A Religious Studies Major at BYU Pt. II

In Pt I we looked at developing a curriculum and focused on “core classes”. That discussion is still on-going. This post will examine the develoment of an Introduction to Religious Studies course (which will be part of the core classes), and a required theories course which majors will take during the Sophomore (and perhaps Junior) year. The issue of language requirements was also raised so let’s toss that into the mix here.

Learning a language other than English is an essential part of most RS programs. Here are the requirements at some of the other institutions mentioned in the previous post (and others that I could find browsing through their websites):

  • Indiana: Second year proficiency in a language other than English (and I imagine related to their field of study).
  • Berkeley: Unclear, but they specify that “students wishing to do graduate work in X should study X-related language”.
  • Yale: Three semesters of a language other than English.
  •  Harvard: One year is required by the college (but “more is strongly encourage in consultation with an advisor”).

BYU of course has a “Languages of Learning” requirement, which can be fulfilled by taking one of a series of math/statistics classes or a second/third year language class. I imagine that a RS program should require the latter and specify that it should relate to one’s area of study. Other than noting that those wishing to go to grad school should have more language prep, should anything else be required?

The next topic for discussion are the Intro and Theories courses. 

Beside practically creating my own syllabus, which I don’t have time for right now, perhaps the easiest way to approach this topic is by posing two questions, and seeing what other’s thoughts are in this regard:

1) What should be covered in these classes? How is the Intro course different from the Methods course?

2) Who/What should be read?

I’ll begin by tossing out three of what I see as essential readings for RS. These aren’t necessarily the ‘top three’, but rather three books I would perhaps teach from had I the chance to teach the classes at BYU. I’m also not sure where I would use each of these books (in the Intro course or in the Theories course):

  • Sharpe’s Comparative Religion: A History. I list it here because I mentioned it in the previous post. Sharpe creates a coherent narrative of the way ‘religion’ has been viewed as a world-wide phenomenon, tracing different approaches and shifts in the contour of the field. For those familiar with Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s The Meaning and End of Religion, this is a more organized and detailed attempt to tease out its background and thesis.                                                                        
  • Mark Heim’s Salvations. This provides a good overview of current debates on religious pluralism, and a powerful critique of the discourse at large. The winning quote:  “Nirvana and communion with God are contradictory only if we assume that one or the other must be the sole fate for all human beings. True, they cannot both be true at the same time of the same person. But for different people, or the same person at different times, there is no necessary contradiction in both being true” (149). This recommendation is the most controversial of the three. It raises the question of a distinction between RS and theology, and the appropriateness of this kind of material at BYU. Would introducing this text destroy the more disengaged approach hoped for in a RS program? Would it challenge standard LDS assumptions in an unwelcoming manner? Disengagement at a place such as BYU can in someways be a ‘blessing’. It can be a blessing in the sense that it merely attempts to describe religious phenomena, rather than evaluating its ‘goodness’ or ‘badness'; therefore RS does not infringe on the religious affiliation of the institute (this is oversimplified of course). Introducing the pluralism discourse from the context of Heim’s work may directly challenge student perceptions of one’s relationship with other ‘religions’.                                                 
  • Gananath Obeyesekere’s The Apotheosis of Captain Cook: European Mythmaking in the Pacific (and Marshall Sahlins’ response- How “Natives” Think). In response to a lecture given by Sahlins on the deification of Captain Cook, Obeyesekere writes this book and raises the issue of ‘mythmaking’ in the enterprise of ethnography. While Sahlins claimed that Hawaiians recognized Cook as a god, Obeyesekere claimed that all that can be proven is that the Europeans believed that the Hawaiians would recognize them as gods. Obeyesekere, therefore attempts to turn the assumption that ‘natives’ are bound by their myths and Europeans are liberated by their rationality, on its head. The Europeans in this case are also caught up in their own process of mythmaking. Two key quotes:  I would add that ethnography is a makeshift construction of another culture, a fiction if you will, by an alien ethnographer using unfamiliar material and poor language skills and often engaged in a hopeless dialogic relationship with informants” (200). “Thus, one difference between us is that while I am self-consciously engaged in makeshift ethnography, Sahlins is not” (205).  
I’m interested to hear other’s suggestions and comments.
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17 Comments

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17 responses to “A Religious Studies Major at BYU Pt. II

  1. anon

    I recommend Seven Theories of Religion, edited by Daniel Pals.

  2. I find all of these as horrible introductory materials, especially for BYU. This may sound bad to you, but I find these way too atheistic for BYU religious studies. The first one might be acceptable, but that depends on if he approaches the history from the viewpoints of the faiths or of the anthropologist.

  3. TT

    How is the Intro course different from the Methods course?

    I am not sure that there is such a thing as a “Intro to Religious Studies” that isn’t also a theory course. One option is to divide up these classes between a history of the field, looking at such figures as Durkheim, Freud, etc (those covered in Pals, per anon’s suggestion), and then do a more contemporary theory class for the second course (the texts you provide above would be excellent, though I would also add Talal Asad’s Genealogies of Religion).
    Another option would be to take an “Intro” course in one’s field of study, such as Intro to Eastern Religions, or Religions of the Middle East, or whatever.

    Jettboy, yes, RS (as opposed to devotional study of religions) is methodologically “agnostic,” at least in many contemporary forms. That said, your distinction b/t the viewpoint of the faiths or of the anthropologists poses a false dichotomy. How else can one understand the viewpoint of the faiths to which one does not belong except as an anthropologist? While earlier approaches, such as Durkheim and Freud were explicitly atheistic, the general turn in anthropology towards more sympathetic accounts of one’s object of study has more or less taken hold in religion (though this is still up for debate in some circles…see the Orsi/Prothero flap from a few years ago on this topic). This is really required reading!

    http://www.hds.harvard.edu/news/bulletin/articles/prothero.html
    http://www.hds.harvard.edu/news/bulletin/articles/orsi_et_al.html#Orsi

  4. Chris H.

    I think that Jettboy’s comment is interesting, not because it has merit, but because it represents the wall that this whole discussion is up against.

    Sweeping generalizations about books which one has not yet read. That is American Religion in the 21st century.

  5. smallaxe

    I recommend Seven Theories of Religion, edited by Daniel Pals.

    This would be a good one. The newer edition, which I, like you, have the old one, has “Eight” Theories.

    There are also several other anthologies/introductions. I’m acquainted with a few. Perhaps there are others that know more about them:

    The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion . I’ve only browsed through it. The paperback is $50, and this raises the issue of practicality in terms of these classes. How strong of a factor is cost in determining what is appropriate to assign?

    Religious Studies by Capps. While it’s an important read, I found it much too encyclopedic and would be hesitant to subject students to it.

    Guide to the Study of Religion by Braun (ed.). I don’t know much about.

    Critical Terms for Religious Studies by Taylor (ed.). I think this would be a book that I would use in class. The essays are written by various scholars on topics dealing with RS. The essay “Religion, Religions, Religious” by JZ Smith, for instance, is great.

    Theory and Method in the Study of Religion: Theoretical and Critical Readings by Olson. Does anyone know anything about this one?

    Classical Approaches to the Study of Religion: Aims, Methods, and Theories of Research This is an anthology of some of the most important essays on the topic over the past 150 or so years.

  6. smallaxe

    I am not sure that there is such a thing as a “Intro to Religious Studies” that isn’t also a theory course. One option is to divide up these classes between a history of the field, looking at such figures as Durkheim, Freud, etc (those covered in Pals, per anon’s suggestion), and then do a more contemporary theory class for the second course (the texts you provide above would be excellent, though I would also add Talal Asad’s Genealogies of Religion).
    Another option would be to take an “Intro” course in one’s field of study, such as Intro to Eastern Religions, or Religions of the Middle East, or whatever.

    Assuming that the Intro course is going to be comprised of younger students and non-majors/those considering majoring in RS, would you teach it differently? Assigning Durkheim’s Elementary Forms , for instance, isn’t that easy for young students and those not committed to the major to get through. Or should that not even be a consideration? In other words, another way to separate out the classes could be by level of depth or difficulty.

    Another way to think of the distinction between an Intro course and a Theories course is that the Intro course could spend more time looking at specific approaches, and less time reflecting on the approach it self. Although such a hard and fast distinction in reality doesn’t exist, it could pedagogically be helpful to separate the two.

  7. smallaxe

    I find all of these as horrible introductory materials, especially for BYU. This may sound bad to you, but I find these way too atheistic for BYU religious studies. The first one might be acceptable, but that depends on if he approaches the history from the viewpoints of the faiths or of the anthropologist.

    Thank you for your comment. I think it allows us to raise some of the larger issues surrounding this discussion in the specific context of these books. It’s interesting that you find these materials “atheistic”, especially Heim’s book given that he’s a professor of Christian theology and teaches at a Seminary. And moreover that he’s not engaging the material from a disinterested, agnostic, or atheistic perspective.

    And secondly since Obeyesekere makes the claim, even in the portion that I quoted, that the ethnographer/anthropologist is engaged in form of fiction, and to assume one’s work as an accurate representation of another/another’s faith is a mistake. I would think that that admittance could make the study of religion more conducive to BYU’s circumstances

    But perhaps I’m misunderstanding you, and you could clarify. Assuming that the Religious Education dept at BYU continues to fulfill a devotional role, why should a RS major at BYU be any different than at any other university?

  8. Chris H. when one has to decide what classes to take, often impressions are all that one has. I might very well be wrong, but by the books as explained it doesn’t sound very BYU acceptable. I find it interesting that smallaxe says Heim’s book is written by a “believer” and yet the description says it might be the most BYU contraversial.

    There is some kind of disconnect here and I don’t mean just between me and others. To half-answer the question of why the RS department at BYU should be different; it is because of the purpose and meaning of Mormonism. We are supposed to be different. Of course, that begs the question if there can be anything other than a devotional element to religious studies. I am on the fence on that one. I feel the Religious Education dept at BYU needs to rise above its current level, but I am not sure if an RS major should exist to do that.

  9. smallaxe

    I might very well be wrong, but by the books as explained it doesn’t sound very BYU acceptable.

    Obeyesekere is already taught at BYU. And it’s the very same book: https://apps.byuh.edu/apps/pirat/DB/ePortfolio/download.php?item=syllabi&col=id&download_id=168

    And this speaks to the larger issue. With only few exceptions, the books posed could already be taught at BYU.

  10. smallaxe

    Chris H. when one has to decide what classes to take, often impressions are all that one has.

    As I understand your objection, it doesn’t involve deciding to take the class or not take the class; but whether such a class is appropriate at BYU in the first place. That being the case, what makes it inappropriate? You objected that they are perhaps ‘atheistic’, and I explained how that certainly isn’t the case. Now I’m at a loss.

    We are supposed to be different.
    Sure, but similar to the way that history is done at BYU, we can also do reputable work.

  11. Chris H.

    “BYU acceptable” rings to my ears like fingernnails on a chalkboard. Of course, you are right. BYU would never go for it. This says more about BYU than it does the books above (As the none religious studies guy here I have not read them either). For now I will wait for that post.

    This is why my BA and MA are from the University of Utah. Go Utes! Go freethinkers everywhere!

  12. anon

    Chris H.-

    Many years ago I took an RS class at the U. It was biased the other way. I can’t tell you how many lectures began, “Not to say anything against the Mormon church, but…” ( he was and ex-Mormon). I felt like a degree from the U. was just as biased as one from BYU. “Freethinkers’ is not a term I would use to describe the U faculty amidst the tumultous political climate of Mormon versus non-Mormon. I felt like faculty wanted to prove they were unbiased as scholars by being very biased against the church. It doesn’t make for good scholarship, IMO.

  13. smallaxe

    Anon,

    I wasn’t aware that the U had RS classes. What requirement did it fulfill?

  14. anon

    smallaxe-
    I don’t remember. It was a long time ago. It was a world religions class–and probably fell under antthropology or something; so I guess it wasn’t really RS. I felt like faculty at the U were often, but not always, anatagonistic towards the church, at least in some of the classes I took.

  15. Pingback: The Danger of the [Bracket] « Faith Promoting Rumor

  16. Chris H.

    Anon.,

    My department was very professional on LDS matters, though I did not do religious studies. I was introduced to Leonard Arrington in a class on democratic theory taught by a non-Mormon. For the most part they did not care about the Mormon v. non-Mormon issue (I was also at the U from 1999-2005, maybe they have moved on since you were there).

    I think that quite a few LDS students felt that they were under attack because they were oversensitive wimps. Anytime someone expressed a liberal opinion (of course, that someone was likely me) they were being anti-Mormon.

    The freethinker part of my comment has more to do with the fact that any religious studies program or class at the Y would have to be heavily concerned about the heavy hand of the administration which is very much swayed by conservative (in the tradtional or orthodox sense) donors. Part of this problem would result from the additional focus and scrutiny placed on such a program.

    BTW, there is no such thing as an unbiased scholar. If that was the case, they would not be informed by their study and research. What good would that be?

  17. I would love to see this major at BYU. I majored in Near East Studies because I felt it was the closest thing I could get to doing Religious Studies. LDS religious scholars are becoming more accepted and desireable, I believe, in the field, and more should be encouraged to pursue this course of study. We have so much to offer–why hide our talents and unique perspective?