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Amherst College Religion for 2019-20

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 2019, 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.

2019-20: Offered in Fall 2019
Other years: Offered in Fall 2007, Fall 2008, Fall 2009, Fall 2010, Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2013, Fall 2014, Fall 2015, Fall 2016, Fall 2017, Fall 2018

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 2019-20. Professor Niditch.

2019-20: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2019

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 2019-20. Professor Niditch.

2019-20: 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.

Omitted 2019-20.

2019-20: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2019

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.

Omitted 2019-20. Professor M. Heim.

2019-20: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2013, Spring 2015, Fall 2016, Spring 2018, Spring 2019

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.

2019-20: Offered in Fall 2019
Other years: Offered in Fall 2008, Fall 2009, Fall 2010, Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2013, Fall 2014, Fall 2015, Fall 2016, Fall 2017, Spring 2019

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.

2019-20: Offered in Fall 2019
Other years: Offered in Fall 2007, Fall 2009, Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2014, Fall 2015, Fall 2017, Fall 2018

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.

2019-20: Offered in Fall 2019
Other years: Offered in Spring 2017

185 Orthodoxy and Heresy in Islam

In this course we will explore the past and present of Islamic orthodoxy—the authoritative prescription of the correct (T. Asad). We will examine pre-modern and modern Muslim authors and schools of thought that are engaged in establishing and prescribing normative standards of Islamic ideals and practice. In the course of exploring works of Islamic law, theology, philosophy, mysticism, Qur'anic commentary, and other genres that exhibit an “orthodox-izing" tendency (S. Ahmed), we will pay close attention to the roles played by political authorities and events, social and religious institutions and concepts; and to the ways that these motivate, shape, and guide Islamic discourse that is directed toward establishing authoritative truth. Our objectives are to address several principal questions. Can the emergence of Sunnism be interpreted as the development of orthodoxy? To what degree is Islam directed towards the authoritative establishment of an exclusive truth? Are Muslims perpetual and persistent orthodox-izers? How can interrogating “Sunni" orthodoxy and “sectarian” heresies teach us about how claims to authority are made and how truth is conceptualized in Islam?

Spring semester. Associate Professor Jaffer.

2019-20: Offered in Spring 2020

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.

Omitted 2019-20. Associate Professor Jaffer.

2019-20: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2015, 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 A. Dole.

2019-20: Offered in Spring 2020
Other years: Offered in Spring 2008, Spring 2009, Spring 2010, Spring 2011, Spring 2012, Spring 2013, Spring 2014, Spring 2015, Spring 2016, Spring 2017, Spring 2018, Spring 2019

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.

Omitted 2019-20. Professor Andrew Dole.

2019-20: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2008, Fall 2012, Fall 2014, Fall 2016, Fall 2018

220 Christianity and Islam in West Africa

(Offered as BLST 210 [A] HIST 210 [AF] and RELI 220) The course will examine the transformative impact of Christianity and Islam on West African societies since the wave of Muslim reformist movements and Christian evangelical movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The central question of the course will revolve around the idea that Muslim and Christian movements are essential to the transformation of West African societies during these critical centuries in West African history. Although course lectures and discussions will examine broad religious currents throughout West Africa, the course will focus on in-depth case studies on Nigerian, Ghana, and Senegal - three countries where Islam and Christianity profoundly transformed state-society relations from the eighteenth century to the twenty-first century.

Fall semester. Professor Vaughan.

2019-20: Offered in Fall 2019
Other years: Offered in Fall 2017, Fall 2018

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.

Fal semester. Assistant Professor Barba.

2019-20: Offered in Fall 2019

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 and Professor A. Dole.

2019-20: Offered in Spring 2020
Other years: Offered in Spring 2014, Spring 2016, Spring 2018

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.

Spring semester. Assistant Professor Barba.

2019-20: Offered in Spring 2020
Other years: Offered in Spring 2018

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. This discussion course requires participants to prepare a series of closely argued essays related to assigned readings and films.

Spring semester. Professor Niditch.

2019-20: Offered in Spring 2020
Other years: Offered in Spring 2009, Fall 2010, Spring 2014, Spring 2016, Spring 2018

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.

2019-20: Offered in Spring 2020
Other years: Offered in Spring 2009, Spring 2011, Spring 2013, Spring 2015, Spring 2016, Spring 2018, Spring 2019

281 Muslim Reformers of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

(Offered as HIST 281 [TC], ASLC 282 and RELI 281) A study of eminent Muslim reformers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, hailing from diverse Islamic cultures and geographical locations including South Asia, West Africa, Egypt, Arabia, Iran, Central Asia, and the Ottoman Empire. We will examine ways in which religion intersected with social and political reform projects, explore thematic conversations among these reformers that transcend time and place, and look at ways in which many of these issues continue to resonate to the present day.

Limited to 25 students. Spring Semester. Professor Ringer.

2019-20: Offered in Spring 2020
Other years: Offered in Spring 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.

Omitted 2019-20. Professor A. Dole.

2019-20: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2010, Spring 2015, Fall 2018

330 Latinx Religion

(Offered as RELI 330 and LLAS 330) 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.

Fall Semester. Professor Barba.

2019-20: Offered in Fall 2019

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. Spring semester. Professor Niditch.

2019-20: Offered in Spring 2020
Other years: Offered in Fall 2007, Fall 2008, Spring 2012, Spring 2015, Fall 2016, Fall 2017

382 Islamic Intellectual Tradition: The Classics

(Offered as RELI 382 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.

Fall semester. Associate Professor Jaffer.

2019-20: Offered in Fall 2019
Other years: Offered in Fall 2008, Fall 2012, Fall 2013, Fall 2016, Fall 2017, Fall 2018

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. Associate Professor Jaffer.

2019-20: Offered in Spring 2020
Other years: Offered in Spring 2017, Spring 2018, Spring 2019

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.

2019-20: Offered in Fall 2019 and Spring 2020
Other years: Offered in Fall 2007, Fall 2008, Fall 2009, Fall 2010, 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

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.

2019-20: Offered in Fall 2019
Other years: Offered in Fall 2007, Fall 2008, Fall 2009, Fall 2010, Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2013, Fall 2014, Fall 2015, Fall 2016, Fall 2017, Fall 2018

499 Senior Honors

Spring semester. The Department.

2019-20: Offered in Spring 2020
Other years: Offered in Spring 2008, Spring 2009, Spring 2010, Spring 2011, Spring 2012, Spring 2013, Spring 2014, Spring 2015, Spring 2016, Spring 2017, Spring 2018, Spring 2019