Course Description

“In the beginning was the Word,” opens the Gospel of John. Over the past several millennia, words have been central to all the world’s major religions, whether in the form of sacred texts, traditional liturgy, or canon law.  Just as important to world religions are the commentaries on those texts, which show the perpetual importance of the argument over words.  But why have we so hotly debated the value of religion lately?  After all, the fundamental facts regarding religion have changed little in the past century: there’s been no real new evidence for or against the existence of God over that time, for example, nor major revisions to the Bible, Qur’an, or other major texts.  Yet what has changed is the rhetorical situation in which religion is placed, the sense of how and why religion relates to the ever-changing morals, politics, science, and worldview of our contemporary moment.

As our culture evolves, so must evolve our understanding of how religion fits into it.  As a result, it might justly be said that the very center of current debates over how we should view religion, whether at our kitchen tables or on the floor of Congress, is the composition, exchange, and framing of rhetorical arguments about the place of religion in our world and lives. By examining a variety of materials – ranging from traditional religious texts to contemporary essays to religiously-themed pop singles – we will investigate how writing and reading religion influences our relationship to society as well as our understanding of and commitment to our personal beliefs.

Rationale for Writing Assignments

The purpose of the first assignment is to give new college writers practice distilling the terms of an argument, using the course readings as a model for how to identify, critique, and build upon concepts that will provide a foundation for their own arguments (instructors may want to remind the class members of their definitions of religion in these papers as the semester’s discussion progresses, keeping track of how/if they change). Distilling the terms of a critic’s argument also serves as a key skill for assignment two, when students analyze how specific authors are using primary religious texts to support a particular argument; modeling their own writing on the secondary sources they’ve read, writers will practice argument, counter argument, and refutation. The third assignment asks writers to begin to develop an argument through original research, emphasizing the difference between scholarly and popular sources. The fourth assignment extends these research skills, asking writers to tease out specifics from what people have often framed as a cause and effect relationship between religion and political violence.

The materials and description for this course were revised in 2012.

Course Documents

Previous versions of the syllabus (2009):

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