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Seminar in Theory and Method 2011

RE 302. Seminar in Theory and Method

Block 2, 2011–12

Professor David Weddle
Armstrong 139

Texts (in order of appearance)

  • Durkheim, Émile. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Oxford University Press, 2001.

    Bataille, Georges. Theory of Religion. New York: Zone Books, 1992.

    Kripal, Jeffrey. The Serpent’s Gift: Gnostic Reflections on the Study of Religion. University of Chicago Press, 2007.

The title of the seminar identifies two subjects of reflection: theories of religion and methods of studying religion. The two seem radically different, but they are closely related as two foci of an ellipse. What we think religion is (theory) influences how we study it (method). Conversely, how we investigate religion influences what we can know about it. The relation is not one way but reciprocal. We do not begin with a normative definition of religion that enables us infallibly to identify instances of it and then apply a standard method of analyzing those instances. Yet without some preliminary idea of what religion is, how would we know what to study? Where would we look for our subject? What itinerary must we follow to find religion and how are we changing even as we are searching for our subject? Thomas Tweed notes that theory comes from a Greek root denoting observations made while travelling. Theory, he argues, is “purposeful wandering,” a process of (transgressive) crossing and (transient) dwelling. His metaphors instruct and warn: to theorize requires cognitive distance from which the familiar becomes strange by appearing in the light of new categories of understanding. Theory seeks to demystify its subject and that process may be especially unsettling when the subject is religion.

Theories of religion typically seek to explain religion either (1) as constituting a distinctive domain of human experience and cultural expression or (2) as derived from prior psychological, biological, or sociological factors.

The first set of theories are called essentialist or phenomenological because they seek to explain the nature of religion by examining how it appears. These theorists attempt to “bracket” their interests in the observation and description of religious phenomena in order to remain unaffected by personal or cultural bias. Their method of analysis involves identifying patterns of religious symbols, forms of social organization, or ritual actions that recur in cultures across time and space. These patterns are abstract and universal structures, such as sacred space and rites of initiation, which different religions define and defend in different ways. According to these theorists, the meaning of a pattern is consistent despite the variety of its cultural expressions.

Mircea Eliade found patterns in the myths and rituals of religious communities. In The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (1957), Eliade investigated an eclectic set of examples and concluded there is universal interest in locating sacred centers where fragile human lives are renewed at the eternal source of creative power. Whether building a fire altar to Agni, erecting a Christian cross, or searching for Atman within, religious people develop elaborate “symbolisms” that enable them to participate in universal and eternal structures of reality. For Eliade, the nature of religion is found in these archaic patterns of belief and practice that he believed were preserved most faithfully among the rural peasants of Eastern Europe.

The second set of theories seeks to account for religion in terms of some more fundamental feature of human experience. For these theorists religion has no essence of its own. Rather, religious beliefs and practices play a role in fulfilling human needs in this world. These theories are often called reductionist or functional and come in many forms.

In The Natural History of Religions (1757) David Hume argued that religion arises from the common “hopes and fears that actuate the mind,” particularly the fear of death and the hope of immortality. Sigmund Freud explored in great depth these psychological origins of religion in The Future of an Illusion (1927). Freud interpreted religious hopes as illusions, exercises in wish-fulfillment informed by infantile fantasies; and he understood religious rituals as symptoms of obsessional neurosis. William James provided a more positive account of the psychological function of religion in Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) in which he distinguished the “healthy-minded” from the “sick soul” as primary forms of religious consciousness. James assessed the value of religious experience by the standards of pragmatism, arguing that belief in God is useful in promoting virtue. Therefore, individuals are justified in holding to faith even if there is insufficient empirical evidence for God because the belief has beneficial effects.

Karl Marx, writing in the second half of the nineteenth century, interpreted religious promises for perfect peace and justice in life after death as a narcotic to pacify exploited workers in the industrial age and as an ideology to sanction the unjust economic advantages of their capitalist employers. Marx hoped that, as the conditions that made religion necessary changed through a revolution of the proletariat, religion would wither away. Émile Durkheim, through the study of “primitive” societies, found a more positive social function for religion, namely as a means of unifying communities and generating symbols of their central values, such as totemic animals and sacrificial rituals. His analysis in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912) reached this conclusion: “…religious life clearly must have been the pre-eminent form and abbreviated expression of the whole of collective life. If religion generated everything that is essential in society, this is because the idea of society is the soul of religion.”

Georges Bataille also saw connections between religion and society, but of a more antagonistic sort in which religion represents primal violence and rebellion against social order. In his Theory of Religion (c. 1948) Bataille explores the link between eros (desire) and thanatos (death) in the human psyche and argues that religion is one means by which both are expressed: the love of God requires the “excess” of sacrifice. Far from the end of violence, religion employs it to free humans from the artificial values of economies of war and industry through gratuitous destruction in sacrifice. Only in that way does Bataille believe humans can reenter the intimacy of the realm of nature.

Against all theories stands the postmodern claim that explanation attempts to control what is explained by containing it within some system of thought. That is, every theory is an exercise of power. Michel Foucault defends this claim forcefully and his views influence a wide range of feminist, postcolonial, and postmodernist critics. Edward Said argued in his modern classic Orientalism (1978) that theoretical constructions of Asian religions, including Islam, were designed to sanction the continuing political control of the nations in which their adherents were found. Said insisted on interpreting the religions of “others” in their cultural contexts, while remaining conscious of the political implications of any theory of religion. Russell McCutcheon goes further to attack all talk that assigns to religion a separate cultural domain free from social and political interests in Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia (1997). Against Eliade and his defenders, McCutcheon holds that religion does not constitute a unique genus of experience, but is rather a complex human enterprise involving social, political, and economic interests that should be studied using a wide range of critical methods. He denies to religion a place of privilege in scholarship and institutional politics and rejects claims that the comparative study of religion requires specialized expertise. (Nevertheless, his Web site carries much useful information about theory and method in religious studies at:

Comparative study of religions has also been thoroughly criticized. In one recent critique, entitled The Invention of World Religions Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (2005), Tomoko Masuzawa argues that even the standard list of “world religions” covered in most introductory texts in our field was shaped by ideals of universality drawn from the European Enlightenment. Thus, Christianity and Buddhism were early on the list, while Islam had to overcome Western suspicion of its “Semitic provincialism.” So near the end of the course we return to the question of whether it is possible to compare religious beliefs and practices across traditions without falling into the errors of imperialist claims to universal truth (“essentialism”), hidden theological agendas (“foundationalism”), suppressed gender hierarchy (“chauvinism”), and superimposed categories of representation (“colonialism”). The authors of the essays in A Magic Still Dwells: Comparative Religion in the Postmodern Age insist that, despite these dangers, comparisons can be made without assuming a normative view of religion derived from the interpreter’s viewpoint or some other privileged source. They argue that comparison is inevitable, since all study of religion requires consideration of similarities and differences, but that distortions associated with earlier forms of comparison can be avoided.

The title of A Magic Still Dwells responds to an essay by Jonathan Z. Smith in which he questioned whether comparative religion was a form of magic (transmuting psychological associations into objective connections) or science (based on empirically defensible systems of classification). For Smith—whose voice echoes throughout this course—this question remains intractable: “How am I to apply what the one thing shows me to the case of two things?” Nevertheless, he concludes, the “possibility of the study of religion depends on its answer.” In his postscript to this collection Smith acknowledges that comparison may be accomplished, in a strictly limited way, by thick descriptions with attention to detailed differences between examples and with clear awareness of the particular interest (in a category or theory) that we bring to the comparison. “The aim of such a comparison is the redescription of the exempla (each in light of the other) and a rectification of the academic categories in relation to which they have been imagined.” We shall see how he practices that method in several essays.

Finally, we will consider the provocative work by Jeffrey Kripal, The Serpent’s Gift: Gnostic Reflections on the Study of Religion. Kripal draws on an eclectic group of sources—Gnostic Gospels, Ludwig Feuerbach, Sri Ramakrishna, Sigmund Freud, and the comic book series, X-Men—to explicate religion in neither essentialist nor functionalist terms exclusively, but as a recognition of a wider field of consciousness that cannot be confined to a socially constructed identity. Kripal argues that religious symbols and practices reflect wisdom about human nature that conventional religious traditions suppress: the serpent’s gift is the recognition that, when our eyes are opened, we become like gods.



Oct 3 2011


Theory/Method: Subject(s) and Plan of the Course

Defining, Confining, and Refining Religion


Review syllabus.

J. Z. Smith, “Religion, Religions, Religious” (Relating Religion, 269–284).



Phenomenological Theory/Method

Eliade: Sacred space as axis mundi: center and origin of “our world”

Critique: Myth is not history; place is not location; itinerant cultures do not require centers.



Sacred and Profane, chapter 1.


J. Z. Smith, “In Search of Place” (To Take Place, 1–13).



Eliade: Sacred time as illo tempore: primordial moment of revelation, paradigm of “real” existence

Critique: The sacred does not designate its space; society creates the space that evokes the sacred.


Sacred and Profane, chapter 2.


J. Z. Smith, “Topography of the Sacred” (Relating Religion, 101–116).




Eliade: Natural symbolism and universal patterns of existence, replicated in religious rituals

Critique: Life on the periphery rebels against form.


Sacred and Profane, chapter 3.


J. Z. Smith, “The Wobbling Pivot” (Map Is Not Territory, 88–103).



Eliade: Human life made sacred by repetition of timeless ideals

Critique: Universal and ahistorical patterns require totalitarian enforcement.


Sacred and Profane, chapter 4.


McCutcheon, Manufacturing Religion,



No class. Essay due at 3:00.





Functional Theories/Methods

Durkheim: Primitive religion as product of collective thought and means of social solidarity


Elementary Forms, 3–46.



Durkheim: Totemism as elementary religion

Elementary Forms, 87–125.



Durkheim: Sacrifice and mimetic rites


Elementary Forms, 243–275.


Durkheim: Festivals and enthusiasm

Critique: If modernist desire for the primitive is fulfilled in violence, is politics of theory sacrificial?


Elementary Forms, 289–322.

Mark C. Taylor, “Politics of Theory” (About Religion, 48–79).



No class. Essay due at 3:00.



Bataille: Human consciousness arises in the loss of intimacy with nature by the creation of tools.


Theory of Religion, 5–42.


Bataille: Sacrifice and festival restore the sacred order by transcending reason and morality.

Theory of Religion, 43–78.



Bataille: Sacrifice of divinity and destruction of orders of utility are the only means to achieve authentic human consciousness.


Theory of Religion, 79–113; 115–127.






12:30. Lunch in Woodland Park and on to Baca


Jeffrey Kripal: Jesus and the secret of religion


Critique of comparative patterns and the necessary fiction of classification




The Serpent’s Gift, 1­–58.


J. Z. Smith, “In Comparison a Magic Dwells” (Imagining Religion, 19–35).



Religion as self-reflection: the secret of theology

The Serpent’s Gift, 59­–89.



Mysticism and forbidden fruit


The Serpent’s Gift, 90­–125, 162–179.



After lunch. Return from Baca




Essay due at noon.



  • Class participation (25% of final grade). This class will be conducted as a seminar. In both its Greek and Latin roots, the term refers to a “seed plot,” a fertile ground which requires the hard work of cultivation to yield a crop. Our small class size makes it imperative that you come to each session ready with questions and observations about the reading. You will need to arrange your schedule to provide adequate time to read and reflect. For some of the denser works you will need to have a dictionary close at hand. We will not “cover” each page in class, so it is up to you to call our attention to passages in the readings that you regard as frustratingly unclear or particularly illuminating.
  • Three reflection papers (75% of final grade). Each essay should be 7–8 pages long, written in conventional English and printed with standard margins, double-spaced, in 12-point font. The prompts for each essay will be announced in advance. Please raise any questions you have about the content or style of the essays. Proofread your essays carefully before handing them in: a precaution that will save your grade and my time simultaneously.


Important Reminder

Write out and sign the Colorado College Honor Pledge on the title page of all papers:

“I have not sought or received unauthorized assistance on this assignment.”


Additional Bibliography

Compiled by Andrew Osterman and David Weddle

  • Asad, Talal. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Johns

         Hopkins University Press, 1993.

    Doniger, Wendy. The Implied Spider. Columbia University Press, 1999.

    Douglas, Mary. Natural Symbols. Routledge. 2003.

    Dubuisson, Daniel. The Western Construction of Religion: Myths, Knowledge, and Ideology. Baltimore:

         Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

    Freud, Sigmund. Totem and Taboo: Resemblances Between the Psychic Lives of Savages and Neurotics

           (1913). Prometheus Books, 2000.

    ____________ . The Future of an Illusion (1927). W. W. Norton & Company, 1989.

    Feuerbach, Ludwig. The Essence of Christianity (1843).  Prometheus Books, 1989.

    ________________. Lectures on the Essence of Religion (1845). Harper & Row, 1967.

    Girard, René. Violence and the Sacred. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979.

    Hervieu-Leger, Daniele. Religion as a Chain of Memory. Tr. Simon Lee. Rutgers University Press, 2000.

    Hume, David. The Natural History of Religion (1757). Stanford University Press, 1967.

    Jantzen, Grace M. Becoming Divine: Towards a Feminist Philosophy of Religion. Indiana University

         Press, 1999.

    Kant, Immanuel. Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone. Second edition (1794). Tr. T. M. Greene

         and H. H. Hudson. Harper Torchbooks, 1960.

    Kripal, Jefferey J. The Serpent’s Gift: Gnostic Reflections on the Study of Religion. University of Chicago

            Press, 2007.

    Masuzawa, Tomoko. The Invention of World Religions, Or How European Universalism Was Preserved

          in the Language of Pluralism. University of Chicago Press, 2005.

    Mathewes, Charles, ed. “Articles and Essays on the Future of the Study of Religion in the Academy,”

         Journal of the American Academy of Religion 74:1 (March 2006).

    McCutcheon, Russell. Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of

         Nostalgia. Oxford University Press, 1997.

    Morris, Paul, Paul Heelas, Scott Lash. Detraditionalization: Critical Reflections on Authority and Identity

         at a Time of Uncertainty. Blackwell Publishing, 1996.

    Otto, Rudolf. The Idea of the Holy (1917). Tr. J. W. Harvey. Oxford University Press, 1924.

    Paden, William E. Religious Worlds: The Comparative Study of Religion. Beacon Press, 1994.

    Ruether, Rosemary Radford. Sexism and God-Talk. Beacon Pres, 1993.

    Said, Edward W. Orientalism. Vintage, 1979.

    Smart, Ninian. Worldviews: Crosscultural Explorations of Human Beliefs. Prentice Hall, 1999.

    Smith, Jonathan Z. Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of

         Late Antiquity. University of Chicago Press, 1990.

    ______________. Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. University of Chicago Press, 1982.

    ______________. Map Is Not Territory: Studies in the History of Religions. University of Chicago, 1978.

    ______________. Relating Religion: Essays in the Study of Religion. University of Chicago Press, 2004.

    ______________. To Take Place: Toward Theory in Ritual. University of Chicago Press, 1987.

    Stark, Rodney and William Sims Bainbridge. A Theory of Religion (1987). Rutgers University, 1996.

    Strenski, Ivan. Thinking about Religion: An Historical Introduction to Theories of Religion. Blackwell,  


    Taylor, Mark C. About Religion: Economies of Faith in Virtual Culture. University of Chicago, 1999.

    Taylor, Mark C., ed. Critical Terms for Religious Studies. University of Chicago Press, 1998.

    Tweed, Thomas A. Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion. Harvard University Press, 2006.