Topics in Religion

Course Description: 

This seminar offers a combination of in-depth reading of selected classic texts elaborating central concepts in the study of religion, and approaching themes relevant to the specific research interests of seminar participants. In an effort to bring into discussion students of pre-modern and modern periods from different disciplinary backgrounds and with different thematic interests and competences, the first part of the seminar focuses on a close reading of Emile Durkheim and Max Weber and the debates leading to the crystallization and spread of concepts of religion in the late 19th century. Embedded intellectually and politically in the transformations of their time, the second part of the seminar addresses issues of comparative religion and global perspectives as developed initially by Weber and Durkheim and later discussions on comparative and universal approaches. The third part of the seminar will be reserved for specific themes and new scholarship to be identified during the first meeting of the class.


Theme and format:

The emergence of the concept of religion in the 19th century is the focal point of this seminar. It will allow us to look backwards and forward in time and to distill central concepts of the study of religion from primarily intellectual and historical perspectives, including those of  sociology and anthropology. The seminar will look at how religion as a concept became a central category in the social sciences and humanities, a category that stands partly in continuity with earlier formulations (Hume, Voltaire, and others), but which also reformulated in dramatic fashion. The seminar will examine how the category of religion has been used to understand larger historical processes, global and local, and social formations, practices. The class will operate by close reading of Max Weber’s and Emile Durkheim’s works at a level and by means commensurate with doctoral study, and will follow the internal sequences of their texts and arguments, and their broader consequences. The reading will be complemented by selected contemporary authors and predecessors that will help situating text and author in their respective contexts, by more recent interpretations, reflecting current trends in scholarship emerging in different circumstances. Needless to say, both pre-modern and non-European perspectives are part and parcel of any reading of Weber and Durkheim. Thus the second part of the seminar will build on their respective approaches to comparative religious study and typologies (Weber) and inherent universalist approach towards the sacred (le sacré).

The final part of the seminar will be left open to allow students to suggest specific topics or literature arising from their own interests.

Learning Outcomes: 

Students of this seminar will be provided with an advanced level of understanding of key problems in religious studies and related fields, and develop further skills of discussion and the critical application of some of the key concepts in the study of religion. Students will have the chance to engage a) with (re-)reading of foundational texts of religious studies and b) with current approaches and critiques. This requires intensive engagement with the material and structured, in-depth discussion, as a result of which it is expected that students will develop a solid grounding in current academic and public debates about religion as normative structure for society, social action (Weber) or fait social (Durkheim). Such solid grounding will enable students to partake actively and intellectually in these debates.


Students will be assessed on the basis of their active participation in discussions and text interpretation (15%), preparation of two of the 10 sessions (35%), and a position paper (50%) on chosen topic, to be determined together with the course instructor during the second half of the term. Deadline for the position paper is January 8th, 2018.

Absence policy follows departmental regulation, however, in special cases alternative regulations may be mutually agreed.