The Department of Religion

at Williams College

Academics

Courses | Degree with Honors | Study Abroad | Graduate School Information

About the Religion Major

The major in Religion is designed to perform two related functions: to expose the student to the methods and issues involved in the study of religion as a phenomenon of psychological, sociological, and cultural/historical dimensions; and to confront students with the beliefs, practices, and values of specific religions through a study of particular religious traditions. It is a program that affords each student an opportunity to fashion his/her own sequence of study within a prescribed basic pattern constructed to ensure both coherence and variety.

Educational Objectives

The study of religion provokes questions about ultimate authority, the meaning of life, truth, the good, the supernatural, the special destinies of particular human groups, and other matters of profound concern. A major in Religion will provide the student with a critical perspective on various answers to these questions and their significance to different communities.

Students will:

Be exposed to important texts and histories of at least one “religious tradition” while also learning about important intra-religious diversity and conflict that complicate any sense of a singular “tradition” (i.e., Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Rastafari, and so on).

Question how different societies, groups, traditions, individuals, and scholars have formulated the concepts of “religion,” “religiosity,” and “spirituality,” and study how these categories were formulated in contrast to other concepts such as “science” or “the secular.”

Gain awareness of at least a couple of disciplinary or interdisciplinary tools and approaches to the study of religion.

Apply at least a couple of disciplinary or interdisciplinary tools and approaches to critical questions about what religion is and how specific religiosities are mobilized in human social worlds; such application is concerned not only with answering critical questions but also evaluating the tools, questions, and answers generated in such endeavors.

Cultivate critical thinking and writing skills as ways to appreciate and interpret cultural, historical, political, and philosophical differences more generally.

Develop tools necessary to carry out sustained research.

 

Beginning with the class of 2016, the major in Religion will consist of at least nine semester courses as follows:

Required Courses

1. Religion 200 “What is Religion? Theories and Methods in the Study of Religion”

2. One 300–level seminar or tutorial

3. Religion 401 Senior seminar

Elective Courses

Six electives at the 100, 200 or 300 level (with a maximum of one 100–level class to count towards major)

In addition, each major will select a specialization route in the major in conversation with and with the approval of the department. The specialization will consist of at least four courses. There are two ways to meet this requirement. A major could fulfill the requirement by concentration in one of the College’s co–ordinate programs or by designating four specialization courses that can be supported by the re- sources of the Religion department faculty and the College. In other words, these four courses might be from among the six electives and one 300–level seminar or tutorial or might include additional coursework from other programs and departments (whether cross–listed or not).

The major will culminate in an extended senior project. The first semester will remain a seminar (REL 401) on a topic in the study of religion set by the faculty member in consultation with incoming seniors. The following Winter Study will consist of participation in a research colloquium. In this colloquium, each senior major will present their individual research projects, begun in the senior seminar, drawing on their specializations and advised by members of the faculty.

For those who wish to go beyond the formally–listed courses into a more intensive study of a particular religious tradition, methodological trend, or religious phenomenon (e.g., ritual, symbol–formation, mysticism, theology, etc.), there is the opportunity to undertake independent study or, with the approval of the department, to pursue a thesis project.

The value of the major in Religion derives from its fostering of a critical appreciation of the complex role religion plays in every society, even those that consider themselves non–religious. The major makes one sensitive to the role religion plays in shaping the terms of cultural discourse, of social attitudes and behavior, and of moral reflection. But it also discloses the ways in which religion and its social effects represent the experi- ence of individual persons and communities. In doing these things, the major further provides one with interdisciplinary analytical tools and cross–cultural experience and opens up new avenues for dealing with both the history of a society and culture and the relationships between different societies and cultures. What one learns as a Religion major is therefore remarkably applicable to a wide range of other fields of study or professions.