REL 205 (SSC)- Scoping Out Religion: Theories and Methods

“Religion” is a concept that people frequently talk about without much precision. In this

class we will introduce humanistic theories and social scientific methods to raise the level of discourse around religion. Our local community and the news of the day will serve as the laboratory where we will learn to seek answers and ask better questions about religion.

Core Texts

The Association of Religion Data Archives, The ARDA,

“Field Notes: What, How & Why?”Anthro-Yogini, August 16, 2007.

Trisha Greenhalgh. “How to Read a Paper: Statistics for the Non-Statistician. I: “Different Types of Data Need Different Statistical Tests,” BMJ: British Medical Journal 315: No. 7105 (August 9, 1997), 364-366.

_____. “How to Read a Paper: Statistics for the Non-Statistician. II: “Significant” Relations and Their Pitfalls,” BMJ: British Medical Journal 315: No. 7105 (August 16, 1997), 422-425.

Conrad Hackett, “Counting the Faithful,” Sociology Review (April 2015), 6-9.

_____. “Seven Things to Consider When Measuring Religious Identity,”

Religion (2014), 1-18. _Seven_Things _to_Consider_When_Measuring_Religious_Identity

Craig Martin, A Critical Study of Religion (New York: Routledge, 2012).

Russell T. McCutcheon, “Introduction,” The Insider/Outsider Problem in the Study of Religion: A Reader, ed. Russell T. McCutcheon (New York: Cassell, 1999), 15-22

Horace R. Miner, “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema,” The Insider/Outsider Problem in the Study of Religion: A Reader, ed. Russell T. McCutcheon (New York: Cassell, 1999), 23-28.

Pew Research Center, Forum on Religion & Public Life,

Jonathan Z. Smith, “Map is Not Territory,” Map is Not Territory: Studies in the History of Religion (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978), 289-310.

Fran Tonkiss, “Analyzing Text and Speech: Content and Discourse Analysis,”Researching Society and Culture, ed. Clive Seale (Sage: Los Angeles, 2004), 368-382.

Spring 2018

During my time at Elizabethtown College, I noticed that despite my efforts to establish a critical introduction to religious studies, my advanced students were limited in the methodological tools they could use to test and articulate social theories. So I developed a theories and methods course that would complement my Signifying Religion introductory course, which was focused on cursory and foundational theorizing in the academic study of religion. Scoping Out Religion would use Craig Martin’s text to sharpen  my student’s understanding of “religion” and social formation. I coupled this with readings and exercises in methods including Geographic Information Systems, discourse analysis, elementary statistical interpretation, ethnographic field techniques, and genograms. By the course’s end, students could build upon library work with these tools at their disposal.

The other genesis of this course is that a large number of my students were majoring or minoring in psychology. And I often heard students say that religious studies was not as methodologically rigorous or practical as psychology. These statements, though true to their limited exposure with both fields, doesn’t ring true for what I think is the contribution of religious studies to the human sciences. So I invited a friend and colleague of mine, Dr. Meryl Reist Gibbel (a research psychology PhD and clinical psychologist) to co-teach the course. Every two weeks, she came in to discuss how the theories we were reading in Martin’s book played out in her own work. She also helped us get a handle on various methodological tools as she used them in her practice.

Student Scholarship

Each students was tasked with writing a blog post that applied Martin’s theorizing to a current event of their choosing. You can see one example in Emily Overfield’s post on school shootings and why protests have yet to produce changes in American gun policy.

Given Dr. Gibbel’s research interests, we focused our class on the concepts of “religion” and “mental health.” Each student developed a research question that examined topics that they could justify as relevant to both discourses. Throughout the semester, students developed a portfolio using all the methods we learned in class to build their knowledge over pertinent data domains. Then at the end of the semester, students developed a research paper that articulated a theory of religion and mental health in light of their work. Projects included:

  • The role children’s participation in church can play in coping with parental divorce.
  • A social-historical study of the relationship between the interfaith movement and positive psychology.
  • A community’s dependence on local churches over local mental health professionals when dealing with trauma.
  • A local campus ministry’s offerings as a substitute and deterrent in regard to underage drinking.
  • The mental health ramifications of the Canadian government’s territorialism and settler-colonialism on Nunavut.

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