“[R]eligion is not ontologically mysterious nor is it epistemically intractable: religion consists of beliefs and behaviours held and performed by humans. That is all that there is to it.” – Jeppe Sinding Jensen
Course description: ‘Examines basic concepts, theories, and approaches that are involved in the critical, academic study of religion. Attention given to basic research materials and to standard writing practices in the discipline.’ That is what it says in the official course catalog, but what does that mean? It means we will be wrestling with that category of human culture labeled ‘religion’ and the various ways that observers of religious language, behaviors, and institutions have gone about describing, analyzing, and/or explaining what it is and why it is worth studying. We will spend some time looking at ‘definitions’ of religion, certain ‘standard’ methodological approaches to the study of religion, and a series of concepts useful for the elucidation of a religious world-view, such as notions like sacrality, deity, community, symbolic speech (myth), symbolic actions (ritual), and alternate planes of reality. We will read and carefully think about a variety of different sources drawn from different times and places. One thing you need to realize at the outset: this course is not an exercise in theology, and we will certainly not be evaluating the ‘truth’ or ‘falsity’ or the ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of certain ideas or practices. Everything studied in this class will be examined in a dispassionate, non-condemnatory fashion.
Warning: In this class you may sometimes encounter readings which blatantly express sexist, racist, classist, and colonialist assumptions. This is because the academic discipline of religious studies has its roots in the violent programs of state-sponsored expansion, subjection, and wealth extraction carried out by European (and later American) societies upon the rest of the world from the early modern period into the mid-twentieth century (and beyond). Information about the lives and behaviors of these conquered peoples was collected by a motley crew of adventurers, soldiers, traders, colonial bureaucrats, and missionaries, and almost all of the information they gathered was put to mercenary use in strengthening the imperial stranglehold over natural and human resources and in suppressing the likelihood of indigenous resistance and revolt. Victorian era (and slightly later) figures who wrote about religion, by and large, accepted without question or argument the intellectual, moral, economic, political, and cultural superiority of European civilization over the cultures of the peoples populating Asia, Africa, the South Sea islands, or the polar regions, and they often (though not always!) championed the Protestant flavor of Christianity as the supreme pinnacle of human religious history. Many of their operating assumptions and allegiances are now rightly recognized as simplistic, sinister, and abhorrent. Yet as students of religious studies, we will need to gain an uneasy familiarity with the mistaken assumptions and allegiances of our disciplinary forebears so that we do not end up repeating the sins of our ancestors.
Texts: You do not need to buy anything from the bookstore. Some texts will be distributed by the instructor electronically on Canvas as needed. The following book-length secondary text(s) are required and available to you electronically via Atkins Library:
Jeppe Sinding Jensen, What is Religion? (London & New York: Routledge, 2019).
Brent Nongbri, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).
Ivan Strenski, Understanding Theories of Religion: An Introduction (2d ed.; Malden, Mass.: Wiley Blackwell, 2015).
a. Readings. The nature of this course entails a significant amount of close reading and reflection. Students are responsible for anticipating and completing the reading assignments (outlined below) in a timely manner. Every student is expected to read and to be prepared to critically expound the work assigned for each class meeting.
b. Seminar presentations/papers. At almost every class meeting, an individual student will be responsible for leading the first half of our collective discussion of that week’s reading assignment from our required authors. Students can use the template found later in this syllabus as a rough guide for their presentation. All students (including that week’s discussion leader) will prepare and electronically submit to the instructor before the beginning of class a written summary and brief analysis (maximum length of five  pages) of that week’s reading assignment. The instructor’s evaluation of the student’s collective written summaries and oral presentations (based on the scale √+ = A-; √ = C+; √- = D) will comprise 75% of the course grade.
c. Final take-home essay. Instead of an in-class three-hour final examination, you will prepare a final essay wherein you will be expected to synthesize many of the major issues and themes discussed in class and in the required readings, as well as to demonstrate your knowledge of the specific source materials and facts which pertain to those issues and themes. Once its topic is assigned (on the final class meeting day), this essay will be delivered to the instructor before the date and time officially mandated for the final examination of this course by the UNC Charlotte administration. The final essay is worth 15% of the course grade.
d. Individual involvement. Almost perfect attendance (see below) is an essential requirement for this course. Each class meeting builds upon the knowledge gained during previous meetings. Moreover, in-class discussion, close reading, and analysis by both the instructor and class members comprises a significant portion of every class meeting. Preparation for every class usually involves the completion of a series of assigned readings and/or written assignment(s), and individual students initiate our collective examination and discussion of the weekly topics. Students are expected to contribute in an informed manner to the public analysis and discussion of any assigned topic. The instructor’s assessment of one’s attendance, apparent class preparation, presentations, and informed oral contributions, will constitute 10% of the final course grade.
e. Zakhor (Remember!): Mastery of the assigned readings and diligent class attendance are necessary prerequisites for the successful completion of this course. Each student is responsible for all lectures, class discussions, assignments, and announcements, whether or not he/she is present when they occur.
f. While the state of emergency procedures regarding COVID-19 have been lifted, I have decided to continue to wear my face mask when leading class and meeting with you individually in my office. I will leave it up to you to monitor your own health and to act responsibly should you happen to fall ill during the course of the semester.
a. The grading scale used in this course is as follows:
91-95+ A = demonstrable mastery of material; can creatively synthesize
81-90 B = some demonstrable proficiency in control of material & analysis
71-80 C = satisfactory performance of assignments; little or no analysis
61-70 D = inadequate and/or faulty understanding of material
0-60 F = unacceptable work
b. One of the requirements of this course is to complete the work of the course on time. Sometimes there are legitimate reasons for late work—an illness or other emergency. ‘Emergency,’ however, does not include your social involvements, travel plans, job schedule, disk, wi-fi, and/or printer failures, the state of your love life, your obligations to other courses, or general malaise over the state of the world. The world has been in a mess as long as anyone can remember, and most of the world’s work is done by people whose lives are a mass of futility and discontent. If you haven’t learned yet, you had better learn now to work under the conditions of the world as it is. Therefore:
1) All unwritten papers and unsubmitted written assignments will be averaged as a 0 in the computation of the course grade. No exceptions will be considered or granted.
2) Seminar papers fall due on the date announced by the instructor in class. They must be typed and submitted by email to me in either Microsoft Word or Adobe format prior to the start of the class for which they have been assigned. No physical copies of homework will be accepted or returned. Since we will normally discuss these exercises together in class on that date, it would clearly be unfair to those who submitted their work on time for me to accept ‘late’ work from those who were privy to our in-class discussion. Hence I will not accept ‘late’ homework submissions (even from those of you who were physically absent during our discussion); however, ‘early’ submissions (i.e., before the start of class) are always welcome and will receive full credit. These exercises are graded using a scale √+ = A-; √ = C+; √- = D; failure to submit = 0.
3) For accounting purposes, letter grades bear the following values: A=95; A-=92; B=85; C+=78; C=75; D=65; F=30. An untyped paper or written assignment automatically receives the grade F, as do those typed papers which violate the required parameters or which the instructor deems physically unacceptable and/or grammatically incomprehensible.
4) Since your diligent physical participation is critical for the success of this course, attendance at class meetings will be monitored by the instructor. One absence is regrettable; two absences are the limit of tolerability. Three (3) or more absences will result in an automatic F for the course. Please note that—with the exception of religious holidays—the instructor does not distinguish ‘excused’ from ‘unexcused’ absences. Unsanctioned late arrivals and early departures will be tallied as absences.
5) Policy regarding Audits: the instructor expects auditors (whether formally enrolled as such or not) to meet the same attendance, preparation, and oral participation standards as those students who are taking the course for credit. The instructor does not expect auditors to prepare and submit any written assignments.
6) I do not post grades on Canvas or use it for grading. You can easily determine your own course progress (or lack thereof) by paying attention to number and quality of the grades you earn and performing the arithmetic required (using the equivalency tables listed above) to generate a ‘rough’ grade average.
c. Assistance and solicitation of criticism is your right as a member of the class. It is not a privilege to be granted or withheld. Do not hesitate to request it nor wait too late in the course for it to be of help.
d. The standards, requirements, and procedures set forth in this syllabus are subject to modification at any time by the course instructor. Notice of such changes will be by announcement in class, or by email, or by changes to this syllabus posted on the course website at https://pages.charlotte.edu/john-reeves/course-materials/.
ROUGH COURSE OUTLINE
Introduction to the class (abbreviated)
Nongbri, Introduction & Chapter 1 (me)
Nongbri, Before Religion, 1-24; 161-66.
Nongbri, Chapters 2 & 3 (Eli)
Nongbri, Before Religion, 25-64; 167-86.
Nongbri, Chapters 4 & 5 (Rosemary)
Nongbri, Before Religion, 65-105; 186-206.
Nongbri, Chapters 6, 7, & Conclusion (Andrew)
Nongbri, Before Religion, 106-59; 206-30.
Jensen, Chapters 1 & 2 (Holly)
Jensen, What is Religion?, 1-32.
Jensen, Chapter 3 (Jordan)
Jensen, What is Religion?, 33-52.
Jensen, Chapter 4 (Jin)
Jensen, What is Religion?, 53-86.
Jensen, Chapter 5 (Leo)
Jensen, What is Religion?, 87-119.
Jensen, Chapter 6 (Eli)
Jensen, What is Religion?, 120-38.
Jensen, Chapters 7 & 8 (Rosemary & Jordan)
Jensen, What is Religion?, 139-53.
Strenski, Chapters 4 & 5 (Andrew & Jin)
Strenski, Understanding Theories2, 31-54.
Strenski, Chapters 6 & 7 (Holly & Leo)
Strenski, Understanding Theories2, 55-74.
Freud, The Future of an Illusion (entire).
TEMPLATE FOR WEEKLY DISCUSSION LEADERS
Discussion leaders can use the following template as a rough guideline for their seminar presentations:
1. Begin promptly.
2. Present to the class an initial consideration of the assigned topic. Summarize (but do not evaluate yet!) your section’s main arguments and points. DO NOT JUST READ ALOUD LENGTHY PASSAGES FROM THE ASSIGNMENT. Put the author’s main ideas and train of thought in your own words. Certain key primary texts or institutions may need to be identified and analyzed in view of their importance for the larger argument(s). I would suggest spending no more than twenty to thirty minutes on this.
3. Open the floor for questions and discussion:
Plan A. Invite discussion of any issue of interest pertaining to the assignment.
Plan B. Raise an important issue which you have seen in the text(s) and invite response (now you can evaluate!).
Plan C. Elicit comment on how the text(s) relate to points made in earlier classes and/or other passages from required or supplementary readings.
Plan D. Ask a series of pointed questions deliberately designed to provoke a response.
4. Be prepared to put Plans B-D into operation if Plan A falters.
5. Conclude by pointing to one or two aspects of the class discussion that you consider to have been particularly valuable or productive for further work and consideration.
SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER READING
Jensen, Nongbri, and Strenski (at the end of each of his chapters) all provide extensive and detailed bibliographies. If you get excited about a particular topic, check out what they suggest or just ask me for further advice and ideas.
 Note Prov 15:28: לב צדיק יהגה לענות ופי רשעים יביע רעות, which I’m inclined to render as ‘the mind of the devoted (student) contemplates before answering, whereas the mouth of the clueless spews forth worthless nonsense.’