Religion is….

Cover of book titled What is Religion? to be used in the class.

Some students have been asking me about my Fall REL 440/REL 512. The course will enroll both REL undergrads, via a course devoted to Theories of Religion, and grad students, in a course on Debates in Method & Theory. The specific debate that we’ll be focusing on — as the required book above should make clear (click the image to learn more about it) — is how to define religion.

And the theories of religion part…?

Well, definitions are theories in miniature — you wouldn’t expect Freud, a psychologist, to offer a Marxist definition of religion that focuses on its political and economic roles, right…? So a handy way into examining various theories of religion is just to focus on the definition someone offers — if they even offer one, that is; for religion is often assumed by much of the general public and scholars alike to be such an obvious or taken-for-granted feature of the human that many skip right over defining it explicitly, and instead just assume that everyone knows what they’re talking about.

But as the authors collected in this edited volume make clear — and it’s a diverse collection of 17 current, international scholars of religion — there’s considerable differences among us when it comes to what this thing many of us call religion is and why we think it’s there (that is, what are its origins or functions). In fact, the differences can sometimes be so pronounced that, as Craig Martin suggests in his essay, it’s not clear that we’re all even talking about the same thing when we talk about religion. If so, then how is a field that studies it even possible, when the “it” that we say we’re studying might vary so widely…?

Our goal for the course is to read through these debates — eavesdropping on scholars who all finish the sentence “Religion is…” and then examine each other’s sentences — to try to reconstruct the theory animating each person’s definition while asking ourselves about the contours of the modern field. Students will be adopting essays for class presentations — it’s a seminar, after all — describing them and introducing their authors to the rest of the class. As a group we’ll then be identifying the points friction and overlap among the scholars who tackle each other’s work. For some help along the way we’ll also draw on two recent volumes (one here and the other here) to sharpen our use of the technical vocabulary on which scholars all draw in carrying out their work, with the BA students and the MA students having some distinct roles during each class.

So, for those enrolling in the Fall, there’s the 3 required books that you can acquire before class, coz we’ll hit the ground running. And it might be a good idea to start mulling over how you would complete that sentence, “Religion is…”

I bet it’s a tougher task than you might at first imagine.