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What is religion? What purpose does it serve? How does it vary across cultures? Can you have religion without god(s)? Why is it growing rapidly in many parts of the world despite predictions of its inevitable decline? Are new forms of faith emerging to replace the old forms? In this subject, we explore the symbolic systems and ritual practices that help us all make sense of our place in the social world, the political order, the environment, and the cosmos. Drawing on classic and contemporary anthropological approaches to religion, we ask new questions about the ancient and novel religious traditions that seem to be flourishing in the uncertain world of the early twenty-first century. The subject involves interactive lectures and small group discussions. Assessments offer students the chance to learn from and with peers; to practice the art of writing concise, engaging, research-based analysis aimed at a broad readership; and to undertake hands-on ethnographic observation of religious practice.
Intended learning outcomes
On completion of this subject students should:
- have an advanced understanding of the key concepts and theoretical debates that have shaped the anthropological study of religion;
- have a clear sense of how those debates have shifted over time;
- be sensitive to the broad range of perspectives that anthropologists bring to bear on religious phenomena (psychoanalytic, structural-functional, symbolic, socio-economic);
- have an appreciation of the diverse manifestations of religious thought and practice in ethnographic settings as diverse as Africa, South America, North America, and Asia;
- have developed an interdisciplinary and comparative perspective on religious phenomena that allows for in-depth analysis of contemporary religious practices;
- be able to communicate in a variety of written and oral formats and to collaborate effectively in groups with people whose disciplinary and cultural backgrounds may differ from their own;
- gain a broad understanding of anthropological approaches to religion;
- build more in-depth knowledge of a particular religious tradition in its historical and contemporary diversity;
- practice skills of ethnographic observation and writing;
- practice writing clearly and concisely for a broadly educated non-specialist audience;
- be able to orally summarise, critique, and reflect on the significance of anthropological research in small and large group settings;
- provide constructive commentary on peer's research and writing;
- establish good habits of reading and research through regular reflection.
Last updated: 1 March 2024