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.



Paul Copp, Wendy Doniger, Christopher Faraone, Matthew Kapstein, James Ketelaar, Bruce Lincoln, Jonathan Z. Smith, Christian K. Wedemeyer




History of Religions 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).

Progress Conference format

The progress (or pre-exam) conference is normally held in the spring quarter of the second year, or the fall of the third year.  In History of Religions, the progress conference is held with a panel of the area's faculty, and will normally include assessment of coursework to date, cogency of the course of study petition, readiness for qualifying examinations, and development of the dissertation project. A report from the advisor and a timeline for the qualifying examinations is submitted to the Dean of Students following the conference. 

Written Examinations

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


Complete Area Overview and Exam Information (pdf)

Brief Overview (PDF)

Selected History of Religions Courses

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

Why Chicago?

Emily Crews, a current PhD student in the History of Religions, discusses her time at the Divinity School and the role that the area's foundations in theory and method and connections to the Department of Anthropology play in her work.

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