REL 331 Ethnicity, Gender, and Religion

Traditionally, survey courses in the world’s religions focus on creedal tenets (e.g. the Eightfold Path, the components of dharma, the Ten Commandments, the Five Pillars of Islam). A different picture of religion arises when we survey constructions of ethnicity and gender throughout global history. Students come to notice that while their theologies and traditions may differ, these communities represent cultures of meaning-making that not only create social boundaries but also stratify men and women. This seminar looks at the social ramifications of attempts to transcend the human tradition.

Core Texts

Karen Armstrong, The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions (New York: Penguin/Random House 2006).

One take on the history of religion and the Axial Age.

Kelly J. Baker, Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930, (University Press of Kansas, 2011).

A fascinating case study about the intersection of race, religion, and gender in American life.

Kenneth Kramer, World Scriptures: An Introduction to Comparative Religions, (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1986).

An anthology of classical texts from the world’s religions.

Stephen Sharot, A Comparative Sociology of World Religions: Virtuosos, Priests, and Popular Religion, (New York: NYU Press, 2001).

An analysis of the world religions’ from the basis of social features rather than theological beliefs.

James W. Watts, ed. Iconic Books and Texts (Sheffield: Equinox, 2013).

A volume of critical essays on the iconic aspect of scriptures.

Finding God in the City of Angels, (dir. Jennifer Jessum and Simon Joseph, 2010).

A beautiful ethnographic film on world scriptures in the context of Los Angeles.

Theoretical Framework

Case Studies

Bollywood, British Colonialism, and the Invention of Religion in India

Biblezines and Postmodern Christianity

Queering identity in American Judaism

Anything You Wanted to Ask a Muslim But Were Afraid to Ask

Religion and the State in China

Seminar Highlights

Spring 2015

Seminars provide a a more familiar setting for course conversations than some of the larger classes on campus. In the Spring 2015 offering, students took advantage of this by opening our circle up to three guests.


During our unit on Islam, we invited Muslim students from the college to to talk about Islam. They entertained our questions, clarified our assumptions, and shared their own experiences. Through the laughter and exchange, we deepened our understanding of the differences Islam can make in a young adult’s experience of America.

When we studied China, we were joined by Elizabethtown College’s Dr. Dan Chen and the University of Kansas’s Dr. John James Kennedy. The expert commentary from these political scientists was warmly received. Building on our understanding of theocracy, Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism and Maoism, they helped us test the limits to which the category of religion is useful for analyzing political discourse in China.


Dr. Kelly J. Baker skyped in for our discussion of her book, Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930. A historian of religion in America, Baker challenged students to rethink the relationship between race, religion, and gender. The class appreciated how her crisp prose made accessible the depth of her research. Hearing about her own intellectual journey enriched the seminar’s pursuit of critical empathy in the study of religion. More than any other reading from the semester, her work prompted us to ask how all humans come to justify actions that–under different circumstances– we would abhor.

Spring 2016

This semester, the seminar once again read Dr. Baker’s book, but they also had the opportunity to meet her live and discuss the book on the podcast, Broadcast Seeding. 

The team spent two weeks conducting a comprehensive internet search for data on victims of Boko Haram’s violence in Nigeria. Their work is part of an multi-site collaboration with the Church of the Brethren’s Office of Public Witness. Their efforts will contribute to a brief that will be shared with NGO’s and other agencies interested in better understanding the conflict and religion’s role in it.

Research on Boko Haram at High Library

Fall 2018

In the final offering of this course at Elizabethtown College, students engaged Dr. James W. Watts in a discussion of the role of scriptures in creating and negotiating difference. Students then wrote blog posts in conversation with pieces in Watts’s edited volume, Iconic Books and Texts. Professional scholars responded to the best developed pieces. You can read the published essays in our series, “Scripting Difference.”

Discussing Scriptures and Difference with Dr. James W. Watts of Syracuse University

Join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s