Religious Studies 101: Religion and Culture

Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis


Instructor: Dr. Kelly Hayes


Office Telephone: 278-2639

Office Hours: M: by appt

Semester: Spring 2015

Time: M, W 1:30 p.m. – 2:45 p.m.

Location: IP 208 (Hine Hall)

(CAV 335)


If only we didn't imagine culture and religion as neatly divided, we would be less surprised by their ceaseless commingling.[1]



What is religion? Most Americans seem to define religion in much the same way that the Supreme Court historically has defined pornography—"we know it when we see it." But do we? What, exactly, constitutes a religion? Is there some universal essence or core features that all religions share? Or is religion better understood by what it does, that is, by the functions it serves? By what criteria do some human experiences and actions count as "religion" while others do not? Why are some beliefs and activities seen as authentically religious while other quite similar ones are marginalized or even maligned? What really distinguishes religion from all the other aspects of human social life that we commonly call culture?


The academic approach to the study of religion in this course considers these and other questions. Rather than assuming that we know religion when we see it, this course examines how and why we come to demarcate certain things as religion.  In other words, it seeks to direct our attention to the process of constructing religion as a category, asking what is at stake in particular definitions of religion, what social work these definitions perform, and what their consequences are.  By becoming more aware of what religion is, is not, and—more importantly—what is involved in even making this decision, we are better able to see that religion always is embedded in human political, social and economic life—that is, in culture.


Using a variety of concepts and theoretical tools, we will explore the relationship between religion and culture in two arenas of contemporary American life: nationalism and popular culture. From political speeches and jeremiads to Oprah and Lady Gaga, from zombies and vampires to hip hop and Goth culture, this course offers a perspective on religion that is quite different from studying religious traditions, institutions, scriptures and theologies.


We will develop the skills to read closely; understand, assess and use theoretical concepts; evaluate evidence; examine presuppositions; ask better questions; and think critically and rigorously. These are skills that will serve you well beyond this class.




1.        To introduce the academic study of religion and the different definitions of religion and methodologies used by scholars.

2.        To help students become aware of their own, taken-for-granted understanding of religion and its implications.

3.        To develop conceptual frameworks and vocabularies that enable critical thinking and analysis about religion as a category and as a complex of human behaviors and institutions.

4.        To develop skills appropriate to the humanities, including the ability to: comprehend, interpret and analyze texts; synthesize information from diverse sources; critically evaluate theories, authors and arguments; and communicate effectively both orally and in writing.


Together, these course objectives advance the principles of undergraduate education at IU <>, including core communication skills, critical thinking, intellectual depth and breadth, values and ethics, and the integration and application of knowledge, with particular emphasis on PUL #2, "Critical Thinking," and PUL #5, “Understanding Society and Culture.”



You should acquire the following book, available at the IUPUI campus bookstore:

Š      Religion and Popular Culture by Chris Klassen (listed as RPC in the schedule)



In addition to the textbook, many of the required readings for this course are available from the folder titled “Additional Readings” located in the Resources area of Oncourse CL, or directly from: 101_Religion&Culture/

It is highly recommended that you access these readings from campus and either print them out immediately or download them to a jump drive. These readings are indicated in the class schedule by the abbreviation (ON). They are listed alphabetically by the author and the first words of the title (excluding “The”).


Some of the assigned readings are listed in the schedule followed by a hyperlink. Follow the link to access them.



This course is interdisciplinary in nature, drawing primarily on the fields of religious studies, anthropology and cultural studies. It will be conducted as a lecture-discussion course in which we as a group read and discuss the assigned readings. Much of our class time will be focused on understanding the theoretical concepts explained in the readings and applying them to real world examples. This means that students are expected to come to class prepared for discussion and interaction, having read that day's assignment and completed any homework. While I will lecture regularly and guide us through the materials, the emphasis is on the student's active and ongoing engagement with the course content, as demonstrated in homework assignments, group work, participation in class discussions, and regular assessment. Course materials may also be presented in the form of video clips, films, powerpoints and guest speakers.


1.      Readings. This course has a good deal of reading, much of it complex and time consuming. Assigned readings should be completed BEFORE class since what we will do in class presumes familiarity with the reading. You are expected to make your own notes on information presented in these assignments and to be familiar with any vocabulary words and concepts introduced in the readings. However, don't worry if something doesn't make sense or leaves you confused—bring your questions to class for discussion.

2.      Assignments (30%). Frequently during the semester you will be required to complete homework assignments posted under the Assignments tab of Oncourse and to bring your homework (typed—do not submit handwritten assignments) to class. Each assignment will have its own specific instructions or questions. For instance, you might be asked to answer questions about the reading, find an example of a concept discussed in the reading and bring it to class, or watch a YouTube video and answer questions about it. Because each one will be different, you must read the instructions prior to submitting each assignment. The number of assignments will be determined at my discretion during the course. Altogether these assignments will comprise 30% of course grade. In all cases, typed assignments will be collected at random. Late assignments will receive half credit if turned in by the following class session. Assignments later than one class session after the date they are due will not be accepted without prior arrangement. 

4.      Assessment (25%). A variety of in-class assessment tools such as quizzes, concept maps and a midterm exam will be used to help you keep on track and evaluate learning. A study-guide for the midterm will be made available beforehand.

6.      Final Project (25%).  More information about this assignment will be given in class.

5.      Ritual Report (15%). Each student is required to attend a ritual and report their findings in a short paper that will be shared with the class.  More information about this assignment will be given in class.

3.      Participation (5%). Active class participation is essential for the success of this class and all students are expected to participate thoughtfully and actively in our class discussions. Note: class attendance is not the same as participation. Ground rules for participation will be collectively determined in the second week of class.



I use the Oncourse gradebook to record grades. There are 1,000 total points that can be earned in this class, distributed as follows:

Homework Assignments                    30% of course grade    (300 points)

Assessment (exams & quizzes)          25% of course grade    (250 points)

Final Project                                        25% of course grade    (250 points)   

Ritual Report                                      15% of course grade    (150 points)

Participation                                       5% of course grade      (100 points)


The following percentile scale will be used to determine grades: 90-100 = A; 80-89 = B; 70-79 = C; 60-69 = D; 59 and under = F. The top and bottom two numbers within each grade bracket correspond to plus and minus grade designations, respectively (e.g., 88-89 = B+, 80-81 = B-).


The *secret* formula for getting a good grade in this class: Attend every session and be fully present. Read and digest all assigned readings and contribute to class discussion in a thoughtful manner. If you don't understand something, ask. Assimilate the content of the course. Spend sufficient time on written assignments, producing at least two drafts and proofreading them before turning them in. If you haven't done all of these things, don't complain about your grade.



Periodically, extra credit possibilities will be announced in class. For more information about extra credit in this course, refer to the document entitled “Guidelines for Extra Credit” (on the Resources page of Oncourse).



Students must have access to Oncourse and should regularly check our class site for announcements, extra credit options, assignments and other information, particularly if you are absent from class.



Written work must be typed and double-spaced, with legible fonts and reasonable margins.  On formal papers extensions are granted only in emergencies, and only after a consultation with me in advance of the due date.  Late papers (i.e., those handed in after the due date or extension date) will be penalized as follows: for every business day (M – F) that the paper is late, ten points (a whole letter grade) will be deducted.  Students must save copies of written work.  Students are expected to hand in a hardcopy of their work—do not e-mail me your work.



Attendance is mandatory, not optional, and will affect your final course grade. I neither want nor need to know the reason for your absence from class, but be warned that it will have the following consequences: 1) any late homework will receive half-credit and will not be accepted if later than one class period from the due date (see above); and, 2) more than four absences over the course of the semester will affect your final course grade. Exceptions will be made only in cases of documented hospitalization or grave necessity (such as the death of a close relative). In all cases, attendance should take priority over assignments—do not skip class because you have not completed an assignment!



Plagiarism is using the work of others without properly crediting the actual source of the ideas, words, sentences, paragraphs, entire articles, music or pictures. Plagiarism is a form of stealing and is a serious offense. Avoid the temptation to plagiarize: DO NOT cut and paste sentences or phrases from the internet or other sources into your written work. Do not copy sentences verbatim from the readings into your homework, instead, use your own words. Whenever you take words from, or whenever your ideas or expressions have been shaped by, another author or source (other than our class), you must reference these borrowings and contributions using the proper citation format.


If, on assignments, you fail to cite your sources, whether you use page references for books or URLs for websites, I will return your assignment without a grade.  To get a grade, you will have to add the necessary references


I may use the anti-plagiarism software “” to guarantee that the work you submit is all your own. A finding of plagiarism will result in a failing grade for that assignment and notification of the appropriate authorities (see Code of Student Rights, Responsibilities and Conduct:



If you need assistance, guidance, some reassuring words, or would just like to chat about something pertaining to the course, drop by during office hours or write me an email.  Please note that you can expect a response to any e-correspondence within twenty-four hours or less during regular business hours; I do not check e-mail after 5 pm or on weekends.


For students who require particular types of accommodation and assistance, please contact IUPUI’s Adaptive Education Services (AES).  You can learn more about AES by visiting its home page,  You can contact AES by phone, 274-3241 (voice) or 278-2050 (TDD/TTY), and e-mail,




JAN 12 (M)              Introduction to the Course

Review of syllabus, required readings, course format and expectations




Key Concepts: academic study of religion; insider/outsider perspectives; definition vs. description; theory; analysis; discourse


JAN 14 (W)                Defining Religion

Reading: "Definitions of 'Religion:' Problems; Dictionary Definitions" (ON)

Suggested: McCutcheon,  "Religion" (ON)



JAN 19 (M)                NO CLASS (MLK HOLIDAY)



JAN 21 (W)                Studying Religion Academically

Reading: "What is the Academic Study of Religion" (ON)



JAN 26 (M)                Theories of Religion

Reading: Lincoln, "The Study of Religion" (ON)




Key Concepts: civil religion; nationalism; jeremiad


JAN 28 (W)                Civil Religion

Reading: Bellah, "Civil Religion in America" (



FEB 2 (M)                  Nationalism, Politics and Religion           

Reading: 1) G.W. Bush, "Inaugural Address" (

2) B. Obama, "Inaugural Address" (



FEB 4  (W)                  Religion and Political Discourse: The Jeremiad

Reading: 1) Lincoln, "Jihads & Jeremiads & Appendix D" (both contained in the PDF) (ON)

2) Malcolm X, "God's Judgment on White America" (ON)





FEB 9 (M)                  Using Theory  

Reading: Chidester, "Church of Baseball" (ON)




Key Concepts: base/superstructure; capitalism; hegemony; commodity fetishism; commodification; spirituality


FEB 11 (W)                Religion as Commodity    

Reading: RPC:  chapter 2 (skip the section "Commodified Religion that extends from the middle of page 42 to the top of page 46)



FEB 16 (M)                Analyzing Oprah     

Reading: Lofton, "Practicing Oprah" (ON)




Key Concepts: structure of feeling; encoding & decoding; naturalization; dominant, negotiated and oppositional readings; symbol; myth; occulture


FEB 18 (W)                Pop Culture's Supernatural: Zombies

Reading: RPC: chapter 3: 51-62 



FEB 23 (M)                Analyzing Zombies

Reading: 1) Klosterman, "My Zombie, Myself" (ON)

2) "The Zombies Among Us":  



FEB 25 (W)                Analyzing Vampires

Reading: 1) RPC: chapter 3: 62-71

2) "Vampires Everywhere":




Key Concepts: ritual (rite, ritualizing, ritualization); performative utterance; heteronormativity; gender


MAR 2 (M)                 Ritual and Performance

Reading:  RPC: chapter 4



MAR 4 (W)                 Analyzing Lady Gaga          





Key concepts: liberalism; patriarchy; social constructionism; masculinity & femininity; gender essentialism


MAR 9 (M)                 Varieties of Feminism        

Reading: RPC: chapter 5



MAR 11 (W)               MIDTERM



MAR 16 - 22              NO CLASS (Spring Break)



MAR 23 (M)               Analyzing the Divine Feminine

Reading: Knight, "Remythologizing the Divine Feminine" (ON)




Key Concepts: race; double consciousness; Black Atlantic; decolonization


MAR 30 (M)               Racism and Anti-Racism

Reading: RPC chapter 6



APR 1 (W)                  Analyzing Rap as a Black Protest Movement

Reading: Pinn, "Religion and Rap" (ON)

Suggested: Lusane, "Rap, Race and Politics" (ON)



APR 6 (M)                  Analyzing Misogyny in Rap

Reading: Rose, "Bitches and Hoes" (ON)




Key Concepts: orientalism; Islamophobia; Islamism


APR 8 (W)                  Orientalism

Reading: RPC chapter 7



APR 13 (M)                Analyzing Depictions of the Prophet Muhammad

Reading: “The Danish Cartoon Affair” (ON)




Key Concepts: subcultures; sign, signifier and signified; cultural capital; postmodernity; metanarrative; implicit religion


APR 15 (W)                Subcultures

Reading: RPC chapter 8  



APR 20 (M)                Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping

Reading: "Reverend Billy's Unholy War" (ON)






APR 22 (W)             



APR 27 (M)               



APR 29 (W)               



MAY 4 (M)                







[1] Kathryn Lofton, Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon