Introductions to the Study of Religion


Samira K. Mehta

Next month, I will begin teaching at Albright College. The Department of Religious Studies does not have prerequisites for their classes, so I cannot be sure that my students will have taken one of the department's introductions to religion/religious studies. As a result, I decided to use that wonderful networking tool, Facebook, to crowd source and ask my colleagues for their best introduction to the study of religion readings. I specified that I wanted to spend no more than one or two days at the beginning of class on the issue of how and why we study religion, though of course we would return to those conversations as necessary throughout the term.

My question generated almost forty comments, with suggestions for readings, as well as conversation about pedagogy. Since several people expressed a wish to capture the conversation, or make PDF of the facebook thread, I am sharing it here.

By far the most widely recommended essay was J.Z. Smith's "Religion, Religions, Religious." It was the first article mentioned and was endorsed by an additional six voices, but many people suggested many approaches and (with a few edits) the conversation is transcribed after the break!

Samira Mehta:
Crowd sourcing: religious studies folks, what is your favorite article for introducing the study of religion? I am looking for something that could take 1 or 2 days at the beginning of a class that is not primarily a methods class but might be someone's first religious studies encounter.

Brandon Bayne:
"Religion, Religions, Religious"
(Two people liked this comment.)

Jennifer Callaghan:
So, this isn't so much an introduction to religion as it is to the way anthropologists studied "primitive cultures" and "their religion." But for that exact reason, I think it's useful in 1) pointing out the way colonialism is embedded in the history of the study of religion, 2) defamiliarizing one's own culture, and 3) maybe providing minimal innoculation against exoticizing religion in general and other people's religions in specific. Horace Miner, "Body Ritual Among the Nacirma
(Two people liked this comment.)

Jennifer Callaghan:
Also, Talal Asad's "Thinking about religion, belief, and politics" in the Cambridge Companion

Rachel Lindsey:

Samira Mehta:
This is great. I would default to the Smith and so I am glad to have that choice affirmed, but keep other (maybe shorter) options coming!

Jennifer Thompson:
I used this once: The Church of Baseball, the Fetish of Coca-Cola, and the Potlatch of Rock 'n' Roll: Theoretical Models for the Study of Religion in American Popular Culture
David Chidester, Journal of the American Academy of Religion. Vol. 64, No. 4, Thematic Issue on "Religion and American Popular Culture" (Winter, 1996), pp. 743-765
Samira's note: this essay is also available in the Hackett reader.
(Four people liked this comment.)

Jennifer Saunders Forman:
I've used the Smith piece a bunch

Samira Mehta:
Jennifer Thompson, I like that one. Did you use it to kick off the class? (I use it later in my survey.)

Jennifer Thompson:
I used as the first reading in Anthro. & Soc. of Religion, I'm pretty sure.

Samira Mehta:
Part of the problem is that I think I want something like this for each of my classes, with variation because we don't have prerequisites. So I want each class to do a "this is religious studies" intro day, but I don't want them all to be the same in case I get repeat customers.
(Two people liked this comment.)

Jennifer Thompson:
I wouldn't worry about repetition just yet. And the student might read the article in different ways if/when it does get repeated across courses. You might find that the article works great as the first-day assignment in one course but flops in the other--I'd go ahead and try whichever one you like best in all the classes and see what happens!
(Two people liked this comment.)

Letitia Campbell:
I love this thread!
(Three people liked this comment.)

Candace West:
The JZ Smith and Ch. 5 of Orsi's Between Heaven and Earth ("Have You Ever Prayed to St. Jude") often led to good conversations.
(One person liked this comment.)

Mike Altman:
Smith or the "Disciplining Religion" chapter in Richard King's Orientalism and Religion
(One person liked this comment.)

Brett Krutzsch:
I like John Hinnells "Why Study Religion" from the Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion for a first or second day reading.

Susannah Laramee Kidd:
Can you storify Facebook threads because I want to save all these suggestions. I've used Smith and Orsi's piece in Lived Religion in America.
Samira's note: You clearly CAN Storify facebook threads, but I spent 30 minutes trying to get Facebook to find this thread before I gave up and retyped it instead.
(One person liked this comment.)

William Gilders:
Agreeing with Letitia Campbell: I love this thread.

Shreena Gandhi:
I love this thread too. William Graham has a short piece in the HDS Bulletin on why studying religion matters and the introduction to the Rita Gross' Feminism and Religion has also worked well for me (it deals with empathy). 

Megan Goodwin:
I usually do Orsi's "Snakes Alive!" or Asad's "religion as an anthropological category," depending on the context and the students.

Samira Mehta:
Okay, so when I last did "Snakes Alive," it was dramatically too hard for a first reading, at least at the into level, which makes me nervous about Asad.....

Samira Mehta:
Should I turn this thread into a Religion and American history blog post? I'll have space in August and could do it then.....
(Two people liked this comment.)

Megan Goodwin:
I assume they won't get all of it, but the good religion/bad religion dichotomy is useful to talk through and it makes them practice close reading (we usually refer back to it in class). Ditto Asad: I don't assume they're absorbing any of the nuance, but we work through Geertz's definition and then talk about what Asad adds to the conversation. Both make useful bookends; you can revisit them at the end of class and discuss the pieces in more detail then.

Samira Mehta:
So, I was actually thinking about having day one be Geertz and day two be Asad. What do you all think?

Jennifer Callighan:
If the class is U.S. specific, Butler's "Historiographical Heresy: Catholicism as a model . . . " is nice. It's a little dense, in terms of referencing some historical minutiae, but I think it's undergrad friendly.

Erika Dyson:
Samira, I don't have majors at Harvey Mudd, so I have a similar issue -- having to start every class with the "what is religion?" game. I'd love to strategize with you about how to do this well. Usually, these days at least, I start the very first class with some short text or video, in which someone is talking about religion as if everyone knows what it is, then have the students identify what counts as religion to the author, and then have a discussion. I've found the "Point of Departure," in Huston Smith's World Religions to be just the kind of arbitrary and fuzzy writing that gets the students talking, as does David Brooks's "Neural Buddhists." Then for the second class, I've given them Chidester's "Planet Hollywood," (first chapter of Authentic Fakes), or Geertz, or something JZ Smith, or Richard Olson's "Spirits, Witches, & Science," or sometimes the first two chapters of Randall Styers's Making Magic. I teach a lot of science, occultism, and religion, so the last two are more along that line. The Olson can't really stand on its own, but is great with Styers. For my American religions survey, I've used "Snakes Alive" as well.

Erika Dyson:
That all said, I'm so glad you started this thread. I'm feeling like I need to rethink some things.

Megan Goodwin:
Obligatory plug for Randall [Styers]'s book, since he is fantastic and Making Magic is brilliant (and now I'm wondering if I want to start my Religion and Monsters class with his book. Hmm).

Shreena Gandhi:
I just used this podcast in my methods/theories class. 
Buddha statues, devotion, fabulous assumptions, and lowered crime rate makes for a great discussion about how religion is perceived/understood and studied in the US.

Megan Goodwin:
Oh, also, if you want to go super basic, there's always Bellah's "Sheila-ism" piece. I don't love it, but it's a very easy way to start setting boundaries about what the class will and will not consider religion and why.

Samira Mehta:
Everyone: I am going to turn this into an RiAH piece (for August). PM me if you would rather I not use your name!
Samira's note: Nobody PMed me.

Monica Mercado:
^^^ yay! Now I don't have to save this fb thread as a PDF!

David Walsh:
I don't think it was mentioned but along with JZ Smith I like the intro to Thomas Tweeds Crossing and Dwelling.

Cara Burnidge:
This semester, I assigned the radio lab podcast "translation". It's not about religion, but it is about the difficulty of taking another's experience and making it comprehensible to someone else. As the semester went on I could reference it whenever we talked about scripture (who's version, which translation?), insider/outsider, normativity, authority, etc. I've been happy with the results and will use it again.
(Three people liked this.)


Brantley Gasaway at: August 7, 2015 at 7:56 AM said...

Thanks for sharing this conversation, Samira.

zellerbe at: August 7, 2015 at 11:07 AM said...

Indeed, thanks for sharing! (The things I miss on Facebook when I'm busy taking care of kids!) I also use the JZ Smith reading, particularly when I teach my religion & science class, since I will also spend a lot of time dissecting "science" as well.

I often run an exercise in other courses on the first day where we try to come up with some basic qualities of what people tend to think is "religion." (Yes, I use the air quotes in class.) It becomes a sort of Wittgensteinian family resemblance model definition. Students are generally pretty good at playing devil's advocate and getting a good discussion going. It also sets the tone from the beginning that the class is about engagement and that they need to bring their own ideas to the table. I generally start by having them free write, then discuss in small groups, then the big group. It works well.

Brent Plate at: August 8, 2015 at 4:25 AM said...

If you are talking about an "intro" class, or even the first weeks that students may have ever had an RS course, then I'd definitely stay away from Smith, Asad, etc for first days. Don't worry about those grad-school definitions and getting it "right." Get the students engaged with something first, and later layer on the theory.

I always start with something contemporary, cultural. I do something like "zellerbe" ^ in that I have a 12pp list of "definitions" of religion, from Geertz to soul singer Al Green to Sting to Schleiermacher to the Dalai Lama. I have them read through the list, circle definitions they like and begin to do the family resemblance thing. We end up with a range of terms that help formulate some of the edges of definitions, and problems therein: individual v. community, transcendence v. immanence, social constructions v. natural law, practice, belief, etc.

I also like Cara's use of a podcast up front. Get them thinking about something they can relate to from a contemporary cultural perspective. Don't even let them know they are thinking about "religion"...

zellerbe at: August 10, 2015 at 8:28 AM said...

My students (undergraduates at a selective but not elite liberal arts college) can handle reading and discussing JZ Smith's "Religion, Religions, Religious" on the second day of class pretty well. They miss some of the details but the big picture is clear to them. It leads to a good discussion. I would not try Asad on them at that point though.

I should note that I personally find theory uninteresting unless it is helpful in understanding the real world. I suspect my students are similar in this regard, and whenever I teach anything resembling theory I tell them why I think it might be useful, and I ask them later on if it was useful to them. If not, I tell them to feel free to ignore it.

Samira K. Mehta at: August 11, 2015 at 6:48 AM said...

Zellerbe and Brent, thank you for sharing your approaches! I hope others will use the comments to chime in!

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