Methods in the Study of Religion (HUMA 3803; Fall 2021)

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General Information:

Course description:

This course explores interdisciplinary approaches to the study of religion through an examination of a variety of methods.  You will learn how to:

  • Interpret human cultures using a range of tools from various disciplines, including history, sociology, anthropology, social psychology, gender studies, and postcolonial studies.
  • Explore cultural practices and ideologies in a variety of contexts throughout the world.
  • Analyze how modern preconceptions or assumptions of scholars and students affect the study of human cultures.
  • Confront difficulties with defining and studying “religion” in postcolonial contexts.
  • Understand the origins and nature of Religious Studies as an interdisciplinary field.
  • Learn how to critically analyze scholarly writing and argument.
  • Improve your writing and presentation skills.

Required Readings:

  • Linked readings (in pdf form) throughout the course outline below.
  • For book review 1: Brent Nongbri, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013). (ebook link; you will need to download gradually in installments of 115 pages in order to get the entire work).
  • For book review 2: Jonathan Z. Smith, Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990). (ebook link – you will need to download chapters 1-5 gradually in installments of 40 pages in order to get the entire work)

Other library resources we use for readings:

  • John Hinnells, ed., The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion, Routledge Religion Companions (London: Taylor and Francis, 2005) (ebook link)


  • Engagement and participation, including discussions in class and on course forum, as well as surprise quizzes at the start of class: 20%
  • Fishbowl team discussion for 15 minutes (students are marked individually): 10%
  • Article presentation, 15 minutes maximum: 15%
  • Reading response 1, due week 3: two pages double-spaced, 12 point font: 10%
  • Book review 1 (on Nongbri), due week 5: five pages double-spaced: 15%
    • Academic integrity quiz (link; must be completed before or with submission of assignment 1
  • Reading response 2, due on or before week 8 (choose a week when you are not in the fishbowl): two pages double-spaced: 10%
  • Book review 2 (on Smith), due week 11: five pages double-spaced: 20%

Important things to know:

  • Readings and participation: Read and study materials BEFORE meetings.
  • Penalties for lateness: Assignments are due at the beginning of class (hardcopy). Late submissions will be penalized by one full grade (e.g. from a B to a C) and a further grade for each additional day beyond the due date.
  • Academic honesty and plagiarism policies: Absolutely no form of plagiarism will be tolerated. Study York’s policies here and here.
  • Password protected files for the course, which are used under fair dealing provisions for the purpose of education, are for course use only and should not be redistributed in any form.


Key Questions to engage throughout the course in discussions, in article presentations, and in reading responses:

  • Overall, we want to think about: what is a scholar doing, how does she go about it, what tools is she using, and what are the results?  Also, where are some of the strengths and weaknesses in this overall approach?  What does the method do or not do?  In other words, while we are interested in what scholars studied or talk about, we are more interested in how they go about it, in the nuances of their procedure, and in what types of things come out of the procedure.
  • How would you describe the scholar’s approach?  What is the primary discipline in which a scholar is trained and how does that affect their approach?  What disciplines do these tools come from and is there interdisciplinarity?  E.g.: What is sociology, anthropology, ritual studies, postcolonial studies, etc?  What methods, tools, or approaches does a particular scholar take and what are the procedures involved?
  • What assumptions and categories are at work?  What theories or assumptions underlie the positions espoused?  What categories, concepts or terms are used and how are they defined (or are they defined)?  How self-conscious or explicit is a scholar about her stance, assumptions or the categories she employs?
  • What impact does the scholar’s position have?  How do the social and cultural settings of scholars affect how they approach their subject and what they do or do not see?  What position does the scholar view the world from and how does this shape both the methods and results?  In what ways may imperialism, colonialism and the postcolonial situation impact such studies?
    • What problems do these studies raise regarding our use of categories, particularly “religion” and the “religious”?
  • What theorizing is done?  How careful is a scholar in moving from the specific to the general?  How do they go about theorizing from case studies?
  • What does the scholar argue and is it convincing?  What are the principal aims of a scholar?
  • What kinds of materials or evidence does the scholar employ?  How does selection of evidence affect the results?
  • How does the approach of one scholar compare to others we have encountered?  What difference does methodology make for the results of what we find?  How does the scholar engage the findings, arguments, or theories of other scholars, particularly with regard to methods and theories?

Discussion schedule:

Week 1: Intro and discussion of distributed reading

Week 2: Sociological approaches 1 – Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) on religion as society

  • Readings (everyone): Durkheim, “Origins of These Beliefs (Conclusion),” excerpts (link); Ramp, “Religion as Durkheim Understood It” (short excerpt; link); Riesebrodt and Konieczny, “Sociology of Religion” in Routledge Companion (link – you may download the entire book as a pdf, since there are future readings from this book).
  • Documentary film in class: “Edward Said On Orientalism [1998]” (40 minutes; link)

Week 3: Framing our exploration of methods in the study of religion (with insights from postcolonialism)

  • Readings: Chidester, “Frontiers of Comparison” excerpt (link); Nye, “Decolonizing the Study of Religion” (link)
  • Documentary film in class: “Strange Beliefs – Sir Edward Evans-Pritchard” (53 minutes; link)

**Reading response 1 (2 pages) due at beginning of class: What problems do each of our articles from this week pose for our discussion of methods in the study of religion and for the relationship between colonialism and the category of “religion”?**

Week 4: Cultural anthropological approaches 1 – Evans-Pritchard (1902-1973) on “witchcraft” and “religion”

  • Readings (everyone): E.E. Evans-Pritchard, “The Notion of Witchcraft [among the Azande] Explains Unfortunate Events” (link); Pals, “Society’s ‘Construct of the Heart’: E. E. Evans-Pritchard,” excerpts (link)
  • Fishbowl team (four people who begin our discussion for the first 15 minutes of class):
  • Article presentations (only the presenter reads the article): Evans-Pritchard, “Sorcery and Native Opinion,” pages 22-40 only (link); Evans-Pritchard, Excerpts from Nuer Religion (link); Arens, “Evans-Pritchard and the Prophets: Comments on an Ethnographic Enigma” (link); Johnson, “Evans-Pritchard, the Nuer, and the Sudan Political Service” (link); Masquelier, “When Spirits Start Veiling: The Case of the Veiled She-Devil in a Muslim Town of Niger” (link)

Week 5: Cultural anthropological approaches 2 – Clifford Geertz (1926-2006) on culture and symbolic systems

  • Readings (everyone): Geertz, “Ethos, World View, and Analysis of Sacred Symbols” (link); Hackett, “Anthropology of Religion” in Routledge Companion, pages 144-153 and 159 (link)
  • Fishbowl team (four people who begin our discussion for the first 15 minutes of class):
  • Article presentations (only the presenter reads the article): Geertz, “Ritual and Social Change: A Javanese Example” (link); Geertz, “‘Internal Conversion’ in Contemporary Bali” (link); Geertz, “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” (link); Fox, “Why Do Balinese Make Offerings?” (link); Schlehe, “Concepts of Asia, the West and the Self in Contemporary Indonesia: An Anthropological Account” (link); Bacigalupo, “The Mapuche Man Who Became a Woman Shaman: Selfhood, Gender Transgression, and Competing Cultural Norms” (link)

**Book review 1 (Nongbri) due**

Week 6: Discussion of Nongbri’s Before Religion

  • Readings (everyone): Nongbri, Before Religion (ebook link)
  • Films in class “Sociology of Religion (Peter Kivisto of Augustana College)” (15 minutes; link); “Patocka Memorial Lecture: Peter L. Berger – Toward a New Paradigm for Modernity and Religion” (starting at 15:45, watching 1 hour; link)

Week 7: Sociological approaches 2 – New Religious Movements in modern contexts

  • Readings (everyone): Wilson, “The Cultural Context of Religious Deviance,” excerpts (link); Dawson, “Who Joins New Religious Movements and Why” (link)
  • Fishbowl team (four people who begin our discussion for the first 15 minutes of class):
  • Article presentations (only the presenter reads the article): Sedgwick, “Sects in the Islamic World” (link); Clark, “Japanese New Religious Movements in Brazil” (link); Trinh and Hall, “The Violent Path of Aum Shinrikyō” (link); White, “The New Cultus of Antinous: Hadrian’s Deified Lover and Contemporary Queer Paganism” (link); Feraro, “The Return of Baal to the Holy Land: Canaanite Reconstructionism among Contemporary Israeli Pagans” (link)

Week 8: Social Psychological approaches: Intergroup relations and processes of identification

  • Readings (everyone): Verkuyten and Yildiz, “Muslim Immigrants and Religious Group Feelings: Self-Identification and Attitudes Among Sunni and Alevi Turkish-Dutch” (link); Cherry, “Differences of Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation” (link) for some definitions to help you understand the main article by Jackson and Hunsberger, “An Intergroup Perspective on Religion and Prejudice” (link)
  • Short films to watch before class: “Introduction to Social Psychology (Prof. Brenda Major)” (5 minutes; link);  “The Science of ‘Us vs. Them’: Social Identity Theory” (13 minutes; link)
  • Fishbowl team (four people who begin our discussion for the first 15 minutes of class):
  • Article presentations (only the presenter reads the article): Saroglou, Yzerbyt, and Kaschten, “Meta-stereotypes of Groups with Opposite Religious Views” (link); Curtis and Olson, “Identification with Religion: Cross‐National Evidence from a Social Psychological Perspective” (link); Hakola, “Social Identities and Group Phenomena in Second Temple Judaism” (link); Esler, “Social Identity and the Epistle to the Galatians” (link); Harland, “Other Diasporas: Immigrants, Ethnic Identities, and Acculturation” (link to the entire book – find the chapter)

*Reading response 2 due by this date or before: Explain the methods that are the focus of the week’s readings.  What issues, problems, and solutions stand out in the articles you read? What sort of evidence is used in the article?*

Week 9: Postcolonial approaches, 1 – World Religions, Orientalism, and other problematic categories

  • Readings (everyone): Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions, excerpts (link)
  • Fishbowl team (four people who begin our discussion for the first 15 minutes of class):
  • Article presentations (only the presenter reads the article): Said, Orientalism excerpts (link); King, “The modern myth of ‘Hinduism'” (link); King, “Orientalism and the Discovery of ‘Buddhism'” (link); Kitiarsa, “Beyond Syncretism: Hybridization of Popular Religion in Contemporary Thailand” (link)

Week 10: Postcolonial approaches, 2 – Canadian and African contexts as examples

  • Readings (everyone): Niezen, “Learning to Forget [at residential schools],” pages 1-31 only (link); Settles, “The Place of Christianity in the Critical Debates of Africana Religious Studies” (link);
  • Fishbowl team (four people who begin our discussion for the first 15 minutes of class):
  • Article presentations (only the presenter reads the article):  Covington-Ward, “Your Name Is Written in the Sky: Unearthing the Stories of Kongo Female Prophets in Colonial
    Belgian Congo, 1921–1960” (link); Wallace, “Rethinking Religion, Magic and Witchcraft in South Africa: From Colonial Coherence to Postcolonial Conundrum” (link); Hirosue, “The Batak Millenarian Response to the Colonial Order” (link); Hafez, “Schools of Thought in Islamophobia Studies: Prejudice, Racism, and Decoloniality” (link)

**Book review 2 (Smith) due**

Week 11: Comparative approaches – Discussion of Smith’s Drudgery Divine

  • Readings (everyone): Smith, Drudgery Divine (ebook link)
  • Documentary film in class: “Dead Birds” (1.5 hours; anthropological documentary on the war rituals of the Dani tribe of Irian Jaya 1961-63) (link)

Week 12: Sociohistorical approaches – An example on the ancient context (me)

  • Readings: Harland, “Associations and Group Identity among Judeans and Christians ” and “Perceptions of Cultural Minorities: Anti-Associations and Their Banquets” (link to the entire book – find the chapters)
  • Fishbowl team (four people who begin our discussion for the first 15 minutes of class):
  • Article presentations (only the presenter reads the article): Esler, “Social Identity and the Epistle to the Galatians” (link); Sanders, “Gendering the Ungendered Body: Hermaphrodites in Medieval Islamic Law” (link); Sommerville, “Interpreting Seventeenth-Century English Religion as Movements” (link)




Fishbowl (usually at the beginning of class): For most weeks, four students on their own will begin discussion of that weeks main readings in their group with the rest of us observing quietly and, eventually (after 15 minutes), joining the discussion.

Article presentations (usually in the second half of class):  Focussing on what sort of approach or methods the scholar uses, explain the main arguments of the author while also demonstrating what sorts of subjects and sources occupy the scholar. (15 minutes maximum)

Book reviews:

Reading responses:

Ongoing participation expectations:





Ritual studies approaches

  • Readings (everyone): Grimes, “Performing Research and Teaching (link); Waterson, “Children’s Perspectives on Ritual and its Responsibilities among the Sa’dan Toraja of Sulawesi (Indonesia)” (link)
  • Fishbowl team (four people who begin our discussion for the first 15 minutes of class):
  • Article presentations (only the presenter reads the article): Bell, “The Basic Genres of Ritual Action” (link); Bell, “Ritual and Society” (link); Fischer, “Nationalizing Rituals? The Ritual Economy in Malaysia” (link); Burkert, “The Problem of Ritual Killing” (link); ; Turner, “Liminality and Communitas” (link)