299 – Theories and Methods in the Study of Religion

Monday 1:30-4 Gest 102, Fall 2017

Ken Koltun-Fromm
Haverford College
Gest 201
610-896-1026 (office); 610-645-8324 (home)
Office hours: Monday 4-5


This class will explore how scholars of religion have engaged the issue of religious authority. I have attempted to make sense of this complex methodological field by splicing it into six overarching rubrics: scholarly authority, religious and canonical authority, ritual authority, individual and communal authority, gendered and racial authority, and psychological authority. Each week we will discuss texts that open up these issues from within different theoretical and methodological positions, and within different traditions (although many of these texts still focus on Western religious practices, often their theoretical and methodological insights cut across a wide swath of religious practice). The goal of the course is to broaden and deepen our conversation on religious authority, and to appropriate that dialogue within our research.


This is an advanced seminar, and so it requires strong preparation and commitment to communal dialogue. Everyone must be prepared to discuss the texts in detail and with argumentative force. There are four primary requirements for this course:

  • Full and complete participation in class discussions. To participate you must be present (missing one class means missing a full week of classes), and to be present you must energetically engage your peers in discussion and debate.
  • Students will lead discussions each week. I will ask each student to sign up for one class to present the readings for that day in order to facilitate class discussions. This will most likely mean collaborating with one or more colleagues, and deciding how to move the class to a common set of issues and texts. You should plan to take about 15 minutes to introduce the material, and then continue to participate in the discussion throughout the class.
  • Preparing readings for class. I have left four classes open after Fall break for “Student Readings” so that you can engage all of us in your own research on religious authority. Here too you will collaborate with your colleagues to present material to the class. These readings might take the form of material that deeply informs your own thinking about religious studies, or it might continue some of the readings only touched upon in the weeks prior to Fall break. As you begin to explore your own intellectual interests, these readings will come into focus, but you must plan this out well in advance so that I can make and distribute copies for all.
  • Final paper of 15-20 double spaced pages. You will present a prospectus of this final project on Friday, October 23rd, and we will workshop paper drafts in the last few weeks of class.


Your grade will reflect the seriousness and intensity of your involvement in class discussions, your preparation for leading discussions and presenting new readings, and your final paper (that is, the aggregate of the four primary requirements listed above).

Haverford College is committed to supporting the learning process for all students. Please contact me as soon as possible if you are having difficulties in the course. There are also many resources on campus available to you as a student, including the Office of Academic Resources (https://www.haverford.edu/oar/) and the Office of Access and Disability Services (https://www.haverford.edu/access-and-disability-services/). If you think you may need accommodations because of a disability, you should contact Access and Disability Services at hc-ads@haverford.edu. If you have already been approved to receive academic accommodations and would like to request accommodations in this course because of a disability, please meet with me privately at the beginning of the semester (ideally within the first two weeks) with your verification letter.

Texts to Purchase

Dennis Covington, Salvation on Sand Mountain
Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety

All other readings are available for download from the course Moodle page

My Policy on Technology in the Classroom

You must bring all readings to class and be prepared to read, cite, and engage those texts in the seminar. Some of you may prefer to bring in computers or other technology to access these readings (instead of printing them out as hard copies). For those who wish to use computers or other devices in the classroom, you may not use those devices for anything other than engaging in and committing to the seminar. When we step into the seminar room, we become a community of intellectual learners, and this community requires commitment and attention. If computers or other technical devices interfere with that learning process then I will no longer allow those devices in the classroom. This means that if your use of a computer or similar device prevents you or any of your peers from fully engaging the class, then you will be required to remove your device from class. Only under special conditions, previously discussed with me, may you use a cell phone for communication in the classroom; normally these devices must be turned off or left outside the room. The basic premise is this: when technology enables intellectual commitment to the seminar, then we should use it; when it undermines that commitment, we should leave it alone. Please come and see me if you have concerns about using technology in the classroom.


Monday, September 4: Introduction

Monday, September 11: Suspicious Readings of Religion

Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its DiscontentsThe Future of an Illusion, Moses and Monotheism, 163-216 (find text here), “Michaelangelo’s Moses”

Monday, September 18: Situating: the Scholar and Practitioner in the Study of Religion

Dennis Covington, Salvation on Sand Mountain

Monday, September 25: Situating: the Scholar and Practitioner in the Study of Religion

Robert Orsi, “Snakes Alive: Resituating the Moral in the Study of Religion,” 98-118
Steven Prothero, “Belief Unbracketed,” 9-11
“Four Responses to ‘Belief Unbracketed’,” 16-18
Ann Taves, “Negotiating the Boundaries in Theological and Religious Studies”

Monday, October 2: Religious Experience

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, 26-52, 78-118, 127-165
Amy Hollywood, “Spiritual but not Religious,”
Martin Buber, “Divine Demonism,” 56-59

Monday, October 9: Ritual and the Body

Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety, 40-53, 118-188, 195-199

Fall Break

Monday, October 23 – Religion and Culture

Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, 1-46, 76-120, 255-260, 322-343 (some of these numbers are off)

Monday, October 30 – Religion and Culture

Clifford Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural System,” 87-125
Clifford Geertz, “Thick Description,”
Talal Asad, “The Construction of Religion as an Anthropological Category,” 27-54

Monday, November 6 – Ethnographies of Religion

Courtney Bender, The New Metaphysicals, 1-20, 56-89
Leela Prasad,
Jack Kugelmass, “Green Bagels,”

Monday, November 13 – How should we study Religion?

Jonathan Z. Smith, Imagining Religion, xi-xii
Jonathan Z. Smith, “Religion, Religions, Religious,” 179-196
Bruce Lincoln, “Theses on Method,” 1-3
Robert Orsi, Between Heaven and Earth, 1-18
Stephen Bush, Visions of Religion, 1-20

Monday, November 20 – Student Peer Review Workshops (AAR Meeting in Boston)

Thursday, November 23 (Thanksgiving)

Monday, November 27 – Lived Religion

Robert Orsi, David Hall (Lived Religion)

Monday, December 4 – Presentation of Final Papers

Monday, December 11 – Presentation of Final Papers