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 Excellent presentation The lectures connect history, economy, and society with religious concepts to produce a new depth of understanding.
Date published: 2017-03-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great perspective. Not a study of religions, but a chronological analysis of the cultural contributions of religions, no matter the specific one. The needs of the individual. To belong, to feel secure, a source of contentment, reinforcement of ambiguities people see in their lives. Religion has great impact on the history of humans. Too bad "tolerance" is not a factor anymore. [in the realm of religion, it has not been for a long time. Not since the golden age of the Abbasid caliphate.]
Date published: 2017-03-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I did not find this course biased I looked at some other reviews and several of the lower reviews claimed this course was biased, but then did not offer any evidence or examples. I did not find this course biased. It is a good look at a lot of different theories of religion. Each thinker seems to be given a fair shake. That's a metaphor, mind you. No literal shaking of philosophers happens in this course, but I only had the audio, so maybe the video would reveal something else. I enjoyed the episode on Freud. I wish The Great Courses had more on Freud. How about a course "Freud and Psychoanalysis". But that's off topic. Still I want to throw that suggestion out there. Throw in the metaphorical sense, of course. I've got a sore shoulder, so literal throws aren't possible at this time. Back on topic: the delivery wasn't especially exciting, but it was clear and organized. I think this would be a good course to listen to if you're learning about particular religions and are curious about how various scholars have approached and tried to create in some cases a "religious studies" methodology. So, for instance, say, you listen to The Great Courses episodes on the World Religions. This course would complement those other courses nicely. Do I have any criticisms? Not really. This course was solid (metaphor), not liquid or gas (more metaphors). I mean it was substantial. I recommend this course, but I don't know if you should listen to me. You don't even know me, so maybe I'm unreliable. I don't know. Grains of salt. Something like that.
Date published: 2016-12-06
Rated 3 out of 5 by from We're all religious... This is a good series of lectures, properly titled: "Introduction to the Study of Religion". It is not about the beliefs of any one religion, nor is it a comparative look at familiar faiths. It's about that quirky characteristic of humans to seek that certain 'something' and hold it as special...weighing everything else against it. It could be the great cosmic muffin, or maybe the sayings of Zaphod Beeblebrox, or, if you like, the firm belief that there is really nothing to any 'religion' (can being irreligious be a religion?...the good Professor Jones suggests, Yes). The lectures involve discussions about the reasons religions are important, from the viewpoints of sociology, psychology, anthropology and phenomenology (a way of looking at the nature of the natural world...e.g. Kant and maybe even Einstein). The discussions are secular and somewhat dry (in my opinion), but necessary in establishing an understanding the need for humans to seek answers to the unanswerable. Only in the last lecture does Prof Jones reveal the obvious, that he is a religious person...adhering to the Christian faith (faith being a very loaded word, not really exposed in any lecture) All religions, it seems, have three similar characteristics: sacred places, sacred rituals and sacred icons...some more sacred than others...some sacred because they are forbidden...some sacred just for the heck of it (sorry, that was the scientist in me speaking). Religions could be purely economic (capitalism), or ideological (Marxism), or, the gods forbid, dogmatic (Islam, Christian, Hebrew and, of course, atheist). Any religious biases we have serves to color our view of the world and affect our choices in more things than we all would care to admit. These are good lectures, well-structured and packed full of ideas and theories from some of the most prominent 'thinkers' of modern times. Dr Jones is a clear, precise speaker, but his material is dry and requires your attention (I often repeated lectures, and had to 'google' some point before I 'got it'.) I recommend this course and religiously believe that on sale, with a coupon, is the only true path to enlightenment. "
Date published: 2015-10-26
Rated 1 out of 5 by from A disapointing course with inaccuracies I was disappointed with this course. I didn't get past the first 2 lectures as the DVD pixelated and staggered as if being watched in a strobe light. The content in those first two lectures was poorly researched with glaring inaccuracies regarding the historian David Hume. However, worst of all was the presentation itself which came across as biased. This is my first bad experience with TGC courses.
Date published: 2015-04-01
Rated 1 out of 5 by from This is Terrible - DO NOT BUY I have purchased several courses from TGC and they have all been excellent in production and value. So I expected the same to be true when I ordered the Study of religion. What a mistake that was. This course is terribly presented, inaccurate and pixelates. The professor tries to hard to hide his bias and comes across as just plain poor which is only surpassed by his boring tonality and evidenced by his lack of general knowledge. As you will have gathered I disliked this course and if it had been my first purchase then I would never have returned to TGC. Fortunately this negative experience was not reflected in the other courses within my digital library. However, I would strongly recommend to TGC that they remove this from their shelves as it will do irreparable damage to their reputation.
Date published: 2015-03-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from My First Course This was the first course I've ever purchased and it will not be my last. I listened over the audio stream and found it very easy to use. Kept track of which lectures I had listened to and was easily able to go back to lectures I had already heard. I didn't know if I would be able to follow the audio but had no trouble at all. The professor was very knowledgable and clear. I found the last lecture excellent, bringing together all that had been covered and showing how this information is used in the study of religion.
Date published: 2014-01-15
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Only half of course is about religion The first half of the course is very good: It is an introduction to the study of religion. The second half is about anthropology, with very little connection to religion. The professor also has to touch all the politically correct bases: a couple of lectures on women's issues, and a lecture on slavery in the South.
Date published: 2013-12-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Survey Course! I thoroughly enjoyed this course which is an excellent introduction to the subject. After finishing it, I must confess that I am somewhat mystified by the tiny minority of harshly negative reviews. Were they disappointed because the professor did not share their bias for or against religion in general or a particular religion? Professor Jones did a superb job with this survey course and I look forward to seeing him in other courses.
Date published: 2013-07-23
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Not what the title indicates ! DVD REVIEW: Along with many other reviewers, taking a cue from the course title, I expected something very different, but in this course there is no study or comparison of religions themselves, nor are we actually taught how to study religions; instead, the lecturer examines the existence of religion, as an aspect or component of life, on various levels. He explains how religion has been but one ingredient of the overall mix in societies. I can't say I'm enormously disappointed, for I found the talks absorbing and valuable, as a kind of adjunct or extension to the actual study of specific religions and "religiosity", which is one of my main drives. The course analyses the concept of religion from the viewpoint of several disciplines and becomes quite scholarly, considering what, for example, anthropology, sociology, and psychology think of religion as a phenomenon. Dr Jones presents his lectures professionally and competently, showing deep knowledge and authority, though not great charisma (which isn't important to some, anyway). I always prefer DVDs to CDs (reading the body language and facial expressions of the lecture is useful), but, very disappointingly, there is asolutely minimal graphic content in this course and the lecturer is a bit wooden ~ it's a "lazy" DVD course, frankly, you might just as well just buy the CDs.
Date published: 2013-07-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent! This is an extremely useful summary of the main sources of the field of religious studies, and of what we have learned through these approaches. The instructor is very much aware of the philosophical and methodological assumptions of each of these approaches, and is capable of showing their strengths and weaknesses. He is also clear about the differences between theological thinking and research that aspires to be scientific. His presentation is careful to keep both separate, avoiding intrusions of one kind of discourse on the other. I am very happy with this course and will keep coming back to it for reference purposes and to deepen my understanding of each of the approaches he discusses.
Date published: 2013-03-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Introduction I took a couple Religious Studies courses and then this one. I really should've taken this one first, it put everything else in quite a good perspective. This course will teach you everything you need to know about Religious Studies as a subject and the different ways to study religion. The instructor is a believer himself from Catholic University and walks next to Christian religious icons, but is very professional about the subject in which he holds a graduate degree. He only mentions his faith once at the end. I found him objective in his lectures, which is good since I'm not a believer myself.
Date published: 2013-03-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Another Great Course; another greeat professor! When I purchased this course, despite the course description, I expected a course on comparative religions. This is not what this course is about. Rather, it is a study of the influences of philosophy, anthropology, sociology, psychology, economics and other social sciences on religion. I was not disappointed from my expectations, but rather, better informed about religion--not its thologies or religious sects. Professor Jones is flawless in his presentations. He is knowledgeable, articulate and bonds with his virtual student. Although his forte is Eastern religions, at the end of the course, he reveals that he is a committed Christian Episcopalian. He states that when asked how he reconciles his knowledge of religion with his personal faith, he states that there is a healthy tension between the two which enables him to better understand both. This revelation was the final "take-away" message for me after completing this outstanding course.
Date published: 2012-12-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Scholarly Good course - not what I expected but once I realized that the content was indeed an introduction to the study of reigion, I settled down and enjoyed the breath and thoroughness of the course.
Date published: 2012-11-05
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Mysterium, Tremendum, et Fascinans This course brings many perspectives to bear on what Professor Charles Jones calls the “theory of religion,” centering in this course around religion’s origins and its anthropological, sociological and psychological interpretations. Because we live in a multi-cultural and multi-religious world where transcultural and meta-cultural understandings of religion abound, it behooves us to examine these critical devices to understand and appreciate mankind’s “ultimate concerns” from a multi-disciplinary point of view. Scholars have tried to define their approach to religion by focusing on two definitions, which address the substance (nature) and function (role) of religion. As an example of a functional definition, Jones cites Clifford Geertz: “Religion is a system of symbols which act to establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations in men, by forming conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.” A substantive definition is given by James G. Moseley, in his book "A Cultural History of Religion in America:" “Religion is a shared apprehension of, or attitude toward, life as grounded in and bounded by a sacred reality which transcends and supports the human and secures its ultimate meaning and worth.” Both substantive and functional perspectives are important in assessing the “what,” “how” and “why” of religious practice and also of religious thought. -- In the following paragraphs I’m going to give an overview of the impressions this course made upon me: Jones follows a basic historical outline. -- Religious studies began after Luther, when Protestants and Catholics were vying for the power and influence in Europe. Wars of religion were being fought in France, and thousands of Huguenots were killed. I have seen religion defined as “something that works until it doesn’t,” -- this certainly was the state of affairs in 16th century France when religion was more a force for evil than for good. Jean Bodin, a French jurist, wrote “The Colloquium” to find a peaceful solution to religious differences, including inviting the viewpoints of Muslims, Jews and agnostics to participate in that discussion -- the first such publication ever to have dealt with this subject. After Bodin, the study of religion began to take on a more wide-ranging anthropological perspective. Where did religion come from? How did it arise? Was it essentially rational or irrational? Humanists began to investigate primitive cultures to find out. Jones cites Giambattista Vico, an 18th century Italian jurist, in saying that religion (and humanity) began with the practice of burying the dead. The Latin word, “humare,” (to bury,) for example, is used in English words like “exhume,” and is also the root for the word “human.” (The surname of English empiricist and sceptic David Hume is likely also a derivation of this root as well!) Hume argued for the extreme improbability, but not impossibility, of divine intervention and miracles in a naturalistic study of religion. Hume’s basis for studying religion -- radical empiricism -- awoke Immanuel Kant from his “dogmatic slumbers.” (Jones’ exposition on Kant’s epistemology has been the clearest I’ve ever heard, and in a sense awoke me from my own uncomprehending slumbers!) Kant’s focus on experience, as opposed to metaphysics, became the basis for a number of thinkers who regarded metaphysical questions as being beyond the limits of human rationalism and who instead concentrated on the nature of experience itself. Kant offered a different foundation for religious claims in saying that our notions of the sublime were not subjective, neither were they objective, but were part and parcel of the way our minds experience the world. Kant said that our religious conceptions, though not provable by pure rationalism, are nevertheless justified based by the practical ends of morality and our notions of the sublime. Kant supplied the philosophical underpinning for William James’ focus on the “phenomenology” of religious experience. I was especially struck with James’ description of decision-making within the “stream of consciousness” as a momentous, forced “live option,” which I’ve experienced in my own life dealing with trying existential issues. James also discusses the seminal experiences of religious conversion (as in the cases of Augustine or Blaise Pascal, for example.) Rudolph Otto made me question my own religiosity, when he said that our experience of The Holy is rooted in “mysterium, tremendum, et fascinans.” I recall Martin Luther’s conversion experience in the thunderstorm, Isaiah’s calling to be a prophet [Is. 6:5] and Job’s encounter with God in the whirlwind [Job 42:6.] Such divine encounters could be dismissed as hallucinations or psychoses by sceptics, but for the scholar of religion, such experiences would be analyzed not only from a psychological point of view, but also with regard to the social, psychic and symbolic effects they cause. Otto’s views on religion made me realize my own shortcomings in regarding religion as a mere intellectual enterprise. On the contrary, I realized that I needed a much more serious attitude about religion, recognizing that an inevitable divine encounter would be a potentially fearful, dreadful and awesome experience! Other theories which edify include Mircea Eliade’s discussion of profane and sacred space, and Carl Jung’s postulation of the human race’s universal mythic archetypes. Some of the course drawbacks? The sociological or anthropological perspectives in this course left me rather cold. I learned that Auguste Comte used to beat up women, for example. Rodney Stark’s “rational choice theory” seemed cynical to me, (despite its applicability to social theory.) Symbolic languages and signs didn’t seem to have much relevance to my way of thinking. Feminist studies make the obvious point that women are part of humanity. Jones says that the Lisbon earthquake happened in 1655, when it was 1755 (a forgivable faux pas.) Other ways of studying religion as a discipline (not covered in this course,) might include examining the religious dimensions of literature, philosophy or history (Plato’s Euthyphro, Melville’s Moby Dick, Augustine’s Confessions, for example, could also lead to insights of about the nature of religion.) This course is like a smorgasbord. Not everything will appeal or inspire, (though everything informs,) but there’s enough of a smattering here to get one to broaden his or her own attitude towards religion, to become aware of perspectives of religious study and to orient one towards living a deeper life from that understanding. Pick what makes sense to you and be enriched!
Date published: 2012-09-06
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Read a Few Great Novels Instead. Seriously. This course might be worth the time to those with a particular interest in learning about the disparate, unsystematic, idiosyncratic, often obvious, and rarely insightful musings of a few academics who seem to have thought that their personal biases toward religion were for some reason worth writing about. If this doesn't sound interesting to you, I recommend passing this one by. (And yes, I realize that this places me in the minority among reviewers. So it goes.) The fact that the twenty or so 'theorists' of religion discussed have almost entirely non-overlapping 'theories' is a rather dire warning sign: Clearly, the religious emblem serves "as a symbol of society itself,...a unifying symbol by which the clan could think of and worship itself [Durkheim, Lecture 6]." No, religion gives people "an ethos, a propensity to act in certain ways [Weber, Lecture 7]." Oh yeah? Well, in fact, "religious belief and behavior is basically rational" and can be deductively explained by a "rational choice theory" consisting of "seven axioms, 104 definitions, and 344 propositions" which are "completely nonsupernatural [Stark, Lecture 9]." Wrong! Religion is "based on an encounter with..the holy...Only those who had had this experience could really understand religion [Otto, Lecture 19]." (All quotes are from the Course Guidebook.) You get the idea. This is exactly the sort of thing that gives the word "theory" a bad name. (Creationists please take note: this is *not* how the word is used in the phrase "theory of evolution"!) It may have struck you that these ideas are not so much theories in a scientific sense as they are interpretations in a literary sense - just one of many possible, and subjective, ways of looking at the literary work, or religion, before you. Well, guess what? Your professor agrees! In Lecture 24 he explicitly acknowledges that these theories are not scientific, and asks, with refreshing candor, "What are all these theories good for? Can they still be applied today?" His answer is "yes, they can," provided we make certain "adjustments," the most important of which is "we take away from these theories their explanatory function." You may want to read that again. The professor has just stated that the theories of religion which he has just spent an entire course expounding do not explain anything. Posing a scientific explanation of a religion, he states, is just as "odd" as posing "a scientific explanation of 'Alice in Wonderland.'" (Yes, this is his comparison, not mine.) Now, I happen to think that it is theoretically (pardon the pun) possible to study religion "scientifically" - that is, to amass empirical data, formulate testable hypotheses, test them, reformulate the hypotheses in the light of the new data, and so forth. The problem is that religion is a really, really complex phenomenon which would be very hard to study well in this way, and those who have tried to do so have tended to overestimate their abilities and overgeneralize their results. In the meanwhile, for any with an interest in obtaining a deeper understanding of the mysteries of humanity and our place in the universe, I also recommend an interpretive approach - but interpretation of actual literary works, and, in particular, of "'Moby-Dick" and "The Brothers Karamazov." It is my theory that those who follow this path will be glad they did.
Date published: 2012-05-15
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Sprawling, Yet Incomplete As a student who majored in sociology many, many years ago, I enjoyed having the opportunity here to re-acquaint with "old friends," such as Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Peter Berger. I get and appreciate the professor's method of studying religion through the lenses of social sciences - sociology, economics, anthropology, and psychology. It was helpful to me as a serious student of religion to take this journey. But it was a journey not without serious problems along the path. As the professor concedes, there is much lacking scientifically in many of the approaches he covers. And they bear the further deficiency of being virtually always reductionist. For example, Marx is an atheist whose views on religion were hardly objective in that they were anchored almost entirely in his political dogma. Freud was another atheist whose Totem and Taboo was no more scientific than the most ancient and superstitious religions. The methodologies utilized by Tyler, Frazer, Malinowski, and Radcliffe-Brown were so suspect, it's hard to take their conclusions seriously. As to Levi-Strauss, even the good professor admits his work today is largely left unused in the toolbox. Near the course's end, Professor Jones actually admits the weaknesses of several of these approaches and offers up the idea that we should treat them really not as science but rather as heuristics. I thought that was a good idea, but he had no time left to do much with it. The main problem with the course was that there was virtually no religion in a course on religion. Other than a couple of lovely lectures on Otto and Eliade tucked away in a section on phenomenology, there was almost nothing on the view "from within." Again, I get the desire within the discipline to put the old theology aside and look at it from the outside. But there are two huge weaknesses in the way that's been done. One, as I've discussed, is the rather subjective, political, and/or scientifically suspect nature of much of it. And, two, theology can't be written off by the simplistic view that it is "a top down view of pristine truth to which humans must conform," which does not account for human need. Does Jones really think this is true of the thinking and work of Christian theologians such as Bonhoeffer or Niebuhr or Jewish theologians such as Buber, Levinas, or Heschel? I hope the professor will refresh and update the course by deleting material of little enduring value, applying some of his own fresh thinking, and devoting at least 6 of the 24 lectures to the contribution of humanistic religious thinkers whose work would be incredibly valuable to any introduction to the study of religion.
Date published: 2012-05-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Penetrating analysis of the subject Let me say "off the bat" that I am a theist. I have studied my faith and others for some years. I have to admit however that I knew little of the way in which religion is or has been studied from "outside" the community of believers. This course is a tour de force overview in which western academic analysis has approached religion and whilst i was broadly aware of Freudian and Marxist analysis the anthropological and rational choice theory perspectives were new to me. It is vital to have an understanding of these (often critical even indifferent)perspectives if one is to engage in the idiom of modern discourse with those that challenge those of us who believe in a Creator. Professor Jones has an engaging delivery style and he covers a vast area of knowledge in an entertaining and informative way. Much of what i heard clearly sat ill with my views and beliefs but my intellect is richer for having gained an insight into these views. Highly recommended
Date published: 2012-03-07
Rated 4 out of 5 by from You Really Have To Concentrate A tremendous amount of information is in these lectures, and in that respect it's a good buy for the money. However, overall I feel that 30 minutes per lecture just isn't enough to provide enough explanation to someone who has little or no background to the material. I find myself having to study the course guidebook very thoroughly and also my additional notes taken during a lecture before I feel I've grasped the main ideas. This is especially true of the anthropology section. In more than one lecture I sensed that Dr. Jones felt rushed and therefore focused on the very basics, especially for Levi-Strauss and Geertz. Perhaps devoting 2 lectures for each of these men would have been far more beneficial, especially as the "Introduction" in the title implies that these lectures are not for an expert. Nevertheless, Dr. Jones was able, for the most part, to convey extremely complicated ideas in a way that I was able to handle, except for the above mentioned anthropology. He made it clear from the beginning that religious dogma was not the subject, and that helped tremendously to know this upfront. I really appreciated his spending an entire lecture on the women's studies angle; this is very very important. Overall I've gained a deep appreciation and respect for the subject, although less variety and deeper discussion of the material he has chosen to share would be my recommendation to help a beginner feel more comfortable and competent. The scope of this course can be overwhelming; less would be far more, for me.
Date published: 2012-01-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Superb course This is the best Teaching Company course I have taken to date. Even if one isn't particularly interested in the subject of Religion, Charles Jones presents tools and ways of looking at Religion that are useful across a wide spectrum of academic pursuits. I recommend this course wholeheartedly to people wanting to expand their grounding in any number of subjects.
Date published: 2012-01-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An excellent course I've been interested in this topic for a while, so I took this course to get a basic understanding of how the subject is looked at. Afterward, I ended up talking to a Religious Studies department head and found that the course gave me the background to hold an interesting and fruitful conversation on the topic. The course material is right on, the presentation is good and I can recommend this course wholeheartedly.
Date published: 2011-11-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Best Course Ever I have listened to nearly every course on religion which the Teaching Company has produced. This is the best I have heard. In my opinion, too many of the professors seem to read their lectures, and the links between concepts are sometimes unclear. These lectures take some of the most complicated philosophical, psychological, anthropological, and sociological ideas as they relate to religious studies, and break them down for the beginner as well as the advanced learner. I cannot praise this course highly enough. Please allow this lecturer to do more courses for the Teaching Company!
Date published: 2011-09-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent, Comprehensive This is something of a "meta" topic, which could easily have devolved into an academic exercise, but didn't. The presentation is sometimes a little dry, but the analysis is careful and relevant to anyone who is interested in the standard courses on religion that The Teaching Company provides. I focus on those courses in my selections, and this course was an extremely useful tool in appreciating them.
Date published: 2011-06-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Well worth the time and money Prof. Jones does an excellent job of providing the listener a firm foundation to his approach on this subject. Prof. Jones provides both an overview of how the study of religion evolved and then goes into some depth discussing the ideas of the people who were the major influences of religious study. He puts these people into categories based on how they approached the subject of religion (which are sociological, psychological, anthropological, and phenomenological). He does a good job of explaining each contributor's ideas, how they evolved, and then pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of each approach. Prof. Jones lectures are logical, concise, and he has a pleasant voice making these lectures very easy to listen to.
Date published: 2011-05-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Collective beliefs that work until they don't DVD review. My great-aunt was born in a deeply Catholic province where young middle-class girls were sent to convents to be raised on a diet of mystical exaltation and classic French literature with a few trashy romantic novels smuggled in. Most of her classmates moved on to married life, but each year at graduation, a few — more introverted, homely or ambivalent about childbirth and male domination perhaps — elected to become nuns. My great-aunt was such a person, and when she came back small and sparrow-light from Africa half a century later, I often wondered who had converted whom. She now rests with her sisters in a small cemetery blanketed every autumn by fiery maple leaves, the only thing she missed while abroad. Quebec at that time had more churches per capita than Ireland or Spain. Today they are mostly empty relics of a past age. And very few women wish to become nuns. How could religious fervour disintegrate so quickly? Religion — or any belief in invisible forces — is plainly the result of group support. If the group moves on, yesterday’s “common sense” quickly looks absurd. Dr. Jones’ course is an introduction to the most influential sociological, anthropological and psychological theories purporting to explain religion behaviour and affiliation. These three disciplines are not concerned with the truth or falsehood of this or that creed — though scepticism is in order given the wild contradictions between them. Rather, the question becomes how do societies create and maintain their own belief systems? And why do individuals in this scientific age still feel the need to believe in religious forces? Is it only a pressure to conform, or are there other benefits, rational or not? Since most of the theories raised by Dr Jones were based on the study of tiny “primitive” or pre-literate societies, many viewers may have difficulty connecting his descriptions with the modern religion we are familiar with. Religion as a personal response to suffering and death is also not Dr Jones primary concern. Whatever your mystical experiences were, at some point you will share them with others where they will be reinterpreted and diluted to fit group reality. This brings us back to Dr. Jones’ subject: religion as group phenomena. Does all of this sound dry and boring? I hope not. This course helped clarify my thoughts on religion. Group beliefs may look absurd, but there is always a pragmatic strain in the human mind that nudges these beliefs when they no longer work for the group. That reminds me of one of my great-aunt’s stories. She and a group of sisters were lost one day while a huge brush fire engulfed the tall savannah trees and grasses around them. They knew a river was somewhere near, but their guides had fled. Holding on to each other’s belts, they walked as quickly as they could. It all seemed hopeless. Their eyes were tearing up from the smoke. They were coughing. At one point, they all got on their knees to pray. Let God decide. After a while, though, things were only getting worse. One sister impulsively pulled out her rosary, twirled it in the air, and let it drop. The cross pointed in what looked like the worse possible direction, but they all got up, grabbed the next person’s belt and snaked their way in the chosen path. At some point, the sound of dry wood burning was deafening. Branches were a mass of flames far above them and no one could see ahead. Yet in the end, they reached their river. So there you have it. They tried prayer, but were also willing to include some pragmatic decision-making. And had they died, this story would have died with them. Instead, it was incorporated into the collective belief system of their little group. That is what this course is about, something collective that works until it doesn’t. No worry, the resilient community will dream of something new.
Date published: 2011-04-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wish I'd had this in graduate school Truly great. Let me count the ways: First, that's the first sympathetic presentation of Stark & Bainbridge I've ever heard from a religionist, and I'm intrigued enough to make their book the next thing on my list. Second, even after sitting through the "intro to history of religion for grad students" courses twice (once at Chicago, no less), that was the first really coherent intro to phenomenology of religion I've ever heard. (BTW, setting it up with the excursus on Kant is a HUGE winner, in my book.) Seriously, I wish that somebody had given me that years ago. Third, the lecture on the women's studies approach also marks the first time I've been able to see it as a true *intellectual* imperative.
Date published: 2011-02-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fantastic Integration Professor Jones not only explains each of the theories clearly and in detail, he also integrates them into a coherent whole. At each step along the way, he demonstrates how the previous theories compare to the ones under discussion. An incredible introduction to a fascinating subject.
Date published: 2010-09-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The (Development)of Religious Studies Religion is ubiquitous but has many forms. This course is about the study of religion generally and not of any type particularly. It should probably be titled: "An Introduction to the History of the Study of Religion." It traces this discipline from it's growth out of The Reformation and Wars of Religion and the intellectual gropings for alternatives to religiously spawned violence. The course is more about the development than the current state of Religious Studies. For that reason, some professors of Religious Studies today may look at much of the course's information as passe or irrelevant. But for me the course should be judged on how well it meets it's objective - to show the development of Religious Studies over time (generally expanding from a Western to universal context). In that sense the course is quite comprehensive. And in that aim Professor Jones succeeds admirably. Its focused aim may limit the course's value somewhat. But the course is very well organized and is presented in a commendably articulate, organized and coherent way. Professor Jones is also respectful and balanced in his presentation. - (I bought the Audio version.)
Date published: 2010-06-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fills in the Gaps Having studied with such luminaries as the late Walter Capps and Donald K Swearer, I can tell you with some authority that you would be hard pressed to find a more thorough or insightful Religious Studies 101 than you'll find on these tapes. Ivy level. As good as it gets, folks. Teaching Company does it again!
Date published: 2009-07-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Worth Multiple Listens This course is fantastic and informative. Dr. Jones explores the field of religious studies from a variety of viewpoints--anthropological, economical, sociological... This course gives a great introduction to the field, and yet is accessible to anyone. No prior knowledge of religious studies is needed to enjoy these lectures, as Dr. Jones does an excellent job explaining its various aspects. What makes the course great, however, is that Dr. Jones brings a level of depth and insight to the study that is lacking from many introductory and survey courses. If you purchase this course you will not be disappointed.
Date published: 2009-07-06
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