Religion and the Human Sciences

The Committee on Religion and the Human Sciences engages in the humanistic study of religious traditions and phenomena, and studies literature and society in relation to religion. Faculty and students associated with the Committee give primacy to humanistic and social scientific methods of study that have become established in the academic community during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They examine, evaluate, and utilize many of the analytic tools and conceptual categories of the human sciences. Though each of the areas that constitutes part of the Committee may draw on both the methods and materials of the other areas, each has its own distinctive profile. History of Religions emphasizes historical, phenomenological, and comparative studies; Anthropology and Sociology of Religion concentrates on the social and cultural context of religious experiences, communities, and practices; and Religion, Literature, and Visual Culture focuses on the critical and interpretive study of literary texts.


Wendy Doniger, Alireza Doostdar, Sarah Hammerschlag, Matthew Kapstein, Bruce Lincoln, Françoise MeltzerJames T. Robinson, Richard A. Rosengarten, Christian K. Wedemeyer.


Anthropology and Sociology of Religion

The ASR area studies religious phenomena from a social scientific point of view. This view is based on the strategy to explain all social phenomena as if they were nothing but products of the dynamics of social relations. This perspective has been rather successful and has been appropriated by many other, especially historical, disciplines. However, it should not be mistaken for an ontological statement.

The dynamics of social relations can be analyzed from a more social structuralist or a more culturalist perspective. Social structuralists (from systems theories to network theories) tend to explain cultural phenomena more or less as derivative of structures of social relations. Culturalists (from anthropological theories of culture to interpretative sociological approaches) maintain that structures of social relations and cultural structures of meaning mutually constitute and influence each other and therefore have to be studied in their dialectical relationship.

The ASR area regards structures of social relations alone as an insufficient foundation for the understanding and explanation of social phenomena. If human action is centrally based on interests, these interests are shaped not only by the position of actors in a social structure but also by the ways in which actors interpret that position. In other words, “interests” are not naturally given but culturally and socially shaped as well as subjectively appropriated and interpreted.

Firmly grounded in an approach that treats the study of social structures and culture as interrelated, the ASR Area’s major questions revolve around topics like the following: What is the role played by religious actors and institutions in a given social/cultural setting? What is the contribution of religions in the legitimation or contestation of authority? How are domains of religious interests socially and culturally configured? How does religion impact processes of social transformation or is impacted by them? How do religions contribute to the shaping of a specific habitus?

Accordingly, the ASR area studies religious phenomena as social and cultural facts and constructs, which can be apprehended through textual sources or through the ethnography of contemporary social settings, or through a combination of both methods.

Anthropology and Sociology of Religion brief overview (PDF)

Written Examinations

Students have to take two exams in the area, and two exams in other areas of the Divinity School, chosen in consultation with their advisor.

ASR offers six examinations. ASR1 and ASR2 assess the ways in which “religion” as an analytical concept has been defined and theorized in anthropological and sociological literature. The first exam focuses on classical theoretical perspectives on religion from the early 19th to the mid 20th century; the second examines theories from the middle of the 20th century to the present. ASR3 addresses the formation and transformation of religious groups and ideas in the contexts of colonialism, post-colonialism and globalization. ASR4 focuses on theorizing the relationship between Islam and power in sociology, anthropology as well as political science. ASR5 explores different religious visions of history, like utopianism, millenarianism, messianism, and fundamentalism. ASR6 focuses on French sociology and anthropology of religion.


ASR1 Classical Theories view exam bibliography (pdf)
ASR2 Contemporary Theories view exam bibliography (pdf)
ASR3 From Colonialism to Globalization view exam bibliography (pdf)
ASR4 Modern Islam and Power view exam bibliography (pdf)
ASR5 Religious Ideologies and Utopias
ASR6 French Sociology and Anthropology of Religion


History of Religions

The History of Religions area approaches religion as an exclusively human phenomenon, via the methods of the social sciences and the humanities. It is concerned to theorize at a high level of generalization, informed by broadly comparative and empirical research, and to carry out high level empirical research informed by theoretical reflection. It pays self-conscious and explicit attention to problems of epistemology, terminology, category formation, method and motive. Irreverent by temperament and sometimes on principle, it insists that [a] the Western monotheisms should not be the only paradigms and/or objects of legitimate study, [b] religion cannot be reduced to belief, but also includes issues of practices, institutions, communities, habitus and other factors that often operate below the level of consciousness, and [c] interpretation involves critical probing and systematic interrogation of the idealized self-representations of any religious phenomenon.

Those who work within the History of Religions are expected to become thoroughly acquainted with the development of the History of Religions as an academic discipline, and to have a sophisticated understanding of the theories and methods that are relevant to contemporary research in the field. Each student must deal creatively with the tension that results from an emphasis on the importance of historically contextualized studies on the one hand, and of wide-ranging theoretical and comparative research on the other.

Students in the History of Religions develop a special expertise in the study of at least one particular religious tradition. This involves learning to read and/or speak the relevant language (or languages) and becoming familiar with the relevant historical and cultural background. In addition, each student is expected to become informed about a variety of other religious traditions, both historical and contemporary. Students utilize the extensive resources provided by the University as a whole, enhancing their study of particular religious traditions by work in Area Studies departments (such as SALC, NELC, EALC, and Classics) and refining their critical method by work in disciplinary departments (such as History and Anthropology).

History of Religions brief overview (pdf)

Written Examinations
1. Special Area
2a. Classical Theory
2b. Contemporary Theory
3. Another special area or thematic exam

Complete Area Overview and Exam Information (pdf)


Religion, Literature, and Visual Culture

Religion, Literature, and visual Culture studies the interactions of the religions with cultural forms and practices, with particular reference to art. It pursues this study utilizing the tools of poetics, aesthetics, and theories of interpretation to understand both the ways that the religions harness the human imagination, and the ways that the human recourse to imaginative expression often – some would say always – engages religion. Although this phenomenon is arguably concurrent with all of human history, the academic enterprise of Religion, Literature, and Visual Culture is by comparison young. It took its initial explicit form in response to the conviction, articulated most forcefully by Paul Tillich in the mid-twentieth century, that in order to understand religion we must engage our “cultural condition.” In its relatively short life the field has witnessed the more widely recognized shifts in the study of religion that had their advent just as Tillich’s own remarkable career was concluding, and the field has since aimed toward more self-conscious engagements with comparison (both within a culture and across cultures) and with history. We recognize the texts and artifacts we study to be both more knowingly pluralistic, and often more intentionally eclectic, than had been assumed. We aim to address the pressure this exerts on conventional rubrics of cultural study such as nation, language, “high art” and – not incidentally –the self-proclaimed provenances of the religions. As a consequence a comparative frame of reference, both within a culture and across cultures, has become essential. This broader compass of cultural practice has also led to a revision of the area’s interests in the history of interpretive theory, to engage not only literary criticism but hermeneutics, biblical interpretation, and aesthetics. The area seeks to be interdisciplinary in its work, so that students pursue sustained work in other areas of study in the Divinity School and in other departments and committees of the University as informed and directed by the area’s emphasis on the acquisition the skills of close, sustained interpretive analysis and broad engagement with issues in the theory of interpretation.

brief overview (pdf)

Written Examinations
1. History of Criticism and Literary Theory
2. Classic Texts in Religion and Literature
3. Genres of Literature

Complete Area Overview and Exam Information (pdf)

AASR 31000 Colonial and Postcolonial Perspectives on Religion in North Africa. Staff
AASR 35000 Modern Islam and Politics. Staff
AASR 36000 Women and Gender in Islam. Staff
AASR 40500 Monarchies in the Modern Arab World: Family, Religion, and Power. Staff
AASR 40900 Islam and Democracy. Staff
AASR 41000 French Sociology of Religion: History and Theories. Staff
AASR 41600 Interpretation of Ritual. Lincoln
AASR 42200 Orientalism: Old and New Perspectives. Staff
AASR 42300 Muslim Diasporas: Religion and Migration. Staff
AASR 43400 Reform and Revival in Modern Islam. Staff
AASR 45000 Religious Institutions in Modern Islam. Staff
AASR 50500 Sociology of Religion in Urban Contexts. Staff
AASR 53500 Religious Authority (Riesebrodt/Lincoln)
SOCI 40112 Ethnographic Methods. McRoberts
SOCI 30104 Urban Structure and Process. McRoberts

HREL 30200 Indian Philosophy. Kapstein
HREL 31600 Zoroastrianism. Lincoln
HREL 32200 Religion, Sex, and Politics in Ancient India. Doniger
HREL 32900 Classical Theories of Religions. Lincoln
HREL 34200 Greek Religions. Lincoln and Faraone
HREL 34700 Hindu Mythology. Doniger
HREL 35000 Ramayana and Mahabharata. Doniger
HREL 35100 Indian Buddhism. Wedemeyer
HREL 35200 Tibetan Buddhism. Wedemeyer
HREL 36000 Readings in the Mahabharata. Doniger
HREL 38000 Readings in Classical Tibetan. Kapstein
HREL 39000 Introduction to the Study of Tibetan Religion. Kapstein
HREL 40800 Mythologies of Transvestism and Transsexuality. Doniger
HREL 41300 Myths of Usurpers and Kings. Lincoln
HREL 42100 Religion and Society in Pre-Christian Europe. Lincoln
HREL 42701 Issues in Indian Esoteric Buddhism. Wedemeyer
HREL 43700 Politics and the Perfectible Body. Lincoln
HREL 44400 Tibetan Autobiography. Wedemeyer
HREL 44800 Recent Work on Tibetan Religion. Kapstein
HREL 45001 Studies in Buddhism: The Classics. Wedemeyer
HREL 45002 Studies in Buddhism: The Moderns. Wedemeyer
HREL 46600 Microhistory and the Study of Religions. Lincoln
HREL 47800 Spanish Civil War: Religious Issues. Lincoln
HREL 48200 Music, Meaning, and Mantra in Aspects of Indian Thought. Kapstein
HREL 49200 Tantra in Practice. Kapstein
HREL 51100 Ancient Empire and the Ideology of Salvation. Lincoln
HREL 51200 Interpretation of Ritual. Lincoln
HREL 51900 Representation and Ideology in the Study of South Asian Religions. Wedemeyer
HREL 52200 Problems in the History of Religions. Doniger
HREL 53100 Seminar: Buddhist Thought in Tibet. Kapstein
HREL 53400 Contemporary Perspectives on the History of Religions. Wedemeyer

RLIT 30000 Introduction to Religion and Literature. Rosengarten
RLIT 30600 Novel Comparisons. Rosengarten
RLIT 30900 Renaissance Epic. Murrin
RLIT 31500 Travelers on the Silk Road. Murrin
RLIT 36101 Victor Hugo. Meltzer
RLIT 36300 Renaissance Epic. Murrin
RLIT 37600 Theory of Literature: The Twentieth Century. Rosengarten
RLIT 40100 Subject/Subjectivity. Meltzer
RLIT 40500 Theory and Autobiography. Rosengarten
RLIT 41300 Medieval Allegory. Murrin
RLIT 41400 History of Criticism and Hermeneutics, Sixteenth–Nineteenth Centuries. Rosengarten
RLIT 42500 Arthurian Romances. Murrin
RLIT 44100 Blake: Theo-Poetics of Image and Text. Rosengarten
RLIT 50000 Medieval Allegory: Sacred and Profane. Murrin
RLIT 50200 Baudelaire, Benjamin and Blanchot. Meltzer
RLIT 50400 Milton's Epics. Murrin
RLIT 52100 Renaissance Romance. Murrin