Religion and Varieties of Violence syllabus

This course was designed to fulfill a 379 seminar in the Department of Religious Studies at Northwestern, which addresses “topics in comparative religion.” It culminates in a research project that asks students to illuminate their research with the theoretical abilities they cultivated throughout the course.

Does Religion Poison Everything? Comparative Religions and Varieties of Violence

Course description 

As Christopher Hitchens makes abundantly clear in his infamous work God is Not Great, “religion poisons everything.” According to Hitchens, religion destroys rationality, represses sexuality, erodes scientific reasoning, distorts understandings of the cosmos. Above all, religion kills.

This course directly confronts this shared assumption of the so-called New Atheists by interrogating the concept of “religious violence.” Designed as a seminar in comparative religions, the class offers students an opportunity to explore the innumerable intersections of religion and violence. Students will rethink definitions of religion and violence as they read major theoretical works in the field. What is religion? What do we mean when we say “violence”? What is “religious violence”? How are religions violent? How is violence religious? In what ways, under which conditions, and why do religions condone or condemn violence?

Throughout the quarter, we will discuss a range of historical and contemporary case studies, from ritual sacrifice, martyrdom, and holy war to colonial encounters, domestic abuse, and the War on Terrorism. Rather than asking the all-too-simple question, “Does religion cause violence?” the course emphasizes careful examinations of the myriad roles that religious texts, religious places, religious practices, religious adherents, and religious institutions play in the instigation and perpetuation of violence. Likewise, we will explore how different forms of violence have affected religious individuals and communities, philosophies and practices. Examples of the types of questions we will discuss include: How did Manifest Destiny contribute to 19th-century American policies of westward expansion? Of what consequence is the Buddhist 969 Movement in Myanmar? What impact has the international Catholic sex abuse crisis had on the Church? How has the concept of Hindutva furthered inter-religious conflict in India? What kinds of religious rhetoric have global political leaders used to incite and justify violent actions? 

Learning Objectives: 

By the end of the course, students will be able to:

  1. Identify and interpret examples of religion and violence.
  2. Analyze scholarly theories of “religious violence.”
  3. Develop critical questions around the intersection of religion and violence.
  4. Compose a final research project focused on applying theories of religion and violence to a particular case study.

Course requirements and grading scale

The course requires weekly readings and response papers, regular attendance, and active participation in classroom discussions. Each student is also responsible for one in-class presentation and one final research project.

  • Participation (25%)

Attendance: Attending classes is mandatory, and missing class will affect your grade adversely. That being said, I understand that you might come down with the flu, a family emergency may arise, your alarm could fail to wake you, or it is just too cold to set foot outside. Therefore, you may have one “get out of jail free” card. Missing more than one class will adversely affect your participation grade (1/3 of a letter grade for each class missed).

Contribution: Your participation grade consists of more than your physical presence in the classroom. You should come prepared to contribute meaningfully and respectfully to classroom conversation. I expect you to ground your comments in evidence from the readings, to speak with one another civilly, and to listen politely. I will give you feedback on your participation in the fourth week of the quarter.

  • Response Papers (15%)

Each week, you will submit a 1-2 page double-spaced response paper on Monday. The paper should offer 1-2 paragraphs summarizing (not copying verbatim) the theorist’s argument and 2-3 paragraphs discussing your own thoughts on the theorist’s argument. Prompts for weekly response papers are listed under each week’s heading on the course schedule on Canvas. Your two lowest-grade papers will be dropped. (So, yes, you can skip two response papers, if you like!)

  • Presentations (10%)

Each seminar participant is responsible for one 10-15-minute presentation. The presentation should detail a particular case study that fits within and expands that week’s theme. The presentation should also raise questions based on that week’s readings (both theory and case study), as a means of initiating and guiding our classroom discussion that day. For example, a student assigned to present on “scriptural” violence might choose to discuss motifs of the apocalypse from the Book of Revelation in Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America or in George W. Bush’s speeches after 9/11. Feel free to be creative and to pick a topic that rivets you. However, you need to come to my office hours or make an appointment to speak with me in advance about your topic. If you’re having trouble settling on a case study, I am happy to help.

  • Research Project (50%)

The research project culminates in a 12-15-page research paper that details one case study and assesses it through the lenses of 3-4 theories of violence. There are several due dates alongside the project, listed below. All assignments should be double-spaced, printed, and brought to class on their respective due dates.

  • Week 4: Statement of project (5%) – One paragraph briefly detailing a case study you would like to explore for your final paper
  • Week 6: Annotated bibliography (5%) – Which theorists, books, and articles will you use for your analysis, and why? Include 3-4 theorists, one book (min.), and two articles (min.). Keep in mind that while these resources may seem the best for your case study at this point in the quarter, they can be subject to change. For the final paper, you are welcome to choose resources other than those you selected for your annotated bibliography.
  • Week 8: Paper draft (5%) – 10-12-page research paper draft.
  • Week 9: Peer review (10%) – 3-4-paragraph evaluation of your assigned partner’s paper. Where could the argument be stronger? Which elements are particularly convincing? What needs further explanation or more clarity? Feel free to write on your copy of the draft, but please also submit a formal written review.
  • Week 10: Final paper due (25%) – 12-15-page final research paper. Please put a printed copy in my mailbox in the Religious Studies office, Crowe Hall 5-179.

Classroom Etiquette and Expectations

  • Please always bring to class your readings and your notes on those readings. Computer or tablet use is fine, but if either proves prohibitive to discussion, I will ask you to leave it at home.
  • Please silence your cell phones upon entering the classroom, and avoid unnecessary texting.
  • Late assignments will be accepted only in the case of an emergency or illness, both of which require documentation. A full letter grade will be deducted for every 24 hours after an assignment is late.

Course Schedule

Week 1: Beginning at the end: Does religion cause violence?
Monday: What are “religion” and “violence”?

Wednesday: “Religious violence”

  • Mark Juergensmeyer, Introduction (p. 3-15) to Terror in the Mind of God. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
  • William T. Cavanaugh, “Does Religion Cause Violence?” Harvard Divinity Bulletin, vol. 35, no. 2-3 (Spring/Summer 2007).


Week 2: “Good” religion, “bad” religion, and cults
Monday: Evil religion?

  • Jonathan Z. Smith, “Religion, Religions, Religious,” in Critical Terms for Religious Studies, ed. Mark C. Taylor. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), p. 269-284.
  • Reza Aslan, “Bill Mahar isn’t the Only One Who Misunderstands Religion,” NY Times, Oct. 8, 2014.
  • Kelly Baker, “Evil Religion?” The Christian Century.

Wednesday: Jonestown

  • David Chidester, Introduction (p. 1-11) to Salvation and Suicide: Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple, and Jonestown, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003.
  • Jonathan Z. Smith, Ch. 7 (“The Devil in Mr. Jones,” p. 102-120) in Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown, Chicago: University of Chicago, 1982.
  • Primary readings:



Week 3: Reading violence
Monday: No class – MLK Day

Wednesday: Matthew 10:34


Week 4: Sacrificial violence
Monday: The sacrificial scapegoat

  • Rene Girard, Ch. 1 (“Mimesis and Violence,” p. 9-19) and Ch. 6 (“Sacrifice as Sacral Violence and Substitution,” p. 69-93) in The Girard Reader, ed. James G. Williams, New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1996.


Wednesday: Aztec sacrifice

♦ Statement of Project due



Week 5: Bodily violence
Monday: The sacred and the prohibited

  • Emile Durkheim, Book 3, Ch. 1 (“The Negative Cult and its Functions,” p. 303-329) in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, New York: The Free Press, 1995.

Wednesday: Beards


Week 6: Spatial violence
Monday: Considering place

  • Elizabeth McAlister, “Globalization and the Religious Production of Space,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, vol. 44, no. 3 (Sept. 2005), p. 249-255.
  • Hector Avalos, “Religion and Scarcity” (ch. 37, p. 554-570) in The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Violence, edited by Mark Juergensmeyer, Margo Kitts, and Michael Jerryson, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
  • Roger Friedland and Richard Hecht, “The Bodies of Nations,” History of Religions, vol. 38, no. 2, (Nov. 1998), p. 101-149. Focus on: p. 101; 108-11 (section III); 146-149 (section VIII)

Wednesday: Contested sacred spaces

♦ Annotated Bibliography due

  • Roger Friedland and Richard Hecht, “The Bodies of Nations,” History of Religions, vol. 38, no. 2, (Nov. 1998), p. 101-149.
  • Jeanne Kilde, “The Park 51/Ground Zero Controversy and Sacred Sites as Contested Space,” Religions, 2011, 2, p. 297-311.


Week 7: State violence
Monday: Discipline and Punish


  • Russell T. McCutcheon, “‘They Licked the Platter Clean’: On the Co-Dependency of the Religious and the Secular,” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 19 (2007), p. 173-199.

Wednesday: Hindutva



Week 8: Social violence
Monday: Civilization and Suffering

  • Marx, “Introduction to Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right,” February 1844, p. 2-8.
  • Sigmund Freud, Chapters 3 and 7 (p. 33-45 and p. 70-80) in Civilization and Its Discontents, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1962.


  • Natalie Zemon-Davis, “The Rites of Violence: Religious Riot in Sixteenth-Century France,” Past & Present, no. 59 (May 1973), p. 51-91.

Wednesday: Catholic sex abuse crisis

♦ Paper draft (10-12 pages) due

Watch: Mea Maxima Culpa,


Week 9: Global violence, or “the West vs. the Rest”
Monday: The origins

  • Edward Said, Introduction to Orientalism, 1978, p. 1-28.
  • David Chidester, Ch. 1 (“Frontiers of Comparison,” p. 1-29) in Savage Systems: Colonialism and Comparative Religion in Southern Africa, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996. (Religious studies itself as an imperial project)

Wednesday: Continuing conversations

♦ Peer review due


Week 10: How do we talk about religion and violence?
Monday: Humanity and humanitarianism


  • Saba Mahmood, “Religious Freedom, the Minority Question, and Geopolitics in the Middle East,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 2012, 54 (2), p. 418-446.

Wednesday: Where does this leave us?

  • Robert Orsi, “Theorizing Closer to Home: Scholars of Religion Must Become Subjects Again,” from Harvard Divinity Bulletin, vol. 38, 1-2 (2010).


Week 10: Final paper (12-15 pages) due. Please put a printed copy in my mailbox in the Religious Studies office, Crowe Hall 5-179.