Admission & Financial Aid

Admission & Financial Aid


Amherst College Courses

Amherst College Courses



Professors A. Dole, Heim (Chair), and Niditch; Associate Professor Jaffer ‡; Assistant Professors Barba and Falcasantos.

The study of Religion is a diversified and multi-faceted field which involves the study of both specific religious traditions and the general nature of religion as a phenomenon of human life. It includes the study of global cultures from the ancient to the modern, using the methods of textual, historical, anthropological, sociological, and philosophical disciplines. 

Major Program.

Majors in Religion will be expected to achieve a degree of mastery in three areas of the field by taking at least eight courses in the Department. First, they will be expected to gain close knowledge of a particular religious tradition, including both its ancient and modern forms, in its scriptural, ritual, reflective, and institutional dimensions. Second, all majors will be expected to gain more general knowledge of at least one other religious tradition beyond their area of focus. Ordinarily this requirement will be met by one or two courses. Third, all majors will be expected to gain a general understanding of the theoretical and methodological resources pertinent to the study of religion in all its forms. 

A religion major must take at least two courses at the 100-level, two courses at the 200-level, and one course at the 300 level in order to fulfill the requirements of the major. Among these, the Department strongly recommends Religion 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. Majors in Religion are required to take Religion 210, "What is Religion, Anyway?: Theories and Methods in Religious Studies," and the Department encourages majors to take this course early in their studies. The Department strongly recommends language study and study away where they are appropriate to the student's area of focus.

Courses at the 100-level introduce traditions and areas of study and are an ideal way to begin the study of Religion. Courses at the 200-level are also open and accessible to students new to the academic study of Religion; these focus on the study of a particular theme across religious traditions or they offer deeper engagements within a particular tradition, region, or time period. Courses at the 300-level are in-depth research seminars, close readings of particular figures, texts, or schools, or courses with a specific cross-disciplinary focus.

Courses on religion in related fields (including Five College courses and Study Away programs) may count toward the major in Religion only if approved by the student's departmental advisor as part of a course of study designed to cover the three areas described above. 

All majors are required early in the second semester of the senior year to take a comprehensive examination. This examination is 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. The exam topic--a theoretically provocative work on some aspect of religious studies--will be distributed to seniors before winter break. A critical review of 2000 words will be due by early February, and a meeting will be scheduled later that month for seniors and department faculty to discuss the topic and the senior essay. Please see the chair of the department with questions.

Departmental Honors Program.

Honors in Religion consists of all of the requirements for the major as well as the proposal, completion, and oral defense of a thesis, and satisfactory fulfillment of the general Honors requirements of the College. A student in the Honors Program in Religion will also register for Religion 498 in the fall semester and Religion 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 2021-22.

111 Introduction to Religion

This year's theme for comparative religion is “The End of the World” in Judaism and Christianity. The course examines a particular theme to focus on ways that scholars draw on contextual information to understand religious practices, ideas or beliefs, artifacts, institutions, and symbols.  Jewish and Christian ideas of an end-time apocalypse offer a particularly rich matrix for comparative work. Recurring motifs variously applied and understood include expectations of cataclysm, judgment, and new creation, and definitions of the blessed saved and the irrevocably condemned. Our study will include a trajectory from ancient to contemporary sources and draw from a variety of relevant media, historical moments, and popular cultural movements.

Fall semester. Professors Barba 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

114 Religion in Action

(Formerly offered as RELI-205/ANTH-212) Anthropology of Religions)

What does it mean to study religion from an anthropological perspective? Not so long ago, anthropologists had a clear answer. To study religion was to investigate all manner of beliefs and practices related to the supernatural or the sacred. However, in recent years, the category “religion” has been rethought in light of the term’s specific Western history, normative tendencies, and role in colonialism. The course will begin with a review of prominent efforts within anthropology to theorize religion. It will then take up these new conceptions of religion that encourage us to think differently about the ongoing role of religion in politics, the entanglements of race and religion, and secular life’s own religious roots.

Limited to 20 students. January term. Professor Girard.

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

120 Sacred Sound

(See MUSI 123)

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.

Omitted 2021-22. 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.

Omitted 2021-2022. 

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

129 Research and Writing on Religion: Archival and Ethnographic Fieldwork

(Offered as ANTH 208 and REL 129) This course offers students an introduction to the practice of studying and writing about religious communities, past and present. Students will engage in two primary modes of research: archival and ethnographic, both of which will require field trips to research sites such as religious communities, archival collections, cultural preservation sites (e.g., museums and exhibits), and places that ostensibly aren't religious but indeed convey religious meaning. Before engaging in any of these practices, students will become conversant with these methods of research by reading and writing on the practices of the interdisciplinary field and through conversations with scholars who perform this kind of work. The combined method of ethnography and archival investigations will prepare students to write a final research paper on particular religious community by using these two methods and paying close attention to social dynamics and material cultures that convey religious meaning. Students will also learn to interrogate "silences" in the archives and the centers of knowledge production. New England offers ample opportunities for this kind of work on religious communities.

Omitted 2021-22. Professor Barba.

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

130 Latinx Religion

(Offered as RELI 130and LLAS 130) 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, “Latino USA” is undergoing unprecedented religious transformations. 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 U.S. 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, Catholic and Protestant migrations into the U.S., and the negotiation and representation of Latinx religious identities today.

Spring semester. Assistant Professor Barba.

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

134 Religious Traditions in America:  A History of Communities and Their Scriptures

(Offered as RELI 134 and AMST 246) This course offers a historical introduction to several of the major religious traditions in America. To unpack the vast diversity of “religious traditions” in America, this course will take two approaches. First it will map out the roots and routes of “communities” including, but not limited to, Jews, Catholics, Buddhists, Protestants, Muslims, and various “American Originals” such as Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, Latter Day Saints (Mormons), and Pentecostals. We will also read the “scriptures” that communities have produced, that is, the primary source literature essential to their understanding of their place among the religious traditions of America and the interpretations offered by historians. First-year students are especially welcome.

Omitted 2021-22. Assistant Professor Barba.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2020, Fall 2024

135 Race and Religion in the U.S. West/Mexico Borderlands

(Offered as REL 135, AMST 231, HIST 135 and LLAS 135) One historian aptly described the U.S. West as “one of the greatest meeting places on the planet." The region is a site of cultural complexity where New Mexican Penitentes maintained a criminalized sacred order, an African American holiness preacher forged the global Pentecostal movement, Native Americans staked out legal definitions and practices of "religion," Asian immigrants built their first Buddhist and Sikh temples in the face of persecution, and dispossessed Dust Bowl migrants (in the spirit of the Joad family in John Steinbeck’s novel the Grapes of Wrath) arrived and imported no-nonsense southern Baptist and Pentecostal sensibilities. Until recently, standard surveys of religious history in North America have devoted minimal attention to the distinctive role of religion in the American West and the region's shifting border, having largely focused rather on religious history in the flow of events westward from Massachusetts’s Puritan establishment. In this historical survey, we examine the contours of religion by taking into account new "sights," "cites," and "sites" of race, class, and gender in order to deconstruct and reconstruct the larger incomplete meta-narrative. First-year students are especially welcome. No prerequisites are necessary. 

Limited to 20 students. Omitted 2021-22.  Assistant Professor Barba.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2021, Spring 2025

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.

Classes will meet in person on campus.  Remote students will either attend class sessions by videochat or will have access to audio recordings of class meetings.  All students, local and remote, will have access to pre-recorded video content.  Local and remote students may be asked to prepare brief presentations on assigned readings to be delivered either in person or by prerecorded video.

Omitted 2021-22. 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.

Spring 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. 

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.”

Fall semester. Professor A. Dole.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2023

174 Becoming Christian in the Ancient World

As of 2015, 2.3 billion people—over 31% of the world’s population—identified as Christian (according to the Pew Research Center). But this population includes remarkable diversity, and what “looks Christian” in one region does not necessarily “look Christian” in another. How can one tell what religion someone is? What does it mean to become or to identify as Christian? And who gets to decide what “authentic” Christianity is? This course approaches these questions by looking to the past: by studying the origins of Christianity and its spread from a small part of the eastern Mediterranean to North Africa, Europe, and Asia from the late second through seventh century C.E. We will explore the development and variety of Christian groups within their historical contexts, including their religious, political, and social circumstances. Topics will include martyrdom, pilgrimage, material religion (including relics), monasticism, theological disputes, and religious conflict. 

Spring semester. Assistant Professor Falcasantos.

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

178 Christian Scriptures

This course is a critical introduction to the literature of the earliest Christians, including the New Testament and so-called Christian apocrypha, and to the academic approaches to this literature. The distinctive concerns and literary features of individual texts will be studied in the contexts of the historical development of early Christian communities and the surrounding cultures of the Roman Mediterranean. Our focus throughout will be on the variety of interpretations of Christian scriptures as Christians encountered new social circumstances and theological developments. The course emphasizes careful reading of ancient Christian texts using a variety of methods of scholarly analysis.

Fall semester. Assistant Professor Falcasantos.

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

220 Christianity and Islam in Africa

(See BLST 210)

229 The Virgin Mary: Image, Cult, Syncretism (ca. 400-1700)

(See HIST 229)

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.” Many 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 (photographs, inanimate objects, clothing, film, etc.) 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 U.S. By hewing closely to a chronological flow of events in U.S. history, we will examine how social, technological, and theological shifts have altered the world of material religion.

Omitted 2021-22. Assistant Professor Barba.

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

234 The Sanctuary Movement: Religion, Activism, and Social Contestation

(Offered as REL 234, AMST 234 and LLAS 234) From sanctuary cities and states to sanctuary campuses and churches, declarations of sanctuary sites have swept the nation in recent years. The U.S. Sanctuary Movement, established in 1982 to harbor Central American asylum seekers fleeing civil wars, has today assumed broader social implementations in the New Sanctuary Movement. Beginning with an examination of antecedents to the U.S. Sanctuary Movement in global contexts, this course will offer students an in-depth study of the Sanctuary Movement since the 1980s with special attention to the New Sanctuary Movement which is active today throughout the country.  

No prerequisites necessary. Limited to 20 students. 

Omitted 2021-22. Assistant Professor Barba.

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

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?

Spring semester. Assistant Professor Barba.

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

(Offered as RELI 240 and LLAS 240) 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 2021-22. Assistant Professor Barba.

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

245 The Great Indian Epics 

(Offered as RELI 245 and ASLC 245) For over two millennia the two great epics of India, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, have filled the lives of Hindus with stories of heroes, war, gender, family, love, and honor. In many ways the epics constitute the cornerstone of literary and religious civilization in India. We read English retellings and translations of these huge Sanskrit epics exploring their ethical ideals and conundrums. We also attend to the literary artistry of these bardic traditions both in their original forms as well as later poetic and vernacular interpretations. The course can serve as an introduction to key values and questions of
Hinduism, as well as an entry into the classics of South Asian civilization.

Professor Heim. Omitted 2021-22. 

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2012, Fall 2024

253 Theravada Buddhism

(Offered as RELI 253 and ASLC 253) This course introduces the history and civilization of Theravada Buddhism. The Theravada (the “Doctrine of the Elders”) is the dominant form of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar (Burma); in recent decades it has also found a following in other regions in Asia and the west. We will trace the Theravada’s origins as one of the earliest sectarian movements in India to its success and prestige as a religious civilization bridging South and Southeast Asia. We will also consider this tradition’s encounter with modernity and its various adaptations and responses to challenges in the contemporary world. No previous background in Buddhism is required.

Classes will meet in person on campus.  Remote students will either attend class sessions by videochat or will have access to audio recordings of class meetings.  All students, local and remote, will have access to pre-recorded video content.  Local and remote students may be asked to prepare brief presentations on assigned readings to be delivered either in person or by prerecorded video.

Omitted 2021-22. Professor M. Heim.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2007, Spring 2011, Spring 2012, Spring 2016, Spring 2021

255 Buddhist Ethics

(Offered as RELI 255 and ASLC 256) 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.

Classes will meet in person on campus. Remote students will either attend class sessions by videochat or will have access to audio recordings of class meetings. All students, local and remote, will have access to pre-recorded video content. Local and remote students may be asked to prepare brief presentations on assigned readings to be delivered either in prson or by prerecorded video.

Fall semester. Professor M. Heim.

Other years: Offered in Fall 2020, Fall 2021, Fall 2023

265 The Rise of Apocalyptic and the Words of the Wise

A growing sense of alienation and a fear of disaster affect our daily lives as extreme weather events, superbugs, and political upheaval increasingly become part of experienced, perceived, or dreaded reality. We seem to inhabit a world turned upside-down. Among Jews, the period from the sixth century B.C.E. to the first century of the Common Era was comparable to our own in terms of mood and the range human responses. In this critical watershed period following Babylonian conquest, the biblical writers tried to make sense of and cope with the trauma of war, dislocation, forced migration, ecological disaster, and colonialism. They sought to explain the situation in which they found themselves, offered ways of coping, and expressed hopes for utter transformation so that the troubled world would be replaced with a new and better reality. We will read from the work of the great exilic prophets in the books of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah, examine some of the so-called “wisdom” traditions in the Hebrew Bible and Apocrypha exemplified by Job, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, and Tobit, and, finally, explore the phenomenon of Jewish apocalyptic in works such as Daniel, the Dead Sea Scrolls, 4 Ezra, and 2 Baruch.  The problems of these authors and their responses, which laid the foundation for critical themes in Christianity and Judaism, strike the reader as incredibly contemporary. Our work in this ancient material will be enhanced by relevant examples from our own times.

Spring semester. Professor Niditch.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2012, Spring 2014, Fall 2016, Fall 2024

275 The Body in Ancient Christianity

The body provides our first contact with the world and each other. It is also a tool of social formation and site of competition: meanings and ideologies are mapped onto the body through narrative, image, and practice. How does the experience of living, moving and breathing in a body affect the experience of worship, practices of Christian formation, and engagement with theological debates? How did ancient Christians understand this, and how do we?

This course explores these themes in the context of ancient Christianity (late first century through the sixth century). In our readings we will consider early Christian discussions about the connection between the body/flesh and the soul/spirit, as well as issues of embodiment (for example, dietary habits, education, ritual practices, and funerary care). We will also explore how the body featured within the politics of boundary formation, particularly in regard to distinguishing Christians from “Others,” to defining doctrinal orthodoxy, and to establishing hierarchies within Christian communities. These investigations require a close reading of our authors, but always with a view toward the world that informs the text and which the author of the text aims to shape. Consequently, our primary readings will be supplemented by secondary literature that provides historical grounding and theoretical perspectives.

Fall semester. Professor Falcasantos.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2021

276 Women and Religion in Greece and Rome

(Offered as REL 276 and SWAG 276) Girls playing the bear. Sacred virgins buried alive. Women starving themselves for God. How does each of these occurrences fit within the religious experiences of ancient women? What, if anything, can they tell us about women’s lives? This course explores these and related questions by considering the place of women within the religious frameworks of the Mediterranean basin from approximately 500 B.C.E. to 600 C.E. We will examine evidence for women’s religious practices from literary, material, and legal sources, as well as the intersection of religious polemic and discourses about gender. We will also discuss the challenges of reconstructing women’s lives and practices. To do this, we will utilize insights from various disciplines, including religious studies, sociology, gender studies, history, archaeology, and literary studies.

Omitted 2021-22. Assistant Professor Falcasantos.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2021

277 Religion and Violence in the Roman Empire

Literature from the later Roman empire abounds with accounts of heightened acts of violence between religious groups: Roman judges torture religious deviants; monks massacre banqueters and destroy temples with their bare hands; Christians clash with each other on darkened city streets; Christians attack Jewish synagogues and festival-goers. What about the late Roman world encouraged such violence? Were some religious groups more or less tolerant than their counterparts? Were incidents of violence primarily rhetorical, or do they reflect the real volatility of social interactions? How might the literary representation of violence be an act of violence itself or encourage physical violence? This course investigates the intersection of violence and religion from the third through the seventh century C.E., paying particular attention to questions of definition, legitimacy, and the interpretation of violent acts. As we explore these questions, we will engage with ongoing theoretical discussions about identity, violence, social performance, and boundary construction. Over the course of the semester, students will compile research portfolios that examine and analyze incidents of inter-religious violence.

Omitted 2021-22. Assistant Professor Falcasantos.

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

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.

Classes will meet in person on campus.  Remote students will either attend class sessions by videochat or will have access to audio recordings of class meetings.  All students, local and remote, will have access to pre-recorded video content;  all students will contribute to class discussion via posts to Moodle.  Local and remote students may be asked to prepare brief presentations on assigned readings to be delivered either in person or by prerecorded video.

Omitted 2021-22. Professor Dole.

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

281 Muslim Reformers of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

(See HIST 281)

283 Orthodoxy, Heresy, and Apostasy in Islam

(Offered as RELI 283 and ASLC 283) What is correct Islamic belief and practice? Is there such a thing? Who has been labeled a heretic, unbeliever, or apostate in the history of Islam, and why? How did Muslim “freethinkers” contest Islamic orthodoxies? We will discuss the ways that a wide variety of Muslim sects or denominations developed in the history of Islam. Our objectives are to examine how groups and individuals established, prescribed, or remade standards of Islamic belief and practice; and to examine how they faced the plurality of Muslim sects and other religions. We will pay special attention to the theme of salvation, which shaped the ways that Muslims classified sects and other religions. As we explore the above issues we will read from a range of Islamic discourses, including scripture, theology, law, and mysticism. All readings are in English. Open to all students.

Fall semester. Associate Professor Jaffer.

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

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.

Omitted 2021-22. Associate 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

288 The Lives of Muslim Saints

(Offered as REL 288 and ASLC 289) A study of the most venerated saints in the history of Islam. We will read from their biographies, poetry (paying special attention to the themes of love), and theoretical and literary works. We will examine how such literature discloses the dimensions of Islamic mysticism: rituals and practices (some of which were considered socially deviant), theories of the self/soul, epistemologies, cosmologies, and ontologies. We will examine the ways that Sufi theories and practices challenged other self-professed Islamic orthodoxies and orthopraxies. We will ask: what made these aspects of Islamic mysticism (often subsumed under “Sufism”) so appealing as articulations of Islam? To answer this question, we will attempt to grasp how Muslim saints understood their expressions of Islam in relation to the disciplines—especially law, theology, and philosophy—and to understand how their ways of being Islamic are meaningful expressions and interpretations of Islamic institutions, concepts, principles and values. In this course we will also engage with the theories that scholars of religion in North America and Europe have used to analyze and interpret the various dimensions of Islamic mysticism. In doing so, we will examine the ways that perceptions of Sufism (and Islam more broadly) have been shaped by European theories, paradigms, and methods of interpretation and discuss their value for understanding Sufism and Islam. No pre-requisites; first-year students welcome.

Omitted 2021-2022.

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

316 Philosophy of Religion 

(Offered as REL 316 and PHIL 219) Philosophy of Religion is philosophical reflection on matters that have traditionally been of religious concern, and on religion itself. Although philosophers have been discussing such topics for thousands of years, the period since the middle of the twentieth century has been particularly vibrant, with philosophers working within the analytic tradition producing a substantial body of literature on a variety of religious themes. This course introduces students to several major areas of discussion within this literature. Over the course of the semester we will discuss whether persons can survive death; God’s relationship to time; the issue of “religious belief” (the role it plays in religion and its rationality); and the significance of religious pluralism for religious adherence.

Omitted 2021-22. Professor A. Dole.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2009, Spring 2013, Spring 2016, Spring 2021

323 Religion and Conspiratorial Thinking

Conspiratorial thinking within evangelical Christianity has been much in the news over the past several years;  but this is only the latest phase of a long and broad history.  This course examines the intersection between religion and conspiracy theories from three different perspectives.  The first perspective is historical:  there is a specific history of within the West that begins with Jon Robison’s Illuminati conspiracy and over time identifies such groups as Jews, communists, Roman Catholics, and liberals as conspiratorial groups.  The second perspective is epistemological:  we will examine theoretical reflections on how conspiracy theories work, including how they deal with contrary evidence, and on the conditions under which subscription to a conspiracy theory can be rational or irrational.  And the third perspective is sociological:  we will examine how the acceptance of conspiracy theories can be strengthened or weakened by the dynamics of human groups, and how conspiratorial thinking influences group dynamics.  We will find that each of these perspectives makes visible a different mode of intersection between religion and conspiratorial thinking, the combination of which should do much to explain why the two are so often found in conjunction with each other within the historical record.

The course will require the close reading and understanding of challenging texts, engagement with the ideas these present in class discussion, and the written exposition of positions and arguments.  The final paper for the course will be a research paper on a topic of your own choosing.

Spring semester. Professor Dole.

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

350 Cool Buddhist Texts

(Offered as RELI 350 and ASLC 350) This course explores scripture, commentary, literature, and philosophy from the whole Buddhist world. We will seek the pleasures of encountering brilliant texts that have spoken to human beings across the millennia. The focus is on close analysis of primary texts, but we will also consider the historical and intellectual contexts in which they were produced and subsequently interpreted. All readings are in English translation, but we will also investigate the textual and linguistic worlds of classical Buddhist texts in Sanskrit, Pali, Chinese, Tibetan, and Japanese, and consider questions of translation. No prerequisites are required and the course is open to first-year students.

Fall semester. Professor Heim.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2021

360 Buddhist Stories from Modern East Asia

(See ASLC 360)

367 Reading the Rabbis

For the Rabbis of post-biblical Judaism, the Hebrew Bible was a sacred resource to be mined, interpreted, developed, and reapplied. This course explores the rich corpus produced in classical Judaism of the post-biblical period. We will explore Rabbinic worldviews through the close reading of  legal and aggadic or non-legal texts from the Midrashim (the Rabbis’ explanations, reformulations, and elaborations of Scripture), the Mishnah, and the Talmud and examine diverse subjects 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. There are no prerequisites required for this course.

Limited to 15 students. Omitted 2021-22. Professor Niditch.

2023-24: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2022, Fall 2024

370 Ancient Christianity: Authors and Texts

Early Christianity was not a stable idea or collection of practices; rather, individuals held a range of positions on what constituted orthodox teaching, ritual practice, and how to live in society. How, then, did ancient Christians understand what it meant to be Christian? How did they understand salvation? Could Christians be intellectuals, wealthy, or participants in public life? This course investigates these questions through the close study of an ancient Christian author, supplemented by scholarly literature to better understand that author’s life, work, and social environment. The author of focus will vary from year to year. For the Spring 2022, we will study the life and work of John Chrysostom, a controversial, but popular, bishop from the late fourth century C.E., who was expelled from his position partly because he challenged the behaviors of the rich and powerful in his city.

Spring semester. Professor Falcasantos.

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

385 The Qur'ān and Its Controversies

(Offered as RELI 385, ASLC 385 and ENGL 301) 

An exploration of several salient questions concerning the Qur’ān, the Islamic Revealed Book. How have Muslims explained the Qur’ān’s own proclamation of its supernatural origin and its miraculous quality?  How does the Qur’ān engage with and respond to the Hebrew Bible and Christian scriptures? Who has the authority to interpret the Qur’ān and why? These are just a few of the tantalizing questions that will occupy us over the course of the semester. We will also discuss the ways that the Qur’ān has been read as a work of law, theology, and mysticism, and how it has shaped theories of the state. Finally, we will isolate the Qur’ān from the Islamic tradition and explore the many ways that it can be read as a work of literature. 

All readings are in English. No prerequisites. 

Fall semester. Associate Professor Jaffer.

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

Departmental Courses

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 Heim.

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

261 Jewish Identity and MeToo: A Study of Women in Judaism

(Offered as RELI 261 and SWAG 239) Ranging from ancient texts to contemporary documentaries, we explore the portrayals and roles of women in Jewish tradition.  Sources include biblical and apocryphal texts; Rabbinic literature; selections from medieval commentaries; letters, diaries, and autobiographies written by Jewish women of various periods and settings; works of fiction; and visual media. An important thread in the course examines contemporary responses to and interpretations of classical sources, as writers and film-makers examine or refashion the tradition in the light of current challenges facing women in Judaism. 

Spring semester. Professor Niditch.

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

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 the 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