RELG 101:

Introduction to the Study of Religion


Professor: Daniel Meckel

Office: Anne Arundel 110C

Office: 895-4464


Office hours: 2:00–3:00 PM Friday

Course Summary

            This course is about how religions are studied critically within frameworks of knowledge advanced in the humanities and social sciences.  It introduces major concepts and theories, and examines their utility in understanding, comparing, and explaining religious phenomena in their variety.  We will work under the premise that religion and religions are best understood when examined relationally and in comparative perspective.  This undertaking is multidisciplinary and encourages openness to new, different, and alternative formations of religious belief and practice.         

            We will explore the study of religion in three ways: through1) how scholars name and classify religions; 2) historical explanations of how religions have formed and developed; 3) key concepts used in comparing religions (myth, experience, ritual, doctrine, sacred space and time, and conceptions of destiny.  Each level will be studied as it occur in multiple religious traditions.

            By taking this course, you will acquire knowledge of several of the world’s religious traditions and their mutual interactions with human history and social life.  You will acquire skills for thinking critically about people’s religious beliefs and practices and placing them in relational and comparative perspective.  The writing assignments will sharpen writing skills while engaging you in the analysis of contemporary works of literature and film that have religious subjects.



Required Texts:

G. Kessler, Studying Religion:  An Introduction through Cases, 3d ed.

H. Smith, The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions, revised and updated ed.


 and ONE of a list of novels to be announced.




Course Schedule



Traditions, Concepts and Practices
Religious Studies:
Theories and Theorists
Readings and Assignments
Due for the day on which they are listed


I.  Defining and Studying “Religion”

Week 1

Sept 3: Introduction to the Course





Sept. 5: What do you mean

by “Religion”?




        Kessler, ch 1


Week 2

Sept 8: Approaches:

A Map of the Field



Paul Tillich

Clifford Geertz

Melford Spiro


        Kessler, ch 2


II.  Divine Being and Ultimate Reality

Sept 10:  What is Buddhism?


8:15 PM – 10:45 PM

Screening of Kundun in

Cole Cinema




        Smith, pp. 82-112

Sept 12: No Class

          (Faculty “Retreat”)






Week 3

Sept 15:  Central Features

of Buddhism


12:30 PM

Tibetan Monks

Opening Ceremony

Daugherty-Parker Commons






QUIZ 1: Buddhism       

        Smith, pp. 112-147



Sept 16, 5:00 PM in DPC

Lecture on Tibetan Philosophy and Religion





Sept 17:  Sacred Power:



Tao (according to Lao-tzu)

God (according to Anselm)



        Kessler, ch 3, pp. 38-45

        Pre-Discussion: Prepare your own comparisons of Lao-tzu’s and Anselm’s notions of ultimate truth. Be ready to discuss them in class.

Sept 19: Discussion of

Buddhism and the Visiting Tibetan Monks.




        In class writing


Week 4

Sept 22: Sacred Power:

Comparative Categories




E.B. Tylor

Emile Durkheim

Ludwig Feuerbach

        Kessler, ch 3, pp. 45-56

        RQA 1 (two pages minimum): Prepare five of the eight review questions on pp. 55-56. Include questions 3 and 8.

 Sept 24Case Study &



Ganesha (Hinduism)


        Kessler, ch 3, pp. 56-58

        CSA 1 (two pages minimum):

1. Question1, p. 58

2. One additional question from p. 58

3. Use what you have learned in this chapter to compare Ganesha and Buddha.

III.  Religious Experience

Sept 26: Experiencing the

Sacred: Comparisons


Muhammad’s Revelations

Buddha’s Enlightenment


        Kessler, ch 7, pp. 127-139

        Pre-Discussion: Prepare your own comparisons of Muhammad’s and the Buddha’s religious experience. Be ready to discuss them in class.


Week 5

Sept 29: Debates about the Nature of Religious Experience



Friedrich Schleiermacher

Rudolf Otto

        Kessler, ch 7, pp. 140-143

Oct 1: Mysticism

Yoga (Hinduism)

Walter T. Stace

R.C. Zaehner


        Kessler, ch 7, pp. 144-148


Oct 3: Psychoanalytic

Theories of Religious Experience



Sigmund Freud

Carl Jung

        Kessler, ch 7, pp. 148-152

        RQA 2 (two pages minimum): Prepare five of the eight review questions on p. 152. Include questions 2 and 7.


Week 6

Oct 6: What is Islam?





        Smith, pp. 221-257

Oct 8: Islamic Mysticism






QUIZ 2: Islam


        Smith, pp. 257-268

Oct 10: Discussion of

Research Case


St. Theresa of Avila


        Kessler, pp. 152-157

        CSA 2 (three pages minimum, single-spaced):


  1. Explorative Essay (2 pages, see description below)
  2. Question 4, p. 157. (1 page)



Week 7

Oct 13: No Class (Fall Reading Days)



Remember to Bring Blue Books to the Exam

(they are actually green, and you can get them at the bookstore)


IV.  Mythology: Sacred Narrative


Oct 17: Meanings of Myths



Joseph Campbell




Week 8

Oct 20: Myth and Sacred

Story: Comparisons



Enuma elish

The Story of Moses 


        Kessler, ch 4, pp. 61-68

Pre-Discussion: Prepare your own comparisons of Enuma elish and the story of Moses. Be ready to discuss them in class.

Oct 22: Categories and

Theories of Myths


Mircea Eliade



        Kessler, ch 4, pp. 68-74

Oct 24: Myth and Science







Teilhard de Chardin



        Kessler, ch 4, pp. 74-78

        RQA 3 (two pages minimum): Prepare five of the eight review questions on p. 78. Include questions 7 and 9.

Week 9

Oct. 27: What is Hinduism?





        Smith, pp. 12-50

Oct 29:  On Writing an Essay




        Smith, pp. 50-75

Oct 31:  Central actions and Beliefs: The Three Paths




QUIZ 3: Hinduism


Week 10

Nov 3: No Class





Nov 5: Research Case

and Discussion  

Vedic Creation Myth

Bruce Lincoln


        Kessler, ch 4, pp. 78-80

        CSA 3:

  1. Explorative Essay (2 pages, see description below)
  2. Question 4, p. 80. (1 page)


Nov 7:  No Class







Paper Assignment (due on Nov. 24 at the 12:00 talk)



VI.        Religious Studies at St. Mary’s College

Featuring the Faculty of Philosophy and Religious Studies

Each talk will take place from 12:00-1:00 in our regular classroom

Attendance is required

Week 11

Nov 10: 

I Majored in Religious Studies and All I Got Was This Fabulous Job

Prof. Celia Brickman, Head Librarian


Nov 12:

Christianity and Culture: The Case of Martyrs.

Prof. & Chair, Bjorn Krondorfer


Nov 14:

The History of Islam through Records of the Ottoman Court

Prof. Betul Basaran



Week 12

Nov. 17: No Class

Nov. 19:

Studying Judaism

Prof. Devorah Schoenfeld


Nov. 21:

The Challenge of Women’s Equality to Religion

Prof. Katharina Von Kellenbach



Week 13 

Nov 24:

Gods in the Family: Studying Possession in Himalayan Village

Prof. Daniel Meckel


Paper Assignment due



Happy Thanksgiving


VII.  Human Existence and Destiny

Week 14

 Dec 1:  Human Existence and

Destiny: Comparisons




William James

        Kessler, ch 12, pp. 276-288

        Pre-Discussion: Prepare your own comparisons of Sikhism and Christianity along the lines of three of the seven categories given by Kessler on pp. 287-289. Be ready to discuss them in class.


Dec 3: Worldly Ends and

Ultimate Ends




Max Weber

        Kessler, ch 12, pp. 288-296.

        RQA 4 (two pages minimum): Prepare five of the eight review questions on p. 295. Include questions 2 and 5.


Dec 5:  What is Christianity?





        Smith, pp. 317-346


Week 15

 Dec 8: Christian Notions

of Salvation




        Smith, pp. 346-362



 Dec 10: Discussion




QUIZ 4: Christianity

Dec 12: Case Study and



Zen Buddhism


 Kessler, ch 12, pp. 296-298

        CSA 4 (three pages minimum, single-spaced):

1.     Explorative Essay (2 pages, see description below)

2.      One question from p. 298. (1 page)




Section 1: Wednesday, Dec 17th,   9:00 – 11:15

Section 2: Thursday, Dec 18th, 2:00 – 4:15


Bring Blue Books




Midterm Exam.............................................. 200

Final............................................................... 200

Quizzes.......................................................... 100 (25 each)

Book Papers.................................................. 100

Case-Study Assignments............................... 200 (50 each)

Review-Question Assignments...................... 80

Participation.................................................. 120



Final Grade Values
1000 Points Possible

  920 to 1000 = A

  900 to 919 = A-

  880 to 899 = B+

  820 to 879 = B

  800 to 819 = B-

  780 to 799 = C+


720 to 779 = C

700 to 719 = C-

680 to 699 = D+

620 to 679 = D

600 to 619 = D-

599 and below = F


You can go to Blackboard to track your progress in the class



A note on grading: If ever you disagree with a grade, you can always come to me and argue your position. I may or may not be convinced, but I will always take you seriously.

My Office Hours:
My office number and hours are listed above. Please make an appointment if you can, but feel completely free to drop by with your concerns, ideas, questions, etc. I will always make time if I can. If need be, we can certainly communicate by email, but in-person is always best.

Descriptions of Assignments:

Quizzes: There will be four 15-minute quizzes. These quizzes are focused on the four world traditions: Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism and Christianity. The quizzes will be based on both the lectures and the readings in Huston Smith.


Pre-Discussion Assignments: These are brief assignments that will help you to prepare for the comparative discussions of two traditions at the beginning of each section of the course. Pre-discussion assignments will not be collected. Instead, apparent preparation and engagement in the discussions will add to the overall participation score.

Review Question Assignments (RQA): There are four of these and each one counts for 20 points. They invite a careful review of the material in each chapter and ask you to reflect on specific questions. These should be no less than two double-spaced pages long. Margins must be 1’ with 12-point font. At the top line of the page put only “RQA [+#]” and then your name on the same line. Start your writing two lines down. Be sure to do two full pages, minimum.


Case Study Assignments (CSA): These four essay assignments require library research and count for 50 points per assignment. The format for the assignment is as follows:

1.     (Explorative Essay. 2 single-spaced pages minimum) Develop an open-ended question that focuses on something in the case study reading that interests you. Pursue your question by finding at least one relevant article (two is better) and reading it. Compose an essay in which you present your question and develop your thoughts on it using what you have learned from your research. Only materials from the library data bases are acceptable as resources. You can use Wikipedia to get ideas but it cannot count as your primary resource.

2.     (Essay response to question in Kessler. 1 single-spaced page minimum) Respond to the CSA question from the Kessler text, as indicated on the syllabus.

Each assignment should be no less than three full single-spaced pages long. Margins must be 1’ with 12-point font. At the top line of the page put only “CSA [+#]” and then your name on the same line. Start your writing two lines down. If you write only three pages, be sure that the third is not partially complete.


Class Policies: 

Participation” means (1) wakeful presence, (2) preparation of reading assignments, (3) active involvement in class interactions, (4) punctual arrival at the beginning of class, and (5) completion of all in-class writing assignments. Lack of any of these will affect your grade, excessive lack is reason for dismissal from the class.

Attendance is required, though I will allow three free days-off during the semester. Without regular attendance, students do not tend to do well in the class. A note from a doctor, dentist, coach, or funeral director will render any absence excused.  Without such a note, the absence will not be excused. Please note that a phone call or email message saying that you are ill is not sufficient, nor is a note from the health center confirming an appointment. Leaving class early will result in a marked absence. Each unexcused absence results in a 20 point reduction. 

Website, Online Syllabus, Email Communications, and Computer Failure.
This online syllabus can be accessed through the Blackboard course page but I recommend that you bookmark it so as to bypass BB when it goes down. Students are responsible for checking the online syllabus and their email every day. I will announce any and all changes via email -- e.g., a changed deadline or altered reading assignment. Computer failure is not a valid excuse for a late assignment. Broken or unreliable computer? Use the computers at the college. The syllabus is my best projection of how our time will be organized. I might well alter the assignment schedule as seems appropriate or necessary, but I will not change the grading policies.

Academic dishonesty
in any form -- including plagiarism of self or others, falsified documentation of a doctor
s note, etc. -- will not be tolerated. Cheating of any kind results, without exception, in an F” for the course. Really.

Food in class:
Drinks and snacks of the very quiet variety are allowed in class, nothing else please.

No activated cell phones are allowed in the classroom (so please turn them off).



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