Admission & Financial Aid

Admission & Financial Aid


Amherst College Courses

Amherst College Courses



Professors A. Dole‡, Doran, Heim, Niditch, and Vaughan; Associate Professor Jaffer (Chair) ; Visiting Assistant Professor Amoruso; Visiting Lecturers Friesner and Powell; Postdoctoral Fellows and Visiting Assistant Professors Barba* and Jeffries.

The study of Religion is a diversified and multi-faceted discipline which involves the study of both specific religious traditions and the general nature of religion as a phenomenon of human life. It includes cultures of both the East and West, ancient as well as modern, in an inquiry that involves a variety of textual, historical, phenomenological, social scientific, theological and philosophical methodologies.

Major Program. Majors in Religion will be expected to achieve a degree of mastery in three areas of the field as a whole. First, they will be expected to gain a close knowledge of a particular religious tradition, including both its ancient and modern forms, in its scriptural, ritual, reflective and institutional dimensions. Ordinarily this will be achieved through a concentration of courses within the major. A student might also choose to develop a program of language study in relation to this part of the program, though this would not ordinarily be required for or count toward the major. Second, all majors will be expected to gain a more general knowledge of some other religious tradition quite different from that on which they are concentrating. Ordinarily, this requirement will be met by one or two courses. Third, all majors will be expected to gain a general knowledge of the theoretical and methodological resources pertinent to the study of religion in all its forms. It is further expected of Honors majors that their theses will demonstrate an awareness of the theoretical and methodological issues ingredient in the topic being studied.

A religion major must take at least two courses at the 100-level in order to fulfill the requirements of the major. One of these courses is normally RELI 111, which introduces students to the study of comparative religion by teaching them how to engage in fruitful and meaningful comparative work across religious and cultural traditions. A student may take an alternative 100-level course to fulfill the 100 level course requirement. Students wishing to opt for this alternative must seek permission from the chair of the religion department.

Majors in Religion are also required to take RELI210, "The Nature of Religion," and six additional courses in Religion or related studies approved by the Department. In meeting this requirement, majors and prospective majors should note that no course in Religion (including Five College courses) or in a related field will be counted toward the major in Religion if it is not approved by the student's departmental advisor as part of a general course of study designed to cover the three areas described above. In other words, a random selection of eight courses in Religion will not necessarily satisfy the course requirement for the major in Religion.

All majors, including “double majors,” are required early in the second semester of the senior year to take a comprehensive examination in Religion. This examination will be designed to allow the student to deal with each of the three aspects of his or her program as described above, though not in the form of a summary report of what has been learned in each area. Rather, the emphasis will be on students’ abilities to use what they have learned in order to think critically about general issues in the field.

Departmental Honors Program.

Honors in Religion shall consist of two courses at the 100-level (normally including RELI 111); RELI 210; four additional courses in religion or related studies approved by the Religion Department; satisfactory performance in the comprehensive examination; satisfactory preparation and oral defense of a scholarly essay on a topic approved by the Department; and satisfactory fulfillment of the general Honors requirements of the College.

Students who intend to write an honors thesis in Religion should begin a conversation with their advisor as early as is feasible, and preferably by the beginning of their Junior year. Permission to enroll in RELI 498 (the Fall semester honors thesis course) is contingent on the submission of a thesis prospectus and its approval by the department. The prospectus is to contain a description of the thesis project (approximately 500 words) and an initial bibliography. Students should work towards a prospectus with their advisors during the Spring semester of their Junior year. The prospectus should be submitted to the Department Chair no later than the last day of examinations in the Spring of the Junior year.

A student in the Honors Program in Religion will register for RELI 498 in the fall semester and RELI 499 in the spring semester. 498 is a single course; 499 can be either a single or a double course, although it is ordinarily a double course. Upon completion of the thesis, the grade received will be credited to either two courses (498 and 499) or three courses (498 and 499D).

‡ On leave spring semester 2018-19.
*On leave 2018-19.

111 Introduction to Religion

This course introduces students to the comparative study of religion by exploring two distinct religious traditions. It focuses on the ways that scholars draw on contextual information to understand religious practices, ideas or beliefs, artifacts, institutions, and symbols. The traditions examined vary from year to year.   In Fall 2018, the major traditions will be Christianity and Judaism and the theme will be "the end of the world." We will trace and compare Jewish and Christian ideas of an end-time often accompanied by expectations of cataclysm, judgment, and new creation and by varying definitions of the blessed saved and the irrevocably condemned. Our study will include a trajectory from ancient to modern sources and draw from a variety of relevant media, historical moments, and cultural movements.

Fall semester. Professors Doran and Niditch.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2013, Fall 2014, Fall 2015, Fall 2016, Fall 2017, Fall 2018, Fall 2019, Fall 2020, Fall 2021, Fall 2022, Fall 2023, Fall 2024

125 Personal Religion in the Bible and Beyond

In contemporary discussions about the role of religion in the lives of individuals we often hear questions such as the following: Does God hear me when I call out in trouble? Why do bad things happen to good people? How do I define myself as a believer? What is the role of prayer? Do I have a personal relationship with a divine being, apart from the institutional religion? What roles do material objects, personal images, and private practices play within my religious life? This course will suggest that questions such as these are entirely relevant to the study of early Judaism, especially in the late biblical period, a time when the preserved literature and the evidence of material culture place great emphasis on the individual’s spiritual journey. This course introduces students to ways of thinking about personal religion and applies that theoretical framework to the study of a variety of sources in the Bible and beyond. Topics include the Book of Job, the confessional literature of the prophets, psalms of personal lament, visionary experiences, vow-making, incantations, ancient graffiti, and memoirs written in the first person. This course has no prerequisites and provides students with the methodological and historical background to appreciate this interesting corpus, its social context, and its composers.

Spring semester. Professor Niditch.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2022

127 Ethics and the Hebrew Scriptures

This course explores legal and narrative traditions of the Hebrew Bible as they pertain to questions about the nature of just and unjust behavior. We will study biblical texts that underscore the moral choices encountered by individuals and societies in a wide array of arenas: economic, ecological, sexual, gendered, political, and military. The goal is to understand variations in the responses of biblical writers to a range of ethical issues within their social and historical contexts. We will also attend to the influence of these ancient materials on subsequent cultural attitudes and human interactions, for the ethical traditions of the Hebrew Bible have been received, understood, and remade with varying results, positive and negative.

Spring semester. Professor Niditch.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2023

128 Religion and Popular Culture

Although religion and popular culture are often seen as separate conceptual spheres—the former dealing with the “sacred” and the latter with the “profane”—these two spheres are deeply intertwined and shape one another. Religion often expresses itself in popular culture through the arts and various forms of media, while popular religion frequently expresses itself through religious memes and other representations. This course will explore the complex relationship between religion and popular culture. By studying film, comics, music, tattooing, and other cultural products, we will discover how beliefs, ideals, practices, institutions from various religious traditions shape popular culture and how symbols that are embedded in popular culture shape religious traditions.

Spring semester. Visiting Post-Doctoral Fellow Jeffries.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2019

129 Ethnographic Methods in Religious Studies

(Offered as ANTH 208 and REL 129) Ethnography refers to both a set of research methods and a genre of scholarly writing about living people. In this course, we will read influential ethnographies of religious communities, as well as conduct ethnographic research on and writing about local communities ourselves. We will begin with a close reading of a classic work in the field. This will help us get a sense of what ethnography is and better understand its place in the study of religion. Then we will engage in a series of exercises to learn essential ethnographic methods and practice writing fieldnotes and ethnographic narrative. As the semester progresses, students will propose and conduct sustained fieldwork projects on local religious communities, which they will synthesize in ethnographic narratives that they will workshop with the instructor and their peers. By the end of the course, students will have substantial experience in ethnographic research and writing, as well as a nuanced understanding of the challenges and ethics of engaging in both. 

Spring semester. Visiting Assistant Professor Amoruso.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2019

130 Introduction to African American Religions

(Offered as REL 130 and BLST 145) Is there something called black religion? If so, what makes it black? This course will explore the nature and the meaning of black religion. We will examine the historical development of African American religion in the United States, focusing on diverse African American religious groups, including the Nation of Islam, the Moorish Science Temple of America, Black Jews of Harlem, the Black Church, and others. Specific attention will be paid to the ways in which African American religious groups have endeavored to overcome race, class, gender, and other forms of social oppression. The course will have two sections. First, we will attempt to define black religion in the larger context of religious studies. Second, we will explore what is “black,” or unique about African American forms of religion by examining the theological, social, and ritualistic concerns of various African American religious groups.

Fall Semester. Visiting Post-Doctoral Fellow Jeffries.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2019, Spring 2022

133 Religion in the United States

This course will use two themes—experience and authority—to help orient and guide students through a history of religion in the United States. Beginning with Native American religions in the precolonial period, we will explore the variety of religious traditions that have flourished within the contemporary geographical bounds of the United States. In addition to dominant forms of Protestant Christianity, we will learn about the rise of new religions like Spiritualism and Mormonism, Catholic and Jewish immigration in the late nineteenth century, and the growth of religions like Buddhism and Hinduism through immigration and import over the course of the twentieth century. We will consider how religious people made appeals to experience to establish, reinforce, and challenge political and religious authority. And throughout the course, we will pay special attention to issues like race and ethnicity, gender, and sexuality, asking how religion has alternately served as a vehicle for liberation and venue of oppression, and how religious debates dovetailed with the pressing social issues of the day.

Fall semester. Visiting Assistant Professor Amoruso.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2018

143 Religion in Ancient India

(Offered as RELI 143 and ASLC 144) This course explores central ideas and practices in the religious and intellectual traditions of India up until the medieval period. We consider the range of available archeological, art historical, and textual evidence for religion in this period, though the course focuses mostly on texts. We will read the classic religious and philosophical literature of the traditions we now call Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.

Spring semester. Professor M. Heim.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2013, Spring 2015, Fall 2016, Spring 2018, Spring 2019, Spring 2021, Fall 2023

152 Introduction to Buddhist Traditions

(Offered as RELI 152 and ASLC 152) This course is an introduction to the diverse ideals, practices, and traditions of Buddhism from its origins in South Asia to its geographical and historical diffusion throughout Asia and, more recently, into the west. We will explore the Three Jewels—the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha—and how they each provide refuge for those suffering in samsara (the endless cycle of rebirth). We will engage in close readings of the literary and philosophical texts central to Buddhism, as well as recent historical and anthropological studies of Buddhist traditions.

Fall semester. Professor M. Heim.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2013, Fall 2014, Fall 2015, Fall 2016, Fall 2017, Spring 2019, Fall 2019, Spring 2022, Spring 2023

166 Beginning the Bible

Familiarity with the Bible is essential to any liberal arts education. This course is the place to begin. A master-work of great complexity revealing many voices and many periods, the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament is a collection of traditional literature of various genres including prose and poetry, law, narrative, ritual texts, sayings, and other forms. We seek to understand the varying ways Israelites understood and defined themselves in relation to their ancestors, their ancient Near Eastern neighbors, and their God. Course assignments are a series of interpretive essays in which students become accustomed to close work with biblical texts, employing methodological approaches introduced throughout the semester.

Fall semester. Professor Niditch.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2018, Fall 2019, Fall 2021, Fall 2023

172 Christianity and Capitalism

The past century and a half have seen Christians engaging capitalism in various ways. Some have argued that capitalism and Christianity are opposed at the level of first principles, with capitalism dedicated to an ethos of competition and Christianity to one of co-operation. Others have argued that capitalism is just human freedom in the sphere of economics, and that the Christian’s duty is to defend capitalism against threats from those who would dismantle it. Some have argued that Jesus preached the virtue of poverty; others, that he blesses his followers with wealth. This course explores the history of Christian engagements with capitalism since the middle of the nineteenth century. We will examine not only Christian condemnations or valorizations of capitalism (Christian socialism and “corporate Christianity”), but also engagements that defend some aspects of capitalism while criticizing others (the Social Gospel movement and the Roman Catholic tradition of social thought). We will also examine ways in which capitalism has influenced both church history and Christian theology through discussion of the financial history of Christian publications and institutions, and the recent phenomenon of the “Christian corporation.”

Omitted 2018-19. Professor A. Dole.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2023

173 Global Christianity

In 1910, about two-thirds of the world’s Christian population lived in Europe. Over the next century, Christianity’s population centers shifted southward and westward. Whereas Europe is home to about a quarter of all Christians, two-thirds live in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Understanding contemporary Christianity, then, requires a global perspective. In this course, we will draw from the work of historians, anthropologists, and sociologists, to study global Christianity from the turn of the twentieth century to today. With a focus on the Americas and Africa, we will examine continuity and change in the Christian tradition through topics including popular Catholicism in Latin America, the growth of Pentecostalism, and the rise of the religious right in the United States. 

Fall semester. Visiting Assistant Professor Amoruso.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2018

187 Introduction to Islamic Traditions

(Offered as RELI 187 and ASLC 187) Islam is a tradition with 1400 years of history and over one billion adherents today in countries around the globe. This course equips students with the basic vocabulary needed to understand the diversity of ideals and practices, sects, and intellectual currents found among Muslims over the course of this history. In the first half of the course, we will engage in close readings from scripture (the Qur’an and hadith), and central texts of biography, law, theology, and mysticism (Sufism) to discover the variety of Islamic ideals and practices. We will emphasize the ways that the meanings of such ideals and practices are contested within the Islamic tradition. In the second half of the course, we will shift to examine early modern and modernist ideals and socio-religious practices by engaging with anthropological and historical studies. In these final modules, we will interrogate the ways that the canonical sources of medieval Islam are deployed, their meanings and significance contested and reinterpreted against the backdrop of geopolitical events and socio-political landscapes as well as in light of personal experiences and European thought.

Fall semester. Limited to 25 students. Seven seats reserved for first-year students. Professor Jaffer.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2017, Fall 2018

210 What Is Religion Anyway?: Theories and Methods in Religious Studies

What does religious studies study? How do its investigations proceed? Can a religion only be truly understood from within, by those who share its beliefs and values? Or, on the contrary, is only the person who stands “outside” religion equipped to study and truly understand it? Is there a generic “something” that we can properly call “religion” at all or is the concept of religion, which emerged from European Enlightenment, inapplicable to other cultural contexts? This course will explore several of the most influential efforts to develop theories of religion and methods for its study. We will consider psychological, sociological, anthropological, and phenomenological theories of religion, along with recent challenges to such theories from thinkers associated with feminist, post-modern and post-colonial perspectives.

Spring semester. Professor Jaffer.

Other years: Offered in Spring 2012, Spring 2013, Spring 2014, Spring 2015, Spring 2016, Spring 2023, Spring 2025

215 The Cognitive Science of Religion

The cognitive science of religion (CSR) is a relatively new field that applies developments in the cognitive sciences and in evolutionary psychology to the study of religion. This course will survey the recent literature on the subject, and will bring this material into conversation with “classical” naturalistic theorizing concerning religion. Topics covered will include the theory of cognitive "massive modularity" that grounds much of the work in this area; the theories of reciprocal altruism and coalitional psychology; and the question of whether religion is an adaptation or an "evolutionary by-product". We will read works by David Hume, Robert Trivers, Pascal Boyer, Justin Barrett, Richard Dawkins, Lee Kirkpatrick, Ara Norenzayan, and others.

Fall Semester. Professor Andrew Dole.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2008, Fall 2012, Fall 2014, Fall 2016, Fall 2018, Spring 2022

220 Christianity and Islam in West Africa

(See BLST 210)

225 Christianity, Ecology, and Environmental Responsibility

We live today in an age of deepening ecological crises. Climate change, precipitous species extinction, and global water shortages, to name a few, all present unprecedented problems with which we are forced to grapple daily. Yet many argue we also face a profound spiritual crisis. Is traditional religion adequate to address the many ecological dilemmas of our day? If not, how must it change? And perhaps most pressing: Is religion at all to blame for our current ecological predicament(s)? This class explores each of these questions in relation to the Christian religious tradition in its many forms. Specifically, we will inquire into the ways Christian theology is being re-examined, re-imagined, and re-deployed to confront today’s environmental challenges. Our goal is to understand how certain theological and moral strategies make ecological crises relevant to Christian belief and practice in their diversity of forms. What secular forces shape Christian responses to environmental problems? What beliefs, doctrines, and/or traditions take precedence in Christians’ moral approaches to contemporary environmental crises? How does Christian theology interpret science (namely the fields of ecology and evolutionary biology), and furthermore, how do such interpretations impact Christian worldviews and moral vocabularies These questions and more constitute the course's chief inquiries. By the end of the semester we will also consider secular environmentalist positions in order to explore points of accord and disagreement with different strains of Christian theology and ethics, including what chances there are for meaningful political partnerships between Christian and secular movements for environmental sustainability.  

Spring semester. Visiting Lecturer Powell.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2019

226 Romanticism, Religion, and American Democracy

This course investigates the three-way convergence between religion, environmental thinking, and democracy through the loose and often plural tradition of romanticism in the United States in the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Romanticism’s central features—including the exaltation of the ordinary and common, the unlimited creative potential of the individual, a discontent with limits on the freedom to become who one is, and an equal participation of all in the public realm—have been simultaneously celebrated and maligned since romanticism first crossed the Atlantic. Its emphasis on self-reliance and the political project of remaking society into something better have fueled a variety of social and political projects in the United States, including movements for racial and gender justice, as well as environmental justice. A central question for this course will be to what extent romanticism supplied what could be considered the social material for a democratic and environmental culture—traditions, practices, beliefs, characters, habits, and virtues (as opposed to a romanticism that primarily offered a solitary individual with a purely aesthetic appreciation of the natural world). This course will try to access romanticism’s impact on political, religious, and environmental thinking in the United States by reading some of the most influential classical sources of the movement in the nineteenth century, its pragmatist evolution in the twentieth century, and some of its most powerful adaptations in the present.

Spring semester. Visiting Lecturer Friesner.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2019

230 Latin American and Latinx Religion

On the dawn of the quincentenary of the Protestant Reformation, the April 2013 cover story of Time magazine heralded the Latino Reformation. After 500 years of religious contact, conflict, and conversions throughout the Americas, Latin Americas northernmost nation, “Latino USA,” is experiencing unprecedented religious patterns. Latinxs, now comprising the largest ethnic minority group in the United States, are largely responsible for the new expressions of Abrahamic religious traditions in the country. This course is a historical survey of the growing and diverse Latin American and United States Latinx religious experiences. The chronology of the course will begin with pre-contact Indian religions and cultures, then follow with an examination of Iberian Catholic and Indian contact cultures, the religious aspects of independence and revolutions in Latin America, Catholic and Protestant migration into the United States, and the negotiation and representation of Latino religions identities today. 

Omitted 2018-19. Post Doctoral Fellow Barba.

2023-24: Not offered

232 The “Stuff” of U.S. Religion: Material and Visual Approaches

Mid-twentieth century pioneer televangelist and prominent radio preacher, Oral Roberts, would adjure those under the sound of his voice to establish a “point of contact.” The large majority of those under his voice would then proceed to “reach out” and place their hands on the radio. Most of his “audience” tuned in without attending his revival services. From radios, bound scriptural texts, bells, incense, drums, clothing, and human bodies, at the center of observable religious practices is an interaction between humans and the objects they use to make sacred utterances legible and meaningful. In this course we will consider the material aspects that have distinguished religion in the United States. Steady streams of immigrants have introduced new sacred objects to the world of material religion in the United States. By hewing closely to a chronological flow of events in United States history, we will examine how social, technological, and theological shifts have altered the world of material religion.

Omitted 2018-19. Post-Doctoral Fellow Barba.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2019

238 African-American Religious History

(Offered as RELI 238 and BLST 238 [US]) A study of African-American religion, from the time of slavery to the present, in the context of American social, political, and religious history. Consideration will be given to debates concerning the "Africanity" of black religion in the United States, to the role of Islam in African-American religious history, and to the religious impact of recent Caribbean immigration. The major emphasis throughout the course, however, will be on the history of African-American Christianity in the United States. Topics covered will include the emergence of African-American Christianity in the slavery era, the founding of the independent black churches (especially the AME church) and their institutional development in the nineteenth century, the predominant role of the black Baptist denominations in the twentieth century, the origins and growth of black Pentecostalism, the increasing importance of African-American Catholicism, the role of the churches in social protest movements (especially the civil rights movement) and electoral politics, the changing forms of black theology, and the distinctive worship traditions of the black churches.

Omitted 2018-19.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2013, Fall 2014, Fall 2017

240 Religion on the Move: Religion and Migration in North America

Little Syria in Manhattan, Crypto-Jewish homes in New Mexico, colonias Mormonas in northern Mexico, a Gurdwara deep in the crop-combed fields of California, and Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Church (the vocal antechamber of Aretha Franklin’s #1 hit you might know as “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”) seem to have little in common. However, a historical examination of such sites reveals that they share basic social building blocks, shaped under similar push and pull factors. This course is concerned with the ways in which migrant groups have altered the religious landscape of North America and how they innovatively reproduce practices from their places of origin. Our main focus will be on the ramifications of religious movement within the U.S.; however, we will also explore migrations that have shaped the continent. Crossing into the U.S. from the eastern seaboard, the Pacific Rim, and the southern border with Mexico, migrants bring their new ways of creating sacred space and negotiating religious life. We will seek to understand the multifaceted relationships between religion and migration. How have migrants negotiated the role of religion in their private and public lives? What have been the social consequences pertaining to gender, praxis, politics, and respectability? The course takes into account migrations prior to the twentieth century in order to understand regional cultures within the U.S. Additionally, case studies in this course will draw heavily from the third wave of American immigration, characterized by twentieth-century “internal migrations” of African Americans, Latinas/os, Native Americans, and rural dwellers into the urban environments. We will conclude by examining the ways in which forces of modern globalization have changed the nature of religious diversity in the U.S. We will extensively compare migrant cultures as we interrogate power and privilege pertaining to race and religion. The cultural production of these migrant groups under study will bring to the class an empathetic understanding of diverse cultures and their forms of belonging.

Omitted 2018-19. Post-doctoral Fellow Barba.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2018, Spring 2020

267 Reading the Rabbis

We will explore Rabbinic world-views through the close reading of halakic (i.e., legal) and aggadic (i.e., non-legal) texts from the Midrashim (the Rabbis’ explanations, reformulations, and elaborations of Scripture) the Mishnah, and the Talmud. Employing an interdisciplinary methodology, which draws upon the tools of folklorists, anthropologists, students of comparative literature, and students of religion, we will examine diverse subjects of concern to the Rabbis ranging from human sexuality to the nature of creation, from ritual purity to the problem of unjust suffering. Topics covered will vary from year to year depending upon the texts chosen for reading.

Omitted 2018-19. Professor Niditch.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2007, Fall 2008, Spring 2012, Spring 2015, Fall 2016, Fall 2017, Spring 2020

273 Christian Scriptures

An analysis of New Testament literature as shaped by the currents and parties of first-century Judaism. Emphasis will be placed on the major letters of Paul and the four Gospels.

Spring semester. Professor Doran.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2009, Spring 2011, Spring 2013, Spring 2015, Spring 2016, Spring 2018, Spring 2019, Spring 2020, Fall 2021

278 Christianity, Philosophy, and History in the Nineteenth Century

The nineteenth century saw developments within Western scholarship that profoundly challenged traditional understandings of Christianity. Immanuel Kant’s critical philosophy had thrown the enterprise of theology into doubt by arguing that knowledge of anything outside space and time is impossible. During the same period, the growing awareness of Christianity’s history and the emerging historical-critical study of the Bible brought into prominence the variability and contingency of the Christian tradition. Particularly in Germany, Christian intellectuals were to wrestle intensely with the problem of knowledge of God and the authority of tradition during this period. Should Christians adapt their understandings of fundamental points of Christian doctrine to advances in historical scholarship? Did developments within philosophy require the abandonment of reliance on claims about the nature of reality, and of human existence, which had been seen as essential to Christianity? This course will be devoted to tracking these discussions. Some of the authors to be treated are Kant, Schleiermacher, Hegel, Strauss, Kierkegaard, Newman, von Harnack, and Schweitzer.

Omitted 2018-19. Professor A. Dole.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2013, Fall 2017, Fall 2020, Fall 2023

287 Islamic Intellectual Tradition: The Classics

(Offered as RELI 287 and ASLC 287)  In this course we will study the foundational texts that were composed within the intellectual traditions of Islam (800–1200) and which have stimulated intellectual discourse in Islamic cultures until today. Our primary goal will be to understand the nature and significance of the debates that took place within pre-modern Islamic societies and to grasp the issues at stake in them.

We will discuss the ways that Muslim intellectuals responded to specific philosophical questions: How did the universe come into being? Does it have a beginning? What is the nature of the soul? Is there an afterlife? Further, we will explore the way that prophecy, dreams, prayer, miracles, magic, and sacred objects—all of which were part of the social reality of Islamic societies—were explained using “reasoned” arguments and concepts. We will discuss the theories of language and revelation that Muslims developed to explain the Qur’an: What does it mean to receive revelation from a supernatural agent? And we will discuss the controversies that surrounded heresy and apostasy: Who counts as a heretic or an unbeliever and why?

In the course of examining the above issues, we will be attentive to the social and political forces that shaped intellectual activity in Islamic culture by considering the cross-cultural migration of ideas. We will study the ways that philosophical and scientific knowledge migrated from ancient Greece to Islamic lands, and the ways that such knowledge was refined, altered, interpreted, and advanced. Further, we will examine the process through which such knowledge was transmitted to western Europe and the ways that it stimulated intellectual activity there, leading to the Renaissance.

Limited to 18 students. Fall semester. Professor Jaffer.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2008, Fall 2009, Fall 2010, Fall 2012, Fall 2013, Fall 2016, Fall 2017, Fall 2018

318 The Problem of Evil

(Offered as RELI 318 and PHIL 229). If God is omnibenevolent, then God would not want any creature to suffer evil; if God is omniscient, then God would know how to prevent any evil from occurring; and if God is omnipotent, then God would be able to prevent any evil from occurring. Does the obvious fact that there is evil in the world, then, give us reason to think that there is no such God? Alternatively: if an omnibenevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent God does exist, then what could possibly motivate such a God to permit the existence of evil? This course will survey classical and recent philosophical discussions of these questions. Topics will include the classical free-will defense, Ockhamism and Molinism (positions on divine foreknowledge), the "soul-making" defense, the "no-defense defense," and open theism. We will read works by Augustine of Hippo, J. L. Mackie, Nelson Pike, John Hick, Peter Van Inwagen, Steve Wykstra, Marilyn Adams, and others.

Fall Semester. Professor A. Dole.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2010, Spring 2015, Fall 2018

322 Religion, Empires, and Secular States in the Nineteenth Century

(See HIST 319)

325 Spirit Possession

(Offered as REL 325 and BLST 375) Why channel the spirits of the dead? What does it mean to be possessed? In this course, we’ll explore mediumship and exorcism practices in the Atlantic World from the early modern period to today. Through case studies that include Haitian Vodou in Brooklyn, Umbanda in Brazil, and Palo Monte in Cuba, we will take a broad look at the different ritual practices that fall under the academic category of spirit possession. We will consider the questions that spirit possession raises about race, gender, and sexuality, particularly in the contemporary context. We will also ask more fundamental questions: why have outsiders commonly described the spirits’ presence in terms of possession—a term rarely used by practitioners themselves—and how does the trope of the possessed person serve as a foil for the construction of the autonomous (i.e., self-possessed) modern subject?

Spring semester. Visiting Assistant Professor Amoruso.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2019

372 The Secret Jesus

Alongside the images of Jesus found in the canonical Gospels arose others that are less well known today but that were widespread in antiquity: stories about Jesus' parents, about his life as a young boy, stories of his non-death, enigmatic sayings and parables. In this course we will explore these images as found in the apocryphal Gospels and in the Gnostic writings, and read closely the cryptic sayings of Jesus. We will also examine the images of Jesus in early Christian art.

Limited to 30 students. Omitted 2018-19. Professor Doran.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2009, Fall 2012, Fall 2016

385 The Qur'ān and Its Controversies

(Offered as RELI 385, ASLC 385 and ENGL 301) Islam is a religion with over one billion adherents across the globe. The Qur'ān and Prophetic Traditions inform Muslim belief, socio-religious practices and rituals. They are the foundation of Islamic law and ethics; the main inspiration behind Islamic mysticism and arts; and motivations for Islamic piety. The Qur'ān has served as a model for theories of the Islamic state, fundamentalism and ideology. As one of the most widely read and recited books in the history of humankind, it has given rise to a tradition of interpretation that spans well over a thousand years and encompasses commentaries composed in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Urdu, Malay, Javanese, and Swahili. We will study the Qur'ān’s thought world, including its major ideas, themes and symbols; the Qur'ān’s literary style and structure; the Qur'ān’s engagement with Jewish and Christian traditions; the historical process through which the Qur'ān became the first Arabic book; the process through which it became a scripture vested with authority; and the divergent ways that Muslims have venerated and interpreted the Qur'ān. We will focus on several salient questions: How did Muslims try to explain the seemingly contradictory material within the Qur'ān? How did they try to explain the Qur'ān’s proclamation that it is of supernatural origin? What methods of reasoning, literary devices, and sources of religious authority did Muslims invoke in order to fulfill the need for scriptural interpretation? How does the Qur'ān conceive of itself as a scripture and of revelation? How does it engage with and respond to earlier scriptures such as the Bible?

Recommended requisite: One course in RELI. Limited to 18 students. Spring semester. Professor Jaffer.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2017, Spring 2018, Spring 2019, Spring 2020, Fall 2021

Departmental Courses

171 Images of Jesus

One of the most dominant symbols in Western culture, the figure of Jesus, has been variously represented and interpreted—even the canonical Christian Scriptures contains four different biographies. This course will explore shifts in the contours of that symbol and the socio-cultural forces at play in such changes, as well as debates about the understanding of the figure of Jesus. Beginning with recent films about Jesus, the course will turn to examine the biographies in the Christian Scriptures and the heated debate in the fourth century over the identity of Jesus as Son of God. We will then trace trajectories through the medieval period in the visual and audial image of Jesus. To conclude, we will focus on the "social" Jesus, that is, Jesus the capitalist and the Jesus of liberation theology, as well as on the feminine Jesus, for example, portrayals of Jesus as mother and bride.

Omitted 2018-19. Professor Doran.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2015, Spring 2016

239 Evangelical Christianity

Evangelical Christianity, or evangelicalism, eludes precise definition. As most commonly used, the term refers to a sector of Protestant Christianity whose historical provenance runs from the eighteenth century to the present day. Originating in Europe and North America but now a global phenomenon, evangelicalism in the United States has enjoyed periods of pervasive influence and times of cultural marginality—recovering in the late twentieth century a mainstream status it had seemingly lost. This course is concerned with the history and shifting nature of evangelicalism. Sometimes regarded as a monolithic movement adhering to a fixed set of traditional Christian doctrines and practices, evangelicalism has been throughout its history innovative, changing, and internally diverse. Sometimes seen as politically reactionary, evangelicalism has at times promoted recognizably progressive reforms. Sometimes seen as serving an ethnically and racially narrow constituency, evangelicalism has also shown a marked capacity to cross ethnic and racial boundaries. How are these seemingly contradictory patterns (or perceptions) to be understood? Over the course of the semester we will explore questions such as: How have evangelicals themselves attempted to define the "mainstream" culture in the various environments they have entered? How has evangelicalism handled racial and ethnic difference? How have evangelicals understood their place in the history of the world and of the Christian tradition?  

Omitted 2018-19. Professor A. Dole.

252 Buddhist Life Writing

(Offered as RELI 252, ASLC 252, and ENGL 302) From the biographies of Gotama Buddha to the autobiographies of western converts, life writing plays a central role in teaching Buddhist philosophy, practice, history, and myth. This course explores the diverse forms and purposes of Buddhist life writing in the literary and visual cultures of India, Tibet, Sri Lanka, China, Vietnam, Japan, and America. Reading the lives of eminent saints and laypersons, charismatic teachers, recluses, and political activists, the course aims to broaden understanding of how Buddhists have variously imagined the ideal life. We will pay particular attention to how literary and cultural conventions of genre guide the composition of lives.

Omitted 2018-19. Professor M. Heim.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Spring 2014, Spring 2018

261 Women in Judaism

(Offered as RELI 261 and SWAG 239) A study of the portrayal of women in Jewish tradition. Readings will include biblical and apocryphal texts; Rabbinic legal (halakic) and non-legal (aggadic) material; selections from medieval commentaries; letters, diaries, and autobiographies written by Jewish women of various periods and settings; and works of fiction and non-fiction concerning the woman in modern Judaism. Employing an inter-disciplinary and cross-cultural approach, we will examine not only the actual roles played by women in particular historical periods and cultural contexts, but also the roles they assume in traditional literary patterns and religious symbol systems. This discussion course requires participants to prepare a series of closely argued essays related to assigned readings and films.

Omitted 2018-19. Professor Niditch.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2009, Fall 2010, Spring 2014, Spring 2020, Spring 2022

352 Buddhist Ethics

(Offered as RELI 352 and ASLC 352) A systematic exploration of the place of ethics and moral reasoning in Buddhist thought and practice. The scope of the course is wide, with examples drawn from the whole Buddhist world, but emphasis is on the particularity of different Buddhist visions of the ideal human life. Attention is given to the problems of the proper description of Buddhist ethics in a comparative perspective.

Omitted 2018-19. Professor M. Heim.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2010, Spring 2011, Fall 2012, Spring 2015, Spring 2017, Fall 2020, Fall 2021

362 Folklore and the Bible

This course is an introduction to the cross-discipline of folklore and an application of that field to the study of Israelite literature. We will explore the ways in which professional students of traditional literatures describe and classify folk material, approach questions of composition and transmission, and deal with complex issues of context, meaning, and message. We will then apply the cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural methodologies of folklore to readings in the Hebrew Scriptures. Selections will include narratives, proverbs, riddles, and ritual and legal texts. Topics of special interest include the relationships between oral and written literatures, the defining of “myth,” feminism and folklore, and the ways in which the biblical writers, nineteenth-century collectors such as the Brothers Grimm, and modern popularizers such as Walt Disney recast pieces of lore, in the process helping to shape or misshape us and our culture.

Omitted 2018-19. Professor Niditch.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2009, Spring 2013, Spring 2016, Spring 2018

490 Special Topics

Independent Reading Course. Reading in an area selected by the student and approved in advance by a member of the Department.

Fall and spring semesters. The Department.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2011, Spring 2012, Fall 2012, Spring 2013, Fall 2013, Spring 2014, Fall 2014, Spring 2015, Fall 2015, Spring 2016, Fall 2016, Spring 2017, Fall 2017, Spring 2018, Fall 2018, Spring 2019, Fall 2019, Spring 2020, Fall 2020, Spring 2021, Fall 2021, Spring 2022, Fall 2022, Spring 2023, Fall 2023, Fall 2024

Senior Departmental Honors Courses

498, 499D Senior Departmental Honors

Required of candidates for Honors in Religion. Preparation and oral defense of a scholarly essay on a topic approved by the Department. Detailed outline of thesis and adequate bibliography for project required before Thanksgiving; preliminary version of substantial portion of thesis by end of semester.

Open to seniors with consent of the instructors. Fall semester. The Department.

Other years: Offered in Spring 2012, Spring 2013, Spring 2014, Spring 2015, Spring 2016, Spring 2017, Spring 2018, Spring 2019, Spring 2020, Spring 2021, Spring 2022, Spring 2023, Spring 2025

499 Senior Honors

Spring semester. The Department.

Other years: Offered in Spring 2012, Spring 2013, Spring 2014, Spring 2015, Spring 2016, Spring 2017, Spring 2018, Spring 2019, Spring 2020, Spring 2021, Spring 2022, Spring 2023, Spring 2025

Related Courses

BLST-210 Christianity and Islam in West Africa (Course not offered this year.)BLST-315 Myth, Ritual and Iconography in West Africa (Course not offered this year.)HIST-319 Religion, Empires, and Secular States in the Nineteenth Century (Course not offered this year.)