INTRODUCTION TO WORLD RELIGIONS
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This course is an introduction to the academic study of world religions, including myths or sacred stories, beliefs, ritual practices, and values. Neither the students’ nor the instructor’s personal religious beliefs are at issue or are matters for evaluation. Students will be introduced to some of the major theoretical and methodological problems at issue in the comparative study of religions and to selected religious traditions.
Daniel Pals, Seven Theories of Religion (1996) (abbreviated as 7 T)
M.P. Fisher, Living Religions (Fourth Edition) (abbreviated as LR)
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (abbreviated as HP)
Additional materials collected in a course packet (abbreviated as CP)
Grades will be based on two short essays, three exams, occasional quizzes, and in-class or homework assignments. This syllabus (like most) is a flexible outline of planned readings and activities. Students are expected to have completed the required readings prior to class and to keep current with any changes in readings or assignments announced during classes. Class lectures are intended to supplement and extend the readings rather than to merely summarize them. This means two things in particular. You are responsible for information from your readings that may not have been covered in class, and things may be covered in lectures (or in class films) that are not in your readings. Therefore, attendance is required in order to master the information needed to successfully pass the course.
Two Essays (10 pts. each) 20 points (20%)
First Exam 20 points (20%)
Second Exam 20 points (20%)
Third Exam (no final) 30 points (30%)
Quizzes/Assignments 10 points (10%)
Total: 100 points (100%)
Essays will be graded on the basis of content, how well they answer the questions, clarity of argument, and quality of writing. They must be 4-5 pages in length, typed (double-spaced, 12 pt. font), and spell-checked. One point per business day will be deducted for late essays unless you have a written medical excuse. Essay topics are given later in the syllabus.
The overall course grade is based on the 100 point system. The scale is as follows:
100-94 A 76-74 C
93-90 A- 73-70 C-
89-87 B+ 69-67 D+
86-84 B 66-64 D
83-80 B- 63-60 D-
79-77 C+ 59-0 F
cheating will be penalized according to the full extent of University policy.
Any student who is suspected of academic misconduct will be referred to the
Dean of Students in Judicial Affairs. Students with disabilities should request
that Disability Resources staff send a
Examinations may include a mixture of matching, multiple choice, fill in the blank, and very short answer. Study guides are provided as a courtesy and should be considered only as “rules of thumb” for help in preparing for each exam. Exams may also include terms and concepts that come up in readings, class lecture, or discussion, but are not on the study guides. Make-up exams will be considered only upon presentation of a written medical excuse.
Students may earn up to 3 points of “extra credit.” Activities eligible for extra credit are noted on the syllabus or will be announced ahead of time in class and are worth 1 point each for a 1-2 page summary of the major points of the activity as it relates to the themes and ideas discussed in class. For example, if you watch a recommended movie for extra credit, I will expect you to discuss the parts of the movie that relate specifically to ideas about that religion, not give me a rehash of the movie jacket cover. I will refuse extra credit for those summaries that I determine do not adequately address the subject.
When there is more than one extra credit opportunity, only one of them will count in any given week. Therefore, you are strongly urged to participate early in some of these activities or lose the opportunity, which you will no doubt regret toward the end of the semester.
Extra credit summaries must be typed and turned in no later than Wednesday of the week following the extra credit opportunity—NO EXCEPTIONS.
Why is it so hard to talk about religion?
Class Schedule (Modified as Needed)
The Academic Study of Religions: Attitude & Approach
Syllabus, Requirements, Expectations. In-class exercise: What is religion?
Developing a Framework for the Comparative Study of Religions: Joachim Wach
The Hermeneutics of the Sacred: Mircea Eliade
CP, Guide to Eliade’s Terms
Week 2: 8/30-9/3 Indigenous Sacred Ways: Orientation & Relationships
Indigenous or Primal Sacred Traditions: Navigating the Web of Life
Week 3: 9/6-10 Into the Flow: Applying Tools to Experience
Getting into the Flow: Understanding Others’ Religious Experiences
Week 4: 9/13-17 Can Religion Be Explained Away?
Religion as Political Ideology: Karl Marx
Religion as Psychological Weakness: Sigmund Freud
Religion as Social Construct: Emile Durkheim
• First Essay Due: Wednesday, September 22, at the beginning of class.
Week 6: 9/27-10/1 Jainism: Winning Over Passions
Extra Credit Activity: Watch the film Gandhi and discuss how Gandhi’s religious background influenced his methods of social protest
Week 7: 10/4-8 Buddhism(s): Walking the Middle Path
10/4 First Exam (will cover everything through Week 6)
The Life of the Buddha, Basic Principles of Buddhism
Extra Credit Activity: Watch the film The Little Buddha and relate the end of the movie to relevant themes
The Way of the Tao and the Way of the Ancestors
The Roots of the Abrahamic Traditions
Extra Credit Activity: Visit the Hillel or a synagogue and, using your tools, describe or comment upon practices, sacred space or architecture, gender roles, and so forth, that you observe.
Week 10: 10/25-29 Christianity: The Message of the New Testament
The Coming of a Messiah and the Birth of a New Religion
Extra Credit Activity: Again using your tools, visit a church (preferably not one that you attend regularly, if you do attend one) and describe or comment upon practices, sacred space or architecture, gender roles, and so forth, that you observe during your visit.
11/1 Second Exam (will cover Weeks 7 through 10)
African Religions in the Diaspora
Week 12: 11/8-12 Islam: Following the Five Pillars
The Life of Mohammed: Returning to the Path of Abraham
Extra Credit Activity: Watch the documentary of Malcolm X and discuss how his exposure to Islam influenced his life and political activism.
Common Themes of New Religions
• Second Essay Due: Wednesday November 17, at the beginning of class.
No class Friday 11/19.
12/3 Third Exam (Comprehensive, with primary focus on second half of the semester)
Attendance is mandatory during this week
12/13 I will be in my office from 11-12 for discussion or for you to pick up any essays, exams, or other assignments that you may not have already retrieved.
Essays should be 4-5 pages in length, typed with a normal 12 pt. font, double-spaced, and spell-checked. Do not include the question that you are answering or waste words telling me what you are going to do or what you have done. Remember that the technical aspects of the essay—focus, organization, syntax, grammar, spelling, etc.—are an important part of the assignment. Each essay should have a cover or title page that includes an appropriate title for your subject, your name, the course, the instructor, and the semester and year.
Essay One: Due September 22
Use ONLY class materials and the Seven Theories book to address the questions. During the course of your paper, be sure to address each aspect of the topic, although you need not follow the particular order of questions. Include short quotations and page citations from the materials you have read. This will help you to be sure that you are reading carefully and are correct in your synopsis of the theorist’s ideas. It will also show that you have done the reading.
You have been assigned ONE of the following topics.
1. What is the problem with religion for Marx? Explain what Marx means when he refers to religion as alienation. What is Marx’ definition of the human and how does it relate to economics? How is religion tied to economics? What does Marx mean when he says that religion is an opiate? How does religion distract or prevent human beings from attaining true social and economic progress? How can religion be used as a tool of oppression? Discuss the benefits and limitations of a Marxist approach. How might Marx be useful as a tool in understanding religions’ various roles in culture?
2. Freud also thinks that there is a problem with religion. What is Freud’s critique of religion? Does he view religion as a positive or negative influence on human civilization? How does religion figure in his view of the human? How does religion function as a mechanism of social control? What are Freud’s two explanations of how religion began? What does it mean to say that religion is an illusion (wish fulfillment) or a neurosis? How does Freud view religion as opposed to science? What are the strengths and weaknesses of a psychological approach to the study of religion? How might Freud be useful as a tool for understanding religions’ various roles in culture?
3. Durkheim is a founder of the sociology of religion. How does Durkheim understand the human? What does it mean to say that religion is a function of social need? How does this compare with the idea that religion is about individual experiences or beliefs? Durkheim thought that early or primitive religions were simple and progressed to more complex systems later on. What do you think of this evolutionary thrust of Durkheim’s theory of religion? Do primitive peoples have primitive or simple religions? Give reasons to support your judgment. How might Durkheim be useful as a tool for understanding religions?
4. Eliade had the utmost respect for religious experience and tied religion to our very essence. What does it mean to be human for Eliade? Why does Eliade say that religion must always be explained “on its own terms?” In other words, what does that mean? How does Eliade use the concepts of sacred and profane? What is the relation of Eliade’s hermeneutics of the sacred to symbols as universals? to history (archaic vs. modern)? to space? What limitations do you see to the hermeneutics of the sacred as expressed by Eliade? What are its strengths? How might Eliade be useful as tool for comparing different religions?
Essay Two: Due November 17
Compare and contrast the relationship between the divine (or god or the sacred) and humanity in one of the indigenous (tribal, preliterate) sacred traditions, one of the Wisdom traditions (Hinduism, Buddhism) and one of the Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, or Islam). Be sure to include references to ritual praxis as well as theological beliefs to illustrate your observations where appropriate. What can we learn from undertaking this comparison? How easy or difficult is it to compare religious traditions cross-culturally? What are some things that we have to keep in mind in attempting this comparative effort? Can comparison help us in understanding religious praxis around the world? (If appropriate, call upon the theorists we’ve used in the course as resources in addressing this question.)