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Comparative Religion


Admission requirements

Introduction to the Study of Religion (Inleiding Religiewetenschappen). This course is only open to students of the BA Religiewetenschappen and students of the minor Religion in a changing world.


Comparative religion has often been used as synonymous with the academic study of religion, even though most scholars in that field do not actively ‘compare’ religious traditions, but restrict their attention to a particular religion, in a particular place and a particular period. This course focuses on ‘comparison’ in the study of religion and on current insights in the limitations and possibilities of the ‘comparative approach’ in the study of religion. It does so by discussing two very different approaches to comparison: the highly contextual juxtaposition of evidence for a single religion in two different geographical and cultural settings (Clifford Geertz), and a decontextualized, theory-driven, approach to a crucial religious phenomenon: trance and spirit possession (Ioan Lewis).

Course objectives

Students will learn about current debates on comparison in the study of religion. They will learn to reflect critically on scholarly work on this particular subject, especially on the difference between contextualized and de-contextualized approaches, different attitudes to description and interpretation vs. representation and explanation. They will understand the explicit and implicit workings of comparison and will be able to apply these insights to specific case-studies.


Timetable Religiewetenschappen

Mode of instruction

Seminar. Attendance and participation are mandatory. Classes may be missed no more than twice and only in exceptional circumstances (at the discretion of the conveners and only with prior notice). Absence without notification can result in a lower grade or exclusion from the final exam and a failing grade for the course.

Course Load

Amounf of lectures: 2 hours per week x 13 weeks = 26 hours
Preparation for lectures: 2 hours per week x 12 weeks = 24 hours
Five essays in first half: 5 × 5 hours = 25 hours
Reading + Final essay for second half: 65 hours

Assessment method

First half: 3 essay questions + summary of literature, one midterm paper summing up the earlier ones (50 %)
Second half: final paper on the theory of spirit possession with reference to a particular case study (50 %)
Resit will consist of the same parts as the first opportunity.

Reading list

First half: Clifford Geertz

  • C. Geertz, Islam Observed. Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia, Chicago/London 1971 (repr.; students need to have this book)

  • R. Segal, ‘In defense of the Comparative Method’, Numen 48 (2001), 339-373

  • P. Roscoe, ‘The Comparative Method’, in: R. Segal (ed.), The Blackwell Companion to the Study of Religion (Oxford, 2006), 25-46

  • J.S. Jensen, ‘Why Magic? It’s just Comparison’, Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 16 (2004), 45-60

Second half: Spirit Possession

  • I.M. Lewis, Ecstatic Religion. A study of Shamanism and Spirit Possession (London, 20033; students need to have this book)

  • J. Boddy, ‘Spirit Possession Revisited: Beyond Instrumentality’, Annual Review of Anthropology 23 (1994), 407-434

  • J. McIntosh, ‘Reluctant Muslims: Embodied Hegemony and Moral Resistance in a Giriama Spirit Possession Complex’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute N.S. 10 (2004), 91-112

  • D.N. Gellner, ‘Priests, Healers, Mediums, and Witches: The Context of Possession in the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal’, Man N.S. 29 (1994), 27-48

  • A. Ong, ‘The Production of Possession: Spirits and the Multinational Corporation in Malaysia’, American Ethnologist 15 (1988), 28-42



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Prof.dr. A.F. de Jong