Death of the Buddha, late 17th–early 18th century, Japan

On the Concept of Religion

Instructor: Ajay Singh Chaudhary
This is an online course (Eastern Time)

Religion is often treated as an easy, simple-to-understand transhistorical category, one often castigated as a basic cause for any number of human ills. One can speak of the great “world religions”: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, Taoism, and so on. Or inquire historically into the “religions” of the Romans, the Mesopotamians, the Celts, the Incans, etc. But whatever the case, one can hardly escape the European (and Christian) mythology of “secularization,” in which the dark, benighted worlds of religious stupefaction gave way to glorious Enlightenment and the Empire of Reason. However, upon closer examination, “religion” appears a rather staggeringly complex and often incoherent concept and category, collecting and classifying hosts of dramatically different practices and ideas into a box largely defined by hegemonic Christian ideals and notions. How can we understand “religion”? What does religion do in society? Is religion (and secularism) a useful and coherent category? Or, are there alternative approaches to understanding these highly varied forms of human social organizations—approaches that might complicate standard binaries of religion and secularism, enlightenment and superstition?

In this class we’ll address these questions through several courses of study. We will look at many of the classic social scientific methodologies for examining religion from figures like Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Karl Marx. We will examine scriptures and commentaries (as well as texts that resist simple classification) from a host of traditions that challenge or model hegemonic understandings of religion, as well as some classic theories of religious experience. And we’ll put such readings in conversation with contemporary depictions of “religion” in modern, largely (but not exclusively) Western media. And finally, we will turn to contemporary critiques and genealogies of the concepts of religion and the secular and ask how such engagements change or augment our understandings of the broad range of practices, beliefs, institutions, and ideas gathered together under the often ill-fitting auspices  of “religion.” Authors will include Durkheim, Weber, Marx, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Rudolf Otto, Talal Asad, Brent Nongbri, and Tomoko Masuzawa, among others, texts from the Babylonian Talmud to Sanskritic commentaries, and several representations in contemporary media.

Course Schedule

Thursday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
July 11 — August 01, 2024
4 weeks


Registration Open

SKU: JUL24-NY-RELIGION Categories: ,