299 – Theoretical Perspectives on the Study of Religion

Monday 1:30-4 VCAM 201, 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 have engaged the study of religion as both a theoretical concern and a methodological, scholarly practice. We will ask: what is religion, and how can we study it? How have anthropologists, sociologists, historians, philosophers, and others tried to isolate and study religion and religious phenomena? Along the way, we will grapple with accounts of religion provided by believers, skeptics, and critics alike. Each week we will discuss texts that open up these questions 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 about the scope and method of religious studies, 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. Each student will sign up for one class, sometimes in pairs, to present the readings for that day in order to facilitate class discussions. The format for these introductions will go like this: 1) summarize texts for that day (5 min); 2) show how you have annotated a paragraph (underlined, commented, jotted down notes) from the reading for that day (5-7 min); and 3) do a close, textual analysis of one paragraph that you find particularly important or confusing (5-7 min).
  • On Monday, November 20th you will meet separately as small groups of 3-4 to discuss and critically appraise your outline for your final paper. I cannot be present for class that day, but you all will meet independently to discuss your final papers. You will present a draft of your final papers on December 4th and 11th for peer review.
  • Final paper of approximately 15-20 double spaced pages.


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–simply the aggregate of the primary requirements listed above. Your final paper will be weighted quite heavily, but your class participation is an important component of your final grade.

All requests for extensions must first be vetted by your academic dean. If your academic dean believes your request is reasonable, the dean will then pass that request onto me for my consideration. However, seeking an extension for a final paper is a serious matter, and facing too much work is not an excuse for an extension.

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, please contact Sherrie Borowsky, Coordinator of Accommodations, Office of 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(s) 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.

Link to Class Blog


Wednesday, September 6 (7:30-10): Introduction

Monday, September 11: How should we study religion? (Ken)

Bruce Lincoln, “Theses on Method,” 1-3
Robert Orsi, Between Heaven and Earth, 1-18
Seligman, et. al., Ritual and its Consequences, 3-42

Monday, September 18: Situating the Scholar and Practitioner in the Study of Religion (James Levy and Lily)

Dennis Covington, Salvation on Sand Mountain

Monday, September 25: Situating the Scholar and Practitioner in the Study of Religion (Nick and David)

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”
Thomas Tweed, “On Moving Across,” 268-271

Monday, October 2: Orsi and Prothero come Alive (Rinpoche and James Forse)

Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety, 40-53, 195-199, 118-152, 153-188 (recommended)
Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, chapters 5 and 7

Monday, October 9: Religious Experience (Shirah and Tina)

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

Fall Break

Monday, October 23 – Religion and Culture (Ethan and Rachel)

Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, 3-21, 25-46, 76-120, 255-260, 322-343

Monday, October 30 – Religion and Culture (Vaidehi and Emily Brown)

Clifford Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural System,” 87-125
Clifford Geertz, “Thick Description,” 3-30
Talal Asad, “The Construction of Religion as an Anthropological Category,” 27-54
Kevin Schilbrack, “Religion, Models of, and Reality: Are We through with Geertz?” 429-452

Monday, November 6 – Ethnographies of Religion (Emily Chazen and Daniel)

Courtney Bender, The New Metaphysicals, 1-20, 56-89
Leela Prasad, Poetics of Conduct, 1-23
Jack Kugelmass, “Green Bagels,” 57-80
Kirin Narayan, “How Native is a ‘Native’ Anthropologist,” 671-686

Monday, November 13 – Alternative Movements (Joseph and Alliyah)

Robert Orsi, “Crossing the City Line,” 1-63
Dipesh Chakrabarty, “Minority Histories, Subaltern Pasts,” 97-113

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

Thursday, November 23 (Thanksgiving)

Monday, November 27 – How should we study religion? (Max)

Jonathan Z. Smith, Imagining Religion, xi-xii
Jonathan Z. Smith, “Religion, Religions, Religious,” 179-196
Stephen Bush, Visions of Religion, 1-20

Monday, December 4 – Presentation of Final Papers

Monday, December 11 – Presentation of Final Papers