The Sociology of Religion:
An Introduction

Sociology 372
Fall 2005


Douglas E. Cowan
204C Haag Hall
(816) 235-1492

Location Royall Hall 404
Time Tuesday and Thursday, 2:00-3:15
Office Hours Tuesday and Thursday, 1:00-2:00, or by appointment
Required Text Keith A. Roberts, Religion in Sociological Perspective, 4th ed.
Online Syllabus

This course is an introduction to the sociology of religion and the sociological study of religion. It seeks to introduce students to the nature and function of religious beliefs, practices, and institutions, with special emphasis on the socially constructed nature of religion and its impact on society. This perspective can better help us understand the presence of certain religious phenomena in our society. For example:

Using examples from the tremendous diversity of religious belief and practice in North America, this class will acquaint students with the academic study of religion as a social (and a sociological) phenomenon. Students will learn how religion has been interpreted by sociologists in the past, and how evolving perspectives shape both the way academics perceive religion and how they study it. They will learn how religion permeates and affects virtually every domain of human culture and interaction. And they will gain experience in fieldwork, coming to understand in the process something about religious traditions other than those in which they may have been raised.

As important as it is to say what a class is about, it is equally important to understand what a class is not about. This class deals with the social scientific study of religion. As such, it is not a course in theology or in the history of one religious tradition or another, nor will it assume that one tradition is more valid than another. Nor is it about becoming a better member of one's own religion. While a couple of these may be side benefits for individual students, they are not the focus of the class. Please bear this in mind at all times.

If there is a principle that will guide us throughout our exploration of the human religious impulse, it is that given to us over a century ago by the eminent philologist Max Müller: "He who knows one, knows none" (recalling, of course, that we mean both "he" and "she").

Assignments and Class Evaluation

Two in-class tests Mixed short answer and essay question 40%
Field research and reporting

(a) Class presentation of field work
(b) Interim written report on field work

Final written report on field work   35%

This major project for this course will be a group presentation—both oral and written—on research you have conducted in the field. The "field" is any place outside the classroom where you make organized and systematic observations in preparation for an analysis of and report on those observations. Obviously, in this course, these field sites will have to do with religious organizations, events, or phenomena. Class periods will be punctuated with discussion times during which you will be able to talk about your research with your classmates, trade information, share stories, and, occasionally, commiserate.

There are four components to the field work assignment:

  1. Working in teams of 3-4, you will select two different research sites. These can be two different communities within the same religious tradition, or two sites from different traditions. With one exception, you are not restricted as to the type of site you may visit. Note well, however, you may not use as a research site a religious community of which you are already a part. That is, you can't visit your own church. You will visit these sites during the course of the semester, and, as a group, prepare
  2. an interim field report;
  3. a class presentation of your field work; and
  4. a final field report.

Prof. Cowan will provide detailed instructions about these assignments during the first two weeks of class.

Since this is meant to be a team effort, groups will be graded as teams and each member will be assigned the same grade. It is in everyone's best interest, then, for all members to contribute to the research, the presentation, and the final written report.

One final written field report will be submitted for each group—not one for each member of the group.

Field Work and the Internet

The verdict is in and the academy is guilty as charged. In ten short years, the Internet has created the laziest generation of students and scholars in the history of higher education. In this class, at least, that trend stops here. In terms of your field work assignment, excessive dependence on the World Wide Web for research will result in a serious grade penalty for the entire team, which could include failure for the assignment.

I will be discussing appropriate and inappropriate use of the Internet as a research tool in detail during the second week of class under "An Introduction to Fieldwork." As a benchmark, though, consider this: If a reasonably adept user could have gleaned as much information or more simply by going to the Internet, your field work has been inadequate.

Course Syllabus

Date Topic Required Reading
Aug 23-25 Introduction to "religion" and to the sociology of religion Roberts, Ch.1: pp. 3-25
Aug 30-Sept 1 Studying religion sociologically: an introduction to fieldwork Roberts, Ch. 2: pp. 27-42
Sept 6-8 Religious Experience Roberts, Ch. 4: pp. 70-94
Sept 13-15 Religious Conversion Roberts, Ch. 5: pp. 98-130
Sept 20-22 Religious Emergence and Development Roberts, Ch. 6, pp. 134-155
Sept 27-29 Religious Survival Roberts, Ch. 7, pp. 157-175
Oct 4-6
Tuesday: Review and Catch-up Day / Interim Field Reports Due
Thursday: In-class test #1
Oct 11-13 Marketing Religion Roberts, Ch. 14, pp. 330-353
Oct 18-20 Religion and Society Roberts, Ch. 9-10, pp. 202-250
Oct 25-27 Religion and Popular Culture Wyman, "The Devil We Already Know"
Nov 1-3 Religion and Prejudice Roberts, Ch. 12, pp. 273-301
Nov 8-10
Class Presentation of Field Research
Nov 15-17
Class Presentation of Field Research
Nov 22 Religion and Globalization Roberts, Ch. 16, pp. 373-398
Nov 24
Thanksgiving Holiday (no class)
Nov 29-Dec 1 Religion on the Internet

Stephen O'Leary,
"Cyberspace as Sacred Space"
Douglas E. Cowan,
"Among the Stones of Cyberhenge"

Dec 6

In-class test #2
Final written report on field work due*

*Note: Fall 2005 will be Prof. Cowan's last semester at UMKC. He will be leaving for Canada and Renison College/University of Waterloo shortly after classes end. As such, there will be no extensions granted for written work and no incompletes given under any circumstances. All work is due at the beginning of class on the date indicated. No exceptions will be made.

Academic Honesty

Please note that Prof. Cowan has a zero-tolerance policy for plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty. Academic dishonesty will result in an automatic "0" for the assignment in question, with no opportunity for make-up work. Consequences can range from from course failure (for undergraduate students) to a request for official dismissal from the program (for graduate students).

If you are unclear about what constitutes plagiarism, click here.

If you would like to know under what circumstances Prof. Cowan will exhibit leniency towards plagiarism, click here.

Attendance Policy

Students are expected to attend and participate in all class sessions. Only excused absences that have been arranged in advance with Prof. Cowan, or which are substantiated by medical documentation, will be permitted. As well, class begins promptly at 2:00, and students are expected to be on time. Any more than two unexcused absences will result in a grade reduction of 1/2% per missed class. This policy is based on long experience which demonstrates clearly that students who attend class achieve far greater command of the material than those who do not. Big surprise, eh?