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.
Statement on BLM Protests:
As noted on the introduction of our website, in the Religious Studies Department, “we explore… 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.” The importance of these focuses has been brought home to us by the recent Black Lives Matter protests against systematic structures of violence within US culture. These recent developments have prompted each of us to reflect on how our fall courses contribute to this dialogue. While these courses are not systematic studies of race relations, white supremacy, or the like, they do pay significant attention to related and relevant issues. All students in these classes will encounter the kinds of issues discussed below, and students who wish to pursue these types of concerns more fully will have the opportunity to do so in the context of papers and essay exams.
RELS 105: Apocalyptic Imagination
After tracing the history of apocalypticism from antiquity to the present this course spends much of the semester focusing on how apocalyptic has been expressed in and shaped American politics, culture, and society. A key feature of that study is the role apocalyptic imagination has played in Black experience in America from before the Civil War to the present. To that end we read texts from Frederick Douglass, James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Martin Luther King Jr., Octavia Butler, and writings associated with the contemporary BLM movement. The use of apocalyptic in Black American expression is key to crystalizing the course thesis regarding the way apocalyptic has been incorporated into American experience.
RELS 201: History and Theory
This course critically examines the history of the discipline of religious studies, including the ways European colonialism shaped the emergence of the very idea of “religion” as a cross-cultural category. While exploring a number of influential theories and analytical frameworks for understanding religion, we look at how power dynamics (including race, gender, and socio-economic status) help determine what and who counts as worthy of study and who is allowed to participate in the construction of academic knowledge.
RELS 254: American Religious History, 1865 to the present
In this course we examine American religious history from 1865 to the present. Among other topics, we focus on how African American religious traditions have shaped numerous facets of modern American culture. In particular, we focus on the religious aspects of the Civil Rights Movement and how this movement expresses millennialism and exceptionalism. We read important African American thinkers of the era, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammed, James Cone, Delores Williams, and Alice Walker. We examine how these thinkers employed religious ideas to challenge structures of oppression in authoritative and compelling ways.
RELS 274: Islam in the Modern World
Among the topics explored in this class is the history of Islam and Muslims in America, including the ways such groups as the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam have been seen by some African Americans as expressions of protest against White Christian domination of the religious landscape in America and as efforts to reclaim lost or stolen identities. The course also pays attention to the ways that religious identity can be racialized, with both Muslims and non-Muslims at times perceiving an overlap between racial and religious identity. We also consider some ways that race/ethnicity, religious affiliation, and gender are constructed and at times manipulated to justify colonial and military interventions by non-Muslim-dominated Western countries into Muslim-majority societies.
RELS 341: Religions of the Northwest
This course is a selected survey of the religious history of the Pacific Northwest. Among other topics, we focus on how religious ideas and practices were racialized in specific, regional ways and how these patterns continue today. In particular, we examine the Indian, Shaker Church, regional Euro-American forms of Protestantism and Catholicism, Judaism, and Buddhism and how the interactions between these groups have contributed to the present Northwest landscape. We explore how the lack institutional religious dominance in the Northwest masks religious structures that have contributed to a racially homogenous environment in the region.