INTRODUCTION TO COMPARATIVE
Introduction to the
academic study of religion through comparison among major traditions
(Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.) and smaller
communities. GEC H
Dr. Ted Houghton
Office: 470G Galvin
Religion is made up of gestures that make no
sense at all if ordinary practical reality is all there is; if the
universe is only matter and space; if humans are only organisms that
feed, mate and die. If such were the case, religion might still be
explained as a widespread psychological quirk, but it would not have
grounding in any reality, inner or outer. Religion always presupposes a
reality other than the visible. This other reality can hardly be weighed
or measured and is usually seen and heard only with the eyes and ears of
the soul. Yet, religion affirms, it is the true undergirding of the
visible and tangible universe and is somehow also submerged in the depth
of consciousness. Religion declares that, compared to that reality, what
we think about most of the time is like sound and foam on the surface of
a deep lake or the hopping about of grasshoppers beneath the infinite
The expressions of religion, of the sacred in this
world, are diverse. Any religion is a collection or network of many
different things. Religions have theoretical expression in ideas and
words, practical expression in worship and acts, sociological expression
in groups and social relations. The connection of these outward and
visible activities to the inward, invisible matter of how humans think and
experience our lives is an ongoing theme of this course. Religion can be
both felt subjectively and looked at objectively. It is hoped that this
course will help students, each in his or her own way, come to a deeper
appreciation of both aspects.
1. To explore different ways of looking at
2. To become familiar with major religious
traditions, their basic history, symbols, conceptual, ethical and social
3. To develop a sympathetic understanding of the
wide range of religious experience and belief that enables human beings to
build bridges to an Ultimate Reality.
Susan Tyler Hitcock et al., Geography of
Religion. National Geographic 2006.
Other readings made available in class.
Class and attendance:
Class time will be used in a variety of ways. There will be lecture,
discussion, and films. Discussions will presume and build upon the
readings, so it is essential that you should read and be prepared to
discuss assigned readings before the class for which they are assigned.
Both lecture and discussion will often focus on material not in the
readings. Regular attendance will be necessary. Contribution to class
discussion on a regular basis influences grading (e.g. you may receive
additional points if you are on the border of receiving a higher grade).
Exams and grading:
There will be three exams. The format of the exams
may vary and will be discussed in class. Your grade will be weighted as
Three exams 80%
PROPOSED COURSE OUTLINE
1. Introduction, Origens, Chapter 1
2. Symbol, Myth and Ritual (handout)
3. The Conceptual Expression of Religion (handout)
4 Judaism, Chapter 4
5. Christianity, Chapter 5
6. Islam, Chapter 6
8. Hinduism Chapter 2
9. Buddhism Chapter 3
Options for the Course Project:
These projects are designed to help you study and
understand, particularly through experience, some of the material of this
Papers: 5-10 pages, double space, 1 inch
margins, font: New Times Roman 12 pt.—no larger.
Working in small teams of two to four is possible
and encouraged (co-operative endeavor is a valuable experience, as well as
more enjoyable.) The final product should reflect the combined effort in
both quality and length. Options 2 & 3 can be presented in the form of
debates (written or presented in class).
Option 1: Visiting and Analyzing a Religious
Visit a religious service in a tradition that is
unfamiliar to you -- the more unfamiliar, the better. Write it up as a
report. Here is an outline you can follow:
1. Background Information. Give the full
name, exact address, and religious affiliation of the group; give the date
and time of your visit: give the name and type of service attended.
2. General Information. Describe the
outside and inside appearance of the building, giving special attention to
particularly important symbols and distinctive architectural features.
Then describe the way visitors are greeted, and the sort of people in this
group – their apparent social class, lifestyle type, ethnic background,
average age, gender, and approximate number present. Describe in the same
way the leadership conducting the service.
3. Account of Service. Describe what
happened in the service from beginning to end. Try to give some sense of
the emotional tone and subjective spiritual meaning of the activity. For
example, was the opening dramatic or casual? Was the congregational
participation emotional or reserved? Was much of the service spontaneous?
Did it seem to be ancient ritual or contemporary?
4. Analysis. Analyze the worship experience
in terms of three forms of religious expression: theoretical (teaching),
practical (worship) and sociological. At least one-third of the paper
should be this part.
essentially, does this religion teach? As far as you could tell from
this one experience, from the sermon, practices, symbols, and so on,
what seems to be the main message of this religion? You may need to
distinguish between what was "officially" said in creeds or the like,
and what really seemed to be most important to the people in the
congregation as they took part.
Practical. What was the
basic nature of the worship? Formal or informal, old or new, structured
or spontaneous, intellectual or emotional, or something of all of these.
What message about how this group conceives of the role of religion, and
the best way for human to experience Ultimate Reality, did this worship
Sociological. What kind
of group was it? As well as you could tell from this one experience, was
it close-knit or diffuse? Was this group comprised of mostly people
drawn to the religion by family or ethnic ties, or mostly committed
converts of different backgrounds? What role did the priest or leader
play? What message about religious experience was communicated by the
nature of the group?
5. Conclusion. Would you say this worship
was in any sense a means for discovering and developing one’s true self in
relation to Ultimate Reality? For whom and in what sense?
ELEMENTS OF RELIGION
Conceptualization of religious concerns, metaphysics, theology
How the universe
is set up, especially its spiritual aspect.
Basic World view
God or Ultimate Reality. What the
ultimate source and ground of all things is.
Origin of the World.Where it all
came from. (cosmogony)
Destiny of the World.
Where it is
Destiny of Humans. Where we are
Revelation or Mediation between the Divine
and the Human. How we
know this and how we are helped to get from here to our ultimate destiny
Ideas of Divine
Sovereignty and Grace. By which we
realize we live a dependent and finite existence
before the Infinite, and that there is cause for gratitude before the
PRACTICAL: Symbolic acts, ritual (individual and
communal) which celebrate the divine or manifest in visible form deep
:Groups and social relationships
Leadership in spiritual matters.
How spiritual insights, religious wisdom, revelation are preserved,
protected and passed on generation after generation.
Religious organization and how it interacts with the larger society.
Option 2: Analyzing a Religious Argument
Write a paper in which you take an
important religious concept and show how it might be treated by the
different approaches to determining truth in religion: reason, experience,
empiricism, authority, sociological factors, and existential choice (These
approaches will be in reading and discussed in class). Concepts so tested
could be, for example, the existence of God, Nirvana, Reincarnation, the
origin of evil and suffering in the world, the meaning of Christ’s death
on the cross, the meaning of Buddha’s enlightenment, the importance of
religious ritual, and many others. For every concept discussed, ask what
each way of determining truth would have to say pro and con, then give
each approach a chance to rebut the other
For example, if the topic was the
existence of God, do it like this:
1. Define what you mean, for the sake of
this argument, by God and existence.
2. What are the arguments from the
standpoint of reason for the existence of God?
3. What are the arguments from the
standpoint of reason against the existence of God?
4. How would the pro side rebut the con
5. How would the con side rebut the pro
Then do the same with arguments pro and
con from the standpoints of experience, empiricism, authority,
sociological factors, and existential choice. (On the last, you will have
to ask why anyone would choose to make an existential choice for or
against belief in God, or what ever the concept is.) At the end, you may
determine which side has scored the most debating points if you wish – and
if you can.
This can work as a team project, with
each person taking a specific responsibility, then combining each others
work in a finished product. Each person's contribution should be noted and
supported by documentary evidence (outlines, descriptions of what the
person did and other research materials). The project can be presented in
the form of a debate. (Furthers materials on how to organize this are
available from me.)
Option 3: Analyzing an Ethical Problem
Write a paper that analyzes a specific
case in which an ethical decision must be made. It can be a hypothetical
case, one you have read or heard about in the media, or, if you are free
to discuss it without violating anyone’s confidentiality, a case you know
personally. Here are some examples. Fill in the specifics.
employee report misconduct by another employee, or a boss, of which he
or she has knowledge, such as misusing company funds or sexual
lawyer suppress or misrepresent important information she or he has
uncovered while researching a case in order to help his or her client,
even though the suppression of this information will damage an innocent
abortion be performed, or euthanasia permitted, or the death penalty
exercised, in a particular case?
political leader be removed for misdeeds of a personal and moral nature
that do not bear directly upon the performance of his/her office?
Is the use of
economic sanctions against a country justified if the political leaders
of that country are judged to be dangerous or criminal?
After describing the case in sufficient
detail, being sure to include every fact that could conceivably be
relevant to an ethical judgment, give the arguments on both the pro and
con sides. Be sure to include the relevant religious (meta-ethical)
principles behind each: concepts of God and divine command, ideas of
proper social relationships and obligations, ideas of personhood, of what
life really means, etc. Compare views from two or more religious
For example, in the case of abortion,
some of the issues to be addressed include:
What is life
and when does it begin? When does human life become a separate person.
How much does quality of life count in cases of deformity?
and protecting innocent human life an absolute value?
Are the rights
of the mother or the embryo foremost?
Is an unborn
child a human being with full rights and, if so, at what stage of
What is the
proper place and function of religious, judicial, and legislative
institutions in public-policy decision making on this issue?
Then tell how a decision would be
reached, and what the decision might be, using both deontological and
consequentialist principles (These concepts will be discussed in class).
Then give your own judgment and defend it
in terms of what principles and methods of deciding seem most important to
you. Be sure you make clear why you consider them the most important, and
how they work in terms of the specific facts of the case as you have
As with Option 2, this can work as a team
project, with each person taking a specific responsibility, then combining
each others work in a finished product. Each person's contribution should
be noted and supported by documentary evidence (outlines, descriptions of
what the person did and other research materials). The project can be
presented in the form of a debate. (Furthers materials on how to organize
this are available from me.)