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 Distiction (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. 


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 Amer

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.

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.

175 - The World of the New Testament

Survey of the major books of the New Testament. This course will set the books of the New Testament within their social, political, and religious contexts, considering how such texts represented, as well as shaped, various forms of Christianity. The course will also examine the process and criteria of canonization in light of these diverse beliefs and practices. Moreover, special attention will be paid to the various scholarly approaches to the study of early Christian literature.

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

198 - Religious Violence: From Antiquity to the First Crusades

Students will be introduced to primary sources in which violence based on religious difference is documented, justified, and/or challenged. Themes of religious difference will be examined; such as, doctrinal/theological difference from within Christianity (heresiological discourses) and religious difference from other traditions (in particular the relationship between Jews, Christians, and Muslims). Similarly, several modes of enacting religious violence will be explored: political/imperial violence (colonial expansion and forced conversion), sexual and gendered violence (rape motifs, self castration, and other bodily violence), and rhetorical violence. Two strands of inquiry will underlie readings, questions, and discussions throughout the course: how religious people othered communities different from their own and to what degree this othering functioned as a dehumanizing apparatus for the enactment of violence and to how those violent actions were moralized to either promote or denounce religious violence. Open to juniors and seniors only. Prerequisite: Open to juniors and seniors only

200 - Turkey: Then and Now

An interdisciplinary program that aims to orient students to the significance of Turkey from a range of academic perspectives. In the semester course, students enagage in an historical study of the peoples and culture of the region from antiquity to the present. Specifically, we study the Greeks and Persians of the Classical period, Romans of the Roman period, Christians of Late Antiquity and Byzantium, and Turks from the Ottoman period to Atatürk's reform and the modern Republic, paying attention to the ways in which these groups cooperated, competed, and absorbed ideas and traditions from each other. In addition to the historical study facilitated by the instructor, students are expected to conduct independent research projects on an aspect of Turkish history/culture that relates to their major/minor and their unique intellectual interests. At the end of the semester, participants in the program will spend a few weeks in Turkey where they deepen their understanding of Turkish history and culture. Our field study will take us to the ancient capitol of Istanbul, to the modern capitol of Ankara, to the interior of the country (Cappadocia, Konya, Hierapolis, Aphrodisias), then over to the Aegean coast and up the Gallipoli. On site, students will learn from the expert guidance of Prof. Upson-Saia, from a Turkish guide, and from one another as they present their research findings a site related to their topic. Prerequisite: instructor permission; application process

218 - Women, Gender, and Christianity in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages

This course will engage and interpret primary sources related to women and gender from the 4th-10th centuries CE in the Mediterranean and Europe. We will aim to understand how ideas, behaviors, and roles related to women and gender were transformed over time, especially through the process of Christianization. We will pay special attention to the use of gender as a category for the study of history, reading theoretical work on gender alongside our historical sources.

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. Prerequisites: RELS 150 or permission of instructor.

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.

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.

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 emergent ecofeminism?

245 - African American Religious Traditions

A study of the religious traditions of the African diaspora in North America. We shall investigate the role of religion in Black culture, and chart the development of the mainline Black Church. Islam, religious traditions from the Caribbean Islands, and new religions among African Americans will also be studied.

250 - Studying Religion: Multiple 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. Prerequisite: one previous Religious Studies course.

251 - What is Enlightenment?

This course takes Immanuel Kant's question, "What is enlightenment?, as the basis for a cross-cultural, comparative exploration of aspirational ideals for human life. The focus for this year's course will be the forms of 'enlightenment' found in classical Chinese Daoism and in the history of Buddhist philosophy placed in critical juxtaposition to Kant, Nietzsche, and post-Nietzschean thinking in Western culture.

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 - Islamic Thought

This course is designed to provide an introduction to Islamicate philosophy and theology beginning with its early articluation in the 9th century CE and following its transformations through the 12th century CE. Students will explore the central metaphysical, moral, and political problems of this tradition as elaborated by its foremost thinkers - for example, al Kindi, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Ibn Rushd (Averros), al-Ghazali, al-Farabi, and Nasr Khosrow. Special attention will be paid to the appropriation of Ancient Persian and Greek thought, as well as to how the Islamic tradition came to influence later Occidental, Christian, and Jewish thought.

280 - The Concept of Freedom: Issues in the Humanities

Our experience of freedom is riddled with contradictions. The effort to reliably predict or causally explain not just the natural world but our every decision and action permeates contemporary life. From physics through the social sciences, the belief in our capacity for mathematical prediction and causal explanation is increasingly dominant, so much so that we simply take it for granted. And yet, the idea of human freedom persists. It too is taken for granted -- not only in our daily lives where we continue to act as if we chose and decide freely, but also in our politics where it is championed and proclaimed. Nowhere is this more true than in the Arts and Humanities where freedom is a fundamental principle. But as Socrates would ask--do we even know what we mean when we say 'freedom'? Have we seriously examined our ideas of freedom in light of our equally strong faith in prediction and determinate causal explanation? This course seeks to carry out that examination and to cultivate a more critical and well-founded concept of freedom.

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'?

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.  In addition to surveying apocryphal texts and their early Christian contexts, the major assignment of the course will be to collaborate with Prof. Upson-Saia on her current research project: a study of how ideas found in the New Testament Apocrypha persist in Catholic tradition—specifically, in Catholic doctrine, art, and liturgy—even though the texts themselves were excluded from the Christian Bible. Prerequisite: Open to Juniors and Seniors

295 - Topics in Religious Studies

The Contemplative Life and Social Justice
Over the course of religious history, some have chosen lives of contemplation and prayer, seeking to explore religion in its depth dimension. This course examines the lives of Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, who in 20th century America, 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 founding of the Catholic Worker Movement and the running of Hospitality Houses for the urban poor over several decades. Merton, a Trappist monk, took vows of silence, but voiced concerns for justice and peace through his popular writings as a religious thinker and social critic; he fostered interreligious dialogue among Christians and Buddhists in Asia and elsewhere. We will review the history of contemplation in the Western traditon and ponder the meaning and value of contemplation for post-modern lives. We will read extensive works by and about Day and Merton to understand how they each led lives of contemplation while tending to the world swirling around them.

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.

340 - American Religion: Communities and Movements

A study of selected religious communities and movements in American history. The social cultural and religious purposes and impacts of groups such as the Shakers, the Native American Church, the Hasidim, Pentecostalism, and Mexican American religion will be explored.

345 - American Spiritualities

This advanced seminar will investigate the meanings and traditions behind the popular American claim, "I'm spiritual but not religious." What is spirituality in the American context? How and why does spirituality overtake religion in appeal and status? What historical features of American culture and society promote contemporary issues of spirituality? Prerequisite: one previous Religious Studies course.

347 - Religion and the United States Supreme Court

An intensive review of landmark cases concerning the establishment and free exercise of religion clauses of the first amendment. We will study the history and varying interpretation of these clauses. Students will focus on mastering the arguments presented in landmark cases concerning sabbath observance, religion and the schools, ritual animal sacrifice, ritual drug use, and religious displays in public places, among others. Open to juniors and seniors only. 

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

An intensive review of landmark cases concerning the establishment and free exercise of religion clauses of the first amendment. We will study the history and varying interpretation of these clauses. Students will focus on mastering the arguments presented in landmark cases concerning sabbath observance, religion and the schools, ritual animal sacrifice, ritual drug use, and religious displays in public places, among others. Open to juniors and seniors only. 

360 - Philosophy of Religion

This course seeks to develop an understanding of religion by thinking philosophically and cross-culturally about religious practices and claims, and by considering what roles religions play in human cultures. Among course topics will be the kinds and status of religious experience, the relation between religion and morality, religious discourse and the kinds of truth claims made in different traditions. Prerequisite: One course in RS

365 - Seminar: 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 cultures-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



375 - The Moral Life

In this course we will seek to understand the critique of religion and certain principles of morality set out in Nietzsche's writings. This means coming to terms with the crisis that arises once the basic values grounding our life conduct have been undermined. We will then examine Nietzsche's efforts to articulate a new ideal of a moral or beautiful life that has no absolute standard for truth or good. In the second part of the course, we will examine how Nietzsche's project is taken up in Martin Heidegger's Being and Time and Heidegger's lecture course on Nietzsche.

380 - Religious Figures

A comprehensive study of persons whose religious insight and/or activity has become significant to others.

385 - Contemporary Religious Thought

An examination of religious thought emerging out of the philosophical projects that declared the "death of God" and the "end of metaphysics." Following a careful study of key philosophical and theological concepts, students will analyze both the critiques levied against these concepts and formulations of post-metaphysical religiosity ('A/theology,' 'Death of God Theology'). Possible authors to be studied include Heidegger, Bataille, Benjamin Derrida, Robert Scharlemann, and Mark Taylor. Prerequisite: one Religious Studies course.  

395 - Topics in Religious Studies

Contemporary Islam. Students in this course will examine the writings of 20th-21st century Islamic political thinkers in the broader socio-historical context in which their work was and is produced. In successive years, the course will focus on different regions or countries where these ideas are being articulated - for instance, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan and India, South East Asia, or North Ameria. Beginning with a study of key concepts in Islamic theory and political philosophy, students will then analyze the complex and specific relationship between political, religious, and economic ideas and forces informing the work of authors studied in the course. Special attention will be paid to the ways in which Western and modern ideas and practices, and Western imperialism or colonialism are taken up in their work.

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.

499 - Honors in Religious Studies

Prerequisite: permission of department.


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

Malek Moazzam-Doulat

Adjunct Assistant Professor, Religious Studies

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

Sanford Ragins

Adjunct Assistant Professor, Religious Studies

B.A., Ph.D., Brandeis University