Introduction to the Study of Religion

Course No. 6121
Professor Charles B. Jones, Ph.D.
The Catholic University of America
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Course No. 6121
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Course Overview

Religion undoubtedly plays an important part in the lives of people around the world. As Professor Charles B. Jones notes, many people "would say [religion] is the most important part" of their lives and participate in the practices of their faith as a means of deepening their commitment to and understanding of the world around them.

Whether one acts as an individual, a local community member, or part of a broader fellowship of believers, the approach to religion remains the same: viewing religion and religious life from the inside, "where [one] meet[s] and experience[s] it." What changes, however, when the approach to religion comes from the outside in an attempt to understand the idea of religion itself?

How do scholars proceed with studying the ways the religious experience is felt, shared, and communicated? How do they explain how this extraordinarily powerful force can define and shape the communities it creates?

In Introduction to the Study of Religion, Professor Jones offers a vibrant first look at the discipline known as religious studies and shows how a succession of other fields—sociology, psychology, anthropology, and phenomenology—has each tried to explain the complex relationship among individuals, cultures, and faiths—a relationship as old as the first human quest for answers to fundamental questions of life, death, and what may lie beyond.

Though the evolution of the discipline originated in the minds of intellectuals grounded in Christianity and Western religious traditions, these theories have since influenced the work of scholars immersed in the study of every faith our world has to offer.

Professor Jones's eclectic background—which includes a master's degree in Theological Studies, a doctorate in History of Religions, and a deep immersion in East Asian Buddhism and interfaith relations—makes him the ideal teacher for a course on religious studies. An exceptional ability to assemble complex philosophical and theological ideas into a seamless, comprehensible, and unfailingly interesting whole and a frequent use of vivid historical examples illustrate Professor Jones's command of a field overflowing with streams of different (and sometimes divergent) thought.

Indeed, Introduction to the Study of Religion is suffused with vigorous, challenging ideas and populated by intellectual giants both familiar—Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud—and unfamiliar—Bronislaw Malinowski, Mircea Eliade, Rodney Stark. Professor Jones focuses on how each of these thinkers turned his particular system of beliefs to the consideration of religion in a series of rich stories that surface throughout the lectures.

Auguste Comte, the founder of sociology, had a decidedly unique approach to the study of religion. Agreeing with British philosopher David Hume that religion was indeed bad science, while also believing that it served the vital function of promoting social cohesion, Comte devised a new human-centered religion more suitable for the modern, scientific age of the Enlightenment. His Church of Positive Science, with himself as the original High Priest of Humanity, attracted a significant number of followers and still flourishes in Brazil.

Learn How Scholars Have Grappled with the Study of Religion Itself

Like the discipline it examines, Introduction to the Study of Religion is not about the beliefs of any one religion, nor is it a comparative look at familiar faiths.

Instead, Professor Jones traces the idea of studying religion itself, drawing not only on the challenging and provocative collection of theories from the many disciplines that have influenced the development of religious studies, but also on revealing anecdotes and illuminating case studies that make this course a constantly surprising delight.

  • You'll see how "functional" anthropologists like Malinowski and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown helped pull their discipline out of the drawing room—where their Victorian predecessors had practiced "armchair anthropology," gazing at compiled data to construct their theories—and put it into the field to study a given culture, where observations might be made over a long period. But you'll also see the flaws that persisted in this approach, which often failed to recognize not only the impact of neighboring cultures but also that of the anthropologist himself, as Malinowski's own field diaries, printed soon after his death, dramatically revealed.
  • You'll learn how philosopher Immanuel Kant—no great friend of religion—theorized that we can never make actual contact with the external world, but can know it only from the internal images our minds construct from the raw data pulled in by our senses.

This approach—known as phenomenology—created a tool that later thinkers like Jakob Friedrich Fries, Rudolf Otto, and Mircea Eliade would ironically seize on to study religion as a sui generis phenomenon in its own right. They would no longer have to resort to "methodological atheism" or "reductionist" thinking that would shrink the vast complexities of religion to the limitations of a particular discipline, eliminating the very essence of what they were trying to study.

For Eliade, for example, phenomenology made possible the idea of "the sacred," a true reality that not only could be experienced internally but which could, in what he called an "in-breaking," burst through into everyday existence and affect people's social organization and behavior.

And you'll encounter the prolific work of sociologist Rodney Stark, who, beginning in the 1970s, approached the question of why people engaged in religious activities by setting off in an entirely new direction. Casting aside Freud's idea of religion as a "pathology" and Marx's hostility to what he considered both oppressive and an "opiate," as well as the belief of most social scientists that religion was an irrational activity, Stark and his collaborator, William Sims Bainbridge, began with the assumption that people were essentially rational.

Working within what economists call exchange theory, Stark and Bainbridge developed a landmark body of thought known as Rational Choice Theory, wherein the exchange, according to Professor Jones, is one of certain personal costs—such as curbing desires, acting morally, being good to other people, or participating in religion—in return for the "compensators" offered by their faith.

Though those compensators might well come after death, in the form of an afterlife, they could just as easily be a part of this life as well. In a fascinating case study devoted to Stark's book, The Rise of Christianity, Professor Jones shows how Stark applied his theories to what is often referred to as the "miraculous" increase in Christian believers—from 3,000 to 25 million in only 300 years—to show that Rome's conversion from Paganism to Christianity was, in fact, quite rational. Christianity offered doctrines and teachings that directly addressed many of Rome's most pressing issues. Paganism had given no justification for such values as caring for one's neighbors; in fact, famed physician Galen, when he fled Rome during a time of plague, left behind a (still-extant) letter disavowing any responsibility for risking his own life to treat strangers.

A Fascinating Look at Belief and What It Means—For Believers and Nonbelievers Alike

By the end of this course, you'll have a solid grasp of the major thinkers and ideas that have contributed to this fascinating field of study, including their strengths and weaknesses, as well as insights into many aspects of religious life, belief, and practices—insights that may well have applications in your own life, whether or not you adhere to a religious faith.

And as Professor Jones makes clear, religious studies is a field with room for both points of view as well as all of the analytic tools such a wide and disparate group of scholars have contributed to his field.

"It's true that I am a religious person," says Professor Jones. "I go to church every week. But I also study all of these theories.

"When confronted with data from actual people's religious lives, and in seeking to understand the lives of these people better, one needs to reach into the toolbox and pull out the right tool for the job. ...

"What you don't want to do is to say, 'I am a Marxist' or 'I am a Freudian' or 'I am a Jungian,' and be so committed to the use of a single interpretive tool that one comes to see all religious data as simply supporting that theory. As I've said before, if all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.

"What part do these theories play in my own religious life? I find it very useful to keep in mind both the theological attitude and the religious studies attitude because ... [the] creative tension [between the two] ... keeps them in check and in balance, [preventing] either one of them from becoming hegemonic and controlling. Each critiques the other.

"I think that kind of healthy tension provides a way of maintaining balance in this world in which we live."

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24 lectures
 |  Average 29 minutes each
  • 1
    Understanding "Religion"
    This lecture examines the idea of definitions—including why definitions of "religion" vary so widely—and introduces the four approaches to religion used in this course: sociology, psychology, anthropology, and phenomenology. x
  • 2
    Theology and Religious Studies Part Ways
    Before the emergence of religious studies, discourse about religion was theological. During the Reformation and the Wars of Religion in Europe, a few intellectuals began to think about religion in broader terms. x
  • 3
    A Clean Break—David Hume
    David Hume embarks on a study of religion from a purely secular standpoint, paving the way for the British tradition of religious studies, which tends to see religion as a kind of primitive and inadequate science. x
  • 4
    Auguste Comte—Religion, False but Necessary
    This lecture begins a look at religion from the perspectives of specific academic disciplines. Auguste Comte was a pioneer in sociology, and his theory of religion influenced many whose works Professor Jones will consider later in the course. x
  • 5
    Karl Marx—Religion as Oppression
    None of the thinkers covered in these lectures is more hostile to religion than Karl Marx. He analyzes religion as a tool of owners to keep workers compliant and calls for an assault on the political economy that makes religion necessary. x
  • 6
    Émile Durkheim—Society's Mirror
    Often regarded as the father of sociology, Durkheim sees society as the primary actor in human life and believes that the religious totems observed in tribal cultures are a symbol of society itself and the means by which society imposes itself on its members. x
  • 7
    Max Weber—The Motor of Economics
    Max Weber differs from both Durkheim and Marx in that his theories are not reductionistic. Not only does society produce and influence religion, he believes, but religion affects society as well. x
  • 8
    Peter Berger—The Sacred Canopy
    Peter Berger rearranges many of the social theories of religion put forward by his predecessors, showing that society mediates a total worldview to its members. Ultimately, Berger assigns a positive role for religion as a social and historical force. x
  • 9
    Rodney Stark—Rational Choice Theory
    The sociological study of religion assumed from its inception that religion is a regressive force that brainwashes its followers. Beginning in the late 1970s, many sociologists, led by Rodney Stark, proposed that religion, like any other human activity, is fundamentally rational. x
  • 10
    William James—The Description of Religion
    Although William James made contributions to American intellectual life on several fronts, this lecture focuses on his use of both psychology and philosophy in formulating his theory of religion. x
  • 11
    Sigmund Freud—The Critique of Religion
    Widely recognized as the father of psychiatry, Freud offers a theory of religion based on a model of pathology: religion as neurosis. We consider several fronts in his attacks on religion. x
  • 12
    Carl Jung—The Celebration of Religion
    Jung started his career as one of Freud's most promising disciples. As he began to reflect more independently on human psychology, however, he found himself increasingly convinced that religion is a necessary component of mental health. x
  • 13
    Brief Excursus on Immanuel Kant
    Kant's ideas—particularly about phenomenology, which turned the eye of philosophy away from the world we seek to know and toward the mind that seeks to know it—set the stage for many of the thinkers who follow. x
  • 14
    The Victorians and The Golden Bough
    We look at the two men most important to the birth of anthropology: Edward Tylor and James Frazer, who subjected phenomena from around the world to comparative analysis to distill commonalities in human nature. x
  • 15
    British Functionalism
    Teaching that all cultural forms, religion included, serve a societal function, Bronislaw Malinowski and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown assert that the task is not to learn the meaning of a cultural form but to identify its function. x
  • 16
    Symbolic Anthropology—Ferdinand de Saussure
    We begin our study of symbolic anthropology with the work of the linguist who conceived a new way of understanding the relationship between culture and cultural acts. x
  • 17
    Symbolic Anthropology—Claude Lévi-Strauss
    Saussure's work leads symbolic anthropology in two directions. The first is represented by the Structuralists, led by Claude Lévi-Strauss, who focus on the underlying structures of culture and seek the fundamental workings of the human mind as it builds that culture. x
  • 18
    Symbolic Anthropology—Clifford Geertz
    Clifford Geertz represents Pragmatism, the second trend in symbolic anthropology, which presents religion as a network of symbols requiring a contextual explanation—a "thick description"—to tease out its meanings. x
  • 19
    From Fries to Otto
    A deeper look at the phenomenological approach leads us to the work of Rudolf Otto, who identifies as "the holy" the religious reality to which human beings respond, the experience of which represents the foundation of religion. x
  • 20
    Mircea Eliade
    What Otto calls "the holy" Mircea Eliade calls "the sacred." Eliade also extends Otto's thought by looking at the social and cultural effects of the in-breaking of the sacred into the human world. x
  • 21
    The Women's Studies Perspective
    Starting in the 1970s, such writers as Valerie Saiving and Rita Gross begin to critique the study of religion as seen through the eyes of the all-male academy. x
  • 22
    Theory versus Reality—Case Studies
    Generalized theories of religion are vital to understanding it, but is there a point at which observations in the field are bent to fit those theories? This lecture uses two case studies to highlight the real-life difficulties of observing religious behaviors without influencing them. x
  • 23
    Theory in Action—Case Studies
    Once data have been gathered, how does theory tell us what it means? Two notable examples help answer the question: Albert Raboteau's study of slave religion in the antebellum South and Rodney Stark's reinterpretation of the rise of Christianity in the late Roman empire. x
  • 24
    How Religion Uses Religious Studies
    As religious groups themselves begin to find uses for the methods and theories of religious studies, Professor Jones explores the always-tentative reunion of theology and religious studies in contemporary life. x

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Your professor

Charles B. Jones

About Your Professor

Charles B. Jones, Ph.D.
The Catholic University of America
Dr. Charles B. Jones is Associate Professor and Associate Dean in the School of Theology and Religious Studies at The Catholic University of America. He earned his Ph.D. in History of Religions from the University of Virginia. Professor Jones has focused his teaching and research on Chinese Buddhism, theories and methodologies of religious studies, and interfaith relations. Previously, he taught at Carleton College and was a...
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Introduction to the Study of Religion is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 59.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Gap Filler! This course weaves together philosophy, sociology, psychology and anthropology. The first 20 lectures more or less are an introduction, the last 4 lectures are amazingly interesting!
Date published: 2020-08-25
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Diverse approaches to studying religious phenomena Professor Charles Jones's course titled "Introduction to the Study of Religion" provided a broad and understandable description of various ways to examine the complex and nearly impenetrable topic of religious belief. Using a framework based on notable philosophers and their diverse perspectives over the last several centuries, we come to see religion through a variety of lenses - social, theological, economic and psychological, and an appreciation for what this phenomenon provides is developed. Dr. Jones has a lucid and engaging lecture style, approachable, despite the dauntingly complex nature of the topic. I recommend this course to those interested in the study of this haunting, yet universal human activity.
Date published: 2020-04-28
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Mostly about Atheists I bought the set with Judaism - disappointing but some redeeming features ; The introduction to Religion should have been called an intro to atheist. This was the worst course I have ever bought. I got the DVD set- but recommend download or video.
Date published: 2020-04-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Nice History of the Academic Field Some reviewers seem to have expected a slightly different course: "A History of Religious Studies" might have been a more precise title. With that said, I thought the professor did a heroic job of condensing centuries' worth of thought into a collection of mostly chronological threads showing how different disciplines bring their tools and methods to the study of religion. This course may not tell the student how to do the work of religious studies, but it provides a broad survey of past efforts and points to ample material for further study of whatever raises one's curiosity.
Date published: 2019-03-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Exactly what I was hoping for I am not sure why so many people are disappointed with this course. I thought it was excellent and is one of my favorite course so far. This is NOT the study of any specific religion, it is an introduction to the study of religion itself. I think the presenter did exactly that.. Am 1/2 way through the course and loving every minute of it. It covers a lot of ground, and done in a very logical way. Many have complained about the presenter's speaking skills. Maybe I am too fascinated with the content to notice, but it seemed fine to me... for those who are interested in Religious Studies, then I would highly recommend this course. If you want to learn about any specific religion, then you will need to look elsewhere.
Date published: 2019-01-27
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Leaves out important aspects of religion The course was interesting as far as it goes and the speaker was clear and thoughtful. But it says almost nothing about the way human nature interplays with religion's continued existence. Nothing is said about how religion is a product of tribalism, political exploitation, power and greed. Nothing is said about how religious organizations use fear, guilt, and terror to intimidate and exploit people and to maintain their positions of power and control. Nothing is said about how religious organizations in the guise of serving God fleece their followers of their resources to enrich themselves. To be fair, if the course were to do that, there would be a deluge of outrage directed at the teaching company. So, maybe I am hoping for too much. Still, I regret that this can't be discussed in an adult course on religion.
Date published: 2018-09-23
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Great introduction-but not the study of religion Prof. Jones’ Introduction to the Study of Religion is a disappointment for three reasons. First, his style is less than engaging. Second, the course isn’t really about the study of religion as such but about the disciplines that are brought to bear on the study of religion. And finally, sometimes, he’s just confusing and unclear (as when he talks about Hermeneutics). First, Professor Jones is not a particularly engaging speaker. He’s not terrible, but he’s not among the great professors at the Teaching Company. I listened to the audio version, so perhaps he’s better on video, but I had trouble maintaining my focus on what he was saying and where he was going. He is no Childers, or Allitt, or McWhorter. Second, this course is less an introduction to the study of religion than it is an introduction to the social sciences that have offered theories of religion. To be fair, Prof. Jones does go through a history of theorists who have offered theories of religions, grouping them by the larger social science discipline into which each fell. And he does broadly discuss each of their theories of religion. However, there is very little here that is in reference to today's study of religion. Instead this is a historical overview of the area with almost no connection to a theory of religion that can be applied today. Prof. Jones does take the last lecture to give a something like a modern perspective on where some of the various historical theories stand today. However, this is a very confusing lecture (more on this problem in a moment). He discusses the fact that the modern approach treats the study of religion as less of an explanatory effort and more of an interpretive tool. He explains that the modern study of religion is an effort at hermeneutics (“Theory and methodology of interpretation”). Had this lecture been given at the beginning (maybe as lecture 2) rather than as the last lecture, and had he then tried to bring hermeneutics into the last five (or ten) minutes of each lecture, so that we are given an introduction to have each theory is used in the study of religion today, I would have been far more satisfied with the course as a whole. Instead I feel like I’ve digested a history course instead of a religions studies course. Finally, my third complaint is that sometimes he just doesn’t make sense. I listened to the last lecture twice, just to try to come to grips with what he was saying. If my discussion of hermeneutics in the previous paragraph made no sense to you, it’s only because it made no sense to me when I listened to it. I may not have conveyed what he said faithfully, but I sure could not get my mind around what he was trying to convey. For example, he spends some time on the following “illustration” of hermeneutics: If you say, and take seriously, that “everyone is going to Paris”, then you can never look at people the same way again. He explains that this statement is easy to disprove experimentally. Just interrogate people you see walking around. If enough of them say that they are not going to Paris, then the statement is disproved. However, (he says) if you take this as a lens through which you view everyone walking around, you can never look at them the same way again. What? What does this mean? What is the example meant to convey? As I said, I listened to this lecture twice (and the last lecture is the second time he uses this example). I just do not get what this is meant to illuminate. It doesn’t allow me to understand hermeneutics any better. I do not understand the modern approach to the study of religion any better as a result of this example. But he treats this as highly illustrative. I don’t get it. And I still do not get it. He did not explain hermeneutics in a way that I understand. So, even with the last lecture, I still don't feel any better informed about the modern study of religion. To be fair, the course is an interesting course. He covers a lot of historical ground about which I knew nothing. But I don’t feel that I understand the modern study of religion any better than before I started the course. Maybe I’m better equipped to embark on an intermediate level study of religion. But I sure don’t feel that way and he didn’t convey in what way that’s the case. Parenthetically, Prof. Jones tells us at the end of lecture 24 that he is a religious Christian. (He does to church weekly and actually (apparently) attended seminary for a period of time.) I was surprised by this as he presents without any religious bias at all. His religiosity (word?) was kept well-hidden during the course, and that’s to his credit. It is nice to see that, even today, a person can be both a religious scholar and a religious person at the same time. (Prof. Luke Timothy Johnson is another nice example of this, but his religiosity is much more on display in his lectures that Prof. Jones’ is.) Overall, three stars, but no recommendation.
Date published: 2018-03-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding "101" level course This is the first course I've taken from the Great Courses, and it is excellent. It provides many diverse perspectives about religion, culture, and reality, relating each perspective to others over time and conceptually. The instructor provides helpful and insightful comments which supplement the written material. Additional follow-on reading material is listed to get a deeper understanding around any topic, and thoughtful questions are shared at the end of each lecture. If the rest of the courses from the Great Courses are anywhere near as good as this course, I'm a customer for life,
Date published: 2018-02-20
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