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Updated 6 Jan 2006

ISSS 4357: Religions

Murray J Leaf, Spring 2006

Section 501: Wednesday, 7-

9:45 Office: GR 3.128
Room: SOM 2.112
CRN 12900 ,
Office hours are 5:30-6:30 Wed and by appointment.
Office tel: (972) 883-2732

This course provides a comparative overview of the world's major religious

traditions from a factual perspective. We do not begin from any definition of
what religion is. We begin only from the common recognition of what these
major traditions are: the South Asian traditions centering on Vedanta which
include Hinduism and Buddhism, then Confucianism and Taoism, Shinto,
Zoroastrianism and the Judeo-Christian traditions. As will be shown, each of
these traditions has a very different definition of what "religion" itself is--of
what they are about, what kinds of "truth" they involve, and what they do for
people. It follows that imposing an idea of religion drawn from any one of these
traditions onto any or all of the others is the first and surest step toward
misunderstanding. Instead, we have to try to see each it its own terms and in
terms of the concerns of those who support it. The purposes of the course are
(1) to provide an understanding of the great differences among religions and
among concepts of what religion is, and (2) to provide a sense of the way these
differences are maintained or lost in sects that represent these world traditions
in the United States, in order to (3) arrive at an understanding of the place of
religion among human institutions generally and the impact of religion on the
course of human history.

Leaf, Murray J. (2005) The World Religions, a Cultural Account. Copies
printed by XanEdu are in the UTD bookstore. Duplicated copies that will look
different but have the same text will be available at Off Campus Books. (Near
Braum's on Campbell.)

Other readings are on the web, as indicated in the syllabus.

Grade: The grade will be based on two in-class mid-terms (30% each) and a
research paper (40%).

The examinations will be one-hour, in class, in a short answer format. They are
designed to test the breadth of your grasp of basic concepts, terms, and
sequences of developments from the text and lectures. The first will be on the
South-Asian and Asian traditions, the second on the rest of the material.
Sample questions are on on the web (use the links at the bottom of the web

The paper assignment is to describe relations between major ideas, major
ceremonies, organization, and the relation of religious concerns to non-religious
concerns of a specific and clearly described set of followers of one of the great
traditions. Use the opportunity to check out what we have been saying in class
and in the assigned readings. It may be past or present, large or small. You
need not describe all the ideas, and probably had better not. Just some
important ones. Similarly for ceremonies, organization, or the concerns of the
followers. But whatever you focus on, it is important that you do not look only
at the ideas but also at the appeal they have to those who hold them and what
those people do in turn that preserves the ideas. Usually, this will involve
building upon a study that somebody else has already made and published, and
evaluating that study. Keep the four elements of the subject in mind (ideas,
ceremonies, organization, and followers’ concerns) as you organize your
discussion and designate them clearly in the paper.
It is a good idea, but not necessary, to focus on a religion or a religious idea
or organization that you can actually find represented in the Dallas area,
preferably one new to you, so you can check what you read with your own
experience. Practically every one of the major modern traditions is represented
in the metroplex somewhere. You can include first-hand observations and
conversations you may have with representatives of the group, in which case
you are reporting your observations (what you observed them telling or
showing you). The paper can be based entirely on library materials if you wish
and if that is appropriate for the subject you have chosen. It should not be
based on prejudice, meaning opinions you may have formed on the basis of
what may have heard from sources outside or apart from the group but that
you cannot actually pin down and evaluate factually. On the other hand, you
should not be gullible. If people believe something that seems to you to be
patently ridiculous, don’t be afraid to say so and wonder why – or even ask
them why. The reasons people give for holding ideas often make more sense
than the ideas themselves. Do not assume all religious ideas are good, or that
all are equally sound just because someone believes them. Some ideas have
lasted for centuries and command the respect of thoughtful people almost
everywhere. Others are the intellectual counterpart of the cabbage patch doll.
It is worth-while trying to understand the difference.
Under no circumstances are you to write in the manner of an apologetic --
that is, a doctrinal defense of a specific set of religious ideas. This is a course
about religion, but it is not a religious course. Nor, by the same token, is there
any point in a doctrinal attack on any specific religion. Your manner of
argument must be factual. Factual means that you bring in evidence; critical
means that you should be careful to argue that the evidence shows what you
say it does, and not something else. The problem is to describe a set of ideas
and describe their significance to those that hold them and/or reject them.
Whether you share them or not should be a side issue. What are the ideas?
How are they symbolized or otherwise represented? How are they used by
those who hold them in establishing their relationships to each other? What do
they mean to those who hold them? Why is that important? How does it fit with
other concerns they might have in other aspects of their lives? The main
danger in selecting a religion that you personally identify with is that you will
not pay enough attention to this need to prove what you say factually – not
only what the main ideas are, for example, but how one comes to know them.
The length should be 12 pages of text double spaced, plus bibliography. I have
no objection to more if it is not padded. If you write less, you are probably
leaving out something. If your first question to yourself is "How will I ever
write twelve pages about X?" you are taking the wrong approach.
It is important to discuss and evaluate your sources. This is a big part of
what is involved in being critical. Most religious traditions have their own idea
of what their main ideas are and what they do that must be counted as part of
those ideas themselves, and all religions also have opponents. If you quote
someone, you have to know what they are up to. Books on religions are
written by all sorts of people for all sorts of reasons. Some are "official"
documents of religious bodies, some are criticisms from their enemies. Some
are factual, some authors wouldn't know what fact was if it bit them. Some
books (and websites) are honest, some deliberately distortions. When you cite
something, you should know which is which. You should have some sense of
the motivation behind it, and it is not only proper but also necessary to
describe what you think this motivation is. If you cite a person, describe
them. If you are speaking about something you have observed personally, say
so and describe what happened. All sources (written, living, or electronic)
should be clearly indicated; all major points in the argument should be justified
by references that show how those sources have been used.
Presenting material from sources you do not cite is plagiarism and plagiarism
will be referred to the Dean of Students. If you have doubts about whether or
how to site something, check with me. It is part of what you should be
learning. Be sure the paper takes into account what we have said in class. You
don’t have to agree but you do need to show that you were there and that you
understood what we went over and can build on it.

A word about the internet. It is convenient and has much good

material. It is getting better all the time. Virtually all major traditions are now
represented by one or more organized groups with good websites that offer
clear, honest, and disciplined explanations of what they stand for. But there is
also a tremendous amount of absolute rubbish out there. One of the most basic
things you should learn in this course is to distinguish one from the other, to
separate factual description from apologetic and reasoned and authoritative
apologetic from ignorance and bigotry. If you quote a loony source and do not
recognize that it is loony, it will be your problem. Books in the university
library and journals in the library are certified as probably legitimate by the fact
they are there. Generally, it means they have gone through a process of
scholarly review designed to weed out what is patently wrong or irrational
(although sometimes it only weeds out what is unprofitable or unfashionable).
There is no such process on the web. Anyone can say anything and more and
more people do. Don’t waste my time with such stuff. Being critical does not
mean being nasty or hostile to someone or something. It means evaluating
your data carefully and using it appropriately.

The paper is due at the time of the final examination. Submit the paper in
hard copy and on disk. I will be happy to look over outlines or drafts and
comment before you do your final version.

Order of readings:

We will read all of the chapters of Anthropology of World Religions in order, at

about the rate of one chapter per class session. These will be accompanied by
corresponding readings in the Eastman reader and the small photoduplicated
set. Remember that since this is a weekly class, one day is (usually) two class
sessions. Also, we will have one important movie, Passolini’s the Gospel
According to St Matthew. This gives an almost straightforward rendering of the
life of Christ as in that Gospel and also indicates the continuing social and
political importance of the issues it raises.

Always bring the text and/or readings for the day to class. Although the class
is usually large, the format will be more discussion than lecture. A lot of the
material is poetry and does not bear a rushed reading. Keep reading it until you
think you might understand it. Then we will talk about it, and you will probably
change your understanding. Then if you read it a few more times, you will
probably think you really are beginning to get it.

Attendance: Attendance is important and will be recorded. Barring weather

emergencies and the like, we will generally stay the full allotted time.

For Notices Concerning the Course as we Proceed, click here.

Weekly Topics and Readings (This should give us one extra day for the Passolini
film, which will probably be after session 10).

l Jan 5. 1. Introduction
Jan 12 2. "Theories" of religion. Leaf Chapters 1 and 2.
Jan 19. 3. Vedas and Vedanta. Leaf Chapter 3.
Jan 26 4. Jain and Buddhist traditions. Leaf Chapter 4. Web: Buddha's first sermon. (full
text; I only quote a part of it).
Feb. 3 5. Hindu traditions. Leaf Chapter 5.
Feb. 10 6. China's three religions (in addition to Buddhism). Leaf Chapter 6.
6.a. The first: Confucianism.
6.b. The second: Taoism . Web selections from Tao Te Ching, 1 through 8 .
6.c. The third: Legalism.
Feb. 17 7.a. Japan: Overview and Shinto. Leaf Chapter 7.
7.b Japanese Buddhism (especially Zen).
Feb 24 8.a. First Examination (one hour)
8.b. Introduction to Covenantal (Judeo-Christian) Religions. Leaf Chapter 8. In
duplicated readings, selections from the Gilgamesh Epic. On the web: Homer's Iliad. Read at least
Book One and get an idea of what distinguishes the gods from people. Zoroastrianism: look at the
Gathas and read at least Yasna 31, Yasna 33. (This link will take you to the home page. From there
you can get to the Yasnas.
Mar 1 9. Judaism Leaf Chapter 9.
Mar 8 Spring Break
Mar 15 10. Early Christianity Leaf Chapter 10.
Mar 22 11. Movie: Passolini's Gospel According to St. Matthew. Read
ahead into later Christianity.
Mar 30 12. Islam Leaf Chapter 11.
April 5 13 Later Christianity: Leaf Chapter 12.
April 12. 14. Review of Course and general discussion. Leaf 13.
April 19 15. This is a safety margin--we will probably get behind at some
April 26 Final exam. In class, one hour, same format as midterm.

Additional material on the Web:

An Excellent Jain site.

An excellent summary of the schisms in the Western Christian churches on
a site maintained by the Nestorian Church (which is very interesting in
A comprehensive overview of the Aprocrypha, as part of an extensive site
on the New Testament.
Very Complete Zoroastrian site.
Full text of Gilgamesh Epic. This is not a dressed up version. Where the
texts break, the translator does not try to fill in.
Study Guide for this Course.
Sample questions for first midterm examination.
Sample questions for final examination.
Back to M. Leaf Home Page.