Religious Studies

Overview | Requirements | Courses | Faculty


Courses in the department of Religious Studies seek to cultivate an understanding of religion as a significant, widespread, and diverse human phenomenon. To this end, courses explore the literature, history, thought, ethics, institutions, and practices of some of the world's major religious traditions. Special attention is given to clarifying the role that religions have played in the cultural and social worlds of which they are a part, both how religions contribute to and are in tension with other dimensions of culture and society.

The major in Religious Studies provides a firm grounding in the liberal arts. Students will develop an ability to read sources carefully and critically, to approach the study of a topic from a range of cultural positions and from multiple disciplinary frames, and to develop well-reasoned positions. While the rigorous curriculum and comprehensive project prepare students who intend to pursue graduate work in Religious Studies, the skills developed in the department are also valuable to students who plan to pursue a range of professions, including law, medicine, business, social services, government, or religious vocations. 


MAJOR: A total of 40 units in the department of Religious Studies are required for the major. The major is structured to accommodate a  wide variety of interests relating to the study of religion. Students, working collaboratively with an advisor, will design a personalized program to match their interests and objectives. Some majors may opt for a program that is broadly conceived, seeking exposure to a variety of religious traditions and studying religion through a variety of methodologies (such as, literary studies, history, sociology, or philosophy). Others may choose to specialize in one religious tradition, or in one approach to the study of religion. The only required course for the major is RELS 490: Senior Seminar, which guides students through their comprehensive projects.

We strongly encourage students to take courses in other disciplines – such as languages, art history, music, politics, literature, and history - that will enrich their understanding of how religion is conceived, articulated, and practiced. We also strongly encourage majors to participate in international programs, especially in locations where they may encounter a new religious environment. When appropriate, one or two courses from outside the department or from international programs may be applied toward the major. 

MAJOR WITH INTERDISCIPLINARY CONCENTRATION: Given that Religious Studies is an intrinsically interdisciplinary field of study, some majors may need to partner more robustly with another discipline to pursue the course of study they have designed. For instance, a student interested in the presence of religion in literature or a student interested in the sociological study of religion may need to draw more heavily on the faculty and courses offered by the English or the Sociology departments. Other students with a regional focus or a theoretical focus may need to draw on resources spread across departments. For example, a student interested in Asian religion may need to take courses from the Language, History, and Art History departments, while a student interested in gender and religion may need to take courses from the Critical Theory & Social Justice, Sociology, Philosophy, and History departments. In these cases, majors, in consultation with their advisors, may design a Religious Studies major with an interdisciplinary concentration. A total of twelve courses (48 units) are required for this major, eight courses (32 units)  of which are to be taken within the Religious Studies department and four courses (16 units) from another department(s). 

MINOR: Five Religious Studies courses (20 units) are required for the minor. The courses, chosen in consultation with the Chair of the department, should cover a range of religious traditions and methods of studying religion.  

WRITING REQUIREMENT: Students majoring in Religious Studies will satisfy the final component of Occidental College's college-wide writing requirement by successfully completing the Senior Seminar and the comprehensive requirement. See the Writing Program and consult the department chair for additional information. 

SENIOR COMPREHENSIVE REQUIREMENT: While courses in the major are intended to introduce students to a range of religious traditions and to orient students to a variety of approaches to the study of religion, the comprehensive project gives students the opportunity to select a research topic of particular interest to them and to pursue that topic in much greater depth than course work allows. Work on the comprehensive project will further cultivate and assess the skills that ground the discipline: inventiveness, research and methodological abilities, critical reading, analytical thinking, and effective writing and oral communication.

In the spring semester of their Junior year, students will meet with Religious Studies faculty to talk about potential topics and they will conduct preliminary research. In the fall semester of their Senior year, students enroll in RELS 490:Senior Seminar, which guides students through the research and drafting of the project and which provides students with feedback on work in progress. Although there is no class associated with the comprehensive project in the Spring semester, students are expected to continue to revise and polish their papers until the due date. Also in the Spring semester, students will present their research orally to the campus community.

Once the comprehensive projects are submitted, the Religious Studies faculty assesses the papers and oral presentations, awarding them one of the following marks: Pass with Distinction (PD) is awarded to exceptionally sophisticated work that surpasses the departmental standards, Pass(P) is awarded to work that meets departmental standards, and Fail (F) for work that fails to satisfy departmental standards.

HONORS: The Department of Religious Studies awards Honors to students who have demonstrated excellence in the discipline of Religious Studies. In the Spring semester, the Religious Studies faculty review the Seniors’ record in the department and makes its determinations based on achievement in coursework, sophistication of the comprehensive project, and contribution to the intellectual community. 


110 - Introduction to Native American religions

A survey of historical and contemporary Native American religious traditions, attending especially to how they have developed amid colonization and resistance. Students will study the broad variety of ways that Native American traditions imagine land, community, and the sacred, and study the range of practices, ceremonies, and cultural institutions related thereto. Students will also investigate how these religious traditions have been contested or negotiated when they came in contact with Christian missionaries, in contemporary treaty rights, and in intertribal new religious movements.

130 - Judaism as a Religious Civilization

A comprehensive survey of Judaism from the earliest times to the modern era. Religious ideas, institutions and practices are studied against the background of the changing historical circumstances which affected the Jewish people. Through analysis of representative texts from the Bible, the Talmud, and medieval philosophical and mystical literature, the dynamic interplay between Judaism and the surrounding cultures is analyzed.

145 - Introduction to American Religious Movements

A survey of twentieth century religious movements in the United States, with a focus on the intersection of religion, culture, and society. Often using primary documents, we will study movements such as the Social Gospel, Fundamentalism, Jewish Reconstruction, Pentecostalism, Zen Buddhism, and the Religious Right for their historical, social, and theological significance.

147 - "Cults" & "Sects": New Religious Movements in America

What is a cult or a sect? And why are some communities--such as, the People’s Temple at Jonestown, Branch Davidians at Waco, Heaven’s Gate, Scientology, and the Latter-Day Saints--sometimes portrayed as "cults" rather than as "religions"? Using a range of communities as our case studies, we will investigate how and why certain communities are categorized as normative and “mainstream” while other communities are perceived as dangerous and illegitimate outsiders. We will also discuss what these category constructions tell us about religion and identity in America.

150 - Introduction to Islam

This course explores basic ideas and practices of the Islamic tradition with attention to the socio-historical context of their articulation and reception. Students will examine the historical emergence of Islam, focusing on the life and example of the prophet Muhammad and the spread of Islam under the early formation of the caliphate. Drawing on this historical work the course will proceed to an investigation of core practices and theological concepts. This, in turn, will serve to ground the study of some ways in which Islamic principles and practices have been articulated and institutionalized in the areas of jurisprudence, philosophy and mysticism, art and architecture, gender and sexuality, and politics - including contemporary Islamist political thought.

155 - Islam and the West

The course surveys the varied, historical dialogue between Islam and the West. The course traces the transformational influence Islam and the West have had on each other from the expansion of the Islamic Empire into Europe, to the eruption of Western modernity and European colonialism and imperialism, and through the reactions in Islamicate cultures to the pressures of Western economic, cultural and political forces. The course will also examine the way Muslim migration to the West has affected not just Western culture and politics, but has also led to the transformation of Islamic ideas, practices, and identity by "Western" Muslims.

160 - Introduction to Asian Religions

This course provides an introduction to the primary religious traditions of South and East Asia. Particular focus is placed upon the religions of India, Tibet, China, and Japan. These include various forms of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Confucianism, Taoism, and Shinto, among others. Historical, sociological, and philosophical dimensions of each are presented through lecture, film, discussion, and field trips.

190 - History of Early Christianity

Early Christianity from the first to the fifth century was a complex and variegated phenomenon. We shall investigate the variety of early Christianities in this time period, looking at texts primarily from North Africa, Asia Minor, and Rome. An investigation of the diversity of early Christianity in this time will allow us to think about early Christian struggles over authority and identity, both within Christian communities and between Christian communities and their neighbors, and to challenge categories such as orthodoxy and heresy.

195 - Shamanism and Spirit Possession

This course provides an introduction to Shamanism and Spirit Possession. We will use case studies from Native American and African traditions—in their homeland and in the diaspora—to investigate the historical use and scholarly conceptions of these categories. We will also explore how the use of these terms relates to the construction of Otherness and new forms of religious innovation, paying particular attention to why one term (shamanism) has been used to refer to indigenous peoples of Asia and the Western hemisphere, while another term (spirit possession) has been used to refer to those of African descent.

197 - Independent Study in Religious Studies

Prerequisite: permission of instructor.
2 or 4 units

220 - Nietzsche, Genealogy and Critique

Friedrich Nietzsche’s work articulates a radical critique of Western, Judeo-Christian thought. His critique of transcendental and universal ideas of truth and morality, his attack on dominant Western modes of reasoning, and his transformative account of human freedom are at the roots of contemporary critical theory and the liberating discourses of social justice. This course explores Nietzsche’s critique of Western metaphysics, his method of critique (genealogy), and his proposal for modes of thought and practices of living that overcome the dangers and violence of the Western, Judeo-Christian tradition. The course will also explore the ways in which Nietzsche’s thought has been taken up by postmodern and post-colonial thinkers and critical theorists of race, gender and sexuality.

225 - Sufism

This course provides an in-depth introduction to the traditions of Islamic mysticism. Students will explore the core teachings and practices of Sufism through the literary, artistic and philosophical expressions of the great saints and masters of the tradition including figures like Rumi, ibn Arabi, Sohrawardi, Mulla Sadra and al-Attar. We will situate Sufi thought and practice within broader Islamic thought and practice while attending to the unique modes in which Islamic mysticism has been institutionalized and transmitted.

228 - Chican@ Religious Identities

In this course students will interrogate several overlapping categories of human identity. First we will seek to define the term Chican@, situating our understanding within the historical particularities in which it emerged, as well as studying its economic, political, social, and religious implications for U.S. Latin-Americans who identify as such. Second, we will investigate the ways in which contemporary Chican@s understand Chican@ and religious identity to be interrelated, specifically as a hybridization of Catholic Christianity along with the spiritual traditions of Africa, Asia, and the indigenous people of the Americas. We will also consider the ways in which Chican@s have looked to their spirituality and religious practices in order to construct narratives of identity, belonging, community, and resistance.

230 - Religion and Law

In US history, law has regularly been used to subordinate racial and religious minorities, while law has also been used as a tool in these groups’ struggles for liberation. This course approaches law as a feature of culture, as both a product of cultural (including religious) context and a mechanism to effect cultural change. Students will study cases where religious freedom arguments served to oppress the Queer community, the Disabled community, and Women, as well as cases of struggles for religious liberty among Indigenous, Black, and Mixed communities in the US, as well as. By analyzing legal discourse from the lenses of Postcolonial, Feminist, and Critical Race Studies, students will come to understand that law is not neutral or objective and students will better discern how both religion and law operate at multiple, overlapping levels in society, contesting and constructing meaning.

232 - Ancient Israel and the Jewish Bible

A study of the development of the religion of ancient Israel and its expression in the Hebrew Bible. Special emphasis will be placed on the emergence of the central ideas of Biblical religion which formed the foundation for early Judaism, and, in time, of Christianity and Islam. In addition to close reading of selected Biblical texts in translation, attention will be paid to the historical context in which ancient Israel lived and to the findings of modern critical scholarship and archeology.

235 - Gods and Goddesses of India

An introduction to the gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon. Students will study the mythology, iconography, narrative and pilgrimage traditions, as well as the various movements—ascetic, devotional, and Tantric—associated with Hindu deities.

240 - Religion and Social Reform

This course explores the dynamic relationship between religion and social reform in 19th-century and early 20th-century America. We will examine religious traditions as they influenced and were altered by American society and culture in transition and upheaval. The primary focus will be evangelical Protestant traditions, with some attention to American Catholic and American Jewish traditions as well. Four major areas of social reform will frame the course: the abolition of slavery, the struggle for women's rights, labor and industrial conflicts, and the social gospel reforms of the progressive era. We will use a variety of historical, literary and sociological texts to develop new perspectives on this important period of American history.

242 - Environmental Ethics and Religion

An exploration of the relationship between religion and environmental ethics. How do various world religions view the natural world and what role do they propose for human beings in nature? What is the history of environmental ethics and how does religion figure in that history? How are religious traditions such as Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Native American Spirituality and Taoism rethinking their environmental views, especially in light of ecofeminism perspectives?

245 - African American Religious Traditions

A study of the religious traditions of African Americans, focusing on the United States. We will study both the historical development of a distinctive religious consciousness, primarily Christian, which led to the formation of the Black Church, and the role of the Black Church in shaping culture and fostering a sense of humanity, peoplehood, critique, and resistance. A review of Islamic traditions of African Americans, along with African-derived religions in the Caribbean and Brazil will be included. Issues of race, gender, and politics, and the dilemmas they pose for religion will concern us throughout the course.

250 - Studying Religion: Academic Approaches

The academic discipline of Religious Studies is focused around a subject of study, rather than a uniform methodology (unlike the disciplines of History, Economics, Sociology, etc.). For this reason, scholars in the field approach their work with many different methodological perspectives and tools; they are historians, sociologists, philosophers, anthropologists, theologians, and ethicists. The purpose of this course is to orient students to this broad landscape of the academic study of religion. By reading and analyzing a range of contemporary books and articles that illustrate the latest trends in the field, students will compare diverse approaches to the study of religion, assessing the value and limitations of each.

255 - The Bible and its Interpreters

The course begins with an introduction to the canonization process for the Jewish and Christian scriptures and a study of ancient views about the sacred and inspired nature of these texts. Next, students will survey the range of methods used by both religious people and by scholars to interpret the Jewish and Christian scriptures, paying attention to how interpretations of the bible have been mobilized in support of a range of social movements, political projects, and academic interests. Finally, students will compare interpretations of a set of particularly “challenging” biblical rules and stories.

257 - History of anti-Semitism

A systematic examination of the history of anti-Semitism, beginning with the emergence of anti-Judaism in late antiquity, its transformation into theological anti-Semitism in the Middle Ages, and a racialized anti-Semitism in the modern world. In each period, students will investigate the socio-political contexts that gave rise to the fear of, hatred toward, and attacks on Jewish individuals and communities.

260 - Buddhist Thought from India to Japan

This course focuses on a variety of interests within Buddhist philosophy, including views on time, space and causality, human understanding and knowledge, the ideals of human life, morality and ethics, as well as overall worldview. The course provides instruction in the practice of reading Buddhist texts in translation from Indian, Tibetan, Chinese, and Japanese originals. Lecture presentations, discussions, field trips, and philosophical research projects are significant components of the course format.

261 - Contemporary Buddhist Thought and Practice

This course offers the opportunity for intellectual engagement with forms of Buddhist thought and practice that have emerged in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. It focuses on the development of Buddhist philosophy in response to emerging global culture and on extensions of Buddhist meditation practice meant to coincide with current human possibilities.

270 - Qur'an, Shari'ah, and Islamic Legal and Political Thought

The course examines the relationship between the theological and ethical principles of Islam and political thought. After introducing the emergence and articulation of Islamic law (Shari’ah) and the Caliphate in the Islamic Empire, we will study key scholars of Islamic jurisprudence.  We will pay attention to the ways in which revelation and reason, the individual and the state, freedom and obedience are taken up in Islamic political philosophy, as well as how these ideas have been in dialogue with the West (from engagement with ancient Greek philosophy to engagement with Western economic, cultural and political modernity from the 18th century on). Finally, studying the work of both modernizing and reactionary, anti-modern Islamic thinkers, the course will culminate in an examination of the ways in which contemporary Islamic legal and political thought addresses the relationship of religion and the state, and the Western concept of “the secular”.

281 - Religion and Politics

This course will explore aspects of the complex theoretical and practical relationships between religion and politics ranging from the most abstract kinds of questions regarding the very ideas of 'the religious' and 'the political' to the scrutiny of very specific, particular practices, statements, and conflicts. Possible themes and questions that may be the focus of the course include: the debates regarding the role of religion in establishing political legitimacy and authority; understanding the theological roots of core concepts of political philosophy. How has violence (war, torture, martyrdom, punishment) been understood, appropriated, deployed, and resisted in religious practice and discourse in relation to politics and the state? What is 'the secular'?

285 - Religious Atheism

"We have killed God," Nietzsche explained. But the "Death of God” has not meant, and does not mean, the end of religion. If ‘religion’ and ‘theism’ are not the same thing, if human religious concerns and instincts go beyond a belief in God or gods, then what is religion? What is religion without God? This course will examine and compare two versions of ‘religious atheism’ — the Buddhist tradition and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. In the Buddhist tradition, we find a religious tradition that began without even addressing the question of God or gods and that has continued to develop a non-theistic spirituality for over two millennia. In juxtaposition to that tradition, we interpret Nietzsche’s philosophy, which rises out of the ashes of the "Death of God,” as a radical revolution in Western spiritual understanding and explore its implications in relation to Buddhism.

290 - Banned Books: Introduction to the New Testament Apocrypha

The modern-day New Testament contains only a portion of the literature (i.e., gospels, acts, epistles, and apocalypses) written by early Christians. This course will provide students the opportunity to study many of the texts that were not included in the Christian canon: the so-called “apocrypha.”  We will investigate the process by which the Christian canon was formed, how and why some texts that were beloved by many ordinary Christians were excluded from the canon by church officials, and how the ideological and theological positions found in the rejected texts give us a lens into some of the most heated debates in early Christian communities.  Prerequisite: Open to Juniors and Seniors

294 - Religious Contemplation and Social Activism

This course examines the lives of Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, who fashioned new forms of the contemplative life, often characterized as much by engagement with the world as by retreat from it. Day pursued social justice through the Catholic Worker Movement and the running of Hospitality Houses for the urban poor. Merton, a Trappist monk, took vows of silence, but voiced concerns for justice, peace, and interreligious dialogue through his popular writings as a religious thinker and social critic. We will review contemplation in Western historical perspective, while exploring the works of Day and Merton as models ofcontemplation and activism for a post-modern world.

305 - Islam, Gender and Sexuality

The course will examine the discourses and practices that have shaped gender and sexuality in Islam and Islamicate cultures. The course will explore the articulations of gender and sexuality in Islamic scriptural, legal and historical texts from the earliest period to the present, placing those ideas and institutions within their broader historical, social and political contexts. Special attention will be given to the way gender and sexuality are taken up in Islamicate cultures in the wake of Western imperialism and colonialism.

345 - Spiritual But Not Religious?

This course is an advanced inquiry into how the understanding of religion and spirituality changes over time. It's a thoughtful exploration of the influence of culture in redefining religion and spirituality and in reshaping the relationship of the two.


347 - Religious Liberty and the Law

The religion clauses of the first amendment set up an enduring tension between free exercise and non-establishment of religion; the legal protection of religious liberty emerges from that very tension. This course will review the evolving history of religious liberty in the U.S. Students will analyze arguments presented in landmark Supreme Court cases (concerning religion and the schools, ritual animal sacrifice, religious displays in public places, ritual drug use, church property and zoning laws, etc.) to understand how religious liberty is challenged and advanced. Open to juniors and seniors only. 

351 - "Good" Sex: History of Christian Sexual Ethics

Since the first century CE, Christians have been deeply concerned with defining and policing sexual behavior within their communities.  In this course, we will survey early Christian views on a range of topics related to sexuality. Specifically, we will contextualize these views within Roman and Jewish sexual ethics; we will scrutinize the reasoning that undergirded both majority and minority positions, and we will pay attention to how these discussions had as much to do with governments’ interests, economics, medicine, and gender as they did with religio-ethical commitments.  In the latter part of the course, we will read a handful of sources from the medieval and contemporary periods in order to discern how modern (religious and secular) attitudes, rules, and norms have been shaped by or diverge sharply from  the Christian sexual ethics of late antiquity. Prerequisite: Open to juniors and seniors only.

365 - Buddhist Ethics

A study of moral/ethical thinking in the history of Buddhism. Through a close reading of selected Buddhist texts from India, Tibet, and China, we will examine Buddhist theories of character development and virtue, the ideals of human enlightenment towards which Buddhists aspire, and the practices or disciplines thought adequate to this aspiration.

370 - Death, Dying, and Afterlife in the Ancient Mediterranean

Questions about death, dying, and the afterlife plagued ancient Greeks, Romans, Jews, and Christians. They asked: How does one live a life free of fear and anxiety over one's inevitable and impending death? How can one die with dignity-whether violently or peacefully, whether of one's own volition or at the hands of other humans or God? How should the community structure rituals of death and what should be done with corpses? And, how-if at all-will individuals live on in an afterlife? The central goal of this course is to familiarize students with the diversity of notions about death, dying, and afterlife in ancient cultures by analyzing literature (philosophical, medical, and poetic), rituals, and monuments of the ancient Mediterranean world. We will then contextualize these ideas, noting how and why they developed from driving concerns and circumstances of particular communities, cultures, and historical moments. Prerequisite: Only Junior and Senior students may enroll in this class

395 - Revolutionary Shi'ism in Iran

Revolutionary Shi'ism in Iran. The course examines the development of religion and politics in Iran as it engaged with the forces of Western imperialism and modernity. The course begins by grounding students in the basic concepts of Shi’ism and Iranian political thought. Students will then explore the effect of Western, modernizing cultural, economic, social and political forces on Iran, Iranian intellectuals and on the role of Shi’ite clerics in the political life of the country in the 19th-20th centuries. Next, students will study the writings of a number of clerical and lay religious thinkers whose response to and appropriation of Western modernity contributed to the transformation of Shi’ism and the articulation of a revolutionary, anti-Western Islamic ideology that undergirded the Iranian Revolution of 1978 (leading to the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran). Finally, students will study the complex problem of modernizing protest and reform movements in the post-revolutionary period.

397 - Independent Study in Religious Studies

Prerequisite: permission of instructor.
2 or 4 units

490 - Senior Seminar in Religious Studies

This seminar is offered in conjunction with Religious Studies majors' ongoing research for the senior comprehensive project. Seminar meetings will be devoted to instruction on research and writing in the discipline of Religious Studies, as well as discussion and critique of individual students' work in progress. Open only to senior Religious Studies majors.


Regular Faculty

Kristi Upson-Saia, chair

Associate Professor, Religious Studies

B.A., University of Washington; M.Div., Princeton Theol. Sem.; Ph.D., Duke University

D. Keith Naylor

Professor, Religious Studies

B.A., Stanford University; M.A., Pacific School of Religion; Ph.D., UC Santa Barbara

Dale Wright

David B. and Mary H. Gamble Professor in Religion, Religious Studies

B.A., San Diego State University; Ph.D., University of Iowa

On Special Appointment

Brian Clearwater

Part-Time Non-Tenure Track Assistant Professor, Religious Studies

B.A. University of Tennessee; M.A., PhD., UCSB

Malek Moazzam-Doulat

Non-Tenure Track Assistant Professor, Religious Studies

B.A., Occidental College; Ph.D., State University of New York, Stony Brook