Overview and Learning Goals


The Department of Religion at Bowdoin engages students in efforts to understand how and why people are religious in various historical and cultural contexts, from a range of academic perspectives, and without sectarian bias. In a global context of increasing connectivity and conflict, religion courses at Bowdoin provide an unparalleled opportunity for students to have lucid and enduring encounters with an array of authoritative narratives, gender disciplines, kinship configurations, moral and legal obligations, and imagined utopias. In addition to our discipline’s specific mission, we hold ourselves accountable to the broader mandates of a liberal arts education: to provide a first-rate education for the crafting of serious scholars, engaged citizens, and free humans. Finally, we impart to students key skills for the twenty-first century: the ability to analyze a text, report, or image; to formulate relevant questions; to craft a written argument; to recognize and provide evidence; to solve problems; to communicate ideas; to evaluate plausibility and consistency; and to research independently. 

There are three common entry points into the department:

  • First-year writing seminars: These introductory courses focus on the study of a specific aspect of religion and may draw on other fields of learning. These seminars include readings, discussions, presentations, and substantial writing assignments. Topics change from time to time and reflect emerging or debated issues in the study of religion.
  • 1000-level courses: For students desiring a broad overview of the academic study of religion, the department offers REL 1101 Introduction to the Study of Religion. This course often uses case studies from different religions to illustrate thematic questions in the academic study of religion. The department also offers additional 1000-level courses, such as REL 1150 Introduction to the Religions of the Middle East or REL 1115 Religion, Violence, and Secularization.
  • 2000-level courses: The bulk of the department’s offerings are at this level. These courses have no prerequisites and are an appropriate first course for a student desiring a more focused examination of a religion, book(s), or theme.
  • 3000-level courses study in depth a topic of limited scope but major importance, such as one or two individuals, a movement, type, concept, problem, historical period, or theme. Topics change from time to time. REL 3390 Theories about Religion is required for majors and minors and presupposes previous coursework in the department. Other advanced courses are open to any interested student.

Learning Goals

Students who major/minor in religion:

  • Will engage with and understand classic and contemporary theories of religion and classical and contemporary methods for the study of religion
  • Will be able to use material from their 2000-level courses to assess and analyze theories of and approaches to the study of religion
  • Will be able to understand and analyze religious phenomena and texts in some (minors) or all (majors) of the following areas:
    • Texts and traditions of:
      • Middle East and North Africa
      • South and Southeast Asian
      • Ancient Mediterranean
      • Modern Europe and North America
    • Thematic approaches
  • Will be able to explain how religion is an important human phenomenon that cannot be disentangled from categories such as (but not limited to): politics, gender, race, and society

Course Goals

Students in 1000-level courses:

  • Will be able to distinguish confessional from academic approaches to the study of religion
  • Will learn that not only is religion difficult to define, but also that claims of religious definition reveal the stakes of the problem
  • Will recognize the presuppositions and historical contingencies that shape dominant definitions of religion
  • Will become acquainted with some classic theories of religion
  • Will study religious texts, phenomena, and practices to gain a deeper understanding of the precise contours and claims of various religions
  • Will learn how those texts and practices are historically and socially constructed

Students in 2000-level courses:

  • Study in greater depth a particular text—e.g., the Qur'an; religious tradition, e.g., Theravada Buddhism; or theme, e.g., human sacrifice—to be studied across traditions. 
  • Learn about methodological and theoretical approaches specific to the course’s topic
  • Read secondary literature—that goes beyond textbooks—on the course’s topic

Students in 3000-level courses:

  • Study a narrow topic in depth that includes understanding significant scholarly debates
  • Write a long paper using primary sources in translation and/or a series of papers that examine certain theories of and approaches to the study of religion
  • Conduct outside research beyond the readings listed on the syllabus

Options for Majoring or Minoring in the Department

Students may elect to major in religion or to coordinate a major in religion with digital and computational studies, education, or environmental studies. Students pursuing coordinate majors may not normally elect a second major. Non-majors may elect to minor in religion.

Department Website

This is an excerpt from the official Bowdoin College Catalogue and Academic Handbook. View the Catalogue