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Religious Studies

Religion is a complex and often contentious topic. While everyone might not have a handy theory about history or physics, it’s hard to find someone without a passionately held opinion about religion. Well aware of this fact, the Religious Studies Department takes a broadly historical approach to the study of religion, exploring religious texts, practices, ideas, communities, and institutions in the context of local, regional, and global histories.

Our curriculum ranges across four areas: Jewish and Christian origins, the history of the religious traditions of Western civilization (including America), the history of religious traditions of Asia, and the religious traditions of Islam. Within each area, we explore such issues as the nature and social context of religious texts; the development of religious doctrines in situations of both cooperation and contestation; the dynamic relations among religious, political, economic, and cultural life; the role of religion in constructions of gender, race, and class; and patterns of change within religious communities. We also investigate the very idea of religion and the varied ways people—religious practitioners as well as secular scholars—have sought to understand this category of human thought and action.

Introductory courses in the department (100- and 200-level courses) trace the emergence and development of various traditions and emphasize the mastering of foundational knowledge and methods of academic inquiry. Upper-level course treat selected topics in greater detail and pursue the state-of-the-art scholarly thinking in various sub-fields of the discipline.

The lifeblood of Religious Studies is its openness to creative, interdisciplinary inquiry; our courses and faculty draw from the fields of literary studies, history, sociology and anthropology, art, and even the natural sciences. Majors in the department hone their skills in research, writing, critical thinking, and persuasive argumentation, and many of our majors spend time on overseas programs. Deeply enmeshed as it is in the liberal arts tradition, Religious Studies is a route to exploring a fascinating dimension of the human experience.

Events

November 4th, 2014

  • Image preview 3:30pm: “A Religion of Convenience: The Universal Life Church, Contemporary Weddings, and the Secular Sacred” - Dusty Hoesly CAS ’02
    Major national news outlets have observed that weddings in the United States, especially for young educated people, are increasingly performed by ministers who are friends or relatives of the couple and who become ordained online just for that purpose. The primary organization licensing these ministers, and thus authorizing these weddings as legally valid, is the Universal Life Church (ULC), which has ordained over 20 million people since 1962. To date, there has been no focused study of the ULC or weddings conducted under its auspices. According to my initial research findings, both ULC ministers and the couples who use them self-describe as non-religious, usually as agnostic, atheist, apathetic, secular, or spiritual. Similarly, they describe their weddings in non-religious terms, emphasizing the personalization of the ceremony to match their particular beliefs and tastes as well as the conscious exclusion of most religious language. These secular or spiritual wedding ceremonies reveal non-religious couples’ desires for an alternative apart from bureaucratic civil ceremonies or traditional religious rites. Using original archival, survey, interview, and participant observation data, mostly based in California and the Pacific Northwest, this paper explores why “secular” people employ ULC-ordained ministers for their weddings, and how ULC ministers and couples married by them label and valuate their “non-religious,” personalized wedding ceremonies. My examination of ULC weddings reveals not only the diversity of non-theistic self-identification and lifecycle ritualization, but also how constructs such as religious and secular can be co-constitutive rather than oppositional.

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Religious Studies

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