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Introduction to the Study of Religion

Take a deeper look at the discipline known as religious studies and discover how a succession of other fields—sociology, psychology, anthropology, and phenomenology—has each tried to explain the complex relationship among individuals, cultures, and faiths—a relationship as old as the first human quest for answers to fundamental questions of life, death, and what may lie beyond.
Introduction to the Study of Religion is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 62.
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Rated 3 out of 5 by from What Do Influencers Think about Religion? Dr. Jones begins by noting that this course is a study *about* religion; it does not study *religion*. Thus, this course asks the question: “How do scholars view religion in non-religious terms?” Be clear; this course is not about what religions say about themselves. Rather, this course is about re-framing religion in non-religious terms. At the heart of the course, Dr. Jones discusses how a series of psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and phenomonologists view religion. For example, one lecture considers what Karl Marx thought, another lecture examines what Sigmund Freud thought, etc. It is important to note that Dr. Jones considers only scientists and philosophers, never theologians. Dr. Jones is a good lecturer, typical of The Great Courses (TGC). He is able to condense complex life work of a scholar into one lecture with an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of that scholar’s conclusions. He shows the continuity and progression of scholarship over time. The course guide is below average by TGC standards. It is written in outline format rather than paragraph format. It has no graphics. It averages about 4 pages per lecture, which is a little more than half of the average for TGC course guides. It has good appendices: a timeline, a glossary, biographical notes, and a bibliography and internet resources with notes describing how they are useful. I used the audio streaming version. As of 2023, it is not available in any other format. The course was published in 2007.
Date published: 2023-07-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Not Available Online Most courses I acquire have the video available so I don't have to put in the DVDs, but this one is not available in my online portfolio. I wish this would change for this course.
Date published: 2022-09-19
Date published: 2022-09-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very good course It is an in depth assessments of the routes of religion. Somewhat difficult to understand in the gym.
Date published: 2021-04-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Gap Filler! This course weaves together philosophy, sociology, psychology and anthropology. The first 20 lectures more or less are an introduction, the last 4 lectures are amazingly interesting!
Date published: 2020-08-25
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Diverse approaches to studying religious phenomena Professor Charles Jones's course titled "Introduction to the Study of Religion" provided a broad and understandable description of various ways to examine the complex and nearly impenetrable topic of religious belief. Using a framework based on notable philosophers and their diverse perspectives over the last several centuries, we come to see religion through a variety of lenses - social, theological, economic and psychological, and an appreciation for what this phenomenon provides is developed. Dr. Jones has a lucid and engaging lecture style, approachable, despite the dauntingly complex nature of the topic. I recommend this course to those interested in the study of this haunting, yet universal human activity.
Date published: 2020-04-28
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Mostly about Atheists I bought the set with Judaism - disappointing but some redeeming features ; The introduction to Religion should have been called an intro to atheist. This was the worst course I have ever bought. I got the DVD set- but recommend download or video.
Date published: 2020-04-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Nice History of the Academic Field Some reviewers seem to have expected a slightly different course: "A History of Religious Studies" might have been a more precise title. With that said, I thought the professor did a heroic job of condensing centuries' worth of thought into a collection of mostly chronological threads showing how different disciplines bring their tools and methods to the study of religion. This course may not tell the student how to do the work of religious studies, but it provides a broad survey of past efforts and points to ample material for further study of whatever raises one's curiosity.
Date published: 2019-03-24
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Whether one acts as an individual


Charles B. Jones

I find it very useful to keep in mind both the theological attitude and the religious studies attitude, because the creative tension between the two, keeps them in check and in balance.


The Catholic University of America

Dr. Charles B. Jones is Associate Professor and Associate Dean in the School of Theology and Religious Studies at The Catholic University of America. He earned his Ph.D. in History of Religions from the University of Virginia. Professor Jones has focused his teaching and research on Chinese Buddhism, theories and methodologies of religious studies, and interfaith relations. Previously, he taught at Carleton College and was a visiting professor at Virginia Theological Seminary. Professor Jones has lectured and presented seminars as an invited guest at Georgetown University, the University of Virginia, the Academia Sinica and Chengchi University in Taipei, and Harvard University's Buddhist Studies Forum. In 2004 he was awarded a Fulbright Research Grant and visited Taiwan to pursue research on Chinese Buddhism and deliver lectures and seminars. Professor Jones is the author of several books on East Asian religions and interfaith dialogues, including Buddhism in Taiwan: Religion and the State, 1660ñ1990 and The View from Mars Hill: Christianity in the Landscape of World Religions. His current research interest centers on the Pure Land School in late imperial China.


01: Understanding "Religion"

This lecture examines the idea of definitions including why definitions of "religion" vary so widely - and introduces the four approaches to religion used in this course: sociology, psychology, anthropology, and phenomenology.

31 min
Theology and Religious Studies Part Ways

02: Theology and Religious Studies Part Ways

Before the emergence of religious studies, discourse about religion was theological. During the Reformation and the Wars of Religion in Europe, a few intellectuals began to think about religion in broader terms.

28 min
A Clean Break—David Hume

03: A Clean Break—David Hume

David Hume embarks on a study of religion from a purely secular standpoint, paving the way for the British tradition of religious studies, which tends to see religion as a kind of primitive and inadequate science.

29 min
Auguste Comte—Religion, False but Necessary

04: Auguste Comte—Religion, False but Necessary

This lecture begins a look at religion from the perspectives of specific academic disciplines. Auguste Comte was a pioneer in sociology, and his theory of religion influenced many whose works Professor Jones will consider later in the course.

28 min
Karl Marx—Religion as Oppression

05: Karl Marx—Religion as Oppression

None of the thinkers covered in these lectures is more hostile to religion than Karl Marx. He analyzes religion as a tool of owners to keep workers compliant and calls for an assault on the political economy that makes religion necessary.

31 min
Durkheim—Society's Mirror

06: Durkheim—Society's Mirror

Often regarded as the father of sociology, Durkheim sees society as the primary actor in human life and believes that the religious totems observed in tribal cultures are a symbol of society itself and the means by which society imposes itself on its members.

31 min
Max Weber—The Motor of Economics

07: Max Weber—The Motor of Economics

Max Weber differs from both Durkheim and Marx in that his theories are not reductionistic. Not only does society produce and influence religion, he believes, but religion affects society as well.

31 min
Peter Berger—The Sacred Canopy

08: Peter Berger—The Sacred Canopy

Peter Berger rearranges many of the social theories of religion put forward by his predecessors, showing that society mediates a total worldview to its members. Ultimately, Berger assigns a positive role for religion as a social and historical force.

30 min
Rodney Stark—Rational Choice Theory

09: Rodney Stark—Rational Choice Theory

The sociological study of religion assumed from its inception that religion is a regressive force that brainwashes its followers. Beginning in the late 1970s, many sociologists, led by Rodney Stark, proposed that religion, like any other human activity, is fundamentally rational.

31 min
William James—The Description of Religion

10: William James—The Description of Religion

Although William James made contributions to American intellectual life on several fronts, this lecture focuses on his use of both psychology and philosophy in formulating his theory of religion.

29 min
Sigmund Freud—The Critique of Religion

11: Sigmund Freud—The Critique of Religion

Widely recognized as the father of psychiatry, Freud offers a theory of religion based on a model of pathology: religion as neurosis. We consider several fronts in his attacks on religion.

30 min
Carl Jung—The Celebration of Religion

12: Carl Jung—The Celebration of Religion

Jung started his career as one of Freud's most promising disciples. As he began to reflect more independently on human psychology, however, he found himself increasingly convinced that religion is a necessary component of mental health.

30 min
Brief Excursus on Immanuel Kant

13: Brief Excursus on Immanuel Kant

Kant's ideas particularly about phenomenology (which turned the eye of philosophy away from the world we seek to know and toward the mind that seeks to know) set the stage for many of the thinkers who follow.

29 min
The Victorians and The Golden Bough

14: The Victorians and The Golden Bough

We look at the two men most important to the birth of anthropology: Edward Tylor and James Frazer, who subjected phenomena from around the world to comparative analysis to distill commonalities in human nature.

29 min
British Functionalism

15: British Functionalism

Teaching that all cultural forms, religion included, serve a societal function, Bronislaw Malinowski and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown assert that the task is not to learn the meaning of a cultural form but to identify its function.

28 min
Symbolic Anthropology—Ferdinand de Saussure

16: Symbolic Anthropology—Ferdinand de Saussure

We begin our study of symbolic anthropology with the work of the linguist who conceived a new way of understanding the relationship between culture and cultural acts.

29 min
Symbolic Anthropology—Claude Lévi-Strauss

17: Symbolic Anthropology—Claude Lévi-Strauss

Saussure's work leads symbolic anthropology in two directions. The first is represented by the Structuralists, led by Claude Lévi-Strauss, who focus on the underlying structures of culture and seek the fundamental workings of the human mind as it builds that culture.

32 min
Symbolic Anthropology—Clifford Geertz

18: Symbolic Anthropology—Clifford Geertz

Clifford Geertz represents Pragmatism, the second trend in symbolic anthropology, which presents religion as a network of symbols requiring a contextual explanation (thick description) to tease out its meanings.

32 min
From Fries to Otto

19: From Fries to Otto

A deeper look at the phenomenological approach leads us to the work of Rudolf Otto, who identifies as "the holy" the religious reality to which human beings respond, the experience of which represents the foundation of religion.

29 min
Mircea Eliade

20: Mircea Eliade

What Otto calls "the holy" Mircea Eliade calls "he sacred." Eliade also extends Otto's thought by looking at the social and cultural effects of the in-breaking of the sacred into the human world.

29 min
The Women's Studies Perspective

21: The Women's Studies Perspective

Starting in the 1970s, such writers as Valerie Saiving and Rita Gross begin to critique the study of religion as seen through the eyes of the all-male academy.

30 min
Theory versus Reality—Case Studies

22: Theory versus Reality—Case Studies

Generalized theories of religion are vital to understanding it, but is there a point at which observations in the field are bent to fit those theories? This lecture uses two case studies to highlight the real-life difficulties of observing religious behaviors without influencing them.

31 min
Theory in Action—Case Studies

23: Theory in Action—Case Studies

Once data have been gathered, how does theory tell us what it means? Two notable examples help answer the question: Albert Raboteau's study of slave religion in the antebellum South and Rodney Stark's reinterpretation of the rise of Christianity in the late Roman empire.

31 min
How Religion Uses Religious Studies

24: How Religion Uses Religious Studies

As religious groups themselves begin to find uses for the methods and theories of religious studies, Professor Jones explores the always-tentative reunion of theology and religious studies in contemporary life.

30 min