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REL 111: Approaches to Religion

Professor Wendy Raver
Office: 1241 HW
Office Hours: Mondays 3-5 (2-3 dedicated to Horizons); Wednesdays 3-5; and Tuesdays 6-8 PM 

Approaches to Religion
Spring 2010
REL 111

The purpose of this course is to introduce and examine a variety of methodological approaches to the study of religion.  On the face of it, the field of religion is no different from other fields within the humanities, and to study religion should simply mean to reflect upon religious materials from a more or less objective point of view.  But the desired objectivity may prove quite elusive.  Many see ‘religion’ in the broadest sense as that which determines what reality is primary (i.e., what is ‘God’) and therefore establishes the context through which everything else is evaluated and analyzed.  Is a man best described as an individual? a parent? a citizen? a Westerner? an earthling? a part of the universe? a child of God?  It depends on what is deemed the essential reality, the basic context of understanding?  is it family? (as psychology states), society? (sociology), culture? (anthropology), the earth? (biology), the universe? (physics), existence itself or God? (religion).  Each analysis presumes an assertion of one context as more valid than the others;  each thus involves a faith of  sorts.  And to make matters even more complicated, these faiths are often unconscious on our parts.  So an analysis of religion through seemingly non-religious methodologies may be much more complex than it seems on the surface.

To help us find our way, this course will concern itself with significant approaches to the study of religion emerging in the past two centuries.  It is during that time that our global situation made available an abundance of religious materials for scrutiny.  The possibility of comparison has always been a necessary catalyst for serious reflection on religion and these two centuries prove the rule. Indeed, new approaches emerged; pioneer works---many still in one from of vogue or another---were written.  We will look at some of these.

Since students are not expected to be familiar with the data of any particular religion, we will begin with the theologian Paul Tillich’s broadening discussion of ‘religion as a dimension of depth in man’s spiritual life’ and then continue with the ‘history of religions’ approach (Eliade) that attempts a neutral description of the patterns of religious data of all ages worldwide.

With these as a descriptive base, we will proceed to the more interpretive approaches:  the sociological (Durkheim), anthropological (Malinowski), psychological (Freud and  Jung), and the theological (Otto) frequently applying various methods of analysis to one particular text:  a vision quest described by Lame Deer, a Sioux Indian, and various works of art.  After this we will consider a philosophical view (Tillich’s) that argues “faith precedes all attempts to drive it from something else because these attempts themselves are based on faith.”  And finally we shall look at two artistic expressions of religious feeling---Lao Tzu’s writing in the Tao Te Ching and Noguchi’s “Waterstone” sculpture asking how the methodologies we have studied relate to these. In the course of this course we will, hopefully, arrive at a better understanding of (and grounds for agreeing or disagreeing with) Tillich’s position.

Course Requirements:

1.    Reading:    The Assignment Sheet has specific reading assignments.  These must be read by the Monday of the week they are assigned.  You should study these works:  make notes; think about what is being said; bring in questions and comments for the class.  (I’ve listed some questions along with the assignments.  You should not consider yourselves prepared for class unless you can answer these and similar questions which will occur to you).

2.    Discussion:    Hopefully, this class will be conducted with a minimal of formal lecturing.  For it to succeed then (that is, for you to get anything out of it),  you must have done the reading carefully and have prepared yourself to talk about it.   We will have periodical in-class writing assignments to ensure that you are keeping up with your reading and to initiate class discussion.  These will factor into your class participation part of your grade.  Always come to class prepared and with the book we are reading at the time!

3.    Writing:  Aside from the in class writing, there are six short formal writing assignments.  These must be typed and submitted on time. Hopefully these will help you focus on key issues and advance your thinking about them.  (See the summary of papers required at the end of the assignment sheet).

Note:  You may re-write your paper for a higher grade, provided that it is turned in on time and re-submitted one week after the paper is returned. For the final paper, you may turn it in early to receive a preliminary grade and then re-write for the final deadline.  Late papers DO NOT receive this option.  Furthermore, all work MUST be submitted by the last day of the course. Failure to submit coursework does not guarantee an “incomplete” in the course, and may result in a failing grade.

4.    Exams:  There are none.  You are in effect taking exams during the semester by writing the required papers.

5.    Transition to College:  This course is a part of a program designed to prepare students for a successful college career.  You must complete the Horizons requirements (two tutorials and two classroom visits) in order to pass the course, and this will be factored into your class participation grade.   We will also be visiting several museums and galleries as a part of this course, and attendance will be taken.


Books for this course are available in the Shakespeare Bookstore.  Books required for this class may also be borrowed from the Hunter Library and/or from the little lending library in the Religion office itself.

Books to buy at Shakespeare:
        Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane
        Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life
        Malinowski, Magic Science and Religion
        Freud, The Future of an Illusion
        Jung, Psychology and Religion
        Otto, The Idea of the Holy
        Tillich, Dynamics of Faith
        Xerox packet of additional readings

Useful secondary sources you might wish to consult:
        Ivan Strenski, Thinking about Religion
        W. Richard Comstock, The Study of Religion
        Jan de Vries, The Study of Religion


Grades will be based on the quality of class participation and the results of papers and quizzes (if any).

The breakdown is as follows:

Class Participation: 10%
Eliade: 15%                    Freud or Jung: 15%
Durkheim: 15%              Tillich:  20%
Otto: 15%                      Museum:  10% 

Paper Submissions

All papers submitted in class ON TIME will be allowed a re-write, due within one week of its return.  If you submit your paper late, it will still be accepted but you have lost the re-write option.  You must hand in your paper in class AND through to receive a grade.

Turnitin Requirement:  All class papers will be subject to submission to, an online database that automatically scans papers for plagiarism (please see definition of plagiarism and penalties for plagiarism at the end of this syllabus). 

You must log into and create a password, and then submit for this course.  Our course is # 3038657    and its password is “approaches”

Students With Disabilities

In compliance with the American Disability Act of 1990 (ADA) and with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Hunter College is committed to ensuring educational parity and accommodations for all students with documented disabilities and/or medical conditions. It is recommended that all students with documented disabilities (Emotional, Medical, Physical and/ or Learning) consult the Office of AccessABILITY located in Room E1124 to secure necessary academic accommodations. For further information and assistance please call (212- 772- 4857)/TTY (212- 650- 3230).

Course Learning Outcomes

By the completion of this course, you will be able to distinguish multiple interpretations regarding the academic study of religion, and formulate and sustain a thorough and intelligent analysis of the material covered in the course though a series of assigned papers that are cogent, grammatical, logical, and appropriately referenced.

This course incorporates transition to college elements, which are marked as Hunter Horizon (H).  By the completion of this course, you will complete one library tutorial (Voila) and a Student Services tutorial (Drivers Seat), dates to be announced, and participate in two student services workshops (please see syllabus for these dates).

Remember, even if you are competing these requirements in another course, you will still need to complete them in this course. 

Approaches to Religion

First day of class:  Thursday, January 28

Week of February 1:     
Reading:  Tillich, “Religion as a Dimension of Man’s Spiritual Life.” (Xerox Packet)

Who is Tillich arguing against here?  What are their positions on the nature of religion?  On God?  What does Tillich think is wrong about their understanding of God?  How does Tillich define religion?  What does he mean by ‘spiritual life’?  What does he mean by ‘ultimate concern’?  How is it manifest in man’s spiritual life?  What does Tillich think of institutional religion and personal piety as commonly understood?  What do you think of Tillich’s argument?

Week of February 8: 
Reading:  Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane.  Introduction and Chapters I, 2. 

What does Eliade see as the primary characteristic of religion? What does he mean by ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’?  What does he mean when he says that the sacred equals power, reality, and being? What is the difference between cosmos and chaos?  Why can religious man live only in a sacred world?

Trip 1:  Rubin Museum of Art
We will be visiting the Rubin Museum of Art (Saturday or Sunday – see sign up) in order to view the Cosmos exhibit (and if time permits, Carl Jung’s Red Book).

Week of February 17  (note, no class February 15 due to President’s Day):
Reading:  Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane.  Chapters 3, 4 and Lame Deer.

How is time understood as sacred and profane?  What is the significance of the creation in terms of people’s later thinking about the world?  What does Eliade mean when he says religious man assumes a humanity that has a transhuman model?  What are the ‘gods’ for Eliade’s religious man?  In what ways is nature fraught with religious values for him? What is the religious presumption about the nature of the world?  How is this presumption expressed through ‘homologies’?  In what basic ways does the world-view of religious man differ from that of non-religious man? What are the key elements in Lame Deer’s vision? What is the purpose of this, and how does it fit Eliade’s framework?   

Writing: Eliade asserts that all religions speak of 1.  a sacred reality beyond this world, 2.  which manifests itself in our midst, 3.  to make itself known and to bring about a change in our reality.  Explain what he means and apply his understanding to an analysis of Lame Deer’s vision quest.  Required:  3-4 pages  Due:  September 22

Week of February 22:
Note:  Student Services Workshop will be held either Monday or Thursday! Attendance is mandatory!

Reading:  Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life:  Introduction (parts 1 and 2); and Book I, Chapter I (parts I, 2, 3, 4). 

Why does Durkheim feel it is important to study ‘primitive’ religion?  What does he mean when he says he is looking for the origin of religion?  In what way does he argue all religions are ‘true’?  What are the principal categories of knowing?  How do they originate in religion?  What does it mean to say religion is eminently social?  Why/how is society a reality sui generis? What is the relation of society to nature?  How does Durkheim feel we ought to study religion?  Is the idea of the supernatural basic to religion?  Where does it come from?  What is the purpose of religious explanation according to Durkheim?  What does he see as religion’s essential distinction?  In what ways does religion differ from magic?  What is Durkheim’s definition of religion?  What do you think of it?

Week of March 1:
Reading:  Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life  Book 2, chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, chapter 6 part 2, chapter 7. 

What is totemism? Mana? How is the totem the source of a clan’s moral life?  What is an individual totem?  A sexual totem? What is Durkheim’s understanding of the origin of the idea of totems?  How are they chosen? What do they symbolize? What is the significance of Durkheim’s assertion that God and society are one?  What do you think of his argument here?  Does Durkheim think that the faithful are deceived in their belief in the existence of a superior moral power?  Why does Durkheim say that religion is not a product of fear? 

Week of March 8
Reading:  Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life  Book 2, Chapter 8, 9, and the conclusion. Also Malinowski “Magic, Science and Religion”. How is society the ‘soul’ of religion?  How does Durkheim define soul, faith, reason?  What does he think the proper relation between religion and science to be? How does Durkheim’s position differ from Eliade’s, and how does Malinowski counter Durkheim? 

Writing:  Explain how Durkheim agrees with Eliade’s analysis of religion’s functions and show how he interprets them sociologically.  Show how Malinowski views Durkheim and what he offers in place of the sociological view. Then analyze Lame Deer from Durkheim’s perspective, as well as that of Malinowski.  3-4 pages.  Due:  March 15

Week of March 15:
Reading:  Otto, The Idea of the Holy pp. 1-65. 

Otto uses many Latin phrases.  Again, do not be frightened by these.  Concentrate on the points he is trying to make; consider whom he is arguing against; think of the intellectual milieu at the time this book came out.  What does Otto believe to be the limits of the rational aspects of deity?  What is ‘the Holy’?   The numen? the numinous to morality?  What other explanations of the relation of faith to ethics can you think of?  What do you think of Otto’s position?       

Week of March 22:
Note:  Student Services Workshop will be held either Monday or Thursday!      Attendance is mandatory!
Reading:  Otto continuation

Where does Otto find aspects of the holy?  What is its relation to art?  To music?  To written text?  How does Otto conclude his study?  Does it apply to religions outside his own?

Writing: How would Otto evaluate Eliade’s statement of religion’s functions?  Demonstrate Otto’s philosophical/theological approach by explaining how he would analyze the art viewed at the Rubin, and how his interpretation may differ from that of Eliade.  3-4 pages.  Due:  April 5.

Week of March 29
Spring Break!

Week of April 7 (note:  No class April 5):
Reading:  Freud, The Future of an Illusion. 

In what two aspects does Freud characterize human civilization? How are they related?  Why does he feel civilization needs to be protected against individuals?  What are the mental assets of civilization?  How do prohibitions operate?  What is the superego and how does it work?  What is the role of ideals?  What does Freud think is the principle task of civilization?  Why do people ‘humanize’ nature?  How does Freud think the gods have evolved?  How does he characterize religious ideas?  From what ground does he think they have arisen?  What is their psychological significance?  In what way does Freud think such ideas are illusions (and what does he mean by the term)?  What needs do they satisfy?  Should one believe in such ideas according to Freud?  Why should we keep religion; what is the alternative?  Is religion neurotic? What do you think of Freud’s argument? What sort of religion is he describing?  How does his position differ from Durkheim’s?
Week of April 12:
Continuation of Freud.   

Writing:  Freud would give a psychological interpretation to Eliade’s analysis of religion.  Explain Freud’ understanding here and then apply it in a Freudian evaluation of Lame Deer.  2-4 pages.  Due: May 3.  (Write this or the paper on Jung that is also due on May 3).

Week of April 19:
Reading:  Jung, Psychology and Religion. 

Jung also uses some Latin and Greek designations here to ‘set’ his terms; do not let these bother you.  Also, there are some specific sections in this book that are historical and deal with the specific derivation of certain symbols.  Skim these sections and focus on his ideas about psychology and religion.  What does the phenomenological method involve for Jung?  How does he define religion?  What does he mean by ‘numinosum’, by ‘psyche’?  How does Jung esteem the significance of dreams? What is the role of the anima/animus?  What does Jung see as the origin of basic religious ideas like that of God or the Trinity?  Does God exist according to him?  What errors in thinking of God does he cite?  What is religious experience here?  Compare this notion with Tillich’s.  What does Jung mean when he claims God became man? Is religion true for Jung?

Week of April 26:
Continuation of Jung and the psychological approach; also Malinowski’s “Myth in Primitive Society”.

Writing:  Explain  how Jung’s psychological interpretation of Eliade’s assertion would differ from Freud’s and show how Jung would interpret Lame Deer.  2-4 pages.  Due: May 3 (Write this OR the paper on Freud which is due on May 3).

TRIP 2:  We will be visiting the Met in order to view the Noguchi Water Stone, as well as art of Africa and Oceania (see sign up). 

Week of May 3
Reading: Tillich, The Dynamics of Faith:  Chapters 1-3

What is faith for Tillich?  How is it related to freedom?  How is the distinction drawn here between true and false faiths?  What do you think of this distinction?  Why/how is doubt implicit in faith for Tillich?  What is faith not?  What are symbols necessary to express faith?  What are symbols for Tillich? (How does this compare with other arguments you’ve read this semester?).  What does Tillich mean when he says God is a symbol for God?  Why is it meaningless, according to Tillich, to ask if God exists?

Week of May 10:
Reading: Tillich, The Dynamics of Faith:  Chapters 3,4,5,6. 

What types of faith does Tillich distinguish?  What is faith’s truth here?  What is the relation of faith to reason?  What is the life of faith?  What is the role of courage?  Of love?  Of community?  What do you think of Tillich’s position?

Writing:  Tillich argues that “faith precedes all attempts to derive it from something else because these attempts are themselves based on faith.” (8).  Explain Tillich’s point and then use it to critique the positions of two authors we have read this semester; then offer a rebuttal from their position.  This paper may be written as a roundtable discussion if you like. And, finally, how would Tillich consider the ultimate concern of Lame Deer? 3-5 pages.  Due:  May 17

Last Day of Class:  May 17. 

Museum Project: This can be done at any time in the semester, but would make more sense if completed toward the end.  Read the selection from Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching (XEROX) and think about it as a religious statement in light of the various approaches to religion we have read this semester.  Then visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art (at 82nd Street and Fifth Avenue) and contemplate the Noguchi waterstone in the Japanese galleries. Phone ahead to see what times that part of the museum is open.  Draw the sculpture.  Think about what religious message it might have.  Think what it and the Lao Tzu passage communicate about the nature of religion. 

Writing:  Discuss both the religious message and the medium of its expression in the Lao Tzu passage and the Noguchi sculpture.  What do they signify is the point of religion?  What is unique and irreducible about the way the artist (in this case a poet and a sculptor) approaches religious matters?  Can you gain any insights into what they are doing by virtue of one of the approaches to religion we have read this semester?  Or can you derive from them any criticisms of one of the  approaches we have read this semester?  2-4 pages, plus the drawing you made.  Due:  May 17.

Note:  You have considerable latitude in doing this assignment.  IF you would like to substitute another poem, sculpture, piece of music, painting, etc.  discuss it with me.

Summary of Writing Assignments
   Six Papers Required

1.    On Eliade  (Due September 22)

2.    On Durkheim and Malinowski (Due March 13)

3.    On Otto (Due April 5)
4.    On Freud  (May 3)
       On Jung (May 3)

5.    On Lao Tzu and Noguchi (due May 17).

6.    On Tillich (due May 17) 

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