Study of Religion

Statue of Buddha

The concentration in the Comparative Study of Religion invites students to explore the most consequential and momentous questions relevant to the understanding of individual and communal human life. Undergraduates may also pursue a Secondary Field.

Director of Undergraduate Studies: Courtney Lamberth

Gateway Courses

Spring 2022

GENED 1087: Multisensory Religion: Rethinking Islam
Ali Asani

One need only walk into a church, a mosque, a temple, a synagogue or any place of worship to experience the beauty and aesthetic power of religion. For millions of people around the world, understanding of religion is forged through personal experiences, often embedded in the sound, visual, and literary arts. What does it mean to call some art “religious”? How can interpreting an individual believer’s engagement with the arts help us see “religion” in a new light?

Using Islam as a case study, this course explores the multifaceted relationship between religion and the arts. We will learn to listen, see, and experience Islam by studying Muslims’ engagement with the literary arts (scriptures, panegyrics, love lyrics, epic romances, folk songs, and folk tales), as well as sound and visual arts (Quran and poetic recitations, music, dance, drama, architecture, calligraphy, and miniature painting).  Weaving the voices of poets, writers and musicians with those of clerics, mystics and politicians, we will consider how the arts create a religious tradition and shape the worldviews of Muslim communities around the world.

Given the cultural diversity of Muslim societies, the course draws on material from regions beyond the Middle East, particularly sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia. This course assumes no prior knowledge of Islam.

GENED 1161: If There Is No God, All Is Permitted: Theism and Moral Reasoning
Jay Harris

For centuries in the West, Jewish and Christian thinkers (among others) have asserted that moral judgment is impossible without some concept of the deity. So convincing were they that one important character created by a Russian author of the nineteenth century was led to express the idea (if not exactly the words), "if there is no God, all is permitted." In more recent times some thinkers have challenged this assumption, and insisted that removing (or reducing) the role of God is indispensable to proper moral discourse. This course will examine the ways in which a concept of God has informed Western moral discourse, trying to help students engage the literature as they confront the basic question, why might one think "if there is no God, all is permitted?" and why might one think if there is a God human moral achievement is diminished or impossible. Further, we will examine ways in which the differing paradigms actually affect the moral conclusions we might generate.

Belief in God and denial of God's existence have each figured prominently in Western moral discourse. Arguments have been advanced that: autonomous human reasoning is incapable of arriving at moral truths without a supreme principle to ground the system (which is sometimes invested with "personality" and called God); that autonomous human reasoning can have no impact on moral behavior due to human failure that only God can "correct"; that autonomous moral reasoning is impossible, and morality can only be understood as the submission to the will of a superior moral being; that a concept of God is necessary to direct and regulate moral reasoning, but the actual confessional versions of theism are metaphysically implausible or impossible; that autonomous human moral reasoning is impossible with God, and thus only a-theism can lead to moral conclusions. This course will engage all these different themes.

RELIGION 16: Religous Dimensions in Human Experience
David L. Carrasco

What is Religion? Why does it show up everywhere? Using archaeology, religious studies and social thought, this course will study the major themes in the history of religions including ‘encountering the holy’, sports and ritual’, ‘crossing borders’, ‘sacrifice as creation’, ‘pilgrimage and sacred place’, ‘suffering and quest for wisdom’, ‘music and social change’, ‘violence and cosmic law’. Readings from Native American, African American, Latinx/+, Jewish, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu traditions. Focus on the tension between individual encounters with the holy and the social construction of religion. Readings from Gloria Anzaldua, Toni Morrison, Judith Sherman, Arthur Kleinman, Popul Vuj, Mircea Eliade, Michael D. Jackson.

RELIGION 47: Christian Ethics and Modern Society
Charles Lockwood

This course provides an introduction to Christian conceptions of conduct, character, and community, as well as contemporary disputes over their interpretation and application. What do Christian ideals imply for issues related to race, gender, religious pluralism, and secularism? How are Christian principles related to the ethos of liberal democracy and modern ideals of rights, equality, and autonomy? Readings and discussions will highlight a variety of contemporary perspectives and approaches to Christian ethics, and special emphasis will be given to moral and political concerns including race and racism; love, sexuality, and marriage; the environment; capitalism and consumption; abortion and euthanasia; and war and peace.

RELIGION 60: Topics in Religion and Literature: Narratives of Religious Conversion in American Literatures
Courtney Bickel Lamberth

Narratives of grace, lament, and conversion appear in multiple forms of American literature rooted in Christianity including fiction, sermons, first-person accounts, poetry, autobiography, and essays.  Violence and suffering are often central to depicting, describing, and imagining experiences of divine grace and conversion.  Through close reading of text in several genres, this course addresses these issues and considers, among other questions, the ambivalent and often paradoxical relationship between “freedom” and “slavery” in relation to divine agency and community in accounts of religious transformation.  Authors will include Jonathan Edwards, Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, William James, W. E. B. DuBois, Howard Thurman, Flannery O’Conner, Toni Morrison, and Annie Dillard, as well as selected secondary sources from the study of religion. 

RELIGION 1256: Gender and Judaim in Modern America
Ann Braude

Contemporary Jews are as likely to view their tradition as inherently oppressive to women as they are to see it as an inspiration to activism for feminism and civil rights. This course follows the construction of Jewish gender identities beyond the stereotypes, sometimes in collision with modern gender norms, sometimes in accommodation, and sometimes in open rebellion. It considers challenges to both demographic and cultural reproduction that place pressure on personal decisions, group dynamics, identity, and intergroup relations for members of minority religions. The instructor, an historian, and the guest interlocutor, Yakir Englander, will bring together historical accounts of the anxieties and opportunities that accompanied the construction of modern Jewish gender identities with halachic textual traditions opening alternative possibilities. Gender as a key marker of group identity forms a central axis of inquiry through three case studies: Jewish masculinities from Talmud study to military service and comic book superheroes; Ultra-orthodox communities, in which the rejection of modern gender roles is a defining marker; and, Jews as critics of gender and sexuality, including feminist and trans engagement with Jewish tradition. Guest interlocutor Yakir Englander will visit the class 3 times to introduce the project of reading classical Jewish texts in modern perspectives and the practice of havruta (text study in pairs or groups). A product of both a traditional yeshivah education and a doctorate in feminist theory, Englander combines these approaches to open the topic of gender and Judaism beyond Western academic approaches.

RELIGION 1599: Asian American Religion
Diana Eck

How "Asian" is America today? This seminar explores the Asian dimensions of American history, immigration, religion, and culture as immigrants have come from India, China, Southeast Asia, Korea, and Japan. When and why did they come to the U.S.? What forms of religious and cultural life did they bring to the U.S. in the 19th and 20th centuries? What opportunities and obstacles did they find here? How do Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, Buddhists of many lineages, as well as Asian Christian communities contribute to the religious landscape of American cities and towns today? How has Asia reshaped the collective identity of the United States from the first encounters of Thoreau and Emerson with texts and ideas of the "Orient" to the saturation of modern America with the holistic cultures of yoga, tai chi, and mind-body medicine?