Theories of Religion (RS Seminar)

Steve Smith Office: Christian Center 11, 601-974-1334
– Office hours posted –
Home: 1611 Edgewood St, 601-354-2290

RLST 3900-01/4900-01
Spring 2016 MW 2:30

In religious studies, “religion” is not synonymous with any one set of beliefs or practices or experiences. We use the concept of religion to frame an overview of a large field of comparable beliefs, practices, and experiences—comparable because they all have to do with binding human beings to what is ultimately meaningful [there’s one definition!]. Our general hypothesis is that we will be in a position to understand all of these things better by framing them in that way [even as we debate our definition of “religion”]. But what are the most interesting, important, and relevantly related things to study under this rubric? What do we come to understand about them on this basis that we wouldn’t have understood otherwise? And what could validate our decisions about what we’re studying and the conclusions we draw?

Hopefully we will have a cool, calm discussion of these issues in a seminar room. But we will need to be aware that the concept of religion is strongly affiliated with conflict. Historically we see that people start talking about religion because they are aware of other people doing something wrong: they feel it is important to uphold certain beliefs, practices, or experiences against ignorance or neglect, or scorn, or debasement, or sheer difference; or they perceive that all beliefs, practices, and experiences of this kind are bad (as in atheist attacks on religion). So one reason not to talk about religion is to stay away from such conflicts [but then you’re chicken!].

The discussion of religion has a history, of course, and we should take stock of where we are in this history. Obviously something important happened when people became farmers (agricultural gods, scheduled rituals), and again when people began to live in cities (temples, priests). Then, starting about 2,500 years ago, one can see in all civilizations a newly prominent sense of religion as an “-ism” (a “teaching,” a “way,” etc.) that can be scrutinized and adopted or rejected; this assumes a plurality of options, and makes it impossible simply to identify religion with anyone’s culture [another debatable category!]. This “-ism” form of religion has played an important role in driving religious conflict and the development of religious institutions—that is, in articulating religious history [another debatable category!]. And yet -ism-religion may not be an important way of being religious for many people much of the time. (The Christian theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher came up with a nonsectarian, nonhistorical definition of what is truly basic in religion: “a sense and taste for the Infinite.”)

Religious ideologies still play a dominant role on the religious scene, but our historical moment is distinguished by at least two deep doubts about the meaningfulness of religion. (1) There is the secularization thesis, one version of which predicts the imminent disappearance of religion due to the modernization of human cultures (science replacing religious explanation, democracy replacing religiously legitimated authority, capitalism replacing a religiously regulated economy). (2) Within the academy there is the critique of the concept of religion which argues that religion is not really a neutral comparative category but rather a sneaky means of perpetuating a particular set of values (the Protestant Christian values that dominated the early formation of the field of religious studies) and Western cultural hegemony in the world (by forcing measurement of everyone else’s beliefs, practices, and experiences by certain privileged Western standards).

Thus for scholars of religion today it is a live question whether religion-the-reality and religion-the-concept will survive, and if they do survive how they might change. Part of the question is, What is riding on this? How does the meaningfulness of human life depend on the reality of religion (if it does)? How does the intelligibility of human culture depend on the concept of religion (if it does)?

In this seminar we will equip ourselves to address this great question by sounding out some of the most influential and potentially useful theories of religion that have been formulated in the era of modern religious studies, the last century-and-a-half. There are far too many worthwhile big ideas about the nature of religion to survey in one semester. In our common work in the seminar we will make a point of attending to three major theorists who take the historical development of religion seriously: Max Weber (1864-1920), Wilfred Cantwell Smith (1916-2000), and Robert Bellah (1927-2013). But individual seminar members may explore in any number of different directions and factor in their own findings and questions accordingly.

As we review big ideas about religion, we will necessarily be reviewing different positions taken by thinkers about what constitutes a valid and productive examination of religious data. Many of our key thinkers are working on a version of social science (anthropology, sociology, psychology), others on a version of history or phenomenology. Thus we will always be facing the question of method, notoriously difficult for anyone who thinks that “religious studies” is a distinct intellectual project.

Readings will be drawn from various sources including these required texts:

Daniel L. Pals, ed., Introducing Religion. Readings from the Classic Theorists
Robert Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution

The ingredients of the seminar, and of the course grade, are daily participation and serving several times as a discussion leader (20%), weekly writing (40%), and carrying out a course project, including designing and conducting a seminar session (40%). Students taking the seminar as RLST 4900 will also write a Core 10 paper. Assignments are explained below.


Religious thought is essentially archaic, magical-mystical, “mythopoeic,” prescientific
Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, How Natives Think
Donald Wiebe, The Irony of Theology and the Nature of Religious Thought

Religious thoughts are errors generated by our language
Max Müller, Anthropological Religion

Religion is about taking advantage of moderately counterintuitive, socially useful ideas
Pascal Boyer, Explaining Religion
Scott Atran, In Gods We Trust

Religion is about controlling violence
René Girard, Violence and the Sacred
Walter Burkert, Homo Necans

Religion is about maintaining needed boundaries
Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger

Religion is about dealing with powers
Gerardus van der Leeuw, Religion in Essence and Manifestation

Religion is about coping with powerlessness
David Hume, The Natural History of Religion
Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals
Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion

Religion is about coping with death
Bronislaw Malinowski, Magic, Science, and Religion

Religion is about assuring social solidarity
Emile Durkheim, Elementary Forms of the Religious Life
Scott Atran, In Gods We Trust

Religion is a product of ritual
Roy Rappaport, Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity

Religion is about making full sense of morality
Immanuel Kant, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone
Ronald Green, Religion and Moral Reason

Religion is about experiencing relation with the Infinite/the All
Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion

Religion is about knowing and participating in perfect, permanent being
Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return
Huston Smith, Forgotten Truth

Religion is an ambivalent relationship with an awful yet fascinating “wholly other”
Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy
Gerardus van der Leeuw, Religion in Essence and Manifestation

Religion is about securing and intensifying the felt meaningfulness of the world
Clifford Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural System”
Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy
Thomas Tweed, Crossing and Dwelling. A Theory of Religion

Religion is about achieving psychological wholeness and self-realization
Carl Jung, Psychology and Religion
Abraham Maslow, Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences

Religion is beneficial optimism (sunny or wary) about partnership with ultimate power
William James, Varieties of Religious Experience

Religion is about organizing our valuing
Ann Taves, Religious Experience Reconsidered
Margaret Miles, Seeing and Believing: Religion and Values in the Movies

Religion is about maintaining social inequality
Karl Marx, On Religion
Nancy Jay, Throughout Your Generations Forever. Sacrifice, Religion, and Paternity (religion as patriarchal)
Morris Berman, Wandering God. A Study in Nomadic Spirituality

The concept “religion” is (or is typically deployed as) a crypto-Christian scam
Russell T. McCutchen, Manufacturing Religion
Timothy Fitzgerald, The Ideology of Religious Studies
Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions

subject to revision by announcement in class and/or e-mail

Jan. 11 Introduction to the course.

Jan. 13 E. B. Tylor and the beginning of modern religious studies.
READ Pals “Introduction” pp. xvii-xxiv & Tylor, Chap. 1 in Pals


Jan. 20 James Frazer.
READ Frazer, Chap. 2 in Pals

Jan. 25 Sigmund Freud.
READ Freud, Chap. 3 in Pals (except for The Future of an Illusion)

Jan. 27 Freud, cont.
READ Freud, The Future of an Illusion (handout)

Feb. 1 Emile Durkheim.
READ Durkheim, Chap. 4 in Pals

Feb. 3 Cognitive Science of Religion.
READ Pascal Boyer, excerpt from Explaining Religion (handout)

Feb. 8 Karl Marx.
READ Marx, Chap. 5 in Pals

Feb. 10 Feminism.
READ Nancy Jay, excerpt from Throughout Your Generations Forever (handout)

Feb. 15 Mircea Eliade.
READ Eliade, Chap. 9 in Pals

Feb. 17 Critique of Eliade.
READ Russell McCutcheon, excerpt from Manufacturing Religion (handout)

FEB. 18 SUMMERS LECTURE: Joseph Reiff, “‘Stories Nobody Knows’: Mississippi Methodists and Race Relations in the 1960s”
11:30-12:45 pm, AC 215

Feb. 22 Clifford Geertz.
READ Geertz, Chap. 11 in Pals

Feb. 24 Critique of Geertz.
READ Talal Asad, excerpt from Genealogies of Religion (handout)

Feb. 29 Max Weber.
READ Max Weber, Sociology of Religion excerpts (handout)

Mar. 2 Weber cont.
READ Weber, cont.


Mar. 14 Wilfred Cantwell Smith
READ Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion excerpt (handout)

Mar. 16 W. C. Smith, cont.
READ Smith, cont., and McCutcheon, additional excerpts (handouts)

Mar. 21 Robert Bellah.
READ Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, chap. 1

Mar. 23 READ Bellah, chap. 2

Mar. 28 READ Bellah, chap. 3

Mar. 30 READ Bellah, chap. 4

Apr. 4 READ Bellah, chap. 5

Apr. 6 READ Bellah, chap. 6

Apr. 11 READ Bellah, Conclusion

Apr. 13 The Axial Age debate and critiques of the “world religions” paradigm (TBA)
READ: (handout)

Apr. 18, 20, 25 TBA (student-led)

First version of Project due with the associated seminar segment; final version due by end of finals week.


Identify several issues in the assigned reading (and/or other experience) that you think would be worthwhile for the class to explore. Give a brief explanation of each issue, leading up to a question or two. Keep this on one sheet of paper. Thus, your question sheet will typically contain two or three short paragraphs.

Try to pose at least one good interpretive question and at least one good evaluative question.

Example of an interpretive question: What does Durkheim mean by “profane”?
(What does he think?)

Example of an evaluative question: Is there a main core meaning of the term “profane”? (What do we think?)

Give copies of your question sheet to all class members at the beginning of class. Present the issue that you would like to be discussed first.


By the end of each class week you should turn in a written reflection of 250-500 words (that would be 1-2 pages typed) on any subject that seems significant to you, as long as it ties in somehow with matters that came up in the class work for that week. (So I am not asking you to write a synopsis of the week in class, but I am asking you to process the week’s work in some way.) You may use any strategy you like to get at something. Try not to toss out a question without working toward an answer; working toward answers is what your journal is for.

You may skip one week’s journal writing without penalty.

Your journal will be graded for its religious studies ambition and for how responsive it is to class readings and discussions.


You will investigate an aspect of a theory of religion and present your findings in the general format of a journal article, using the style of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion. The paper should include

(1) an introduction that shows how the material you are dealing with relates to the broader discussion of the nature of religion or the concept of religion;

(2) a presentation of relevant evidence, probably based mainly on what relevant authors have written; and

(3) your conclusion about the upshot of this material, including your own critical evaluation.

You don’t have to write a manifesto on this, but make your evaluative position as transparent as you can. (E.g., are you a Marxist? Or if not, what are you up to?)

You may turn in a draft of the paper, or any portion of it, to the instructor at any time to get suggestions. You will present some part of it for your student-led seminar segment, including a reading assignment you give the rest of us in advance, and turn in a first version of your project at that point.


You’ll submit a 5-7 pp. reflection on your intellectual growth during your time at Millsaps, taking account of (a) the larger experience of liberal learning and the goals set for all Millsaps students, e.g. in the liberal arts abilities targeted by your previous Core courses, and (b) the more specialized experience of the religious studies major.


1. Class attendance. Being in class, being engaged with the work of the class, and behaving courteously are all expected. One discourtesy to avoid is coming into class late. Better late than never, definitely; but lateness counts as half an absence—that is, your work with the class that day will be counted as only half done. One percent of the course grade will be lost for each absence from class for any reason, beginning with the third absence. (For example, someone who missed class 7 times would lose 5% of the course grade, or half a letter grade.) The reason for this: our in-class work is a crucial and irreplaceable part of the substance of the course.

2. Electronic communication devices (phones, laptops, etc.). Electronic devices have become harmful Interrupters and Distracters in the current state of our social evolution. Their use is banned in our class. If you have special needs, discuss with me.

3. Late papers. Written assignments turned in late will lose a letter grade or equivalent. Homework may not be turned in more than one week after its due date. No work of any kind will be accepted after the last day of final examinations. Exceptions to this policy will be granted only to the victims of unforeseeable and uncontrollable circumstances.

4. As a general rule, no e-mail submissions. Unless the instructor allows it under specified circumstances, e-mail submissions of assigned writing are not accepted. (E-mailed journal entries are accepted.)

5. Plagiarism. Using the words or ideas of others without acknowledgment—that is, passing them off as your own—is a fraudulent practice called plagiarism. It also misses one of the main points of being in college, which is to develop your powers of thought and expression. Plagiarism is an offense under the Academic Honor Code (see next page).

6. Incompletes. An “Incomplete” grade for the course will only be given to students who, due to unforeseen and uncontrollable circumstances, find themselves unable to complete course requirements during the term and can reasonably be expected to complete them within a few weeks after the term’s end. The “Incomplete” must be requested and appropriately justified before the end of final examinations.

7. Disabilities. Students with documented disabilities should discuss their needs with the instructor at the beginning of the semester.
From the ODS: If you have any needs or require accommodations related to a disability or learning difference, please contact Patrick Cooper to register with the Office of Disability Services. You can reach him via e-mail at or by calling extension 1228. Accommodations will not be granted until a meeting has taken place with Patrick and letters have been received by your instructor.