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Religion

Collage of various religious images

Religion is deeply implicated in human culture, shaping morality and ethics, law and literature, politics and society. It is fundamental to civilizations worldwide, both premodern and modern, and it is never far from the front page of any newspaper. Our faculty and students are therefore eager to work in an interdisciplinary way to engage with economics, government, philosophy, psychology, sociology and other fields in their religious contexts.

Students of any religious affiliation, or none, can benefit from a course of study in religion. It is not unusual, however, for a student's interest in religious studies to be motivated by existential questions about human existence and the meaning of life. We believe there is no better way for a person to work out her own answers than by studying the distillations of insight found in the world's religious traditions.

Requirements

  • Compare concepts and practices across religious traditions
  • Conduct independent research
  • Read and evaluate primary materials
  • Critically assess scholarly arguments
  • Present ideas in class clearly and concisely
  • Write articulately

Advisers: Lois Dubin, Jamie Hubbard, Joel Kaminsky, Suleiman Mourad, Andy Rotman, Vera Shevzov, Carol Zaleski

Requirements for Majors
10 semester courses are required, following the guidelines below. Courses counting toward the major may not be taken S/U.

Breadth 
Students will normally take five religion department courses, one each from five of the following categories: (i) Philosophical, Theoretical, or Comparative; (ii) Biblical Literature; (iii) Jewish Traditions; (iv) Christian Traditions; (v) Islamic Traditions; (vi) Buddhist Traditions; (vii) South Asian Traditions. Students may count one of the department’s broad-based introductory courses (e.g., REL 105, REL 106, or REL 108) as one of these five courses.

Colloquium 
Students will take Approaches to the Study of Religion (REL 200).

Seminar 
Students will take a seminar in the religion department.

Concentration
Students will develop a concentration by taking three related courses (no more than one at the 100 level), defined by religious tradition, geographical area, discipline, or theme. To fulfill this requirement, students may count one relevant course outside the department, including a language course relevant to their concentration. Students will define their concentration in consultation with their adviser and then submit the required form to the department by the beginning of their final semester.

Relevant courses outside the religion department
In consultation with their adviser, students may count one relevant course outside the department toward their 10 courses. For relevant outside courses, students should check current offerings by other departments and programs, such as anthropology, art, Buddhist Studies, classics, history, Jewish studies, Middle East studies, music, and philosophy.

Language Courses
The religion department encourages study of foreign languages. For further information, students should consult with their adviser or the appropriate department member.
 
Study Abroad
The religion department encourages study abroad. With the approval of the department, relevant courses taken abroad may count toward the major.

Advisers: Lois Dubin, Jamie Hubbard, Joel Kaminsky, Suleiman Mourad, Andy Rotman, Vera Shevzov, Carol Zaleski

Requirements for Minors
Five semester courses are required. Courses counting toward the minor may not be taken S/U.

Breadth 
Students will normally take four courses, choosing one each from four of the following seven categories: (1) Philosophical, Theoretical or Comparative; (2) Biblical Literature; (3) Jewish Traditions; (4) Christian Traditions, (5) Islamic Traditions; (6) Buddhist Traditions; (7) South Asian Traditions. Students may count one of the department’s broad-based introductory courses (e.g., REL 105, REL 106, or REL 108) as one of these four courses.
 
Seminar 
Students will take a seminar in the religion department.
 

Advanced students in the religion department—normally senior majors who have had four semester courses above the introductory level—may arrange for special studies with faculty members. These courses can be for 2–4 credits, and for a semester or a year. Topics and logistics are worked out with the designated faculty member, and must be submitted to the department for approval.

REL 400 Special Studies
2–4 credits
Offered both semesters each year

REL 408d Special Studies
8 credits
Full year course

Majors in the religion department are encouraged to apply to the departmental honors rrogram and pursue a significant research project of your own design. Students in the honors program develop, research, write and defend a thesis in close consultation with a faculty mentor. For more information, contact the director of honors.

Director: Lois Dubin

430d Honors Project
8 credits
Full year course


Courses

Courses offered spring 2019
 

Introduction to the Study of Religion


REL 108 The Meaning of Life 
Same as PHI 108. This course asks the big question, “What is the Meaning of Life?” and explores a range of answers offered by philosophers and religious thinkers from a host of different traditions in different eras of human history. We explore a variety of forms of philosophical and religious thinking and the ways that they can be directly relevant to our lives. {H} {L} Credits: 4 
Lois C. Dubin, Jay Lazar Garfield 

REL 112 Introduction to the Bible I 

A survey of the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh/OldTestament) and its historical and cultural context. Readings and discussions of  narrative, legal, prophetic and wisdom texts with an eye toward understanding how the Bible developed and has been interpreted by Jews and Christians.  {H} {L} Credits: 4 
Joel S. Kaminsky 

REL 171 Introduction to Contemporary Hinduism 
This course is an introduction to the ideas and practices of contemporary Hinduism, with an emphasis on how Hindu identities have been constructed and contested, and how they have been mobilized in culture and politics. Materials to be considered include philosophical writings, ritual texts, devotional poetry, comic books, legal treatises, personal memoirs, as well as ethnographic and popular films.  {H} {L} Credits: 4 
Andy N. Rotman 

 

Courses offered spring 2019

 

No prerequisites unless specified.


Religious Studies:  Philosophical, Theoretical or Comparative


REL 204 Blasphemy 
Commonly associated with pre-modern societies, the term “blasphemy” has taken on new life in today’s technologically-connected world.  This course examines the notion of blasphemy—its meanings, the invisible boundaries it presupposes both in some of the world’s major religious traditions and in secular contexts, and the different ways of seeing it often signifies.  Based on case studies, it explores contemporary public uses of the term, the competing understandings of the “sacred” it often assumes, and the cultural and political challenges the term presents in a globalized society. The course considers the implications of the public charge of blasphemy in light of issues such as: the religious and the secular; humor and satire; commodification and consumerism; “insiders,” “outsiders,” and cultural appropriation; art, film, and the sacred; museum conservation and display; free speech and human rights. 
(E) {H} {L} Credits: 4 
Vera Shevzov 

ANT 274 The Anthropology of Religion 
What can anthropologists teach us about religion as a social phenomenon? This course traces significant anthropological approaches to the study of religion, asking what these approaches contribute to our understanding of religion in the contemporary world. Topics include religious experience and rationality; myth, ritual and magic; rites of passage; function and meaning; power and alienation; religion and politics. Readings are drawn from important texts in the history of anthropology and from contemporary ethnographies of religion. {S} Credits: 4 
Pinky Hota 
 

Jewish Traditions


REL 223 The Modern Jewish Experience 
A thematic survey of Jewish history and thought from the 16th century to the present, examining Jews as a minority in modern Europe and in global diaspora. We analyze changing dynamics of integration and exclusion of Jews in various societies as well as diverse forms of Jewish religion, culture and identity among Sephardic, Ashkenazic and Mizrahi Jews. Readings include major philosophic, mystical and political works in addition to primary sources on the lives of Jewish women and men, families and communities, and messianic and popular movements. Throughout the course, we explore tensions between assimilation and cohesion, tradition and renewal, and history and memory. {H} Credits: 4 
Lois C. Dubin 
 

REL  226 Gender, Power and Bioethics in Rabbinic Literature    
Explores how the rabbis of the Talmud concerned themselves with bodies particularly in relation to bioethical issues surrounding conception, life, and death. Focuses on the conceptualizations of gender and health in rabbinic literature as well as on questions of power dynamics in Jewish law as it pertains to women specifically. {H}{L} Credits: 4
Lila Kagedan
 

Christian Traditions


REL 242 The Politics and Culture of Russian Sacred Art 
Same as RES 242. How can we explain the power and aura of the devotional object, political symbol, and art commodity known as "the Russian icon"? Revered as sacred, vilified as reactionary, and displayed and sold as masterpiece, this course examines the life and language of this art form, and its role in shaping Russia's turbulent history. Situating the icon on the broader fields of religion, ritual, and visual studies, students will consider topics such as the production and reception of images; the notion of visual “presence”; visuality and spirituality, secularization, commodification, and the sacred; history, memory and collective identities; religion and modern art; visual propoganda, culture wars, and contemporary protest movements. No prerequisites. Open to first-year students. {H} {L} Credits: 4 
Vera Shevzov 
 

Islamic Traditions


REL 246 Muslims, Modernity and Islam 
Major themes addressed by Muslim thinkers since the 18th century, such as Islamic reform and revival, the encounters with colonialism and imperialism, nationalism and other modern ideologies; and Islamic discussions of modernity, liberalism, conservatism, fundamentalism and militancy. Reading of primary sources in translation. {H} Credits: 4 
Suleiman Ali Mourad 

REL 249 Islamic Popular Music 
Same as MUS 249. Music is a complex issue in many Islamic societies. There are tensions between those who believe music has no place in Islam and try to prohibit it, those for whom it is a central component of mystical devotion, and those who tolerate it, albeit within well-defined parameters. The debate intensifies in the case of popular music, a core part of the self-identification of young people everywhere. Despite this, there is an amazing variety of vibrant popular music throughout the Islamic world. This course will explore the religious debates over music and the rich musical tradition (including religious music) in Islam.  {A} {H} Credits: 4 
Suleiman Ali Mourad, Margaret Sarkissian 
 

Buddhist Traditions


ARH 280 Art Historical Studies 
Meditation In Caves: Buddhist Grottoes in East Asia 
The course is an introduction to Buddhist grottoes of East Asia. We will learn the historical trajectories of Buddhist grottoes, including the development of cave architecture, mural painting, and sculpture. It pays special attention to the site specificity of the visual imageries, and their transmissions, commissions, and functions. The case studies in this course range from the Kizil Caves and Mogao Caves in Northwestern China, to the Yungang Caves and Longmen Caves in the central plains, and the Seokguram Caves in the Korean Peninsula. We will also consider the collecting, preserving and displaying of Buddhist grottoes in the contemporary world. Enrollment limit of 20. {A} {H} Credits: 4 
Yanlong Guo 
 

South Asian Traditions


REL 280 South Asian Visual Culture 
How does one make sense of what one sees in South Asia? What is the visual logic behind the production and consumption of images, advertising and film? This course considers the visual world of South Asia, focusing in particular on the religious dimensions of visuality. Topics include the divine gaze in Hindu and Buddhist contexts, the role of god-posters in religious ritual and political struggle, the printed image as contested site for visualizing the nation, and the social significance of clothing as well as commercial films. Credits: 4 
Andy N. Rotman 
 

None offered this semester.

Please use the Course Search to view past Religion courses going back to 2004. A list of Religion courses offered since fall 2007 is also available.

Events

Featured Event

There are no events scheduled at this time.

Event Highlights

Over the years, the religion department has hosted many of the major religious thinkers and scholars of the world. Some of the past speakers and events include:

  • “John Henry Newman and G.K. Chesterton: Reflections of a Biographer,” a lecture by Ian Ker, Oxford University
  • “The Other in the Hebrew Bible,” a lecture by John J. Collins, Yale University
  • “‘Lost’ Between Memory and History: Writing the Holocaust for the Next Generation,” a lecture by Daniel Mendelsohn, award-winning author and critic
  • “Love of God, Love of Neighbor: Martha and Mary in the Middle Ages,” a lecture by Amy Hollywood, Harvard University
  • The Shaping of Many Islams: Struggle Over Authority Between God, Texts and People, an international seminar
  • Buddhism in Mongolia: Rebirth and Transformation, an international seminar
  • “The Bhakti Movement: India's National Religion in Text and Image,” a lecture by John Stratton Hawley, Barnard College
  • A visit by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso

 

 

 

Avery Masters ’20

Avery’s interest in religion sparked after taking an introductory world religions course, which opened her eyes to the many ways that religion plays a role in societies and cultures around the globe. A double major in religion and Russian, Avery’s research experiences focus on the Russian Orthodox Church and its relationship to human rights. Starting this semester, she will also be exploring the connections between religion and philosophy. After graduation, she is planning to continue her studies in religion and enroll in a PhD program.

Cali Nathanson ’20

Cali grew up in a Reform Jewish household and never had a bat mitzvah. She came into Smith intent on architecture, but fell into the religion major after taking an introductory course on the Bible. Her academic interests include secularity as a religious identity and how architectural spaces complement spiritual beliefs. In addition to studying religion, Cali is a coxswain on the varsity rowing team and a member of the improv group on campus.

Study Abroad

Adviser: Lois Dubin

The religion department takes a decidedly global approach to the study of religion, and hence we offer strong support to our students who wish to study abroad. Religion majors have studied on every continent in the world, in almost every imaginable environment, from Smith programs in Japan and India to independent learning projects in Africa, from yurts in Mongolia to the most prestigious universities in Europe.

In addition to Smith College programs, there are Smith-approved programs in virtually every part of the world, from Samoa to Europe, Asia, Russia, the Americas, and everywhere in between. Visit the Office for International Study for a complete listing of approved programs.

Most study abroad programs offer courses that will count toward the requirements for the religion major. Credit toward the major is also offered for relevant language courses. Students contemplating study abroad should consult with the departmental study abroad adviser to learn more about the requirements and transferring credits.

Grants & Prizes 

 

Wilson Rikert Student Grant

 

The Department of Religion offers grants from the Wilson Rikert endowed fund to support Smith College students in good academic standing who want to further their study of religion. Students from all disciplines are eligible to apply. This grant may be used to help fund a research trip, language study, or experiential activities that facilitate learning within the field of the study of religion. Grants are for no more than $500.  Use the following cover sheet to submit an application:

 

Clara Willoughby Davidson Alumnae Scholarship

 

Each year the Department of Religion has the option of awarding the Clara Willoughby Davidson Alumnae Scholarship to a Smith College senior or recent graduate who pursues an advanced degree in Biblical studies and/or philosophy of religion, or in a related field that involves coursework in one or both of these disciplines. Preference is given to applicants who have completed a substantial number of relevant courses while at Smith. Students considering an academic track, seminary, divinity school, or rabbinical school are encouraged to consult with the appropriate faculty in the department well in advance of their senior year.

 

Religion Department Prizes

 

A student competing for one or more of the prizes below should submit a printed copy of her paper together with the required cover sheet to Phoebe McKinnell, Wright Hall 106, by noon on the last day of classes in the spring semester.

One need not be a religion major to submit a paper for a prize and students may submit more than one paper. Prizes are typically awarded to midsized and longer papers that reflect substantial research and innovative thinking.

Winners are notified by the Dean of the College in writing and are announced on Commencement weekend at Last Chapel and at Convocation in the fall.

 

James Gardner Buttrick Prize

 

The James Gardner Buttrick Prize may be awarded annually for the best essay written by a Smith undergraduate on a subject in the field of religious studies.

2017 Recipients

  • Alicia Bowling '17, "Reuniting the Heavens: The Medieval Model in C.S. Lewis's Space Trilogy
  • Grainne Buchanan '17, "Music as Memory, Music as Freedom: Liberation Theology, 'Sorrow Songs', and Rap"
  • Natalie Mills '17, "Return to Eden: Mary Cassatt's Reinterpretation of Eve"
     

Henry Lewis Foote Memorial Prize

 

The Henry Lewis Foote Memorial Prize may be awarded annually for the best essay written by a Smith undergraduate on a subject in the field of biblical studies.

2017 Recipient

  • Lacey Harvey '17, "The Question of Job's Election"
     

Jochanan H.A. Wijnhoven Prize

 

The Jochanan H.A. Wijnhoven Prize may be awarded annually for the best essay written by a Smith undergraduate for a course in the religion department or Jewish studies on a subject in Jewish religious thought.

2017 Recipient

  • Rebecca White '17, "Prophets of Destruction in the Shtetl - I.L. Peretz's A Night in the Old Marketplace and I.B. Singer's Satan in Goray"

Contact

Department of Religion

Wright Hall 106
Smith College
Northampton, MA 01063

Phone: 413-585-3662
Fax: 413-585-3248

Administrative Assistant: Phoebe McKinnell