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 4.4 out of 5 by 58.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Religion--what and why? This course covers topics that I have been looking for, i.e. what is the function of religion and why is it successful? As a former sociology major, I especiallyenjoyed the coverage of social and psychological aspects of religion. Dr. Jones seems well versed in the many facets of religious theory and explains it well. As other reviewers have mentioned, this is not comparative religion, it covers theories about religion. Look for details of specific religions in such courses as comparative religion and specific religions.
Date published: 2009-06-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Anthropological and Sociological Approach to Relig This course is right up my alley...but you should be clear on what it is. A great introduction to anthropological and sociological ideas by using religion as the subject matter. Professor Jones is even-handed and treats each topic with depth.
Date published: 2009-03-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent introduction to religious studies I listened to the audio version of the course and agree with Alvi's review. This course is an introduction to the academic theories about religion in the discipline of "religious studies". The professor shows how different thinkers shed light on religion from different directions - sociology, psychology, economics, anthropology and phenomenology, and in the process illuminate religion from different angles. Because there are so many perspectives being discussed, it may seem as if the course lacks an overall direction from the beginning to the end. But that is naturally expected in a survey course dealing with theories from so many disciplines. The professor has a nice ability to summarise the views of each thinker and present them in a distilled way within 30 minutes. I found the anthropology lectures on Levi-Strauss and Geertz a little too abstract to understand, but the rest of the lectures were very articulately explained. The professor's voice is very clear.
Date published: 2009-02-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding, But Be Sure to Understand Its Scope This course wasn't what I (naively) anticipated, but in many ways it was better. As other reviewers have noted, the course introduces the religious studies field, which looks at the phenomenon of religion (on both individual and social levels) mainly from the perspective of various human sciences. With this approach, presumably one will "bracket" and set aside the question of the truth or falsity of religions, although some of the perspectives do tend to take a position in this regard (eg, Marx and Freud are critical of religion, whereas Jung and Eliade are supportive of it). Since the course looks at the phenomenon of religion in fairly general terms, particular religions aren't explored, nor is this a course in comparative religion. In that sense, the approach is somewhat abstract, though in a deep and sophisticated way. In fact, while I found TTC's course on "Comparative Religion" by Charles Kimball to be too elementary and therefore a chore to finish, I found Jones' course to be very rewarding and I'll surely go through it again. I also found Jones to be an excellent lecturer (on audio) -- both well organized and clear -- who exudes solid competence as a scholar in this field. I was therefore very surprised to read another reviewer's complaints about his lecturing. Perhaps Jones isn't as effective on video as audio? I can't say, but I do note that no other reviewers have this complaint. The bottom line is that I highly recommend this course to anyone interested in the scholarly study of religion. Just be sure that you reasonably understand what you're getting into before you dive in, and hopefully this review helps in that regard.
Date published: 2009-02-01
Rated 4 out of 5 by from More like a Sociology of Religion I did enjoy this course and got something out of it but it may not be exactly what some customers may expect based on the title. Maybe it is that I am not up on what is taught at universities under a course with this title. It goes through a variety of thinkers who tend to analyze religion from the point of view of religion's role in society. It is definitely not a course in theology or comparative religion. I still found it very interesting and will recommned it as long as it is clear what you are getting.
Date published: 2009-01-20
Rated 3 out of 5 by from A Challenging Course & Ultimately Fails to Succeed Charles Jones is not the ideal lecturer the Teaching Company typically strives to provide us. He appears nervous, sometimes annoying, is an unpolished lecturer, and he even seems to know it. Why that doesn't relax him into a more accessible presentation is curious. He ranges from presenting advanced concepts to giving examples intended to be relevant and amusing, but are neither . He repeats himself during the course many times, perhaps an aspect many college professors naturally develop. He does not seem to be a true scholar in the subject, which affects his presentation to some degree. True enough, he just received his Ph.D. after initially studying other subjects. One can tell these things from the style of presentation after viewing many courses. The course is a broad survey type, so it covers a huge range of figures, each of them could very well take an entire course in their own. Perhaps this is just impossible to do in the first place. But to me, the narratives weren't fully explained enough and didn't connect with each other enough to make it successful. A big challenge to do this, no doubt, but it failed in a big way for me. I had good intentions at the start of the course, and even emailed the professor with some additional information on one of his figures that he found quite useful also. One can find this exchange on my TTC forumer site if they like. The recent course by professor Kimball on Comparative Religion, shows the difference between presentation style. Now some may say that the latter course may have too slow a pace, but it does communicate more effectively and make the information more accessible, which is what the TTC courses seem to be all about, from my point of view. Professor Kimball does go through a "top seven" list of influential thinkers on religion, and he explicitly points out that Charles Jones' course goes into much greater detail on this subject, including many more figures then just seven. So yes, he acknowledges the difference in depth in this case, but in my opinion that sacrifices the typical clarity that TTC clients are used to getting. Their lifetime guarantee comes in handy for many folks in these cases. The course guidebook is erratic at best and useless at worst. It makes one wonder if the author actually watched the same lectures? I can't say I would ever have the time to give the course a second viewing. Which doesn't bode well for anticipating any encore presentation from my point of view.
Date published: 2009-01-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful course: theory explained I am quite impressed by the professor's position in the course: it is as it says: The Study of Religion." That is, it discussed how scholars study the phenomenon called religion. In that way, this course is a course in ideas, or in intellectual history, not really a study about "religion." It is not a comparative religion class, per se, nor does it advocate for any particular religious ideology. I find that a very even-handed approach, presenting the issues, dilemmas, and conflicts that scholars of religion face. It also presents a very contemporary view of cultural critique, including James, psychoanalysis (Jung and Freud), symbolic anthropology, rational choice theory, Geertz, Eliade, Otto, womens studies, etc.) Thank you, Prof. Jones.
Date published: 2009-01-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Course Great course in every regard. Masterfully presented with concise and fascinating content.
Date published: 2008-12-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from As a Phd student I find these courses valuable, both to review information I am familiar with, as well as to explore new subjects not related to my field of study.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The course exceeded my expectations in every way. Excellent quality of information and presentation.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding course! Well organized, insightful, made me want to learn more about this topic. Thanks!
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Beyond expectations, an experience more than just content and lecture.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I find myself remembering my college courses of 40+ years ago and thinking "so that's what they were talking about!" Thanks for clearing up all that confusion.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from As a student of philosophy an religion, primarily for personal interest, I find the cources at the Teaching Company the best available.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Always sent some new and interesting course being produced. It's difficult to keep up with the courses I wish to get.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This was a fascinating course and Charles B. Joneswas well-prepared and very interesting. And, as I said before, the whole thing badly limited by not including the angle of consciousness studies or transpersonal psychology other than Jung.
Date published: 2008-10-17
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