Religious Studies 205

RELN 205. Religion and Culture

Credit Hours: (3)

This introduction to the social-scientific study of religion examines religion in its cultural context. Topics such as church and state, religion and race, secularization, and religion and economics are covered through historical cases from around the world. Major sociological theories of religion are considered. This course has been approved for General Education credit in the Humanities Area of the curriculum.


Detailed Description of Content of Course

This course introduces students to collective religious expressions and social-scientific theories useful in understanding their forms and functions. Students enter the academic study of religion by considering the interplay between traditions and their cultural settings, along with pertinent classical theories and scholarly debates.

For the purposes of the course, culture is conceived of as an inherently pluralistic, socially constructed arena in which diverse, and often conflicting, universal human interests are simultaneously pursued. In this setting, religious agendas---defined by commitment to intangible, mysterious, supernatural forces--must compete with and/or accommodate typically more pressing social and material demands.

While other introductory courses in Religious Studies focus on classical texts and teachings--the ideals of founders and spiritual elites--Religion and Culture exposes students to the forms in which religions have been collectively lived and practiced at particular places and times. Research and theories from sociology, anthropology, and other social sciences frame recurring processes by which traditions accommodate and sometimes attempt to transform social realities.

The course is structured in a sequence of topics, each defined by the intersection between cultural realities (e.g., economic activity, government) and religious meanings, values, and institutions. General theories and cross-cultural findings relevant to the topic are reviewed, followed by in-depth historical case studies that illustrate, elaborate, and/or correct abstract models.

Particular topics and historical cases may vary. Generally, examples from American culture and religion, the case most pertinent and familiar to students, figure prominently. In past years the following topics and cases have been covered:

  • Religion and Government: The theocracy of the Islamic Republic of Iran; the separation of church and state in the United States
  • Religion and Economics: Weber’s thesis on the role of Protestantism in generating modern capitalism in the West; the effects of Buddhism on the Burmese economy; Religion and socio-economic status in the U.S.
  • Religion and Race: Racial oppression and religion among African-Americans
  • Secularization and Religious Revival in Modern Cultures: Japan; the United States

These topics provide occasions for consideration of broad issues and theories in the academic study of religion that continue to generate research and reflection, e.g., Marx’s and Durkheim’s theories of religion; the secularization debate.


Detailed Description of Conduct of Course

This is an introductory course in the subject of religion and the methods of Religious Studies. Accordingly, class time is predominantly devoted to lectures that present factual descriptions of religious life across cultures, and explications of related theoretical positions. Reading assignments will supplement materials covered in lectures.

Students are free at any time to ask questions for clarification and class discussion. To engage students more actively in the material, from time to time, the instructor may use in-class writing assignments and class debates in which students are asked to take a position on a theoretical issue raised by lecture and reading materials, e.g., Does freedom of religion in America threaten or undermine the existence of a common set of values necessary for society to function?

Short writing assignments provide another opportunity for students to approach course materials creatively. These may include research (using traditional and electronic media) on news items featuring interactions of religion and culture (e.g., incidents of Islamic terrorism). Students may also be asked to take a position in a controversy concerning the place of religion in culture that affects them as citizens (e.g., Supreme Court rulings on prayer in public schools).


Goals and Objectives of the Course

Upon successful completion of this course, students should be able to: (1) Demonstrate basic knowledge of Religious Studies as an academic discipline and selected aspects of the religious life of humankind; (2) Demonstrate, in particular, understanding of the relationships between religions and extra-religious social forces and conditions; (3) Engage in central theoretical debates in Religious Studies; (4) Demonstrate an understanding of religion in their own culture, in comparison with that of other cultures; (5) Demonstrate awareness of the role of religion in current events; (6) Attend class regularly and submit assignments punctually.

Broad General Education Goals

Successful completion of the course should help students meet the following broad General Education goals of enabling students to:

  • Think critically and creatively about ideas, issues, problems both within and across academic disciplines by deploying theories from various social-scientific disciplines to illuminate cross-cultural data pertinent to course topics.
  • Construct logical and persuasive arguments in research and position papers.
  • Employ a variety of research methods and styles of inquiry, including the use of quantitative and qualitative data.
  • Identify the personal and cultural values that shape decisions in public, professional, and private life, and assess the ethical implications of those decisions through the study of historical cases in which these values prevailed or were compromised.

Goals for Area 4. Humanities

A course on religions in their cultural settings serves the general purpose of the Humanities area of engaging students in fundamental questions about the meaning and value of life through the study of humankind in historical context. Further:

  • The interdisciplinary nature of the course, particularly its presentation of classical theories of religion, should enable successful students to demonstrate a basic knowledge of the nature and methods of inquiry in the humanities.
  • The focus of the course–how religious understandings of the world are expressed in cultural life–should cultivate in students an understanding of the importance of the human quest for meaning, value, and order in life.
  • The cross-cultural examination of religions will engage students in the analysis of different views of the meaning, value, and purpose of life.
  • Finally, units of the course that focus on religion in American culture should stimulate students to discuss the relevance of the search for meaning in their own lives.


Assessment Measures

Course grades will be based on class attendance and scores on exams and short writing assignments. Exams will require students to demonstrate mastery of materials presented in lectures and reading assignments. This entails knowledge of considerable factual information about various religions and cultures; understanding of social-scientific theories and theoretical frameworks; and the ability to apply the latter to new data not covered in class. In short, scores on exams will reflect the student’s achievement of several broad General Education and Humanities Area goals, including the abilities to:

  • Think critically and creatively about ideas, issues, and problems through lecture presentations and in research and position papers.
  • Demonstrate, in exams and writing assignments that cover theories and data of religious life, a basic knowledge of the nature and methods of inquiry in humanities.
  • Analyze, through lecture materials, exams, and writing assignments, different views of the meaning, value, and purpose of life manifested in different religions and cultures.

Writing assignments will vary, but generally will include:

(1) a brief research paper on the interaction between the religious commitment of a group and some element of their larger social setting, e.g., the clash between Branch Davidians and federal authorities; and

(2) a brief position paper in which students will take sides in a debate on the place of religion in American life, e.g., whether or not the "free exercise" clause of the First Amendment can and should be interpreted to protect Mormon polygamy. For the first type of assignment, students will select a subject of personal interest not covered in class, and will be graded on the thoroughness of their research, the organization of materials for the purpose of social-scientific analysis, the depth and subtlety of analysis (a critical application of theoretical models presented in class to the situation in question), and quality of writing. Scores on the second type of assignment will reflect the comprehensiveness, logicalness, coherence, and subtlety or discrimination of the argument; the incorporation of relevant historical considerations; and quality of writing.

Together, the assessments of these types of writing assignments will gauge the ability of students to meet the following broad General Education and Humanities Area goals:

  • Think critically and creatively about ideas, issues, problems, such as the relationship between governments and religions.
  • Construct logical and persuasive arguments for scholarly theses and ideological positions related to the place of religions in cultures.
  • Employ a variety of research methods and styles of inquiry, for example, the analysis of historical and statistical data.
  • Identify values that shape collective and personal decisions as manifest in historical interactions between religions and cultures around the world.
  • Demonstrate a basic knowledge of methods in the humanities through individual research and acquaintance with a range of theories about the place of religions in cultures.
  • Analyze different views of the meaning, value, and purpose of human life through exposure to historical expressions of major religions in their cultural settings.
  • Understand the importance of the human quest for meaning and value through exposure to historical situations shaped by religious interpretations of life.
  • Discuss the relevance of the search for meaning in their own lives through position papers on issues pertinent to the role of religion in public life that concern all Americans.


Other Course Information




Date Action Reviewed by
June 1991 Reviewed Charles Taylor, Chr.
May 1994 Course Information clarified Kim Kipling, Chr.
May 1995 Catalog entry revised Kim Kipling, Chr.
April 1998 Reviewed Kim Kipling, Chr.
April 1999 Syllabus Revised Kim Kipling, Chr.
September 18, 2001 Reviewed Kim Kipling, Chr.