Take a minute to think about your school how it organizes its curriculum. For example, checkout The University of Alabama’s Core Curriculum/General Education requirements. At one level, its organization suggests that students who have passed through the halls of higher education will have had exposure to a breadth of subject matters. These subjects are not topic, so far as not everyone will have had the chance to engage in the same subjects. Rather, each student will have exposure to a range of disciplines–the training ground designed to teach you how to study subject matters effectively. For instance:

  • MA (Mathematics) courses train you to ascertain the relationship between objects quantitatively.
  • FL (Foreign Languages) courses train you in the systems of expressions that communities use to communicate with each other.
  • NS (Natural Sciences) courses train you to empirically observe and conjecture about how the world works.

Religious Studies courses like this one have an HU (Humanities) designation, suggesting that you will receive training in observing the ways and conditions by which human beings make sense of the world.  Given our conversations thus far, you likely realize that our discipline is typified by the study of what humans do religiously rather than the study of “religions.” So one well-versed in Religious Studies is not an expert on the religions of the world. As we said, the expert is someone skilled in thinking about what, how, and why people do what they do. We use the term “religion” as a shorthand to name the seemingly infinite “who,” “when,” and “where” we might consider these actions. 

At this point, you may be asking yourself, “why even use the world “religion” if it doesn’t mean religions? And that’s a fantastic question!!!
The reason is because the people, times, and places that frequently come to mind as “religion” are simply illustrations of things, actions, and logics that happen elsewhere in culture. In fact, that’s why we at the University of Alabama understand ourselves as “Studying Religion in Culture.” * You’re trained here to pay attention to how religions work, you’ll be on the way to better understanding the less-obvious features of culture. One of my former students breaks it down in the introduction to her web series: 

“What is Religion,” Episode 1 in Maya Cares About Religion.

In terms of this class, we are going to study religion academically. That is:

  • Anthropologically rather than theologically.
  • Descriptively rather than normatively.

We’re going to see what we can learn about human culture thinking comparatively and theoretically about our course topic. And our assigned class resources will help us along the way.

For your interactive notebook assignment, I want you to define the read the essay linked here (Russell T. McCutcheon’s “What is the Academic Study of Religion”) and define the terms below. You’ll see that they are often paired in relation to other words. The “/” groups synonyms. The “v.” groups words or phrases that are in tension with one another.

  • Apologetic/Authentic/Real/Essential v. Inauthentic/Fake Representations.
  • Insider/Emic v. Outsider/Etic Perspectives.
  • Critics v. Caretaker Model in the Study of Religion.

Then I want you to reflect on the following prompt:

Imagine that the Department of Religious Studies asked you to design a new Core class, and they said it could be about any “e.g.” (that is, example of your choosing) except a religious tradition (e.g. “Islam,” “Judaism,” “Christianity,” “Buddhism,” etc.). What example are you an expert in where you could hold forth and do so academically (i.e. the bulleted items that you just defined)?


Write 250 words or so. Think deeply. But have fun!

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*It’s not necessary for you to read this web essay, but if you’re wanting to better understand the idea of “studying religion in culture, have at it! Use it to help you raise questions of clarification and substance. Write these down and we’ll discuss them in class.