Theory and Method in the Study of Religion

Religion. What is it? Is it a cultural, sociological, psychological, economic, legal, physiological, or political category? How does the term translate between languages and across time and space? What are the different sets of institutions, practices, belief systems, and contexts within which what we call “religion” is located? How can what we call religion be studied? In this course, we will respond to these questions by looking historically, cross culturally, and cross–disciplinarily as well as inter-disciplinarily at how the term religion and the concepts and practices this term carries with it have been used. We will address questions of epistemology (how do we know what we know), and ask ourselves about the status of knowledge itself in the context of religious studies as a disciplinary formation.

Over the course of the term, we will draw on classic texts in religious studies, as well as from anthropology, history, feminist theory, postcolonial studies, psychoanalysis, and from ethnographic studies of both monotheistic and polytheistic belief systems, and of Western and Eastern religions. In doing so, we will engage some of the key debates about the status of religion in relation to politics, including in terms of armed conflict, colonialism and anti-colonial struggle, European Enlightenment, the notion of secularism, debates about gender and sex, and the place of religion in contexts of liberal democracy and modern nationalisms. We will address concepts such as: the sacred and the profane, totem and taboo, spirit, the divine, sublime, purity, danger, violence, peace, holiness, sacrifice, ritual, superstition, ghosts, faith, evidence, truth, secularism, possession, spirit, prayer, resurrection, messianism, and alterity. Readings will include texts by Benedict Anderson, Talal Asad, Adam Becker, Thomas Beidelman, Walter Benjamin, Maurice Bloch, Daniel Boyarin, Jonathan Boyarin, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Jacques Derrida, Mary Douglas, Emile Durkehim, Mircea Eliade, E.E. Evans-Pritchard, Katherine Ewing, Sigmund Freud, Clifford Geertz, Aisha Khan, Sarah Kofman, Claude Levi-Strauss, Emmanuel Levinas, Saba Mahmood, Karl Marx, Amira Mittermaier, Sherry Ortner, Stefania Pandolfo, Ann Pellegrini, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Gershom Scholem, Joan Scott, Ninian Smart, Edward Tylor, Max Weber, and Angela Zito.