews participated in early modern invention of “Blackness.” Gender, race, and religion have been inter-articulated and require intersectional study by those arguing they were “Black” or “White.” We trace some legacies of “Blackness” amongst those enslaved or disenfranchised across the Atlantic and how “Blackness” and “Jewishness” have been imagined to be exclusive and/or complementary by people who understood themselves to be Black, Jewish, or Black and Jewish. [GM1, GM2, SS, V, W]


Additional Department Electives

REL 223: Religious Healing and Health

An examination of how various religious traditions understand sickness and health and how they try to restore wholeness to sick individuals and groups. The efficacy of religious healing, the interface between modern medicine and folk healing, and the importance of cultural narratives in restoring the sick to health are all considered. Academic analyses of religious healing as well as firsthand accounts of religious and folk healthcare are studied. [H, SS]

REL 224: Religious Ethics

A study of the bases of normative claims about behavior in various religious traditions. Materials from Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, and other religious traditions are used. Topics include freedom, responsibility, and destiny. [H]

REL/A&S 250: Anthropology of Religion

As the United States and European colonial powers expanded into places like Africa, Native North America, Melanesia, and Australia (to name a few), different national traditions of anthropology developed an ever evolving toolbox of approaches and techniques for understanding the religious lives of Euro-American Others. This course is an introduction to this “toolbox” of anthropological theories and methods for studying religion from the Victorian era to the present. The course will also attend to voices in the discipline critical of the way anthropology constructs “religion” as an object of analysis. [SS,W]

REL 301: Philosophies of Religion

An examination of central problems and current issues in the philosophy of religion as treated in classic texts of the field: definitions of religion; ‘proofs’ of God’s existence; the nature of religious experience, faith, revelation, and miracle; the problem of evil; human destiny; religious naturalism; religious language; atheism and unbelief; religious pluralism; and religion and gender. We discuss these subjects from a rational, critical, objective perspective, taking into account the historical-cultural contexts of the authors. [H, V, W]

REL 304: Spirituality and Transformation

What is spirituality?  How and why do human beings seek to transform themselves?  This course explores these and other questions primarily through the lens of Islamic mysticism (Sufism), but also through Jewish mysticism (Kabbalah) and the booming American Self-Help industry.  Sources include both primary and secondary texts, including translations when appropriate.  Active participation and lively discussion are encouraged. [GM1,H]

REL 306: Jewish Responses to the Holocaust

Investigation of reactions to the Holocaust in the context of reactions to and explanations for catastrophe in the history of Judaism. Study of Jewish literature that addresses the problem of suffering and of Holocaust writing that challenges traditional responses. Examination of modes of Holocaust memorialization and their role in contemporary Jewish life and thought. [GM1,H,W]

REL/JS  307: The Jewish Experience in Poland

The course traces the development of Jewish civilization in Poland, the
spiritual and demographic heart of Judaism, examining distinctive Jewish
movements and institutions in the early modern Polish-Lithuanian
Commonwealth, the life of the shtetl (small town), and the flowering of
secular Jewish culture in the early 20th century.  The course also
considers the complex issue of Jewish-Polish relations before, during, and
after World War II and the Holocaust and the fate of Jews in postwar
communist Poland.  Finally, the course examines the “New Jews” of
contemporary Poland and the politics of memory expressed in current popular media, memorials, museums, and culture festivals.  Texts include histories, drama, fiction, travel writing, and films. [GM1,GM2,H,W]

REL 310: Sacrifice: Violence and Ritual

What do the Eucharist, the ritual slaughter of oxen, and military service have in common? They all share sacrificial elements; the giving up of something, often the life of some being (broadly understood), in order to constitute the sacredness or boundary of a community. This course examines the role of sacrifice in religion, ritual, gender relations and even secular social formations such as nationalism. The course thus explores both theories of sacrifice and the significance of sacrifice in different social and historical contexts. [H,SS,GM1,GM2,W]

REL 351-360: Special Topics

These courses study subjects of current interest to students and members of the staff.

Faculty-Directed Projects

REL 390, 391: Independent Study

Open to junior or senior religious studies majors or minors. Students select a specific area of interest for reading and investigation in consultation with the faculty adviser and subject to the approval of the department. Students confer regularly with advisers on their work and prepare an essay on an approved subject. Open to other qualified juniors or seniors with permission of the department.

Senior Project Options:

REL 490: Senior Capstone

Students who major in religious studies develop a capstone project under the direction of a faculty member in the department, following the established, written guidelines available in the department. This takes place in the first semester of the senior year. [W]
Prerequisite: Students must be religious studies majors

REL 495, 496: Honors Thesis

Students desiring to take honors should inform their department advisers by the end of the second semester of the junior year. Honors work involves a guided program of independent reading and research culminating in a thesis on a topic to be selected by the student in consultation with his or her adviser and approved by the department. All honors projects must be conducted in accordance with the established written guidelines available in the department. Honors candidates enroll in 496 only upon successfully completing Religious Studies 495. [W]