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RELG 391 (COLL400): Theory and Method in the Study of Religion

 alexangelovedited.jpgEvery description invoking “religion” contains a set of assumptions with complex intellectual genealogies. When we draw distinctions between “the sacred” and “the profane,” “the magical,” “the occultist,” or “the superstitious,” we are making critical judgments on plausible levels of reality and ascribe specific value to our own cultural notions and perceptions. Why do we easily think of the Bible as “a religious text,” but we consider The Iliad only an epic story? What allows some people to perceive saint veneration as legitimate, but communication with dead ancestors as occultist or even demonic? Why are churches, mosques, or synagogues protected as “religious shrines,” but other sites such as trees, water springs, or boulders are often disclaimed as “primitive,” and “pagan” cultural remnants? What makes a specific event or its narrative “miraculous” as opposed to “magical,” “fabulous,” or “fabricated”? Which “religious rights” should we legally protect, and how do we determine their legitimacy?       

In this class we explore major theoretical texts that have shaped our inherited concepts of “religion” and have framed our analytical engagement with the academic field itself. We begin by positioning the classical texts in the broader context of Western philosophical thinking and travel all the way to our own intellectual, interdisciplinary, and cultural climate. We conclude with some of the most recent theoretical approaches to religious studies and discuss our own research and independent theoretical frameworks.

Student Research Paper Abstracts:
Religious Cults and the American Law: A Theoretical Framework of Religion for a More Equitable Courtroom

Alicia Devereaux Double Major in Religious Studies/ Film and Media Studies  Class of May 2019The terminology and conceptualization of “cult” have a complex and problematic history. The term is rooted in a western, Christian view of religion; it emerged in theology as a label with which to (in)-validate certain beliefs, behaviors, and views over others. “Cult” has since transformed into a vague, ill-defined, blanket category, which legal judges and scholars alike use to label minority religious groups. Despite the fact that virtually no religious groups refer to themselves as “cults,” the media, the general public, and the academics use the term and thus propagate judgments, often with negative connotations.

Cases on “cults” and “new religious movements” in the American courtroom bring to light all the problems and their practical consequences in the tortuous past of religion and religious scholarship. By analyzing relevant legal cases, I argue that we need to establish more precise and sensitive terminology. I illustrate how serious collaboration between scholars of religious studies and legal experts could not only offer new perspectives on religion, but also make our legal system more sensitive to historical particularities and ultimately more just.

American Civil Religion: Shaping America’s Response to 9/11

Andrew T.M. McLaughlin Double Major in Religious Studies and Government Class of 2018Scholars of American religion have long asserted that American society has its own unique form of social religion with its idiosyncratic texts, symbols, rituals, and forms of proselytization. By applying the definition and interpretative model of religion, introduced by the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz, I focus on “September 11 (9/11),” a traumatic moment in American consciousness that stirred a series of charged sentiments. In this paper, I set out to find out how American patriotism intersects with piety and religious commitment.

As I revivify how the American public responded to 9/11, I explore all the layers of American identity. In the trauma of 9/11, I argue that civil duty and patriotism supplanted cultural differences and broader religious commitments. In effect, the fervor of patriotism took over religious symbols and refashioned them into particularly American social and civil expression. Thus, my paper concludes that the cultural politics of American identity are stronger than religion in the broader metaphysical and spiritual sense.

 Saving the Planet or Saving the Sinners? The Ecological Responsibilities of Modern Christians

Emily Hinshaw Double Major in Geology and Religious Studies Class of 2020One of the foundational Christian myths is the creation story in the Book of Genesis. The first two chapters lay out the ethical boundaries and moral responsibilities of humanity towards the natural world. There have been many interpretations and controversies around ecological responsibilities in Genesis. The main issue revolves around theories of biblical exegesis and theology: “What is God really saying to humankind in Genesis? And how do we know?”

This study investigates questions of environmental ethics within Christianity and the relationship between modern Christians and the Earth. I contend that religious theoreticians have provided unsatisfactory models for understanding the ethics at play between modern American Christianity and environmental issues because they have disregarded historical theology. My research includes religious, literary, and historical analysis of the Bible, specifically the Book of Genesis to bring in all the cultural and theological perspectives in context. Only then, I turn to a critical review of scholarly scientific research about ecology and the environment. Lastly, this study engages a sociological element to understand how modern-day Christians, politicians, and cultural leaders, whether environmental activists or skeptics, react to environmental ethics.

In the end, I propose a new theoretical model engaging Christians in sustainable environmental action, which stems from Biblical teachings for loving and protecting Creation and is enhanced by theological exegesis and analytical philosophy. I hope that my research opens the door to more collaboration between scholars of religion, ecologists, and scientists.

Easel or Altarpiece?: Art as “Religious Experience”

Emma Efkeman  Art History major and Religious Studies minor  Class of 2019This study explores the relationship between how artists envision the purpose of their work and their personal experiences of “religion.” A metaphysical conceptualization of “religion” as “uncanny,” or “otherworldly” will be evaluated against Mark Rothko’s famous Chapel and personal accounts from William & Mary Studio Art students. Ultimately by presenting a historical genealogy of the concept of art in modern society, I will show how the initiation into, continuation of, and ultimate goals of art do not merely equate “religion,” but replace traditional conceptualizations and modes of experience with new forms of spirituality. While modern art movements have commonly been tied to the secular realm, the language used in describing both artistic and “religious” processes show that the historic roots of art within “religion” remain present. In sum, the broad range of backgrounds of the artists interviewed as well as their varied views of their own spiritual sentiments points towards a universal application and a new conceptualization of “religion” in contemporary society.

The Founders’ Fiction: The Separation of Church and State in American Legal Practice

Religious Studies Major | Anthropology Minor Class of 2018The separation of church and state is a classic American narrative. One of the first permanent settlements in America was the Puritan theological experiment in Massachusetts. The legacy of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was to institute a precedent for the model relationship between religion – specifically, the reformed Christian religion – and government. Following the establishment of the United States as a nation, the First Amendment claims to provide its constituents freedom to exercise religion. Yet, the Supreme Court has never explicitly defined the term or given provisions for what constitutes religious behavior, so it is unclear exactly what is meant by religion in our legal documents.

Following the examination of Supreme Court cases concerning both Christianity and Islam, I argue that the American legal system fails to protect diverse religious perspectives. Instead, it codifies religion as an exclusively Christian institution. Furthermore, I demonstrate that institutionalized Christianity in America is little more than an extension of national identity and even of nationalism itself.

A New Mythology: Materialism and Idealism in E.M. Forster’s Howards End

Kelsey Llewellyn English Major Class of 2019In my paper, I examine E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End from the lens of religious theory to find out how Forster negotiates philosophical materialism and idealism. I consider the novel particularly interesting because it engages the “cognitive dissonance,” the break with tradition, deracination, and lost identities sparked by the advent of modernity in England at the turn of the century. On the one hand, characters such as Henry Wilcox and Charles Wilcox embody the type of materialist conceptualizations of the world argued for by intellectuals such as David Hume. On the other hand, Ruth Wilcox and Margaret Schlegel reject the over-emphasis on science, consumerism, and materialism in favor of traditional, Platonic idealism.

As intellectuals at the turn of the 20th century started to question and reject the authority of Christianity, a new cultural mythology was in the making. It rejected the central Platonic ideals with their emphasis on metaphysics. Instead, it built the prevalent mythology of our time that science is panacea and all identities are based on consumerist powers. I draw on the work of the French theorists Claude Levi-Strauss and Roland Barthes to unpack the modern mechanisms of myth-making. In addition to using religious theory to unpack the underlying themes of Forster’s rich novel, I explore the cultural implications of adopting a postmodern identity that lacks metaphysical, idealist core and vantage point.

McMeditation: New Mindfulness in the Age of Capitalism

Mackenzie Haight Religious Studies Major Class of 2019Along with the rise of personal spirituality, traditional religious practices have been commercialized or recalibrated in American culture. Meditation or mindfulness in particular was originally codified as a Buddhist liberative practice. Today, on the other hand, meditation programs laud the practice for its ability to reduce stress, increase productivity, and boost compassion. Thus, modern advocates prescribe meditation for just 10 minutes a day, and meditation exercises are readily available on the Apple App Store. The new media have little to do with the classical heritage, offering instead alternative, new-age modes. In my historical study, I treat meditation as a practice of asceticism or as Michel Foucault would call it, “a technology of the self.” First, I examine the historical development of meditation practices from its Buddhist origins to Headspace’s mobile app. Then, I analyze the cultural landscapes that enabled those radical changes over time. Also, following the critiques of “new-mindfulness” by scholars such as Ron Purser, David Loy and Edwin Ng, I seek to provide nuance in favor of the benefits of meditation while remaining critical of its utilization for business and productivity in the corporate world.

Religion and Trauma: Historical Analysis of the Effect of Oppression on Religiosity

Matthew Mason  Religious Studies Major Class of 2019This paper is an empirical application of classical Marxist thought on religion. According to Karl Marx, religion functions as an ideology to repress the proletariat’s just feelings of rebellion against an oppressive bourgeoisie. Thus, I hypothesize that if Karl Marx’s view on religion is correct, there should be rise in religiosity in times of oppression and trauma. In order to test his theory, this paper will focus on three distinct historical examples. Based on data drawn from the OECD and the State Department, I will explore whether there is any positive correlation between income inequality and religion, thus testing forms of class struggle and opposition. The second example looks at African Americans who have suffered racial oppression in the early to mid-20th century. They were targeted and structurally exploited to render into financial bondage. They also were the target of systemic state violence and received an education that effectively disenfranchised them. Finally, I will analyze European Jewish communities during the rise of anti-Semitic violence in 1881 and through the Holocaust. Although the three examples have their own historical specifics, they offer important challenges to classical Marxism and point in the direction that it is inaccurate to treat religion as mere ideology and political propaganda.


Max Glover English Major Class of 2019The development of the ‘cult of personality’ and the ‘cult of following’ is difficult to analyze on a larger national or international scale. There are too many factors that impede revealing heuristic analyses. Thus, this paper focuses on a specific person in the microcosm of a University to explore the development, effects, and changes that ‘cult of personality’ and ‘cult of following’ undergoes. The primary question of my exploration is how charismatic leadership is formed , whether there are any religious dimensions to it, and finally what social and cultural factors sustain charismatic power over time.

 My analysis engages with the work of Sigmund Freud, Emile Durkheim and Claude Levy-Strauss, all theoreticians who explored the charismatic and totemic in society. After I have explored how and why the cult of Reveley formed and endured, I will analyze the William and Mary community now as the former President has retired and the new President has stepped in.

God and Logic: Game Theory and Arguments for (Ir)-Rational Beliefs in God

Oliver Gainer  Double Major in International Relations and Economics Class of 2020This paper draws on insights from game theory to explore the logical grounds for belief in monotheism. First, I engage with leading philosophical and religious theories of God’s attributes and the consequences of belief. Second, I argue that despite some well-established modes of deductive reasoning, matrix and game theory analysis undermine traditional presuppositions, thus rendering problematic belief in monotheism. By bringing in mathematics and probability theory in discussions about belief in God, I aim at delineating the limits of formal logic in articulating theories about God and religious beliefs. In the end, I hope to open wider possibilities for philosophical and metaphysical explorations of spirituality and the human condition.


Modes of Modern Spirituality and Personal Happiness: The Question of Meaning in Technological Society

Ryder Bell  Major in Economics  Class of 2019The quintessential ontological quandary is whether life is worth living and what the proper nature of well-being is. From a philosophical perspective, modernity makes this problem even more pronounced because we lead an ever more uprooted and fractured existence, conflicted between technological and technocratic forms of rationality and impassioned desire for spiritual meaning. As we find ourselves in the matrix of technological advances that seem to lead to a posthuman order, it is crucial to return to the fundamental questions of philosophy and find out some possibilities in our understanding of happiness and spirituality. Thus, this paper critically examines several philosophical theories of human happiness and spirituality. My goal is to try to reconcile the existential challenges of modern technological society and human flourishing. In sum, this is a paper that moves beyond postmodern deconstructions and critiques of traditions and contemporary experiences of race, class, and gender. Instead, I aim at building an inclusive and grounded philosophical model of personal happiness and spirituality in the contemporary globalist culture.

The Psychology of Transcendence: The Role of Spirituality in Modern Society

Scientists and philosophers have long grappled with the nature of the transcendent experience. Plato, in his description of the immanence of forms (the characteristics of physical existence and perception), differentially defines transcendence as those experiences which are not of the self or material existence. In contrast, the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) described spirituality and transcendence in material terms: an observation of the social and psychological impulses that supposedly drive all human experiences. More recently, psychologists like Larry Culliford have refocused the question of spirituality by asking what contributes to feelings of belonging and fulfillment within ourselves and our communities. Spirituality, he says, is a type of transcendence which can be likened to the experiences of children, who encounter the world with a sense of awe and wonderment.

As the global economy becomes better able to provide for the desires of the individual, the psychological need for spirituality becomes more evident, and psychologists have begun to direct future research accordingly. In this paper, I will explore the nature of transcendent experiences, including its proposed evolutionary basis, religious, and secular functioning.  Using personal examples from my own experience, the framework of religious theorists, and the experimental exploration of psychologists, I intend to discuss the role of spirituality and transcendence in modernity and the implications for religious institutions and society more broadly.


Indian Boarding Schools, Broken Identities, and the Social Effects of Conversion to Christianity

Lillian Rose House  Majors: Religious Studies and History  Class of 2020The mass conversion of Native Americans by the means of boarding schools had long-reaching effects. Autobiographies from Native American students reveal all the tensions of conversion and suggest that Christianity was mainly used as a program of assimilation. In fact, after the conversion process that took place over the course of their childhood, many of the American Indians that returned to their reservations found themselves isolated from their traditional practicing community but remained too “Indian” for acceptance into American culture. This identity crisis, faced by the boarding school generation, placed them in an isolation that continues to disrupt the communities to this day. Thus, my paper examines the historical and current social effects of the conversions to Christianity. Primarily, I focus on the prevalence of high suicide rates, poverty, and drug abuse among Native Americans.