Learning Initiative

Religious Studies is not a discipline, but a topical enterprise of flexibly interdisciplinary scope: it draws routinely and traditionally on the disciplinary resources of art history, literary history and criticism, historiography, anthropology, sociology, psychology, and (increasingly) different forms of cultural and area studies. Its hybrid, interdisciplinary character does not relax the demands on precision of vocabulary and thought, but more urgently enforces them. A coherent course of study in religion requires training that focus on knowledge (content), concrete tools of analysis (disciplinary approaches and their practice), and theoretical tools of analysis (conceptual skills). That is, the student must develop (1) a familiarity with a range of religious traditions and topics, and a more extensive exposure to one of them, (2) familiarity with the range of disciplinary and methodological approaches to this material, and (3) an ability to discern what questions different approaches and and are not equipped to answer. Concrete expectations of what students completing the major should be able to do can be classified according to these


Knowledge of religious traditions and topics:

Students should

  • Gain informed familiarity with more than one major religious tradition or culture, and the sources for studying them
  • Gain a deeper knowledge of one such tradition or culture, or one topical aspect of several traditions or cultures

Concrete analysis within disciplinary and methodological models:

Students should

  • Acquire broad familiarity with multiple disciplinary approaches to religious phenomena
  • Learn the distinctive conceptual vocabularies of some such approaches
  • Develop skill in the application of some such approaches

Theoretical analysis of disciplinary and methodological models:

Students should be able to

  • Recognize the premises, resources, and limitations of different disciplinary and methodological approaches
  • Formulate questions appropriate to these approaches
  • Assess the contributions of different disciplines and approaches to similar questions
  • Produce clear and persuasive argumentative and analytic prose

Paths to achieving these goals

Religious Studies relies heavily on courses offered in regular departments for most of its students’ classroom work, while offering three courses of its own (Religious Studies 90A, 90B, and 190) to provide the framework for assembling cross-departmental coursework into a coherent program of inquiry. This means that courses drawn from other departments tend to address the first category of learning goals outlined above, while the courses originating within the Religious Studies program tend to address the other two. It means also that the program’s own core courses bear much of the burden of uniting courses from several departments into a meaningful program.

Advising also bears an important part of that burden. Because Religious Studies does rely for the bulk of its course-offerings on other departments, and therefore cannot either control their content nor co-ordinate their topics, consultation and academic advising with program faculty and staff is crucial in helping students to make a meaningful choice of courses and to develop a coherent course of study from them.

Knowledge of religious tradition and topics:

The core courses, Religious Studies 90A and 90B, though primarily directed to other purposes described below, generally organize themselves around the study of multiple traditions, periods, or cultures in one or more religions. Courses satisfying the thematic requirement introduce topics across several periods or traditions, illustrating how different bodies of data can be assembled under the rubric of a particular investigation. The field of emphasis guides the student into the more extensive and detailed study of one of these.

Concrete analysis within disciplinary and methodological models:

The core courses, Religious Studies 90A and 90B, typically introduce the student also to a range of approaches, some of which will be pursued in more depth in courses that fulfill the methodological requirement of the major, and will be exemplified in either courses in the field of emphasis or the additional religion courses, or in both.

Theoretical analysis of disciplinary and methodological models:

This is the chief remit of the core courses, Religious Studies 90A and 90B. While, as noted above, these courses typically the students to a range of phenomena and of approaches to them, their most important function is to exemplify how differing methodological and disciplinary approaches produce differing and complementary perspectives on the same topics, and to explore what kinds of investigation each is best equipped to undertake.


Students are considered to have attained the goals outlined when they have satisfied the requirements for the major with passing grades in each course. Within each course, we strongly believe, is and should remain the responsibility and prerogative of the instructor of record, informed by an understanding of the goals the program has articulated.